Joseph Campbell, in one of his many illuminating lectures, mentions that the anthropologist Alfred Radcliffe-Brown classifies religions as “systems of sentiments”. Campbell mentions this classification in order to describe the ways in which mythology functions to integrate each individual into his or her social group. He says that no society that has ever existed wants “man qua man”, or man/woman fully actualized to his or her full potential. Campbell points out that every society wants certain pieces of each man or woman. Campbell goes on to describe the ways in which each society uses myths and rituals to carve man into the being that this or that particular society needs. In other words, these systems of sentiment trim away the mental and spiritual excesses of nature so that each individual will fit the mold that his or her society most requires of them.
So, what is a sentiment? Most definitions suggest that the term sentiment combines attitudes, thoughts, and feelings. So to develop a system of sentiment essentially means to proscribe for the group what emotions will be considered acceptable, and in what situations and contexts these emotions will be or will not be acceptable to the group. Of course, each of these systems claims some type of “divine” authority which is beyond mere evidentiary criticism, since each god, goddess, prophet or prophetess represents some type of properly basic belief (a starting point which permits no thought to what might have preceded itself). Each of these systems also proscribes what types of punishments the group shall mete out to those who criticize or question the established group authority.
As will be obvious to anyone even remotely familiar with modern psychology (even the basic psychology which is taught in American high schools today), individuals experience emotions on a rather spontaneous and unpredictable basis. It is not too difficult to see how attempts to corral these emotions might easily undermine the said system. This is not to be feared, however, because any of these systems which have survived very long at all have developed a fair share of scapegoats for the inconvenient compulsions that arise from this emotional and spiritual suppression. When the emotions, which have been declared inconvenient to the group, resurface, rearing their very ugly heads as they often do, it is not the system of sentiments that is to blame, but instead some “demon” which this system has created for the very purpose of scapegoating. Each successful system then offers some type of salve that it has created for the explicit purpose of nurturing those wounds the “demons” have loosed.