The Mother of All Religion


The Mother of All Religion

by Rev. Peter Connolly

Presented at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green, KY on March 4, 2012

Today’s sermon is going to call for more than the usual amount of work on the part of those listening. The good news is that it is work of the imagination that I will ask you to engage in because the distance between our time and the beginnings of religion is so great and even greater is the distance between what we call our culture and what culture we can conceived of in such a distant time and place.

When we speak of the distinctions between types of religion most broadly, we can identify two approaches, one that we call “primal” and one that we call “historical,” although the sociologist Robert Bellah has broken the evolution of religion into five phases which he names as “primitive religion,” “archaic religion,” “historic religion,” “early modern” and “modern religion.” The differences he points out are very interesting and if the subject intrigues you, I point you to his article “Religious Evolution” in his book Beyond Belief.

But today we are looking only at primal religion. Bellah was writing in 1964 when he used the term “primitive religion;” Huston Smith, in his book The World’s Religions, discourages the use of that term, saying that “we can (put) behind us the nineteenth-century prejudice that later means better, a view that may hold true for technology, but not for religion” (The World’s Religions [henceforth: WR], p. 366).

When we talk about the historical religions, we are talking about religious traditions that go back about 4,000 years. It’s hard enough for us to imagine that time, a time when “night” meant “dark” because there was no artificial light. Light from campfires kept you warm, light from burning oil allowed limited illumination, but only the light from stars and a sunlit moon provided a relief from total outside darkness. Imagine how that one change in itself would alter your experience of the world, your tribe’s experience of the world.

Now allow your mind to go back another thousand years, five thousand years ago, and another thousand, six thousand years ago and another thousand and another thousand and another thousand, nine, 10,000 years ago. Now, imagine 10,000 years before that. Have you placed yourself in the Kentucky of 20,000 years ago?

Now go back 10,000 years further back than that, 30,000 years ago—a time that really and truly existed as the only time there was at that time, though it’s hard to imagine it. How about ten thousand years before that and another ten thousand—can you imagine yourself living in a tribal society in Africa 100,000 years ago? Well, what about 100,000 years before that? In Siberia, perhaps?

Does that stretch the limits of your imagination? Try another 100,000 years before that and another 100,000 years before that. Can you imagine placing yourself back in time one million years? For most of us it is a mighty feat, indeed. Yet, today I am asking you to place yourself a farther distance than that, even.

Imagine that after all of this imaginative travel through time and space, you are on the planet one million years ago—and you still are only one third of the way back in time that you need to travel to gain an understanding of the ancient religious understandings that are coming about, yes, 3,000,000 years ago.

Makes a lifetime seem the blink of an eye, in comparison, doesn’t it? And the whole history of the Judeo-Christian tradition, 4,000 years, nothing more than a rounding error.

These religious beginnings we call “primal” because they came first; maybe you can call our historical religious traditions “secondary.” It’s a way of acknowledging a debt to what has come before. Another word for these traditions, Huston Smith tells us, is “oral” because they had no written language, which was not seen as a handicap as we shall see as oral traditions many generations later came up against traditions with a written record. These are also called “tribal religions” because the tribe was the fundamental and only way that people experienced their lives for these thousands of generations.

All of this being true, it seems remarkable, indeed, that such traditions should continue anywhere in the world today. And, indeed, with the rapid spread of civilization through advances in technology, sometimes such societies are challenged to confront millions of years of civilization’s advancement in a single generation. Can you say “culture shock”?

The primal modes in which religion is experienced today are in certain places “in Africa, Australia, Southeast Asia, the Pacific islands, Siberia,” and among smaller and smaller numbers of tribes of Native America in America North and South (WR, p. 365). Perhaps their most significant trait as peoples is that they live in “small communities, on subsistence economies that are the direct product of their own efforts, and without depending on writing” (Ibid.).

I’ve asked you to take this imaginative trip through time because I believe, as do many social scientists, that “remnants of this mode survive as psychic traces in our deep unconscious.”

In Huston Smith’s chapter on “Primal Religions” in The World’s Religions, I learned this remarkable fact: “Australia is the only continent that did not undergo the Neolithic experience, which elsewhere began about 10,000 B.C. and witnessed the invention of farming and technically advanced implements” (WR, p. 366). Because of this, modern day Australian aborigines are closest of anyone living to the earth’s original human inhabitants.

The life lived by these aborigines (and by our common ancestors hundreds of thousands and millions of years ago), is so different from our lives that we may not be able to grasp it. The most significant difference is in our understanding of what place this world is and what place we human beings have in it.

When we use the phrase “religious life” or “spiritual life,” we mean a particular aspect or facet of our lives, our “spiritual side” as a friend of mine used to call it. Aborigines understand no such distinction. The spiritual life, the religious life, is the only life there is and human beings’ lives are totally embedded in it. Anthropologists studying them found a distinction in their lives between their ordinary life and what they called their “mythic life.” Now, though, they use the term that the Aborigines use, “the Dreaming.” Smith says that the term does not indicate that there are two worlds, but that there is a “single world which can be experienced in different ways” (WR, p. 367).

One world is measured by time: the cycle of the seasons and the coming and going of generations, plants, trees, animals, people. But the procession is endless and behind it all or through it all is a stability, something beyond time, beyond mutability. It can’t be touched by time. It is “everywhen.”

There are legendary figures living in this “everywhen.” They are not gods; they are like people, but they are “larger than life.” They, the mythic figures, originated and instituted the paradigm, the understanding that animates actions, even the actions of everyday life.

There is nothing that is particularly sacred because everything is sacred. When they molded the essential conditions of life, they modeled them, too, for all who followed. Here originated “male and female; human, bird, fish” (Ibid.), everything. And they originated and instituted and, so, modeled the activities of life such as “hunting, gathering, war and love.”

When the Arunta people hunt, they “enter the mold of their archetype so completely” says Huston Smith, “that each becomes the First Hunter; no distinction remains.” The same is true for when they make baskets or make love: “Only while they are conforming their actions to the model of some archetypal hero do the Arunta feel they are truly alive” (Ibid.). “In those roles they are immortal.”

When they slip away from those roles, the occasions lose meaning: “time devours these occasions” says Huston Smith “and they become quite meaningless” and “are reduced to nothingness.”

Now, think of your own life and I’ll think of mine. In what roles of your daily life do you model the paradigm? The role of father, I would think. The role of mother, yes. It’s easier to see the animation of archetypal meaning enacted in the experience of aiming an arrow in a bow, fully tense in the moment before release and then in the next moment, than finding paradigmatic meaning in meandering down the aisles of Kroger choosing between Cheerios and multi-grain Cheerios, lightly sweetened.

Easier to envision the meaningfulness of the action of thoughtfully stirring a pot of sauce or soup or stew as you add a handful or a pinch of just the right spice, your attention focused on the task than it is to envision paradigmatic meaning in setting the microwave oven to “cook,” “5 minutes,” “medium,” beep, beep, beep, beep.

Easier to model the authenticity of action when your full attention is placed on the child who is stamping her feet for your attention telling you about the most recent adventures of her imaginary friends– imaginary to you– than the action of the muttered “Yes, Sarah, yes, I hear you; Billy, drop that right now! And, Daniel, what are you doing to the goldfish?”

It’s not easy to be authentic one hundred percent of the time, is it? And maybe it’s not possible in this world we live in today with its many demands to stay informed politically, to pay your taxes and the bills, to get enough sleep and exercise, to make sure the money is in the bank and the oil is changed in the car and the repairs are made to the house, the bicycle and the vacuum cleaner which shouts its whirring sound throughout the house while you think about what you need to make the dinner and the dog wails something terribly.

Sometimes it’s difficult to sort out the things that have eternal value from those things that get devoured by time and then “reduced to nothingness.”

When the group that studies Hinduism next week and the week after next reads through the chapter, we will learn about the need to “remove the mask” in order to know “our true selves”, and I can’t help but wonder if that teaching is an evolution from the understandings of the primal religions, not so primitive, but primal. And when we learn that “attachment obscures the reality of the Buddha nature” that we all share, I wonder if that, too, is not a development from this thinking that our truest selves are realized when we are engaged in work that is authentic in which we find, not our personal selves only, but our common human selves imbued with meaningfulness.

When we talked about transcendentalism in the fall and its understanding that there is a frame of mind in which we “transcend” the ordinariness of the everyday waking dream state, I wonder if that understanding of “rising above” the mundanity of the life of automatic conventional conformity cannot more truly be understood as an “entering into” that which is eternal in us, which survives from generation to generation because it’s in our DNA as we now say, or “in our blood” as our parents’ generation would have it.

What makes it hard for us twenty-first century religious persons to live in accord with authentic principles embodied is, in part, that we think of them as “religious principles” or “religious principles embodied.” We engage in abstract thought rather than in experiential being. And the reason is that our historical religions have taught us “dualism.”

Everything is either self or other. All that is “other” can be conceptualized and all that is conceptualized can be replicated in the written word which in effect, makes a symbol or an icon of the experience. In some ways, we cannot return to the garden of innocence, we cannot recapture the primal. But in some ways we can.

Yesterday at our “Getting to Know UU” session, we talked about our experiences at last year’s “Shanty Hollow Appreciation Day.” There were a good many of us, over thirty, I believe, from this church and other churches in town, who met at the lovely natural spot called Shanty Hollow Lake. We hiked along a trail by the pond and then by a marsh that had dried out from lack of rain to a pool that was fed by a waterfall which, on that day, was barely a trickle.

But we moved with meaning and purpose along the trail, our eyes alert for trash which we placed in our plastic trash bags. When we got to a particularly impressive overhang, we helped the kids climb up and some of us climbed up ourselves and then sat for long minutes with legs hanging over the rock and rested and watched. We found interesting insects and rocks and what looked like fossils in the rocks. We sat together and apart on rocks by the waterfall where we had our lunch.

And, though we did not hunt the food we had for lunch and did not raise it with our hands, we sat together in a natural setting that made us feel part of something larger than us and something which, indeed, we are part of and is in fact a part of us—water, mineral, vitamin, air, light and sound, simple, magnificent, awesome and infinitesimal in the grand scheme of things.

I think it is Jack Kornfield who tells the story of the first man in an Indian tribe to get a college education. When he returns to the tribe, his grandfather takes him out on a boat to the middle of a lake and asks him a direct question. “You’ve been to college now and you’ve come back with a college education. You are educated now and you know new things. Tell me, ‘Who are you?'”

The young man is flummoxed by this direct question and does his best to come up with an answer. “I am John Youngblood. I am an Ojibwa Indian. I am the son of so-and-so and so-and-so, the grandson of so-and-so.” None of these answers satisfies the grandfather.

Finally, he said “See that crag over there, that bluff? That’s you. See the water in the lake? That’s you. Feel the air in your lungs? That’s you, too. None of this is not you. Don’t forget that.”

But we have forgotten that, haven’t we? How can we recapture it? Is it worth recapturing? I think it is. Our seventh principle says that “We covenant to affirm and promote respect for the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part.” Yes, indeed, a part, and not those two words run together, “apart” or “apart from.”

And respect is fine, but it’s too mild a word, I think. We need to covenant to affirm and cherish the interdependent web which is the natural world of which we are but a part.

Huston Smith says that a “distinguishing feature of primal religion is its embeddings in place. Place is not space.” He says that space is abstract, place is concrete. A cubic yard of space is identical wherever we calculate it, but no two places are alike.

He gives as a homely example, Stephen Foster’s “There’s no place like home.” No other place is like it. It has a concrete reality with psychological, perhaps even spiritual significance. It is imbued with something of import. It is significant to us as individual persons and as persons living together.

There is no place like church– well, let us say “this church.” There is no place like sanctuary– this sanctuary. The significance it has as place is more than its significance as space– it is not interchangeable with another space which is why some of us are so reluctant to agree to give it up for another space in another building that is more spacious, but lacks history, personal associations and a sense of the holy sealed in acoustic glory. There’s no place like home; there’s no place like church. There’s no place like any other place in our sense of feeling perfectly fitted for the natural world.

Smith says that “when the Australian Kurnai go on walkabouts, the concreteness of place goes with them.” I have an office in this church and sometimes I host meetings there. For the folks who’ve met with me there before, it is the place that holds a sense of appropriateness when we think of a place for our next meeting. With other folks, I suggest we have our meeting here, in this room.

The memory of the sensations that have accumulated from the many times we’ve been here together sanctify it, make it the right place to talk about things of intimacy and deep significance with a sense of place that is appropriate for the subject at hand. It has assumed a mythic status of paradigmatic authority. “Being in their place” Claude Levi-Strauss writes “is what makes [objects] sacred; for if they were taken out of their place, even in thought, the entire order of the universe would be destroyed” (WR, p. 372).

And, finally, we’ll talk a little more about time. Some religions, historical religions, look forward to the end-times, the times of destruction, resurrection, salvation, the promise of life eternal. For primal religions, “time is not linear, a straight line that moves from the past, into the future. It is not even cyclical…. Primal time,” Smith says “is atemporal; an eternal now” (WR, p. 372).

We’ve spoken enough here of the Buddhist teachings of living in the present moment and by so doing touching the eternal that this idea should not seem new or strange. Smith says that “for primal peoples, ‘past’ means preeminently closer to the originating Source of things.” The Source refers to the gods who may not have created the world, but who “ordered it and gave it its visible structure.”

Speaking of this primal understanding of things, “Mircea Eliade writes, ‘the world is renewed annually… with each new year it recovers its original sanctity'” (Ibid.). Here are the seeds for the pagan tradition that informs our religious tradition and which is the primary way that some of us understand ourselves religiously.

Their understanding of time is something experienced by primal peoples. The sense of respect they hold for the elders of the society comes from their understanding of the world’s beginning and purpose: “Human ancestors” writes Smith “are viewed as prolongations of the tribe’s earliest ancestors who were divine. This makes them a bridge that connects the current generation with its first and supreme ancestor” (WR, p. 373).

Our song for gathering today was “When the Spirit Says Do.” “You got to do when the spirit says do.” The significance of this historically comes from its role in the civil rights movement. The UUA website tells us that “it was sung at virtually every demonstration, mass meeting of activists, and march of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Singing songs helped give the activists strength and a sense of self” (

That history lives in the song, words and tune and that life is prolonged through time every time we sing it; it connects us with something larger than us which lives in us. Who is the “Spirit” that “says do”? A Spirit that lives outside of us in a dualistic fashion or the Spirit which is intimately involved with us in the cells of our being and has been so involved through the march of time and generations stretching back…3 million years?

Our responsive reading today reminds us that

Ancient as the home is the temple;
Ancient as the workbench is the altar…
Older than written language is spoken prayer;
older than painting is the thought of a nameless one.

Religion is the first and last—the universal language of the human heart. Old Crow Medicine Show sang during our offertory time today. The title and the refrain were the same: “I Hear Them All.” Who is talking? Who hears “destructive power prevailin'”? Who hears “fools falsely hailin’ to the crooked wits of tyrants when they call”?

Is the speaker God who hears the cry of his people? Or does that power of hearing and caring and therefore acting to relieve suffering in the world reside in us? Is it something primal that we need to be quiet enough in the world, natural and unnatural, to hear within us, our connection to the eternal?

Eternity is now, not some other time. The sacred space is this place made sacred by our time here together and what we make of that time in word and spirit and song. And so, I’ll end today by asking that we do something unusual…that we open our teal hymnals once again and stand once again, all those who are willing and able, sing once again our music for gathering, once again sanctifying this place with the words of hymn #1024, “When the Spirit Says Do.”


  • Smith, Huston, 1991. The World’s Religions. NY: HarperCollins.
  • Bellah, Robert N., 1964. “Religious Evolution,” American Sociological Review. 29 (1964): 358-374; also in Bellah 1991, Beyond Belief. University of California Press.

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