Modern man, accustomed to dealing with inanimate or animate nature with the resources derived from science and technology, finds it difficult to comprehend that other means of resolving, or trying to resolve, the problem of the control of the world have been employed. In a scientific civilization we are inclined to believe that in order to act upon natural forces we have no other course open than to know them first (this we call science), and to utilize them afterwards (this we call industry or technology), thereby deriving the norms of our action from the laws that we have discovered as generalizations of natural phenomena.

But it has not always been thus. Though man has always faced the same problems, he has often sought other solutions, nonscientific in character, which can be summed up in two great words having the respectability of things as old as humanity itself: magic and religion.

It has been said with great truth that fear and hope are the parents of the gods. Man, confronting nature, which frightens and overwhelms him, sensing his own inadequacy before forces that he neither understands nor is able to control but whose evil or propitious effects he suffers, projects his wonder, his fright, and his fear beyond himself, and since he can neither understand nor command, he fears and loves—in short, he worships.

Hence gods have been made in-the image and likeness of man. Each human imperfection is transmuted into a god capable of overcoming it. Each human quality is projected into a divinity through which it acquires superhuman or ideal proportions.

But men have never been content merely to ask. Before laws were derived from the sciences, which now permit us to control some natural forces with relative precision, men of all lands and of all ages have thought that they had found in magic formulate the knowledge which would permit them to master their world. They have believed that natural forces are necessarily subject to words and acts of magic and that these forces must obey the conjuration of the one who pronounces the words or performs the acts.

From this point of view, magic and science are similar: both are procedures that have as their purpose the control of the world.

Whoever pronounces the magic spell is certain that nature will obey him, without regard to his intention, without even considering whether the incantation is pronounced for the purpose of achieving an objective or whether it is voiced inadvertently. We have only to recall the innumerable legends about the man who gets possession of the magic formula and, without realizing its potentialities, pronounces the words that set things in motion. A case in point is the sorcerer's apprentice who produced water but, since he did not know the formula to stop it, brought about a catastrophe. From this point of view, the magic formula acts independently, just as natural law operates independently, irrespective of the intent of the individual. If someone speaks the magic words or makes the magic gesture, the effect is produced, just as he who presses a button starts a machine, even though inadvertently, thereby producing the natural effect within modern technology. That is why there is a magic or natural necessity that operates objectively, without reference, in many cases, to the will of the individual.

Religion is quite different. In the first place, it requires the assistance of the will of the individual. A sin—that is to say, a transgression of the religious law—detaches itself little by little from the matrix of magic that envelops it, in order not to be considered as such, except when it is a voluntary infraction of a divine law.

There is, however, no religious necessity that binds the god to the prayer. The god cannot be forced to act by it, he is simply solicited to act in the way that the believer asks; but when the religious man confronts nature, which acts in its inexorable way, when he faces the magic formula or natural law, he knows that he has need of another will, the divine will, to which he can appeal in prayer.

Magic and religion differ from science in that they both admit, above and beyond the natural world of phenomena which our senses perceive or our intellect seizes upon, a supernatural world which surrounds and envelops this natural world. It is a magic or divine sphere where realities exist that are made manifest thereafter in the world of sense perception.

Science, on the other hand, continues on its way with a faith that phenomena will be repeated when the same circumstances exist, and that if man's senses are limited, his intelligence will enable him more and more to probe the depths of nature and control it for future ends.

Among some of the most primitive peoples, religious sentiment never develops into the form of a god with definite characteristics, that is, with personality. Natural forces are feared and worshiped, but a clear concept of a superhuman personality, one that disposes of the forces of nature at will and can harm or favor, is never developed.

On the other hand, all peoples who have achieved a certain level of cultural advancement personify their religious sentiments in their gods and conceive of them with human characteristics, though endowed with superhuman power. As a result of this conception, the god always has certain characteristics of the hero. In this stage of cultural development, for each force, and sometimes for each aspect of natural force, there is created a personal god. This is polytheism.

Variation, change, and movement are explained as the struggle among the gods. Since the first thing that man perceives is the infinite variety of phenomena, he attributes this variety to a plurality of causes to which he assigns absolute free will and intelligence. The variation and the diversity of the world, the antagonism noted at times among the natural forces—trees uprooted by the hurricane or the coast lashed by the sea, the fire that consumes the forest or the earthquake that splits the earth asunder—are other manifestations of the struggle of the gods, of their passions and their caprices. But to the mind that perceives the apparent chaos in the world of phenomena there soon appears the philosophical necessity of seeking unity. Peoples with more advanced concepts of religion come to believe that everything in existence obeys the action of two antagonistic principles that struggle eternally. This is dualism. Only in this way can the struggle between good and evil be explained: there are placed in the good god all the qualities of strength, goodness, and beauty; and in the demon or evil god, to whom there is also attributed great power, all evils and errors. Thus the world is conceived of as a struggle between the god and the devil, and one step further is taken toward the liberation of man the moment he thinks of himself as an active collaborator with the god in his struggle against the infernal powers. When this attitude reaches its peak, it will become evident, as it did to Plotinus, that the struggle between the good god and the evil god is not, after all, anything but the struggle between spirit and matter.

But man's need to philosophize does not allow him to stop here; he is able to conceive that even these two apparently antagonistic and contrary principles, evil and good, are reduced to a single principle, the cause and explanation of everything that exists. This is monism or monotheism.

Of course, we should be deceiving ourselves if we believed that these diverse aspects of religious sentiment occur in all people in the order indicated. We should be still more mistaken if we believed that an entire people changes suddenly from polytheism to dualism, and from the latter to monotheism. There are always certain individuals who, because of their superior intellect and development, are the first to abandon earlier beliefs and foresee the course that the religious culture of their people will take. Thus, in the sixth century before Christ, Xenophanes, anticipating the great philosophers of the Socratic era, was already saying that if oxen and horses had hands, they would fashion their gods in the images of oxen and horses. Of course, those religious and magical ideas that are the cultural heritage of many generations will not be abandoned by all individuals. Even in religions that have attained a monotheistic concept, some polytheistic rites and magical concepts and practices persist; and even in modern European culture, certain taboos, such as that regarding the number 13, exist, or practices inspired by polytheistic rites are continued.

Religion, like any other social phenomenon, does not become manifestly homogeneous until the entire culture of a people becomes homogeneous; but, when a people has lived in contact with other peoples and other cultures, the exceptional individuals are the first to perceive which practices are archaic and which decadent.