Is it not time to ditch your totems?

Adam Harbinson
Adam Harbinson

As a lecturer in sociology for a number of years I was often struck by the interest that sociologists had, and still have, in religion.

Many agree that as an institution, religion has a stabilising effect on society, useful in passing on ‘shared values and norms’ from one generation to the next.

Others would argue that religion has been used through the years by the ruling classes to keep the workers in their place.

One example they point to is the verse in the hymn, ‘All things bright and beautiful,’ which you will no longer find in any contemporary hymnal: ‘The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate, God made them high and lowly and ordered their estate’.

One French philosopher had a particular interest in discovering the origins of religion, noting that every society, in any part of the planet at any time in history, had religion of some form at its heart.

And so in 1912 he published his seminal work; The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life.

He could not travel back in time to observe the earliest forms of religion so he studied its development in what he decided was the most primitive race on earth at that time, the Australian aborigine people.

What struck him was their practice of totemism, or the use of totem poles in their worship.

He noted that each clan had a different animal or plant as the focal point of their totem, but what he saw as central to the early stages of the development in their religious practices was that different clans had different priorities and these priorities were reflected in the design of their totem.

So, if a clan placed a high value on, say physical strength, then that clan’s totem would feature an ox. Or if the clan favoured cunning, their totem would feature a fox, and so on.

What he went on to argue was that the individual clans were actually worshipping themselves, or their belief systems. They were projecting their own values onto their view of God.

Now, that was about a hundred years ago, how much has religion changed? Has religion developed significantly? Well, we don’t have totem poles in our churches, but having witnessed and been present at many installations of new ministers in churches up and down the land, and given the process of the ‘hearing committees’ whose job it is to choose the new incumbent, you have to wonder to what extent the new man is their chosen totem.

Could that be why there are over 30,000 different Christian sects and denominations in existence today?

Jesus said, ‘I am the way, I am the truth, I am the life’, but we have managed to carve him up into thousands of parts, projected our narrow beliefs and values into the relevant bit, and thus we worship ourselves.

Therefore, can it be a surprise to hear the prophet Jeremiah urging us to ditch our totems: ‘You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart?’

In other words, be earnest and determined in your search and you’ll find me, but go about it in a half-hearted way and you’ll end up with your own personal totem.