Ancestor Worship—Its Folly
WHEN God created man he endowed man with the instinct or faculty of worship. This accounts for the fact that man, at all times and in all lands, has practiced and continues to practice some form of religion. To direct this faculty or instinct God revealed his will to man. But, as the apostle Paul observes, men, “although they knew God, they did not glorify him as God nor did they thank him, but they became empty-headed in their reasonings and their unintelligent heart became darkened. Although asserting they were wise, they became foolish and turned the glory of the incorruptible God into something like the image of corruptible man” and the lower animals and “exchanged the truth of God for the lie and venerated and rendered sacred service to the creation rather than the One who created, who is blessed forever. Amen.”—Rom. 1:21-23, 25, NW.
Turning from the true worship man embraced naturism, the worship of the objects of nature; then again he attributed an indwelling spirit to all the things about him, known as animism. Taking still another turn his religious instincts caused him to conceive his gods as having human form, attributes and affections, a type of religion known as anthropomorphism (Greek, “man-form”). In a sense, ancestor worship may be said to be a form of anthropomorphism, and is based on the belief in “the persistence of the human personality beyond the present life.” Practiced by American natives and European peoples in times past it still continues in Asia, Africa and Australia.
Ancestor worship is either communal, as was that practiced by the ancient Romans, or is of individuals, as is still being practiced in Africa, and in which the degree of respect given the ancestor depends upon his prominence when alive. Among the notions held are that the dead ancestors cannot feed themselves, that they are more powerful than when they were alive, that they return and are reborn (reincarnated) and that some of them become gods.
The Chaldeans and Assyrians had altars at the heads of their tombs on which they placed food, drinks and precious offerings, indicating ancestor worship. The Egyptian mummies also give evidence of the same. The Greeks, before the time of Homer, worshiped their ancestors. The ancient Romans had their maʹnes or worship of “good ones,” the spirits of the dead whom they still considered as part of their households and for which two festivals were held annually. Paradoxically, at one of these the maʹnes were dispelled from the home by a nocturnal rite, and at the other the maʹnes were made welcome to their homes, and food and flowers were carried to the tombs to make peace with the maʹnes and retain them as guardians.
Before Japan succumbed to Western “civilization” it had an elaborate annual festival, Bon, in honor of the dead ancestors, who were welcomed to return to their homes by many decorations and food dainties. Today ancestor worship is still more or less practiced in Japan. China, perhaps more than any other country, has been devoted to the worship of ancestors. There it is claimed to go back some two thousand years before Christ. Among the characteristics of their festivals in honor of the dead were fasting and meditating on the traits and appearances of one’s ancestors. Confucius, in spite of his reputed wisdom, was a strong advocate of ancestor worship.
The 1954 Yearbook of Jehovah’s Witnesses tells about ancestor worship in Basutoland, Africa: “About sixty per cent of the population of nearly 600,000 are ‘Christianized,’ but that does not stop them from being ancestor worshipers. Sacrifices are made to pacify the dead chiefs and forefathers. Clergymen play a big part in these ceremonies and the witch doctors an even larger part. The people are assured that their deceased parents can really help them against their enemies.”
Ancestors were worshiped for various reasons: to keep them from becoming angry because of neglect, to win their favor and have them act as guardians of the home, to have them cause it to rain and ensure good crops, to cure illness or give advice by means of dreams, to make one be fruitful, to have offspring and to intercede with the “gods.”
WHY ANCESTOR WORSHIP IS FOLLY
Why may ancestor worship be included in the foolish things mentioned by Paul at Romans 1:21-25? Because, first of all, only Jehovah God is to be worshiped and feared. “It is Jehovah your God you must worship, and it is to him alone you must render sacred service.” And he brooks no rivals, for he “is a God exacting exclusive devotion.” For him to tolerate rivals would be for him to deny his supremacy, which he cannot do.—Matt. 4:10; Deut. 6:14, 15; 2 Tim. 2:13, NW.
In ancestor worship the parents are considered as always being right. But according to God’s Word God comes first and when an issue arises between God and ancestor we must obey God rather than men. In fact, Jesus warned of the division that his message of truth would bring between parents and children among his followers. To go contrary to God’s law is folly.—Matt. 10:35; Acts 5:29.
Further, ancestor worship is folly because not only do ancestors not constitute a sure guide, but, being out of existence, they are in no position either to help or to harm. The Bible’s testimony is unequivocal on this point, beliefs of Christendom to the contrary notwithstanding. It plainly tells us that upon creation “man came to be a living soul,” not that he received a soul separate and distinct from his body; and that “the soul that sins shall die.” (Gen. 2:7, NW; Ezek. 18:4, RS) It assures us that in the very day that a man dies his thoughts perish and that in Sheol, gravedom, the location of the dead, “there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom.”—Eccl. 9:5, 10, RS; Ps. 146:3, 4.
But does not the Bible state that at death “the spirit returns to God who gave it”? Yes, it does, at Ecclesiastes 12:7 (RS), but that spirit is not the soul, but the breath, the power of life. How do we know? Because nothing is said about the spirit as having been good, but merely that the dust returns to the earth and, by contrast, the spirit or breath, representing here the power of life, returns to God who gave it. To God who gave it? Yes, because he gave it to man in the first place in Eden when he blew into man’s nostrils this breath of life. This is the spirit to which Jesus referred when he said, as he hung on the torture stake: “Father, into your hands I entrust my spirit.”—Luke 23:46, NW; Gen. 2:7.
There are some who hold that ‘ancestor worship is the oldest form of religious emotion and the foundation of all civilized religion.’ But in view of the foregoing it is apparent that such could be true only of non-Biblical religions. That is why historians themselves are obliged to make an exception, stating that “the worship of the Semitic peoples, the Hebrews and the Arabs, as history knows them, is remarkably free from ancestor deification,” although these profess to detect a similarity between the law of Moses and ancestor worship, much as the evolutionist professes to see a similarity between the simians and man. The Jewish Encyclopedia lists the arguments for and against the modernist view that ancestor worship was the predecessor of the law of Moses, and, while holding that the Bible does not settle the question (which it does, as we have seen above), states that it is a matter for anthropology and that its evidence is against ancestor worship as being the primitive form of religion.
As regards ancestor worship as being folly it might not be amiss to observe that it has also done much harm in a material way. For example, consider China. Why does it present the paradox of having one of the oldest civilizations and yet being one of the most backward of countries? Simply because of the blight of ancestor worship, a curse affecting its arts, economics and politics. It might therefore be stated that the onus for the war in Indo-China and for China’s being Communist can be laid squarely upon this form of religion. And the role that Japan played in World War II can likewise be blamed squarely on ancestor worship, for it is the very soul and basis of Shinto. And is not the caste system with which India is afflicted simply another form of ancestor worship?
Incidentally, let us note that in avoiding the folly of ancestor worship we need not go to the other extreme, so marked in Western lands, particularly the United States, where the public press almost daily tells of youths’ not only being disobedient to their parents but of their beating, robbing and even murdering them. “Honor your father and mother” is still one of God’s laws, and so long as children and youths are dependent upon their parents they should obey them, provided, of course, the commands of the parents are in harmony with God’s will.—Eph. 6:1, 2, NW.
What we have seen regarding ancestor worship certainly bears out the accuracy of Paul’s words that when man turned away from the worship of the true God Jehovah ‘he became empty-headed in his reasoning and his foolish heart became darkened.’ In striking contrast with the folly of ancestor worship is the fear and knowledge of Jehovah, which is the beginning of wisdom and which wisdom is demonstrated by the members of the New World society throughout the earth in both word and action.—Ps. 111:10, AS.