AFT Blog # 16: Taboos & Religions

Taboos & Religions: Enemies of Freedom or Necessary for Morality?

Daniel Lenormand

For some, the root of the term “religion” can be found in the Latin verb religarer meaning “to bind,” as if religion were in some way a link between man and the divinity.

For others such as Cicero, the word “religion” is derived from the verb relegere which is the opposite of neglegere, meaning to neglect or fail to do. Interpreted in this way, religion is simply the conscientious observance of rites.

For Emmanual Kant, religion was the expression of our duties dictated by divine command. Ludwig Feuerbach said that it was a form of alienation by which man, aware of his weaknesses, projected his needs onto god. A few months before his death in 1887, Jean Marie Guyeau wrote that religion is the feeling of dependence on a will which primitive man had ascribed to the universe. Max Muller was of the opinion that religion was a faculty, independent of sense and reason, which allowed humans to comprehend the infinite.

The theologian Charles François Dupuy, professor at Collège de France, concluded one of his books with the following thoughts:

Let us suppose man in his rightful place, i.e. classed among the animals whose needs are met by nature through its inviolable laws, and superior to other animals only by dint of whatever ingenuity he can muster to meet those needs. Thus situated, man would never have sought from invisible beings the support which he should have found within himself. It is man’s weaknesses that caused him to seek shelter in such a sham – a fraud based on his most shameful credulity. … When humans are freed from their expectations and fears, their religion evaporates. Men are never more pious then when they are ill or unhappy.

Salomon Reinach wrote in Orpheus in 1903 that “religion is a set of scruples which impede the free exercise of our faculties.”

If we consider religion to be of divine essence, contrary to what the Romans said, it seems to me that the word scruple is not the most suitable; in my opinion, taboo is more appropriate. Of Polynesian origin, the word literally means “that which is not customary.” Its distinguishing characteristic is that the sanction imposed, if violated, is not part of human justice; the punishment is generally immediate and can only be death!

The scriptures are of course full of taboos: thus, Adam is warned by the Lord that he must not eat the fruit of a certain tree. This is a clear example of a taboo because no reason is given. According to Hebrew law, it is forbidden on pain of death to pronounce the sacred name of the Lord, again with no explanation why; thus, another taboo.

In all religious texts we find the famous taboo: Thou shalt not kill! But just how should this commandment be interpreted? Especially given that the bible is replete with horrible massacres mandated by god.

We find perhaps a beginning of an answer if we consider that in those distant times, blood relations were extremely important in groups of common descendants : families, clans, tribes. Under such conditions it was difficult to atone for the murder of a member of the community. The commandment thou shalt not kill implicitly meant thou shalt not kill other members of your clan.

The taboo is one of the richest concepts which ethnography has provided us. The progression from taboos to reasoned and motivated prohibitions, if not reason itself, is the history of human intellectual development.

Humans are primates. Although we may sometimes display a greater degree of reason than our fellow primates, we nevertheless function according to an undeniable animal nature which may or may not be repressed. What distinguishes us is our ability to project beyond ourselves our own internal desires. We are able to populate the world with beings and objects to which we ascribe lives and feelings similar to our own. To complete this enterprise, we may even attribute to them mental processes and physical traits identical to our own.

This is called animism, and its consequence is that nature is filled with countless invisible spirits: spirits of the sun, the moon, mountains, trees, bodies of water, not to mention spirits of the dead – and that spirit of all spirits which is called “God!” The Jehovah of the mountains and clouds of Sinai is one of the products of this animism and the Ten Commandments are simply a reworking of an old list of taboos!

In order to organize this plethora of taboos, humanity acquired “priests” who became increasing important as tribes developed into peoples. It was only natural that these individuals would graduate to the status of chief and eventually king. It is this ontological concept of chiefs as evidenced in the new testament which led to the Egyptian notion of king as son of god, … which later evolved into the Judeo-Christian concept of the divine right of monarchs.

Starting from prehistory, humans lived not in formless bands but rather in social groups which obeyed a variety of taboos which evolved over time into morals and laws.

The social instinct of humans went beyond the limits of their own species and the illusion of animism caused them to see spirits everywhere, spirits whom they often considered to be friends and allies. This tendency of the human mind is reflected in fetishism: the friendly interaction between man and the spirits which they imagined inhabiting the objects around them.

Once humanity had given into this natural tendency to enlarge its circle of supposed relations, it was inevitable that those relations would include certain plants and animals, which would be assigned defensive or offensive roles in the clan.

The totem animal is an inviolable principle: protector of the clan, it is by definition taboo and consequently may not be consumed as food. The animal or plant which must not be eaten is sometimes sacred, sometimes filthy (Leviticus chapter 11).

In reality it is neither: it is simply taboo! The cow is taboo in India, pork is taboo for Jews and Muslims, dogs are taboo in Europe and beans were taboo in Greece.

In the 18th century, the theory arose that it was for reasons of hygiene that some religious lawmakers had forbidden certain foods. To understand just how baseless this theory is, one need only observe that in the bible not a single epidemic is caused by the consuming of impure meat.

The very idea of hygiene only became current in very late Antiquity. Pious Jews abstain from eating pork because the boar was the totem of their distance ancestors!

Originally, every environment where humans lived and moved about was saturated with animism. Everywhere, evil spirits threatened and paralysed human activities. To fight back and subjugate these spirits, humanity found assistance in a false science which is paradoxically the mother of all sciences: magic, of which Voltaire said, “It is the secret of doing what nature herself is incapable of doing.

In a recent work by the ethnographer Pascal Boyer, we see the astonishing diversity of beliefs. We learn, for example, that some gods are stupid. For someone who knows only the religions “of the Book,” this seems absurd because “God” is omniscient! But in some countries it is advisable to use metaphors to fool the gods when speaking of important things, because the gods, powerful though they may be, do not understand metaphors. In other countries, to prevent the gods from absconding with the bodies of the recently deceased, thread and needles without eyes are placed nearby so that the gods will waste all their time trying the thread an unthreadable needle!!! We also learn that in many religions, the salvation of souls it not a major preoccupation, because these religions say nothing about what happens after death and they establish no connection between moral conduct and salvation. The dead become ghosts or ancestors with no moral judgement implied.

However, in all human societies it is forbidden to kill one’s siblings in order to gain the exclusive attention of the parents. Nevertheless, these societies may have radically different religious tenets.

The link between morality and these religions is perhaps what psychologists call: a rationalisation of moral imperatives.

The history of humanity is one of slow secularization, still far from complete, evolving in alternating cycles of obscurantism and scientism, wrote Salomon Reinach in 1903.…

Alas, at the current time it does not appear that science has definitively replaced obscurantism. Only a methodical education in public schools, starting at the primary level, and with the support of mass media providing intelligent programming during prime time, can succeed in eradicating this plague which has brought death and desolation for millennia.


  • Salomon Reinach : Histoire générale des religions (General History of Religion)
  • Patrick Négrier : La tradition initiatique (The Tradition of Initiation)
  • Pascal Boyer : Religion Explained
  • Frans de Waal : Le singe en nous (Our Inner Monkey)
  • André Lemaire : Naissance du monothéisme (Birth of Monotheism)

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