The Natural History of Religion

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We are living in an age of inquiry. While the spade of the geologist is persistently turning up fresh and more complete evidence of man’s hoary antiquity and early condition, presenting us with his rude works of art, his drawings “from nature,” and exhibiting to us evidence of his faith in immortality “hundreds of thousands of years ago;” while students are traversing Europe, often disguised as peddlers or peasants, to collect the folk-lore of different nations, by means of which the philologist can trace their origin in pre-historic times; while the labors of Orientalists have succeeded in tracing our origin, and proving our connection with the “benighted” Hindu race, and bringing to light the sacred Vedas of the Hindu, the Zend Avesta of the Parsee, and the Tripataka of the Buddhist; while all this flood of light is being poured upon the pathway of primitive man, we are still beseeched to attend “God’s worship,” and hear earnest appeals to “come to Jesus!” that we may escape from the consequences of the “Fall”! if Adam was not the first man, what becomes of the “Fall”? And with this dogma is also indissolubly connected those of man’s “depravity” and “salvation.” If the “Fall of man,” and his inherited depravity as a consequence, be a myth, then what need of Atonement? “It is surprising,” said Prof. Lesley, in his Lowell Institute Lectures, “how indifferent men of science seem to be to these great statements! Thousands of preachers proclaim them from the pulpit every Sunday in the year; and millions of communicants respond—Amen! And yet our men of science continue skeptical, and call them, as the apostles did, old wives’ fables. They believe them indeed to be old Jew-legends, so palpably heathenish and contrary to all we know that it is not worth while to try and show their absurdity. But they add, more seriously, that these old fables are no part of Christian theology.”

The “Infidelity” of the eighteenth century was destructive; it analyzed these “old wives’ fables” and showed their absurdity. The “Infidelity” of to-day merely gathers in the traditions and theologies of other lands and other ages and leaves us to draw our conclusions.

Some of these conclusions of modern science I propose to spread before you in a series of Essays.

The first will be on the nature of religion, endeavoring to show that it is intuitive and not adventitious.

Then to discuss the condition of pre-historical man, his habits and his faith; the origin of religious rites and ceremonies; the growth and development of Sun-worship, embracing the origin of the cross as a religious emblem, and the idea of a Triune God, an Incarnate Saviour, the Virgin Mother, the Resurrection of the God-man after a violent death, and other of its characteristic features. To quote from the Sacred Writings of other modes of Faith, and bring before you the hymns and prayers of the Veda, the worship of the Parsees, and the Faith of Buddhism. To give a realizing idea of their “Word of God” and their Theologies; their worship, their hopes of salvation, etc.

Vestiges of the spirit-history of man are being continually produced in our time, and while I invite you to no dry investigation of mythological studies, yet the result of these same dry studies may be so presented as to interest and instruct us, as well as open us to a mine of information regarding the rites and dogmas of our modern mythology. Why were the Incarnate God-men, the Divine Saviours of the past, Chrishna, Buddha, Fo, Bacchus and others born of a Virgin? Why were they born in obscurity, in caves, in dungeons, in hovels? Why did they rise again from the dead, and that resurrection identical with Easter, long before the Christian era? Why were they generally born on the 25th of December? And a score of other questions readily suggest themselves of like interest and pertinence.

Though in a series so short, familiar letters, much must be omitted and authorities cannot be given for every position stated, yet no conclusions will be presented but what are familiar to all students in mythological pursuits, and for which adequate authority could be cited.


In all ages and among all nations man has ever felt an inextinguishable desire to penetrate the mysteries of life; to know and understand the nature of his relations with powers manifest though unseen. This desire, this ardent longing of the soul, is inherent in our nature. It is as much a part and parcel of humanity as the feelings of love, gratitude, self-gratification, etc.; and this natural longing of man’s inner-self we style “religion.”

A “system of religion” is but the apparent gratification of this intense want, the outward expression of this inner feeling; the subjective rendered objective and palpable.

The benighted savage, bowing to stone or wood, the Parsee before the sacred flame, the Oriental sun-worshipper, the ancient Greeks and Romans, with their innumerable deities, as well as the Christian or Mahometan adorer of One God, possessed alike the glorious elements of true religion. Each and all in their worship but sought to express this longing, and thereby be drawn nearer to the great Font of Truth. It matters not what their ideas of truth were, if they but lived in accordance with their highest conception of it, they realized more comfort and true peace than the most enlightened skeptic of our day who tramples upon and stifles this ever-growing aspiration of the soul.

While this desire exists man is inevitably led to manifest some expression of it in one form or another, and this manifestation, however uncouth or paradoxical it may be, is a religious one. Say the Rev. Dr. OPeabody: “Being has it cause, its laws, there are reasons for the existence of things as they are; and, this cause, these laws, these reasons, are religion; * * * it defines our unseen relations.”

If we turn to our grammarians and lexicographers for the meaning of the word religion, we only obtain doubtful or erroneous derivation. It has been generally said to be derived from religare, to rebind, as expressive of its agency in binding anew the soul of man with his Author, and defining the relations existing between them. But Cicero, who undoubtedly understood his own language full as well as many later students, expressly states that religio is derived from relegere, to reperuse, as expressing the natural tendency of the human soul to ponder seriously and intently into whatever concerns its own being. Reflection, thought, being incidental to our nature, religion is, in the highest sense, more a matter of feeling than of opinion. The religion of the cultivated and thoughtful is always emotional, and in all ages the same, being subjective in its origin and nature.

“Religion,” said quaint old John Selden, “is like the fashion; one man wears his doublet shaded, another laced, another plain; but every man has a doublet: so every man has his religion. We differ about trimming.” While admitting that in a general sense this is true, we must not fall into the popular error that it is also true in particulars; that religion, like a doublet, may be taken off and laid away, or donned on special occasions. Such is the legitimate deduction from popular teaching.

The motives and actions of man in pre-historic times we may fairly estimate and judge, by observing his conduct and opinions in the short space of time in which we have records of his actions. The history of the intellectual, moral, and even political advancement of all nations, bear such a close analogy to each other, that we can now, from our intimate knowledge of events characterizing their growth, and of the peculiar nature of their climate, soil, and food, safely generalize the great laws which shape and mold all institutions and modes of thought. And when these causes are accurately understood and clearly defined, the mode of a nation’s development will be foreseen, and their intellectual, moral and political course more or less definitely mapped out.

Historians no longer encumber their pages with mere relations of battles and court intrigues alone; no longer are they filled with events caused by this one’s weakness or that one’s firmness; nor do we read of battles won and national calamities averted by providential interposition. On the contrary, we are led to ascribe every event in the action of men and nations, as well as in the inorganic world, to a natural cause.

Thus by means of well known and attested facts, we can arise to a knowledge of the course of humanity in pre-historic times. The thoughts, motives, action of man being thus deduced from the existing circumstances which surround him, we are enabled to apply the same laws to man while the human race was yet in its infancy, and before they had acquired the knowledge necessary to transmit to others the result of their experience.

The dim records left of primitive man, preserved in cave-gravel and peat, show us that he was ignorant and uncultivated, and more nearly allied to the animal world than the most degraded races of to-day. “As has been truly observed,” says Mr. Lubbock, “man, in the earlier times of which we have any relics, appears to have been not only a savage, but a savage living under Arctic conditions,” and yet they had conceptions of religion and a life hereafter, as we shall show in our next. In all traditions and modes of worship of ignorant and barbarous peoples, we find the anthropocentric idea to be the basis of their religious structure. Man finds himself the highest development of animal life on the earth, dependent upon a variety of cause for even an existence, whose workings being unknown to him, he ascribes to higher powers, invisible, but powerful beings. That such has been the progress of humanity from the low and groveling to the higher and more experienced conditions, seems an obvious truth; yet to bolster up the credibility of what Prof. Lesley has called “a hotch-potch of old Hebrew legends,” we still hear it asserted by theological owls, that man’s first condition was a comparatively high one, and that he subsequently lapsed into barbarism and error. That able philosopher, David Hume, this most clearly exposes this fallacy:

“As far as writing or history reaches, mankind, in ancient times, appear universally to be polytheists. Shall we assert that in more ancient times, before knowledge of letters, or the discovery of any art or science, men entertained the principles of pure theism? That is, while they were ignorant and barbarous, they discovered truth; but fell into error as soon as they acquired learning and politeness. * * * It seems certain that, according to the natural progress of human thought, the ignorant multitude must first entertain some groveling and familiar notions of superior powers, before they stretch their conception to that perfect being who bestowed order upon the whole frame of Nature. We may as reasonably imagine that men inhabited palaces before huts and cottages, or studied geometry before agriculture, as assert that the Deity appeared to them a pure spirit, omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent, before he was apprehended to be a powerful though limited being, with human passions and appetites, limbs and organs. The mind rises gradually from inferior to superior; by abstracting from what is imperfect, it forms an idea of perfection, and slowly distinguishing the nobler parts of its own frame from the grosser, it learns to transfer only the former, much elevated and refined, to its divinity”

In every system of religion we find occupying a prominent place an expectation of a coming Saviour—one divinely commissioned from the Most High, to relieve and soften the miseries and woes of humanity, and usher in a millennium of happiness. In the savage and barbarous races this saviour was to come as a conqueror, trampling their enemies under his feet and placing the spoils of the vanquished at their disposal. This saviour indicated the predominate traits of force, military rule, kingly power, or the law of love, according to their ascendency in the minds of the people, became incarnated in their saviour. He became the reflection of the religious element in their mental constitution; the expression, the objective manifestation of that deep-seated longing of the soul, inseparable from human nature.

Further evidence, if such were needed, could be produced in the historical fact that from the lower grades of humanity to the most accomplished scholars and profound thinkers of our race, we find an almost universally expressed desire and belief in a future existence. Back through the ages, past the age of the Vedas, beyond the pyramids and tombs of Egypt, even to the early “stone age” of Central Europe, thousands of centuries ago, we have preserved direct evidence of this instinctive feeling for immortality. It seems from its universality not to have been any direct impression upon man, no revelation from without which inspired his faith and hope, but a natural and necessary outgrowth of his spiritual unfoldment. So firmly seated has been this faith in the minds of our race, that we find many nations depositing in the tomb with the body articles of food, dress and weapons, for the departed’s future use, also making offerings and addressing the supplications to the souls of departed relatives.

In every age and in every clime we find this the great ruling idea. The poet, the statesman, the architect and the reformer, have ever been indebted to it for their inspirations. No form of government has existed which has failed to recognize this element of our nature in its laws. Through its progressive development philosophy had birth; thinking, reflective minds, awoke to a sense of pervading order and unity in the universe.

This religious element in humanity has ever been manifested in the numerous temples and mausoleums built by nations long since passed away into oblivion; and this, the only trace left of their existence, proclaims in unmistakeable language that it was the grand absorbing thought of their architects. Under every form of worship in every age, we find this sentiment pervading their daily life; the most ignorant as well as the most enlightened, felt and manifested this all-pervading impulse. However different the outward manifestation, we have seen that the inner craving, that inextinguishable desire and longing of the soul, existed in all; the outward manifestation of it being various, owing to the varied conditions by which mankind were surrounded.

What a bright and glorious truth is this, and how highly we should prize it! Stepping out from the shadow of the gloomy dogma of man’s inherited depraved and carnal nature, where his every thought is sinful and debasing, into the glowing, heart-cheering truth that accurate research and analysis teach us, that by the gradual and natural unfoldment of this religious element inherent from a state of sin to one of holiness, from darkness to light; in other words, from an ignorant and besotted condition to ne more closely in accordance with the spiritual laws of the universe; and that the nearer we come to this condition, the closer our souls are drawn into communion with the Infinite Soul, the more perfect will be our life.

“The soul’s deep longing for sublimer truths;
Its thirsts for knowledge of itself beyond
The narrow fact of being; the desire
To grasp the infinite, and bind it down
To finite comprehension; and, besides,
The adoration of exalted good,
Enthroned as Deity; and, more than these,
A love for all humanity, expressed
In loving actions and heroic deeds,
(True acted prayers, more eloquent than words,)
We call religion, and its standard raise
Higher or lower, as the inward voice
Which rules our souls is powerful or weak.
What men call creeds are atoms of the whole;
Stars which round one common centre move,
In circling orbits, some of them more near
And others further from it; but not one
Embracing all things in itself alone.”