Chapter 2 - Universality of Religion

"As soon as man grew distinct from the animal he became religious." No one gifted with a sense of humour could have gravely penned a suggestion so grotesque as this. That the remote descendant of an ape might become intelligent, philosophical, mathematical, musical, poetical, scientific - all this possibly we could understand; but why should he become religious?

And yet this dictum of Renan's is most important as a testimony from such a quarter to the fact that man is a religious being. The universality of religion has, indeed, been denied ; but the denial is based on grounds that are inadequate.

"The statement," says Professor Tiele, "that there are nations or tribes which possess no religion, rests either on inaccurate observations, or on a confusion of ideas. No tribe or nation has yet been met with destitute of belief in any higher beings, and travellers who asserted their existence have been afterwards refuted by facts. It is legitimate, therefore, to call religion, in its most general sense, an universal phenomenon of humanity." And in quoting these words, Professor Max Muller declares: "We may safely say that, in all researches, no human beings have been found anywhere who do not possess something which to them is religion."' And Charles Darwin himself admits that "a belief in all-pervading spiritual agencies seems to be universal."

Accepting the conclusion, therefore, that man is by nature religious, the question remains, How can this fact be accounted for? Philosophers may amuse themselves with the theory that it is due to his losing a tail and learning to talk; but all who acknowledge the reign of law, and insist on seeking a cause for an effect, will see in it a proof of that, as even heathen poets taught, man is in a special sense the offspring of God. This conclusion suggests the inquiry why it is that he is so unworthy of his origin. Were there a competent court to issue the writs, what damages human nature might obtain in libel actions against biological science and Augustinian theology! Bad as it is to proclaim that man is the child of an anthropoid ape, it is almost worse to declare that, through and through, and in every sense, he is only and altogether bad. True it is that the history of the race has been black and hateful. No less true is it that wrong-doing is easy, whereas well-doing calls for sustained effort. But in this connection such facts, important though they be, are not everything. In a real sense the truest test of a man is not what he does, but what he approves; not what he is, but what he would wish to be. Vicious indulgence may have so depraved him that vice seems no longer vicious, for just as his physical faculties may be destroyed by abuse, so his conscience may become "seared as with a hot iron;" but this in an abnormal condition.

What is called the "moral" law is so described because it is the law of our being. It was not the commandment which made thieving wrong. It was because it was wrong that the commandment was given. It has been said, indeed, by a modern disciple of Hobbes, that "Thou shalt not steal" is merely the selfish precept of the hog in the clover to warn off the hog outside the fence. But such teaching is the outcome of a reprobate mind, and merely exemplifies the fact that a man may sink morally to the level of a hog. But, it may be urged, we can point to communities that see no evil in theft. True; and we could also point to a nation whose women have stumps instead of feet. But let the lowest savage and the Chinese woman be removed in infancy from the influences which distort the conscience of the one and the limbs of the other, and in both cases nature will assert itself.

A full discussion of this problem would fill a volume. But no such discussion is necessary here. For no infidel will raise the question; and in the case of the believer an appeal to the Scripture should settle it. Its testimony is clear:
"When Gentiles which have no law do by nature the things of the law, these, having no law, are a law unto themselves; in that they show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience It may be useful to note that it is not the law, but the work of The law, which is written in man's heart by nature bearing witness therewith, and their thoughts one with another accusing or else excusing them." (Romans 2:14-15)  Words could not be plainer. A heathen, though destitute of a Divine revelation, has a knowledge of good and evil, for that is inherent in man. That such a knowledge was implanted in him by his Creator will be very generally admitted, but the popularity of a belief is no pledge of its truth. According to Scripture man was created innocent, and it was his lapse from innocency that brought him the knowledge of evil. But the knowledge of good and evil would not of itself make man religious. He was religious before he acquired that knowledge, and the atheistic evolutionist is theoretically right in holding that he might possess it now apart from religion. The fact is that what is so commonly mistaken for "conscience" is but a subordinate characteristic of conscience. For it is what may be termed God-consciousness, and not the knowledge of good and evil, which constitutes man a religious being ; and it was this that the Creator implanted in him when He made him a spiritual being.

Here then is the question : Man being the "offspring of God," and having instincts befitting his origin, how is it that he does not always choose the good and turn from the evil? Who will dare to answer that it is because he cannot? Not the Christian, certainly; for his Scriptures assert the responsibility of man; and indeed the whole doctrine of future judgment is based upon that truth. Nor yet the infidel, for the dignity of humanity is his favourite theme. But the fact remains that while some, not only among Pagans, but even among those who, like Renan for example, affect to ignore all religions, can lead worthy and excellent lives, these are few and exceptional. The lives of the vast majority of men are evil. And they choose the evil in spite of knowing that it is evil, and in spite of a fitful desire to shun it. Apart from special depravity, a man's higher nature turns toward the good even while he yields to the evil. He praises virtue though he practises vice. It is his will that is paralysed, not his judgment. He is like a bird with a broken wing, whose instincts prompt it to fly while it flounders helplessly on the ground.

Man has instincts and aspirations which indicate for him a noble origin and a still nobler destiny, but yet he is practically a failure. How is this to be accounted for? In the whole range of nature, man excepted, there is nothing to correspond with it. It must of course be due to the operation of some law which applies only to the human race. All other creatures fulfil the patent purpose of their being; man alone not merely falls short of this but out-rages it. How is this mystery to be explained? It may be said perhaps that man's vices are merely the natural propensities of the brute from which he is derived. But here we can silence the evolutionist once again by appealing to the phenomena of religion. The religious instincts of the race are certainly not derived from the brute, and it is precisely in this sphere that the corruption and perversity of human nature are most manifest. If it were merely a question of animal-worship among Pagan races, the evolutionist might again bring in his theories. But the fact to be explained is that, in the most advanced civilisations, whether of classic heathendom or of modern Christendom, religion has invariably tended to degenerate, and to make its votaries a prey to superstition.

Let us approach the matter from another standpoint. The bird is unable to fly: is it unreasonable to suppose that some mishap must have occurred to it? Let us then tentatively adopt the suggestion that some disaster in the moral and spiritual sphere befell the human race in primeval times; and let us consider what results might be expected as the consequence of such a catastrophe? Man's moral equilibrium would of course be disturbed. The machinery of his moral being would, so to speak, be thrown out of gear. But the effect upon his spiritual nature, by reason of its greater delicacy and sensitiveness, would be absolutely disastrous. A broken water-pipe may in a measure serve its purpose, but no electricity will pass along a broken wire.

And is not this precisely in accordance with experience? In the sphere of morals men differ vastly from one another. Apart from Christianity altogether, some men lead pure and excellent lives. Others are steeped in vice. And the fact that some are moral is proof that all might be so. In this limited sphere, indeed, we may, even at the risk of being made the quarry in a heresy hunt, adopt the dogma of Pelagius, "That as man has ability to sin, so has he also not only ability to discern what is good, but likewise to desire it and to perform it." And the truth of this is recognised when our selfish interests are involved. If a man steals his neighbour's cash, he goes to gaol; for "original sin" is no defence to a criminal charge. True it is that a thief comes in time to weaken his moral power to keep his hands out of his neighbour's pocket. But prison discipline is rightly deemed a useful tonic in such a case. And what the fear of human judgment is to the criminal, the fear of Divine judgment is intended to be to the sinner. But orthodoxy so dins it into men's ears that they have no power to live moral and virtuous lives, that they naturally believe it, and cease to make the effort. That they can, but will not, is the righteous basis of the judgment that awaits them.

The vital error of the Pelagian heresy was the application of it in the spiritual sphere. But in the fifth century, revealed truth had been so obscured by theology that the distinction was ignored. A traveller who has missed his way in a forest can stand upright and walk like a man; but so long as the heavens are shut out from his view, he cannot direct his steps, he is lost. The morality of Saul of Tarsus, the profane persecutor, was as unimpeachable as that of Paul, the inspired apostle; but his splendid morality only served to bring into stronger relief the depth of his spiritual blindness and depravity.
(Footnote - Some people are held in high esteem by all who do not know them: the Apostle Paul could appeal to those who had known him from his youth (Acts xxvi. 4, 5). "I have lived in all good conscience before God until this day," he could declare in the scene of his early life (xxiii. i). His life throughout had been blameless (Phil. iii. 6). Never perhaps did any other mere man live a life so perfect. therefore it was he wrote the words: "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief" (i Tim. i. 15). The claim to stand forth as "first" in all the long line of sinners, was not inspired (as with thousands who since have adopted the words) by "the pride that apes humility;" it was due to the fact that while he had had advantages which raised him above all other men, his religion had served only to make him a God-hater, "a blasphemer and a persecutor." Mere religion always drags a man down spiritually.)

Man, then, is a religious being, not moral, merely, but religious. And he is religious because he is spiritual. Here is the parting of the ways, where we must break once for all with the mere evolutionist. It is idle for him to talk to us of "embryonic developments "-dog's teeth and donkey's ears, and any amount besides. Even if we accept his account of the origin of man's animal structure, the fact remains that the spiritual element in his complex being must have come from God.

But this only serves to emphasise our difficulties. Were we to reason out the matter a priori, we should expect to find complete unity in the religious beliefs of the race, and they would have for us the same certainty as the truths and facts which are apparent to reason or the senses. And further, religion would always and inevitably tend to elevate and en-noble mankind. But if we could imagine any so ignorant and simple as to cherish such dreams, the records of the past and the facts of life on earth should bring them a rude awakening. As for the religious beliefs of the world, there is nothing too crude, too wild, too false, too monstrous, to find enthusiastic adherents. And whenever a great teacher has appeared, and has sought to elevate the religion of men, his system has soon been perverted and depraved.

It has ever been so. Of the early Egyptian religion, all that was sublime was demonstrably ancient, and its last stage was the grossest and most corrupt. In China the lofty system of ethics formulated by Confucius has suffered the utmost deterioration. In India the pure nature-worship of the Vedas has ended in superstitious puerilities. And the teaching of Gautama, sublime in its rejection of all idolatry and priestcraft, has ended in the gross asceticisms and superstitions of modern Buddhism. The Divine revelation of Judaism was degraded to the level of "the Jew's religion," which made the race the common enemy of God and His people. And Christianity itself has been almost swamped by "the religion of Christendom," that tangled skein of Divine truth and Pagan superstition. The whole history of the race records no exception to the rule. It is a law, like that of gravitation, that religion ever tends to degenerate, and in its decadence to corrupt and deprave mankind. This subject will claim further notice in these pages. The question here is, What explanation can be given of facts so patent and yet so extraordinary?

In the moral sphere we have to account for the phenomenon of a right judgment thwarted and violated. But in the spiritual sphere the problem is stranger still. It is not that the bird has a broken wing, but that instead of endeavouring to fly, its normal instinct is utterly perverted, and it clings to the ground and even struggles to burrow into it. How is this mystery to be accounted for? Only one solution of it has ever been proposed, and that is the story of the Eden Fall. And that explanation is so entirely reasonable and adequate that if it had been left for some thinker to suggest it, the discovery might well have evoked an exclamation such as that with which Huxley is said to have greeted the Darwinian theory of the origin of species, "How stupid not to have thought of that "

I do not stop to inquire whether the story of the Fall should be taken literally or as an allegory, for I desire to avoid here all side issues. If any choose to regard the forbidden tree as a "sacrament" (I use the word in the classical, not the superstitious and pagan, sense), it will not affect the argument.