Natural Religion

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A Blackfoot Indian, when arguing with a Christian missionary, described the difference between his own religion and that of the white man in the following words[1] : 'There were two religions given by the Great Spirit, one in a book for the guidance of the white men who, by following its teachings, will reach the white man's heaven ; the other is in the heads of the Indians, in the sky, rocks, rivers, and mountains. And the red men who listen to God in nature will hear his voice, and find at last the heaven beyond.'

Now that religion which is in the head and in the heart, and in the sky, the rocks, the rivers and the mountains is what we call Natural Religion. It has its roots in nature, in human nature, and in that external nature which to us is at the same time the veil and the revelation of the Divine. It is free, it grows with the growth of the human mind, and adapts itself to the requirements of every age. It does not say, 'Thou shalt,' but rather 'I will.' These natural or bookless religions are not entirely without settled doctrines and established customs. They generally have some kind of priesthood to exercise authority in matters of faith, morality, and ceremonial. But there is nothing hard and unchangeable in them, nothing to fetter permanently the growth of thought. Errors, when discovered, can be surrendered; a new truth, if clearly seen and vigorously defended, can be accepted. If, however, there is once a book, something black on white, the temptation is great, is almost irresistible, to invest it with a more than human authority in order to appeal to it as infallible, and as beyond the reach of human reasoning. We can well understand what the ancient poets of the Veda meant by calling their hymns God-given, or by speaking of them as what they had seen or heard, not what they had elaborated themselves. But a new generation gave a new meaning to these expressions, and ended by representing every thought and word and letter of the Veda as 'God-given,' or revealed. This was the death-blow given to the Vedic religion, for whatever cannot grow and change must die[2]. From this danger the bookless religions are exempt.

When they are at their best, they seem to be simply an unhesitating belief in some higher power and a life in the sight of God.

According to de Mofras, one of the latest travellers, the 'Californians believe in a God whose origin is perfectly unknown, or, as they express it, who has neither father or mother. He is believed to be present everywhere, and to see everything, even at midnight, though himself invisible to every eye. He is the friend of all good people, and pun ishes evil-doers [3].'

Anything that lifts a man above the realities of this material life is religion. I like to tell the story of the old Samoyede woman whom Castren met in his travels, and asked about her religion. Poor soul, she hardly understood what he meant and why he should ask her such a question. But when at last she perceived what he was driving at, she said[4]: 'Every morning I step out of my tent and bow before the sun, and say: "When thou risest, I, too, rise from my bed." And every evening I say: "When thou sinkest down, I, too, sink down to rest."' That was her prayer, perhaps the whole of her religious service,—a poor prayer, it may seem to us, but not to her, for it made that old lonely woman look twice at least every day away from earth and up to heaven; it made her feel that her life was bound up with a larger and higher life; it encircled the daily routine of her earthly existence with something of a divine light. It gave her the sense of a Beyond, and that is the true life of all religion. Is there not something of the simple religion of that old Samoyede woman even in the familiar lines of Bishop Ken,

'Awake, my soul, and with the sun Thy daily stage of duty run'?

This kind of religion may seem very imperfect, it may seem in our eyes very childish or even wrong. But it is real, and therefore a real power for good. It is a struggle for God,—if haply we may find Him ; and in that struggle also—after many mistakes, it may be—it is the best that survives and lives. The whole world in its wonderful history has passed through that struggle for life, the struggle for eternal life ; and every one of us, in his own not less wonderful history, has had to pass through the same struggle ; for, without it, no religion, whatever its sacred books may be, will find in any human heart that soil in which alone it can strike root and on which alone it can grow and bear fruit. We must all have our own bookless religion, if the Sacred Eooks, whatever they be, are to find a safe and solid foundation within ourselves. No temple can stand without that foundation, and it is because that foundation is so often neglected, that the walls of the temple become unsafe and threaten to fall. It is easy to say it before an audience like this, but I should not be afraid to say it before an audience of Brahmans, Buddhists, Christians, and Jews, that there is no religion in the whole world which in simplicity, in purity of purpose, in charity and true humanity, comes near to that religion which Nanak taught to his sikhs.

Natural religion may exist and does exist without revealed religion. Revealed religion without natural religion is an utter impossibility.

The heart and mind and soul of man are the same under every sky, in all the varying circum stances of human life; and it would indeed be awful to believe that any human beings should have been deprived of that light' which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.' It is that light which lighteth every man, and which has lighted all the religions of the world, call them bookless or literate, human or divine, natural or supernatural, which alone can dispel the darkness of doubt and fear that has come over the world. What our age wants more than anything else is Natural Religion.

  1. The Indians, whence came they? by McLean, 1889, p. 301.
  2. Sir William Muir, in is Rise and Decline of Islam, pp. 40, 41, given powerful expression to the dangers arising from sacred codes. 'From the stiff and rigid shroud in which it is thus swathed, the religion of Mahomed cannot emerge. It has no plastic power beyond that exercised in its earliest days. Hardened now and inelastic, it can neither adapt itself, nor yet shape its votaries, nor even suffer them to shape themselves, to the varying circumstances, the wants and developments of mankind.' Quoted by E. de Bunsen in an article in the Asiatic Quarterly Review, April, 1889, Mahomed's Place in the Church, p. 287.
  3. Roskoff, Das Religionswesen der rohesten Katurvolker, p. 64.
  4. M. M., Introduction to the Science of Religion, p. 138.