Legitimizing Religion: The Appeal to Archaism

This article emerges from a conversation on religion that its author had with another individual. The conversation touched on something worth reflecting on regarding the legitimization of religious traditions. 

Here we have decided to refer to this form of legitimization as an “appeal to archaism.” It is simply to state something along the lines of “My religion is older than yours.” This is usually offered with the underlying assumption that one’s own older religion is more authentic and/or legitimate than the other person’s “younger” and more recent religion. 

That some religions are older or younger than others is, of course, an uncontroversial fact. Mormonism is older than Jediism, Christianity than Islam, Paganism than Baha’i, Confucianism than Sikhism, Hinduism than Buddhism, and so on. To use one example of how age might be mobilized as a legitimizing strategy, a Muslim might argue that Islam is older than Christianity and is therefore the legitimate religion (Muslims appropriate biblical figures like, say, Abraham and Moses, by claiming such figures to be Muslim, and therefore evidence that Islam is older than Christianity; of course, this is not a scholarly perspective that sees Islam as an emergent tradition to have come into existence during the ministry of the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century CE). There is a clear underlying logic to this appeal to archaism. The assumption is that the older religion contains elements that are more basic and authentic than younger religions. Often these younger religions are viewed, along some evolutionary scheme, to have corrupted the authentic elements in the older religions.

In this author’s field of specialization, he sees clear parallels to the thought of some of the earliest classical theorists to contribute to the development of religious studies and the sociology of religion.

The Catholic theologian Wilhelm Schmidt argued in favor of primordial monotheism according to which monotheistic belief was the earliest form of religious belief in humanity. He could then claim legitimacy for the biblical God by viewing later religious developments like animism and polytheism to be corruptions of this earlier belief in monotheism. To Schmidt, the only authentic belief is that of belief in one God. Why did he argue this? Because it makes monotheism older. According to his evolutionary scheme, other religious elements corrupted this belief and corrupted beliefs are, by definition, illegitimate. 

Other theorists thought along a similar line. Auguste Comte, for instance, proposed an evolutionary scheme according to which human consciousness developed through three phases: the religious to metaphysics and, finally, to positive science. We find in Comte a similar logic although he inverts the scenario. Each stage supersedes the previous one and finally concludes with the superior positive scientific stage. As we can see, in Comte’s thought we find evidence of his acceptance of an extreme version of secularization, which posits that religion will itself disappear as human beings progress to some greater pinnacle of rationality. Comte’s thought, while not claiming a particular religion to be older than another and therefore more legitimate, embraces the same logic we observed above in an inverted form. In his view, it is younger, rather than older, ideas that are more authentic and legitimate. Older ideas are somewhat corrupted because of their superstitious nature and therefore inferior to modern, scientific ones. Although inverted, the same logic holds in Comte’s case. 

We might term this an “appeal to current ideas,” or something along those lines. C. S. Lewis once referred to this as “chronological snobbery,” somehow thinking modern ideas are necessarily superior to ancient ones simply because we exist chronologically in the present day.

Another influential figure claiming something similar was E. B. Tylor. Tylor’s theory located animism as the earliest form of religious belief. In part, this fed nicely into Tylor’s disdain for religion and the Church. His animistic theory essentially claimed that newer forms of religious belief, like the Christian belief in one God (monotheism), are merely a developed theological product of ancient animism. Monotheism is thus no more than a development from the animistic superstitions of ancient tribes. In Tylor’s view, animism is the most fundamental form of religious belief.

We might offer a final reflection on the appeal to archaism. As an apologetic, this argument does not strike one as convincing at all. Why? Because one can mount an argument that older ideas could, in fact, be inferior to recent ones. Consider several examples: Few persons today would say that the Atlantic Slave Trade of the 16th to the 19th centuries was founded on a better idea than modern notions of personal autonomy and anti-racism. Few would agree that the idea embraced in certain hunter-gather tribes warranting the senicide of elderly members deemed to slow down the group and threaten its survival is better than modern notions of caring for the elderly and exercising sensitivity toward them. We should agree that many old ideas are far worse than many recent ones. And since ideas are essential to religions, this must also apply to religion itself. Older religious ideas can indeed be worse than recent religious ideas. 

There are many other areas in which this same logic holds. Clearly, new scientific ideas and theories override older ones based on new and compelling evidence. Perhaps a newer theory explains much more about the physical universe than an older and outdated one, etc. The same can be said about historical theories. New theories supersede older ones that are no longer credible in the face of new evidence dug up through archaeology or discovered in new historical texts.

Importantly, this article is not an apologetic. What we are trying to show is that the notion that older ideas are necessarily better than recent ones is not obvious and can invite a great deal of disagreeable debate. And many would find matters of debate important. One could argue that evidence must play a role in determining which ideas are inferior and/or superior to others. One might take the evidentialist route and show that evidence supports a certain modern idea over an older one.

Let me know your thoughts!

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