What Is Religion?
Derivation, analysis, and definition
The derivation of the word “religion” has been a matter of dispute from ancient times. Not even today is it a closed question. Cicero, in his “De natura deorum”, II, xxviii, derives religion from relegere (to treat carefully): “Those who carefully took in hand all things pertaining to the gods were called religiosi, from relegere.” Max Muller favoured this view. But as religion is an elementary notion long antedating the time of complicated ritual presupposed in this explanation, we must seek elsewhere for its etymology. A far more likely derivation, one that suits the idea of religion in its simple beginning, is that given by Lactantius, in his “Divine Institutes”, IV, xxviii. He derives religion from religare (to bind): “We are tied to God and bound to Him [religati] by the bond of piety, and it is from this, and not, as Cicero holds, from careful consideration [relegendo], that religion has received its name.” The objection that religio could not be derived from religare, a verb of the first conjugation, is not of great weight, when we call to mind that opinio comes from opinari, and rebellio from rebellare. St. Augustine, in his City of God X.3, derives religio from religere in the sense of recovering: “having lost God through neglect [negligentes], we recover Him [religentes] and are drawn to Him.” This explanation, implying the notion of the Redemption, is not suited to the primary idea of religion. St. Augustine himself was not satisfied with it, for in his “Retractions”, I, xiii, he abandoned it in favour of the derivation given by Lactantius. He employs the latter meaning in his treatise “On the True Religion”, where he says: “Religion binds us [religat] to the one Almighty God.” St. Thomas, in his “Summa”, II-II, Q. lxxxi, a. 1, gives all three derivations without pronouncing in favour of any. The correct one seems to be that offered by Lactantius. Religion in its simplest form implies the notion of being bound to God; the same notion is uppermost in the word religion in its most specific sense, as applied to the life of poverty, chastity, and obedience to which individuals voluntarily bind themselves by vows more or less solemn. Hence those who are thus bound are known as religious.
Religion, broadly speaking, means the voluntary subjection of oneself to God. It exists in its highest perfection in heaven, where the angels and saints love, praise, and adore God, and live in absolute conformity to His holy will. It does not exist at all in hell, where the subordination of rational creatures to their Creator is one not of free will, but of physical necessity. On earth it is practically coextensive with the human race, though, where it has not been elevated to the supernatural plane through Divine revelation, it labours under serious defects.
It is with religion as affecting the life of man on earth that this article deals. The analysis of the idea of religion shows that it is very complex, and rests on several fundamental conceptions. It implies first of all the recognition of a Divine personality in and behind the forces of nature, the Lord and Ruler of the world, God. In the highest religions, this supernatural Being is conceived as a spirit, one and indivisible, everywhere present in nature, but distinct from it. In the lower religions, the various phenomena of nature are associated with a number of distinct personalities, though it is rare that among these numerous nature-deities one is not honoured as supreme. Ethical qualities corresponding to the prevailing ethical standards, are attributed by the different peoples to their respective deities.
In every form of religion is implied the conviction that the mysterious, supernatural Being (or beings) has control over the lives and destinies of men. Especially in lower grades of culture, where the nature and utilization of physical laws is but feebly understood, man feels in many ways his helplessness in the presence of the forces of nature: it is the Divine Being that controls them; He it is that can direct them for man’s weal or woe. There thus arises in the natural order a sense of dependence on the Deity, deeply felt need of Divine help. This lies at the basis of religion. Still it is not the recognition of dependence on God that constitutes the very essence of religion, indispensable as it is. The damned recognize their dependence on God, but, being without hope of Divine help, are turned from, rather than towards, Him. Coupled with the sense of need is the persuasion on the part of man that he can bring himself into friendly, beneficent communion with the Deity or deities on whom he feels he depends. He is a creature of hope. Feeling his helplessness and need of Divine assistance, pressed down, perhaps, by sickness, loss, and defeat, recognizing that in friendly communion with the Deity he can find aid, peace, and happiness, he is led voluntarily to perform certain acts of homage meant to bring about this desired result. What man aims at in religion is communion with the Deity, in which he hopes to attain his happiness and perfection. This perfection is but crudely conceived in lower religions. Conformity to the recognized moral standard, which is generally low, is not wholly neglected, but it is less an object of solicitude than material welfare. The sum of happiness looked for is prosperity in the present life and a continuation of the same bodily comforts in the life to come. In the higher religions, the perfection sought in religion becomes more intimately associated with moral goodness. In Christianity, the highest of religions, communion with God implies spiritual perfection of the highest possible kind, the participation in the supernatural life of grace as the children of God. This spiritual perfection, bringing with it perfect happiness, is realized in part at least in the present life of pain and disappointment, but is to be found fully attained in the life to come. The desire of happiness and perfection is not the only motive that prompts man to do homage to God. In the higher religions there is also the sense of duty arising from the recognition of God’s sovereignty, and consequently of His strict right to the subjection and worship of man. To this must also be added the love of God for His own sake, inasmuch as He is the infinitely perfect Being, in whom truth, beauty, and goodness are realized in their highest possible degree. While the prevailing motive in all lower religions is one of self-interest, the desire of happiness, it generally implies to some extent an affectionate as well as reverent attitude towards the deities that are the object of worship.
From what has been said it is plain that the concept of deity required for religion is that of a free personality. The error of mistaking many nature-deities for the one true God vitiates, but does not destroy, religion. But religion ceases to exist where, as in Pantheism, the deity is pronounced to be devoid of all consciousness. A deity without personality is no more capable of awakening the sense of religion in the heart of man than is the all-pervading ether or the universal force of gravitation. Religion is essentially a personal relation, the relation of the subject and creature, man, to his Lord and Creator, God. Religion may thus be defined as the voluntary subjection of oneself to God, that is to the free, supernatural Being (or beings) on whom man is conscious of being dependent, of whose powerful help he feels the need, and in whom he recognizes the source of his perfection and happiness. It is a voluntary turning to God. In the last analysis it is an act of the will. In other words it is a virtue, since it is an act of the will inclining man to observe the right order, springing from his dependence on God. Hence St. Thomas (II-II, Q. lxxxi, a. 1) defines religion as “virtus per quam homines Deo debitum cultum et reverentiam exhibent” (the virtue which prompts man to render to God the worship and reverence that is His by right). The end of religion is filial communion with God, in which we honour and revere Him as our supreme Lord, love Him as our Father, and find in that reverent service of filial love our true perfection and happiness. Bliss-giving communion with the sovereign Deity is, as has been pointed out, the end of all religions. Primitive Buddhism, with its aim to secure unconscious repose (Nirvana) through personal effort independently of Divine aid, seems to be an exception. But even in primitive Buddhism communion with the gods of India was retained as an element of lay belief and aspiration, and it was only by substituting the ideal of Divine communion for that of Nirvana that Buddhism became a popular religion.
Thus, in its strictest sense, religion on its subjective side is the disposition to acknowledge our dependence on God, and on the objective side it is the voluntary acknowledgement of that dependence through acts of homage. It calls into play not simply the will, but the intellect, the imagination, and the emotions. Without the conception of personal deity, religion would not exist. The recognition of the unseen world stirs the imagination. The emotions, too, are called into exercise. The need of Divine help gives rise to the longing for communion with God. The recognized possibility of attaining this end engenders hope. The consciousness of acquired friendship with a protector so good and powerful excites joy. The obtaining of benefits in answer to prayer prompts to thankfulness. The immensity of God’s power and wisdom calls up feelings of awe. The consciousness of having offended and estranged Him, and of thus deserving punishment, leads to fear and sorrow and the desire of reconciliation. Crowning all is the emotion of love springing from the contemplation of God’s wonderful goodness and excellence. Hence we see how wide of the mark are the attempts to limit religion to the exercise of a particular faculty, or to identify it with ritual or with ethical conduct. Religion is not adequately described as “the knowledge acquired by the finite spirit of its essence as absolute spirit” (Hegel), nor as “the perception of the infinite” (Max Muller), nor as “a determination of man’s feeling of absolute dependence” (Schleiermacher), nor as “the recognition of all our duties as divine commands” (Kant), nor as morality touched by emotion” (Mathew Arnold), nor as “the earnest direction of the emotions and desires towards an ideal object recognized as of the highest excellence and as rightly paramount over selfish objects of desire” (J. S. Mill). These definitions, in so far as they are true, are only partial characterizations of religion.
Religion answers to a deeply felt need in the heart of man. Above the needs of the individual are the needs of the family, and higher still are the needs of the clan and people. On the welfare of the people depends that of the individual. Hence we find that religion in its outward worship is to a large extent a social function. The chief rites are public rites, performed in the name, and for the benefit, of the whole community. It is by social action that religious worship is maintained and preserved. Only in the society of one’s fellow-men does one develop one’s mental and moral faculties, and acquire religion. Religion is distinguished into natural and supernatural. By natural religion is meant the subjection of oneself to God, based on such knowledge of God and of man’s moral and religious duties as the human mind can acquire by its own unaided powers. It does not, however, exclude theophanies and Divine revelations made with the view to confirm religion in the natural order. Supernatural religion implies a supernatural end, gratuitously bestowed on man, namely a lively union with God through sanctifying grace, begun and imperfectly attained here, but completed in heaven, where the beatific vision of God will be its eternal reward. It also implies a special Divine revelation, through which man comes to know this end as well as the Divinely appointed means for its attainment. Subjection of oneself to God, based on this knowledge of faith and kept fruitful by grace, is supernatural religion.
Religion on its subjective side is essentially, but not exclusively, an affair of the will, the will to acknowledge by acts of homage man’s dependence on God. We have already seen that the imagination and the emotions are important factors in subjective religion. The emotions, elicited by the recognition of dependence on God and by the deeply felt need of Divine help, give greater efficacy to the deliberate exercise of the virtue of religion. It is worthy of note that the emotions awakened by the religious consciousness are such as make for a healthy optimism. The predominant tones of religion are those of hope, joy, confidence, love, patience, humility, the purpose of amendment, and aspiration towards high ideals. All these are the natural accompaniments of the persuasion that through religion man is living in friendly communion with God. The view that fear is in most instances the spring of religious action is untenable.
In subjective religion several virtues must be included, most of them being of an emotional character. The proper exercise of the virtue of religion involves three cooperant virtues having God as their direct object, and hence known as the “theological virtues”. First there is faith. Strictly speaking, faith as a virtue is the reverent disposition to submit the human mind to the Divine, to accept on Divine authority what has been revealed by God. In the wide sense, as applying to all religions, it is the pious acceptance of the fundamental notions of Deity and of man’s relation to Deity contained in the religious traditions of the community. In practically all religions there is an exercise of authoritative teaching in regard to the intellectual basis of religion, the things to be believed. These things individuals do not acquire independently, through direct intuition or discursive reasoning. They come to know them from the teaching of parents and elders, and from the observance of sacred rites and customs. They take these teachings on authority, made venerable by immemorial usage, so that to reject them would be reprobated as an act of impiety. Thus, while man has the capacity to arrive at a knowledge of the fundamentals of religion by the independent exercise of his reason, he regularly comes to know them through the authoritative teaching of his elders. Faith of this kind is practically an indispensable basis of religion. In the supernatural order, faith is absolutely indispensable. If man has been raised to a special supernatural end, it is only by revelation that he can come to know that end and the Divinely appointed means for its attainment. Such a revelation necessarily implies faith. For the exercise of the virtue of religion hope is absolutely indispensable. Hope is the expectation of securing and maintaining bliss-bringing communion with the Deity. In the natural order it rests on the conception of Deity as a morally good personality, inviting confidence. It is also sustained by the recognized instances of Divine providence. In the Christian religion hope is raised to the supernatural plane, being based on the promises of God made known through the revelation of Christ. The absence of hope paralyzes the virtue of religion. For this reason the damned are no longer capable of religion. Thirdly, the love of God for His own sake is a concomitant of the virtue of religion, being needed for its perfection. In some lower forms of religion, it is largely, if not wholly, absent. The Deity is honoured chiefly for the sake of personal advantage. Still, in perhaps the majority of religions, at least the beginnings of a filial affection for the Deity are felt. Such affection seems to be implied in generous offerings and in expressions of thankfulness so common in religious rites. Closely associated with the virtues of hope and love, and hence intimately connected with religion as exercised by man in his frailty, is the virtue of repentance. With all his zeal for religion, man is constantly lapsing into offences against the Deity. These offences, whether ritual or moral, deliberate or involuntary, present themselves as obstacles more or less fatal to the bliss-bringing communion with the Deity which is the end of religion. The fear of forfeiting the good will and help of the Deity, and of incurring His punishment, gives rise to regret, which in higher religions is made more meritorious by the sorrow felt for having offended so good a God. Hence the offender is prompted to acknowledge his fault and to seek reconciliation, so as to restore to its integrity the ruptured union of friendship with God.
Objective religion comprises the acts of homage that are the effects of subjective religion, and also the various phenomena which are viewed as the manifestations of good will by the Deity. We may distinguish in objective religion a speculative and a practical part.
The speculative part embraces the intellectual basis of religion, those concepts of God and man, and of man’s relation to God, which are the object of faith, whether natural or supernatural. Of vital importance to right religion are correct views concerning the existence of a personal God, Divine providence and retribution, the immortality of the soul, free will, and moral responsibility. Hence the need is recognized of firmly establishing the grounds of theistic belief, and of refuting the errors that weaken or destroy the virtue of religion. Polytheism vitiates religion, in so far as it confounds the one true God with a number of fictitious beings, and distributes among these the reverent service that belongs to God alone. Religion is absolutely quenched in Atheism, which tries to substitute for the personal Deity blind physical forces. Equally destructive is Pantheism, which views all things as emanations of an impersonal, unconscious world-ground. Agnosticism, in declaring that we have not sufficient grounds for asserting the existence of God, also makes religion impossible. Scarcely less fatal is Deism, which, putting God far from the visible world, denies Divine providence and the efficacy of prayer. Wherever religion has flourished, we find a deeply rooted belief in Divine providence. Free will — with its necessary implication, moral responsibility — is taken for granted in the creeds of most religions. It is only in grades of higher culture, where philosophic speculation has given occasion to the denial of free will, that this important truth is emphasized. Belief in the immortality of the soul is to be found in practically all religions, though the nature of the soul and the character of the future life are in most religions crudely conceived. Divine retribution is also an element of religious belief throughout the world. One of the common errors fostered in recent works on anthropology and the history of religions is that only in the higher religions is moral conduct found to rest on religious sanction. While the standard of right and wrong in lower religions is often grossly defective, allowing the existence of impure and cruel rites, it is nevertheless true that what is reprobated as morally evil is very generally viewed as an offence against the Deity, entailing punishment in some form unless expiated. Many religions, even those of savage and barbarous tribes, distinguish between the fate of the good and that of the bad after death. The bad go to a place of suffering, or they perish utterly, or they are reborn in vile animal forms. Practically all give evidence of belief in retribution in the present life, as may be seen from the universal use of ordeals, oaths, and the widespread recourse to penitential rites in times of great distress.
These fundamental elements of belief have their legitimate place in the Christian religion, in which they are found corrected, supplemented, and completed by a larger knowledge of God and of His purposes in regard to man. God, having destined man for filial communion with Himself in the life of grace, has through the Incarnation and Redemption of Christ brought within the reach of man the truths and practices needed for the attainment of this end. Thus, in Christianity the things to be believed and the things to be done in order to obtain salvation have the guarantee of Divine authority. Right belief is thus essential to religion, if man is to do justice to his moral and religious duties and thereby secure his perfection. The popular cry of today for religion without dogma comes from the failure to recognize the supreme importance of right belief. The dogmatic teachings of Christianity, supplementing and perfecting the intellectual basis of natural religion, are not to be looked on as a mere series of intellectual puzzles. They have a practical purpose. They serve to enlighten man on the whole range of his religious and ethical duties, on the proper fulfilment of which depends his supernatural perfection. Closely allied with the data of revelation are the attempts to determine their mutual relations, to explain them as far as possible in terms of sound science and philosophy, and to draw from them their legitimate deductions. Out of this field of religious study has arisen the science of theology. Corresponding with this in function, but the very opposite of it in worth, is the mythology of pagan religions. Mythology is the product partly of the tendency of the human mind to realize and partly of man’s attempts to account for the origins of such factors in life as fire, disease, death, and to explain the succession of natural phenomena in an age of ignorance when a fanciful personification of nature’s forces occupied the place of scientific knowledge. Hence arose the mythical stories of the gods both great and small, many of which in later generations gave scandal because of their absurdity and immorality. Mythology, being born of ignorance and unbridled fancy, has no legitimate place in sound religious belief.
The practical part comprises (1) the acts of homage whereby man acknowledges God’s dominion and seeks His help and friendship, and (2) the extraordinary religious experiences viewed by the worshippers as manifestations of Divine good will.
(1) The acts of homage may be distinguished into three classes: (a) the direct acts of worship; (b) the regulation of conduct outside the sphere of moral obligation; (c) the regulation of conduct within the recognized sphere of moral obligation.
(a) Acts of Worship. The acts of worship proper consist of those which directly express adoration, thanksgiving, petition, and propitiation. In these are included acts of faith, hope, love, humility, and repentance. They take the external form of prayer and sacrifice. Prayer, as an outward act, is the verbal communication of man’s thoughts and needs to God. In the lower religions petitions for earthly favours are the chief objects of prayer. Expressions of thanks, too, are not unknown. Besides these there are in the higher religions prayers of adoration, of petition for moral improvement, also penitential prayers. Sacrifice is equally common with prayer. Scholars are not all agreed as to the primary idea underlying the use of sacrifice. The most likely view is that sacrifice is primarily a token of respect in the form of a gift. It is often called a gift or offering, even in Holy Scripture (cf. Genesis 4:3-5; Matthew 5:23). Among the nations of antiquity, as well as most peoples of today, no inferior would think of approaching his superior without bringing a gift. It is a token of respect and good will. It is not a bribe, as some have objected, though it may degenerate into such. In like manner, man from the earliest times, in doing homage to the Deity, came into His presence with a gift. Besides being a visible proof of man’s respect, the gift also signified that all things were God’s. The giving over of the object to the Deity implied that it no longer belonged to the worshipper, but was made the sacred property of the Deity (sacrificium). Being thus removed from ordinary use, it was passed over to the Deity by a total or partial destruction. Liquid offerings were poured out on the ground. Food offerings were generally burned. Others were cast into rivers or the sea. Very frequently, in the food offerings, only part was destroyed by fire, the rest being eaten by the worshippers. In this way was symbolized the friendly union of the Deity and the worshippers. In some eases the underlying idea was that man was the privileged guest at the Divine banquet, partaking of the sacred food consecrated to the Deity. It thus had a quasi-sacramental significance. In the ancient Hebrew religion there were food offerings, including bloody sacrifices of animal victims. These were types of the great atoning sacrifice of Christ. In the Catholic religion, the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross is perpetuated by the unbloody sacrifice of the Mass, in which the eternal Lamb of God is offered under the appearance of bread and wine and is devoutly consumed by priest and faithful. The use of sacrifice has led to the office of priest. In the beginning, sacrifice, like prayer, was of the simplest kind and was offered by the individual for his personal needs, by the head of the family or clan for its members collectively, and by the chief or king for the whole people.
With the growth of ceremonial prayers and rites, the office of sacrifice gave rise to the class of priests whose duty it was to make the offerings in strict conformity with the complicated ritual. The institution of the office of priest is thus later than that of sacrifice. Sacrifices were first made under the open sky on raised hearths of earth or stone, which became altars. For the protection of permanent altars temples came to be built. The most solemn sacrifices were those offered in behalf of the people for the obtaining of public benefits. To accommodate the large concourse of worshippers, the temples were often built on a grand scale, surpassing in magnificence the palaces of the kings. From the earliest times religion was thus the great inspiring influence in the development of architecture and the decorative arts. The arts of sculpture and painting owe much to the religious use of images and pictures, which from time immemorial have been associated with worship. In acquiring notions of invisible, intangible beings, man has generally made large use of the imagination, which, while it often misrepresents, serves to concretize and make real the things he recognizes but only vaguely grasps. This has led to the fashioning of forms in wood and stone to represent the mysterious beings to whom man looks for aid. These forms are apt to be repulsive where the art of sculpture is rudimentary. In the higher nations of antiquity, the making of sacred images in wood, stone, and metal was carried to a high degree of perfection. Their use degenerated into idolatry where Polytheism prevailed. The Christian religion has allowed the use of statues and paintings to represent the Incarnate Son of God, the saints, and angels, and these images are a legitimate aid to devotion, since the honour that is given them is but relative, being directed through them to the beings they represent. It is like the relative honour given to the flag of the nation. The times and places of external worship deserve passing notice. In most religions we find certain days of the year set apart for the more solemn acts of sacrificial worship: some of these are suggested by recurring phenomena of nature (the new and full moon, spring-time with its awakening vegetation, autumn with its ripened harvests, the two solstices); others commemorate historic events of great importance for the religious life of the people. Hence the widespread observance of religious festivals, when public sacrifices are offered with elaborate ritual and are accompanied with feasting and rest from ordinary business. In like manner certain places, made venerable by immemorial worship or by association with reputed visions, oracles, and miraculous cures, come to be singled out as the spots most suitable for public worship. Shrines and temples are built, to which a peculiar sanctity attaches, and annual pilgrimages are made to them from distant places.
The emotional element in external worship is a feature that cannot be overlooked. The solemn prayers and sacrifices to the Deity in behalf of the community are embellished with ritual acts expressive of the emotions brought into play in religious worship. The desire and hope of Divine help, joy at its possession, gratitude for favours received, distress at the temporary estrangement of the offended Deity — all these emotions quicken the acts of worship and find expression in chants, instrumental music, dances, processions, and stately ceremonial. These expressions of feeling are also powerful means of arousing feeling, and thus give an intense earnestness to religion. This emotional element enters into the external worship of every religion, but its extent and character vary considerably, being determined by the particular standard of propriety prevailing in a given grade of culture. Uncultured peoples, as a rule, are more emotional and more impulsive in expressing their emotions than are peoples of a high grade of culture. Hence the worship in lower religions is generally characterized by noisy, extravagant action and spectacular display. This is especially shown in their sacred dances, which are for the most part violent, and from our point of view fantastic, but which are executed in a spirit of great earnestness. The early Hebrew religion, like most of the religions of antiquity, had its sacred dances. They are a popular feature of Islamism today. They have been wisely set aside in Christian worship, though in a very few places, as at Echternach in Luxemburg, and in the Seville cathedral, religious dancing gives a local colour to the celebration of certain festivals. Instrumental and vocal music is a most fitting framework for liturgical prayers and solemn sacrifices. The beginnings of music were necessarily rude. Under the influence of religion, the rhythmic chants grew into inspiring hymns and psalms, giving rise to the sacred poetic literature of many nations. In the Christian religion sacred poetry, melody, and polyphonic music have been carried to the height of perfection. Closely allied with the religious dance, yet, when duly circumscribed, not objectionable to refined taste, is the pageantry of religious ceremonial — the employment of numerous officiating ministers dressed in striking costumes to perform a solemn, complicated function, or the religious procession, in which the ministers, bearing sacred objects, are accompanied by a long line of worshippers, marching to the sound of soul stirring hymns and instrumental music. All this makes a profound impression on the spectators. The Catholic Church has shown her wisdom by taking into her liturgy such of these elements as are the legitimate and dignified expression of religious feeling.
(b) Regulation of Conduct outside the Sphere of Moral Obligation. This element is common to all religions. It is exemplified in the purifications, fasts, privation of certain kinds of food, abstinence at times from conjugal intercourse, cessation on certain days from ordinary occupations, mutilations, and self-inflicted pains. Most of these serve as preparations, immediate or remote, for the solemn acts of worship for which ceremonial purity is generally required. Hence many of them are embodied in rites closely associated with Divine worship. Most of these practices rest on a sense of fitness strengthened by immemorial custom. To neglect or disregard them is thought to entail calamities. Thus they have a quasi-religious sanction. In the Hebrew religion practices of this kind rested for the most part on express Divine commands. This was even true of circumcision, which, while being a mutilation of a minor sort (the only form of mutilation tolerated in the Old Law), was given a highly moral signification, and made to serve as the token of God’s covenant with Abraham and his descendants. The Sabbath rest, transferred in Christianity to Sunday, is likewise based on an express Divine command. To this class of external acts of homage belong also the various forms of asceticism that prevail in many religions. Such are the restrictive works of piety involving inconvenience, pain, and abstinence from legitimate enjoyments, voluntarily undertaken with the view to merit a larger share of Divine favour and to secure more than ordinary sanctity and perfection. In the lower religions the ascetic tendency has often degenerated into repulsive forms of mortification based on purely selfish ends. In Christianity the various forms of self-denial, particularly the counsels of perfection (poverty, chastity, and obedience) cultivated in the spirit of Divine love, have led to the flourishing of the ascetic life within the limits of true religious propriety.
(c) Regulation of Conduct within the Recognized Sphere of Moral Obligation. The class of acts which fall within its sphere implies that the sovereign Deity is the guardian of the moral law. Moral duties, to the extent that they are recognized, are viewed as Divine commands. Their fulfilment merits Divine approval and reward; their violation entails Divine punishment. Unfortunately the moral standard of peoples in lower grades of culture has been as a rule grossly defective. Many things shocking to our moral sense have been done by them without the consciousness of wrong-doing. Being generally given to incontinence, polygamy, deeds of violence, and even to cannibalism, they have naturally attributed the same sentiments and practices to their gods. The religious sanction thus conceived lends strength to both the good and the evil side of their imperfect standard of conduct. While it helps them to avoid certain gross forms of wrong-doing, patent even to minds of low intelligence, it encourages the continued practice of vicious indulgences that otherwise might be more easily outgrown. This is particularly the case where these excesses have been woven into the myths of the gods and the legends of deified heroes, or have been incorporated into the religious rites and become, as it were, inviolable. This explains how, for example, among peoples so highly civilized as the Babylonians, Greeks, and Romans, certain lascivious rites could hold their own in the sacred liturgy, and also how, in the worship of the Aztec god of war, human sacrifices with cannibal feasts could prevail to so shocking a degree. In this respect the religious systems of lower grades of culture have tended to retard reform and progress towards higher standards of conduct. It has been the glory of the religion of Christ that, starting with the highest ethical principles, it has pointed out to men the true path to moral and spiritual perfection, and given the most powerful aids to the successful pursuit of this lofty ideal.
(2) Manifestations of Divine Good Will
Religion is something more than the attempt of man to secure communion with God. It is also an experience sometimes real and sometimes fancied, of the supernatural. Corresponding to the deeply felt need of Divine help is the conviction that in numerous instances this help has been given in answer to prayer. Sensible tokens of Divine good will are piously thought to reward the earnest efforts of man to secure bliss bringing communion with the Deity. Prominent among these are alleged instances of Divine communications to man, revelation.
(a) Revelation. Revelation (or God speaking to man) is the complement of prayer (man speaking to God). It is instinctively felt to be needed for the perfection of religion, which is a personal relation of love and friendship. There is scarcely a religion which has not its accepted instances of Divine visions and communications. To the Theist this offers a strong presumptive argument in favour of Divine revelation, for God would hardly leave this legitimate craving of the human heart unsatisfied. It has, indeed, been fully met in the religion of Christ, in which man has been Divinely enlightened in regard to his religious duties, and has been given the supernatural power to fulfil them and thereby secure his perfection. In lower religions, where temporal welfare is chiefly kept in view, on the eve of every important undertaking Divine assurance of success is eagerly sought through ritual forms of divination and through the use of prophecy. The office of prophet, the recognized spokesman of the Deity, is generally but not always distinct from that of priest. It had its legitimate place in the Old Law, in which the Divinely chosen Prophets not only told of things to come, but also brought to their contemporaries God’s messages of warning and of moral and spiritual awakening. In Christ the office of prophet was perfected and completed for all time. In lower religions the office of prophet is almost invariably characterized by extraordinary mental excitement, taken by the worshippers as the sign of the inspiring presence of the Deity. In this state of religious frenzy, brought on as a rule by narcotics, dances, and noisy music, the prophet utters oracles. Sometimes the prophecy is made after emerging from a trance, in which the prophet is thought to be favoured with Divine visions and communications. In their ignorance, the worshippers mistake these pathological states for the signs of indwelling Deity. Their counterparts may be seen today in the wild scenes of excitement so common in the religious revivals of certain sects, where the believers, under the influence of noisy, soul-stirring exhortations, become seized with religious frenzy, dance, shout, fall into cataleptic fits, and think they see visions and hear Divine assurances of being saved. Quite different from these violent mental disturbances are the peaceful, but no less extraordinary ecstasies of many saints, in which wonderful visions and Divine colloquies are experienced, while the body lies motionless and insensible. The supernatural character of these experiences is not a matter of faith, but is vouched for by the careful investigation and judgment of the ecclesiastical authorities and pronounced worthy of pious acceptance.
(b) Extraordinary Healing. There are few religions in which recourse is not had to supernatural aid for miraculous cures. The testimony of reliable witnesses and the numerous ex-votos that have come down to us from antiquity leave no doubt as to the reality of many of these cures. It was natural that they should be viewed as miraculous in an age when the remarkable power of suggestion to effect cures was not understood. Modern science recognizes that strong mental impressions can powerfully influence the nervous system and through this the bodily organs, leading in some instances to sudden illness or death, in others to remarkable cures. Such is the so-called mind-cure, or cure by suggestion. It explains naturally many extraordinary cures recorded in the annals of different religions. Still it has its recognized limits. It cannot restore of a sudden a half-decayed organ, or heal instantly a gaping wound caused by a cancer. Yet cures like these and others equally defying natural explanation have taken place at Lourdes and elsewhere, and are authenticated by the highest medical testimony.
(c) Sudden Conversions. In the Christian religion there are numerous instances of sudden conversions from a life of vice to one of virtue, from a state of spiritual depression to one of enthusiastic zeal. The latter kind are not infrequent in Calvinistic forms of Protestantism, where the fear of being outside the elect, heightened by lapses into sin, leads to spiritual depression and misery with a corresponding yearning for a Divine assurance of salvation. Such conversions, coming unexpectedly and transforming the individual into a new man, happy in the consciousness of Divine love and active in works of piety, have been popularly viewed as miraculous in every instance. That many of these conversions may be of a purely natural order seems to be shown by modern psychology, which offers the plausible theory of the sudden uprush into consciousness of subliminal activities set unconsciously in operation by intense, persistent longings for a change to a better, more spiritual life. But it must be recognized that this theory has its limitations. The grace of God may be working in many conversions that allow of a natural explanation. Moreover, there are conversions that defy any such natural explanation as the working of subliminal consciousness. It cannot, for instance, explain the conversion of St. Paul, who, from a rabid hater of Christianity, was suddenly turned into one of its most ardent champions, a result that was the very antithesis of his previous conscientious belief and aspirations. That his vision of Christ was real and objective is proved by the wonderful accession of knowledge that it brought to his mind, fitting him to stand forth unchallenged as one of Christ’s Apostles. There is no natural explanation for a conversion such as this.
There remains a word to be said, by way of supplement, of the sacred literature characteristic of most higher religions. Both the speculative and the practical side of religion contribute to its formation. Many elements, accumulated through a long series of generations, go to compose the sacred books of the great religions of antiquity — the traditional myths and legends; the stories of the providential dealing of the Deity with His people; the sacred chants, hymns and prayers; the great epic poems; the laws governing social and domestic activity; the texts of the sacred rites and the prescriptions regulating their exact performance; speculations on the nature of the Deity, the soul, retribution, and the future life. In some of the ancient religions this enormous mass of sacred lore was transmitted orally from generation to generation till finally it was put in writing. Th every religion possessing sacred books, there is a tendency to give them a much greater antiquity than they actually enjoy, and to view them as the infallible expression of Divine wisdom. This latter claim vanishes quickly when they are compared with the inspired books of the Bible, which in spiritual and literary worth stand immeasurably above them.
The origin of religion
The beginnings of religion go back to remote prehistoric time. In the absence of positive, historic data, the question of the origin of religion admits only of a speculative answer. It is Catholic teaching that primitive religion was a Divinely revealed Monotheism. This was an anticipation and a perfection of the notion of religion, which man from the beginning was naturally capable of acquiring. Religion, like morality, has apart from revelation a natural basis or origin. It is the outcome of the use of reason, though, without the corrective influence of revelation, it is very apt to be misconceived and distorted.
Modern application of the principle of causality
Religion, in its last analysis, rests on a theistic interpretation of nature. The Christian philosopher arrives at this by a process of discursive reasoning, making use of arguments drawn from external nature and from his inner consciousness (see article GOD). This, however, is a highly philosophic process of reasoning, the result of the accumulated contributions of many generations of thinkers. It presupposes a mind trained to abstract reasoning, and hence is by no means easy for the average individual It can hardly have been the method followed by savage man, whose mind was not trained to philosophy and science. The process by which he arrived naturally at a theistic interpretation of the world seems to have been a simple, spontaneous application of the principle of causality.
Primitive application of the principle of causality
There is every reason to think that primitive man’s view of nature was, to a large extent, similar to that held by peoples generally who have not risen to a scientific knowledge of the laws of nature. They recognize in all the striking phenomena of earth, air, and sky the immediate agency of intelligent volition. Untutored man does not understand the secondary, mechanical causes of natural events. The cause best known to him are living, personal causes, himself and his fellow-men. Familiarity with lifeless objects, as stocks and stones, weapons and utensils, shows that even these things exhibit only such movement and force as he and his fellows choose to impart to them. Living agency is behind their movements. The natural result is that, whenever he sees a phenomenon showing movement and energy outside his limited experience of mechanical causation, he is led spontaneously to attribute it to some mysterious form of living agency. The thunder suggests the thunderer. The sun and moon are taken to be either living things or the instruments of an invisible living agency. Personality is also associated with them, particularly where the phenomena are suggestive of intelligent purpose. To recognize in and behind the phenomena of nature the agency of mind and will was thus easy for primitive man. But it was not an equally simple matter to discern in the great diversity of these phenomena the action of but one supreme personality. The possibility of such an inference cannot be denied. But its likelihood is not great when we consider how hard it would have been for primitive man in his inexperience to coordinate the varied effects of nature and derive them from one and the same source of power. The more likely tendency would have been to recognize in the diverse phenomena the agency of distinct personalities, as was indeed done by the peoples of antiquity, and as is done today by uncultured peoples everywhere. Peoples, whose ignorance of the physical laws of nature has not been compensated by revealed teaching, have invariably personalized the forces of nature, and, feeling that their welfare depended on the beneficent exercise of these powers, have come to divinize them. From this danger of falling into a polytheistic interpretation of nature, primitive man was saved by Divine Revelation. Such, it would seem, was the simple philosophy forming the natural basis of religion in primitive times. It was theoretically capable of leading to a Monotheism like that of the ancient Hebrews, who viewed clouds, rain, lightning, and tempest as the signs of God’s immediate activity. But, apart from revelation, it was very liable to degenerate into polytheistic nature-worship. Its defect was primarily scientific, ignorance of the secondary causes of natural events; but it rested on a sound principle, namely, that the phenomena ef nature are in some way the outcome of intelligent volition. This principle commends itself to the Christian philosopher and scientist.
Other theories have been suggested to account for the origin of religion. We shall briefly review the more common ones. According to the intuition theory, man has instinctively an intuition of God and of his dependence on Him. To this theory there are several serious objections. We ought to be conscious of this intuition if we possessed it. Again, as a result of such intuition, man should be found everywhere with a monotheistic religion. The widespread existence of Polytheism and the religious apathy of many individuals are inconsistent with such an intuition of God.
Max Muller’s perception theory
This is but a slight modification of the intuition theory. Muller thought the perception of the infinite was the source of religion, being acquired by “a mental faculty which independent of, nay in spite of, sense and reason, enables man to apprehend the infinite under different names and under varying disguises” (“Origin and Growth of Religion”, London, 1880, p. 23). But apprehension of the infinite or even of the indefinite is suited rather to philosophic than to simple minds, and is not to be found in the generality of religions. It is the apprehension of sovereign personality that gives rise to religion, not the mere apprehension of the infinite. How man arrives at the notion of such personality, this theory does not explain.
A common theory with the Greek and Roman philosophers, favoured by a few writers of modern times, is that religion had its origin in fear, particularly fear of lightning, tempests, and other dangerous features of nature. But fear is a feeling, and no mere feeling can account for the idea of personality, which may or may not be associated with a dangerous or terrifying object. Fear, like hope, may be one of the motives prompting man to the worship of the Deity, but such worship presupposes the recognition of Deity, and fear cannot account for this recognition. We have already seen that fear is not the predominating tone even in lower religions, as is shown by the universal use of rites expressing joy, hope, and gratitude.
A favourite theory of modern times is the animist theory. It has been set forth with great erudition by E.B. Tylor. According to this theory, in consequence of a strong tendency to personify, primitive peoples come to view everything as alive, even stocks and stones. They also have a crude notion of the soul, derived from dreams and Visions experienced in sleep and swoons. Applying this soul idea to inanimate things, which they take to be alive, they have come to associate mighty spirits with the great phenomena of nature and have given them worship. The defects of this theory are such as to discredit it in the eyes of most scholars. In the first place, it is not true that uncultured peoples confound the living with the non-living to the extent that they take the very stones to be alive. It would, indeed, be strange if uncultured man were not at least the equal of the beast in ability to distinguish between familiar objects that are lifeless and those that show life and movement. Again, while men of lower grades of culture have a crude notion of souls, they do not need that concept to arrive at the idea of personal agency in nature. All they need is the notion of personal cause, which they get from the consciousness of themselves as sources of power and purposive action. There is every reason to think that this idea is prior to the soul concept. (See ANIMISM.)
This theory, whose prominent English champion was Herbert Spencer, identifies the primitive notion of religion with the service and propitiation of departed relatives, and attributes the worship of the great deities of nature to the mistaken applications of ancestor-worship. The first religious offerings are said to have been offerings of food, weapons, and utensils made to the souls of the dead, whose occupations, needs, and tastes in the next life were thought to be similar to those of earthly existence. In return for this much-needed service, the dead gave the living aid and protection. A series of blunders led to the recognition and worship of the great nature-deities. Migrating peoples from beyond the sea or the mountain became known as children of the sea or of the mountain. Later generations, mistaking the meaning of the term, were led to view the sea or the mountain as their living ancestor and to give it worship. Again, departed heroes named Sun, Thunder, Rain-Cloud, came after a lapse of time to be confounded with the real sun and other natural phenomena, thus giving rise to the conception of nature-deities and to nature-worship. The defects of this theory are manifest. Mistakes like these might be made by some stupid individual of the tribe, but not by all the members of the tribe, still less by tribes over all the earth. A series of trivial and fortuitous blunders cannot account for so world-wide a fact as the recognition of nature-deities. If the ghost-theory were true, we should find the religions of savages consisting exclusively of ancestor-worship. This is not the case. In all lower religions, where we find food-offerings to the dead, we also find recognized, and carefully distinguished from dead heroes, nature deities. Among the pygmies of the Northern Congo, accounted one of the lowest of races, there is a reverent recognition of a supreme Deity, but no trace of ancestor-worship. There is thus no good ground for asserting ancestor-worship to have been the earliest form of religion, nor do we need it to account for religion, strictly speaking, in any of its forms. It is a parallel growth that has sprung up and become entwined with religion proper. The latter is of independent origin.
This derives religion from the use and veneration of fetishes. A fetish is an object (generally small enough to be easily carried) in which a spirit is thought to reside, acting as a protective genius for the owner who wears it, and who venerates it because of its indwelling spirit. Generally, it is the medicine-man or wizard who makes the fetish, and charges it with the spirit. It is used till its inefficiency becomes apparent, when it is cast aside as worthless, in the belief that the indwelling spirit has departed from it. Now the use of such objects cannot be the primary form of religion. In the first place, there is no existing form of religion known in which Fetishism is the sole constituent element. Among the negroes of West Africa, where it first attracted attention, the fetish spirits are at best but inferior beings, generally distinct from the supreme heaven-god and from the powerful nature-deities associated with the sea and thunder. Again, the notion of persuading spirits to lodge themselves in stocks and stones and become the property of the wearers, is the very antithesis of religion, which implies the sense of dependence on the Deity. Far from the latter notion bring derived from the former, there is every reason to see in Fetishism a perverted notion of religion.
This puts the origin of religion in Totemism, a semi-religious, semi-social institution prevailing chiefly among savage tribes. In certain tribes, every one of the component clans has a tutelary deity intimately associated with a particular species of animal or plant, which species is venerated by the clan as sacred and inviolable. It is called the ancestor of the clan. The individuals of the species are often viewed as particularly sacred because of the indwelling deity. Hence the totem animal or plant is ordinarily not used for food by the clan that bears its name. The union of clans into tribes under the leadership of one superior clan is said to have led to the absorption of the weaker totem deities into that of the ruling clan, with the result that powerful tribal deities arose. It was but a step further to the recognition of a supreme deity. Totemism labours under many of the difficulties of Fetishism. Nowhere do we find religion of pure Totemism. Among the North American Indians, where Totemism has flourished with the greatest vigour, the totems are absolutely overshadowed by the great deities of the sky, air, and water. The distinction between them and the totem spirits is absolute. Nowhere do the great deities bear the names of animals or plants as a mark of totem origin. In the majority of the religions of the world, there is no trace of Totemism, vestiges of which ought to be widespread if it had been the source of all other forms of religion. The totem, Iike the fetish, presupposes the very thing that needs to be accounted for, belief in the existence of unseen personal agents.
The universality of religion
From what has already been said, it is plain that religion, though often imperfectly conceived, is in normal conditions of human existence the inevitable outcome of the use of reason. It is but natural, then, that religion, at least in some crude form, should be a characteristic feature in the life of all peoples. This truth was widely questioned during the last few centuries, when the extension of travel to unexplored lands gave rise to reports asserting the absence of religion among many native tribes of Asia, Africa, America, and the islands of the Pacific Ocean. One by one these reports have been nullified by the contrary statements of travellers and missionaries better qualified as witnesses, so that today there remain but very few peoples of whom it cannot be said with certainty that they possess some form, however degraded, of religion. These rare exceptions do but prove the rule, for they are insignificant tribes which, in the struggle for existence, have been driven by their enemies to inhospitable regions where the conditions of life are so wretched as to cause them to degenerate almost to a state of brutalization. A degradation of this sort can prove fatal to the sentiment of religion. A notable instance is the Indian tribe in Southern California among whom Father Baegert, a Jesuit missionary, laboured for many years. In the account which he gave of his experiences, a translation of which was published in the “Smithsonian Report” of 1864, he testified to their stupidity and utter lack of religion. Yet their descent from Indian stocks that had well defined religious notions is practically certain. Father Baegert observed a few vestiges of an ancestral belief in a future life for example the custom of putting sandals on the feet of the dead, the significance of which the Indians could not explain. Mental degradation like this may thus involve the loss of religion. But such degradation is extremely rare. On the other hand, wherever tribes exist in normal conditions, they are found to possess some sort of religion. The erroneous reports of earlier travellers asserting a lack of religion where religion actually exists, have been due either to superficial observation or to a misunderstanding as to what should be called religion. Some have accepted as religion only an exalted notion of the Deity coupled with well-organized rites of public worship. The absence of these has often been set down as an absence of religion. Again, unfavourable verdicts have not infrequently been based on a stay of but one or two days with tribes speaking an unknown tongue, as for example was the case with Verrazano and Amerigo Vespucci. But, even where observers have stayed for months among rude peoples, they have sometimes found it extremely difficult to obtain information in regard to religious beliefs and practices; a suspicion that the white man was seeking to obtain some advantage over them has more than once led savages to resort to deceit to conceal their religion. It is the calm, impartial judgment of anthropologists today that there is no people of note that is absolutely devoid of religion.
But the further question may be asked: If religion has been universal in the past, have we any assurance that it will persist in time to come? Has not the advance of modern science been marked by a progressive substitution of mechanical for personal agency in nature, with the inevitable result, as a writer has expressed it, that God will one day be bowed out of His universe as no longer needed? To this we may reply: The advance of modern scientific culture is fatal to all polytheistic forms of religion, in which the recognized secondary causes are, through ignorance, mistaken for personal causes. The well-established scientific truth of the unity of nature’s forces is in harmony only with the monotheistic interpretation of nature. Christian Monotheism, far from being inconsistent with true science, is necessary to supplement and complete the limited interpretation of nature afforded by science. The latter, being based on observation and experiment, has for its legitimate sphere of study only secondary causes of nature. It can tell nothing of origins, nothing of the great First Cause, from which the orderly universe has proceeded. In substituting physical laws for what was formerly thought to be the direct action of Divine agency, it has not accounted for the intelligent, purposive direction of nature. It has simply pushed the question somewhat further back, but left it with its religious answer as importunate as ever. It is true that in modern civilized nations there has asserted itself a notable tendency to religious scepticism and indifference. It is a symptom of unrest, of an unhealthy, excessive reaction from the simple view of nature that prevailed in both science and religion in former times. In the material order, ignorance of the natural causes of lightning, tempests, comets, earthquakes, droughts, and pests, has led less cultured peoples to see direct supernatural agency in their production. For them nature in its seemingly capricious moods has had the aspect rather of master than of servant. Their sense of dependence has thus been keen and constant; their need of Divine help urgent to a high degree. On the other hand, the widespread recognition among cultured peoples of the reign of law leads man to seek natural remedies in times of distress, and only where these fail to turn to God for aid. Modern civilization, in removing many scourges of ancient times that were viewed as supernatural, in greatly lessening the range of the miraculous, in binding nature in a thousand ways to beneficent service, has tended to create in the heart of man a feeling of self-sufficiency that tends to enfeeble the virtue of religion. That this tendency, however, is an abnormal, passing distemper rather than a permanent, characteristic feature of modern civilizations, may be seen from the unshaken Christian faith of many of the greatest exponents of scientific culture (e.g. Clerk-Maxwell, Sir John Herschell, Lord Kelvin in England; Faye, Lapparent, Pasteur in France). It is still more strikingly shown by the conversion from scepticism to Christian faith of distinguished scholars such as Littré, Romanes, Brunetière, Bourget, Coppée, and von Ruville. It was recognized by these and other profound thinkers that the deeply seated craving in the human heart for bliss-giving communion with God can never be stilled by science or by any other proposed substitute for religion.
The civilizing influence of religion
Religion in its highest forms has exercised a profound influence on the development of human culture. In the recognized sphere of morality, it has offered powerful motives to right conduct; it has been the chief inspiration of music, poetry, architecture, sculpture, and painting; it has been the dominant influence in the formation of a permanent literature. In all the early civilizations, the chief representatives and transmitters of the highest known culture have been the officials in charge of religious rites. Religion has been a mighty force in the life of nations, cultivating in the hearts of men a striving for better things, a healthy tone of cheerfulness, hope, joy, resignation under calamities, perseverance in the face of difficulties, a readiness for generous service, in short a spirit of highminded optimism, without which no nation can rise to greatness. Most noteworthy has been the influence of Christianity in transforming and elevating society. Its lofty ethical teachings, the peerless example of its Divine Founder, the fundamental principle that we are all children of the same heavenly Father and hence bound to treat our fellow-men not only with justice but with mercy and charity, the spirit of generous, self-sacrificing service, springing from personal devotion to the Divine Saviour and prompting to the practice of heroic virtues — all this, having for its end the spiritual perfection of the individual and the union of all men through a common bond of faith and worship in a Divinely constituted Church, has exercised a mighty influence in softening and refining the rude peoples of early Europe, in breaking down the barriers of race prejudice, and in forming common society of many nations, in which the idea recognized, though not yet fully attained, is a universal reign of peace, justice, chastity, charity reverence for authority, sympathy for the afflicted, a general diffusion of useful knowledge, and in short a common participation in everything that makes for true culture. Nowhere have the works of charity flourished in such variety and vigour as in Christian lands. The Christian religion has ever been the great conservative force, favouring established order and law, and opposed to hasty innovations calculated to cause a profound disturbance in existing religious or political institutions. The value of such a force in human affairs is incalculable, even though it may occasionally retard for a while the general recognition of some principle of permanent value in science economics, or politics.
While, in modern civilization, state institutions are sharing with Christian hospitals, asylums, and schools the work of charitable ministration which in former times depended exclusively on the Church while the sciences and arts no longer need the fostering influence of religion, it is nevertheless true that, in the social and moral order, the need of right religion is as urgent as ever. It has not ceased to be the mighty social power working for the highest good of the nation. Religion alone can keep alive in a people devotion to high ideals, respect for established authority, preference for peaceful measures to secure political and industrial reforms, and a cheerful spirit of perseverance despite powerful opposition. Religion means generous optimism; irreligion means sordid pessimism. It is religion, too, that presents the highest and most efficacious motives for the upbuilding of character in the individual, for the conscientious fulfilment of his moral duties. Christianity does not disdain the purely secular grounds of morality, such as the love of virtue and hatred of vice, self-respect, regard for public opinion, fear of legal sanctions; but it reinforces and completes these by the powerful motives that are the fruit of the teaching of Christ, the greatest ethical teacher the world has ever seen — love of God, personal devotion to Jesus, the sense of God’s presence, and the thought of Divine retribution. These motives, supernaturalized by grace, exercise a powerful influence in developing an interior conformity to the rule of right conduct, which distinguishes genuine moral worth from the mere outward show of respectability. Right religion both indicates and makes possible of fulfilment man’s duties to himself, his family, his neighbour, and the State. In the measure that he conforms to the teaching of religion will he be found to be a zealous promoter and observer of civic virtue. In short, wherever we find the practical observance of right religion, there we find social order to a high degree. The nation that designedly and systematically repudiates religion is depriving itself of the most powerful factor operative in the upbuilding and maintaining of true public welfare. It is on the steep incline to social and political ruin.
The modern scientific study of religion
Modern scholarship has given much attention to the study of religion. Out of this many-sided study have grown the modern branches known as the history of religion, comparative religion, and the psychology of religion, all of which are supplemented and completed by the older discipline, the philosophy of religion.
History of religion
This has for its scope the accurate and systematic exposition of the positive data that go to make up the different external religions of the world — the rites, customs, restrictions, concepts of deity, sacred books, etc. Its point of view is purely historic. It studies each religion apart from the question of its spiritual worth and possible supernatural origin, simply as an external expression of religious belief. A sympathetic interest attaches to this study, for there are few religions, however crude, that do not represent the sincere effort of man to bring himself into communion with God. The work accomplished in this field has been immense. Religious data have been accumulated from hundreds of different sources, and the sacred books of the great Oriental religions have been carefully translated, so that today there is within easy reach of the scholar a very reliable survey of the chief religions of the world.
Closely allied to the history of religions, out of which it has grown, is comparative religion. The scope of this discipline is the comparative study of the many elements common to different religions with the view to ascertain their underlying thought and purpose, and thus to discover if possible the causes of their genesis and persistence. In some instances, where resemblances of a striking kind are found in two or more religions, it seeks to determine whether these resemblances imply dependence. It also admits a more extensive comparison of religion with religion in order to estimate their relative value. But like the history of religions, the data of which it uses, it does not concern itself as a science with the question whether any given religion be true. Comparative religion has helped to a better understanding of many phases of external religion, It has shown how certain widespread rites and customs have been the natural product of human thought in lower grades of culture. It has enabled us to recognize in higher religions elements that are survivals of earlier stages of thought. But its principles of comparison have to be used with great care, for they can easily be made to do service for contradictory and visionary theories. The writings of authors such as Frazer and Reinach offer many examples of unwarranted conclusions supported by far-fetched comparisons.
Psychology of religion
This discipline studies the different psychical states implied in, and associated with, the religious consciousness. It concerns itself with the extraordinary and abnormal, as well as with the normal exercise of the intellectual, volitional, emotional, and imaginative activities set in motion by religion. It does not attempt to vindicate the supernatural character of these psychical experiences or to show their conformity to objective truth. Viewing them simply as mental states, it seeks to find out how far they may be explained by natural causes. In the short period of its existence it has given much consideration to the phenomena of sudden conversions, religious frenzy, the sense of God’s presence experienced by pious Christians, and the extraordinary experiences of mystics, Catholic and non-Catholic. In seeking the natural explanation of some of these experiences it has been successful; but, as has already been pointed out, it has its limitations.
Philosophy of religion
The philosophy of religion is the crown and completion of the several disciplines already mentioned. It carries the inquiring mind beyond the sphere of natural causation to the recognition of the great personal First Cause and Source of all things, and shows that only in the recognition of God is a satisfactory interpretation of the universe attainable. It is the science which examines the value of religion, and investigates with careful scrutiny the grounds of theistic belief. In its method of procedure and choice of arguments, it shows considerable variation, due in large measure to the different theories of knowledge that obtain in the world of philosophers. Since Kant’s criticism of the Scholastic arguments for the existence of God, there has been a strong tendency in many schools to neglect the cosmological and teleological arguments, and to see the evidence of Divine wisdom and goodness rather in the human mind than in external nature. A reaction is now setting in. Some of the leading exponents of biological science now recognize that evolution, as an adequate explanation of the variety of organic life, is necessarily teleological, and do not hesitate to declare that the universe is the manifestation of a creative, controlling mind.
By Charles Francis Aiken
This article is borrowed and adopted from http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12738a.htm.
For more Information
Besides the Latin works of ST. THOMAS, SUAREZ, LUGO, MAZZELLA, etc., the following authors may be consulted: VAN DEN GHEYN, La Religion, son origine et sa définition (Paris, 1891); HETTINGER, Natural Religion (New York, 1893); JASTROW, The Study of Religion (New York, 1902); BOWNE, The Essence of Religion (Boston, 1910); LILLY, The Great Enigma (New York, 1892); LANG, The Making of Religion (New York, 1898); IDEM. Myth, Ritual and Religion (London, 1899); MILL, Three Essays on Religion (London, 1874); KELLOGG, The Genesis and Growth of Religion (New York, 1892); MARTINEAU, A Study of Religion (2 vols., London, 1888); BRINTON, The Reliqious Sentiment (New York, 1876); DE BROGLIE, Problèmes et conclusions de l’histoire des religions (Paris, 1886); VERNES, Hist. des religions, son esprit, sa méthode, et ses divisions (Paris, 1887); JORDAN, Comparative Religion; its Genesis and Growth (New York, 1905); FOUCART, La méthode comparative dans l’histoire des religions (Paris, 1909); JAMES, The Varieties of Religious Experience (London, 1903); PRATT, The Psychology of Religious Belief (New York, 1907); AMES, The Psychology of Religious Experience (Boston, 1910); WUNDT, Völkerpsychologie (Leipzig, 1904-07); CAIRD, Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion (Glasgow, 1901); CALDECOTT, The Philosophy of Religion in England and America (New York, 1901); LADD, The Philosophy of Religion (New York, 1905); PFLEIDERER, The Philosophy and Development of Religion (2 vols., Edinburgh, 1894); EUCKEN, Christianity and the New Idealism (New York, 1909). See also bibliographies to PRIESTHOOD and SACRIFICE.
About this page
APA citation. (1911). Religion. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved February 27, 2022 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12738a.htm
MLA citation. “Religion.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 12. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. 27 Feb. 2022 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12738a.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Kevin Cawley.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. June 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.
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