Throughout his lectures, Müller has tried to prove that a belief in God, in the immortality of the soul and in a future retribution can be gained by the right exercise of human reason unassisted by miracles or special revelation. Having apparently become the object of much criticism in the wake of his first two courses of Gifford Lectures, in the preface to Anthropological Religion, his third course of lectures, Müller ardently defends all that he has previously taught to the public, refusing to retract a single word. The assaults to his character must have been profoundly affecting, for his first lecture is entitled ‘On Freedom of Religious Discussion’, wherein Müller discusses the difficulty of lecturing on religion unoffensively, reasserting the value of the comparative study of religion and the significance of Lord Gifford’s vision in founding the lectureship. In his second lecture, ‘On Toleration’, Müller acknowledges that he tends to dwell too much on the positive side of all religions, but defends this by claiming that human nature is inclined to keep that truth acquired or revealed secret from certain persons or groups of persons; while it should not be a characteristic of ‘true’ religion, this is the dark side of religious manifestations. The comparative study of religions can be, he believes, a great remedy for intolerance, writing: ‘there are great differences, between the great religions of the world … [but] there is a unity which ought to comprehend them all—the unity of toleration, the unity of love’ (p. 60).
Müller’s third lecture sums up the conclusions of his last course of lectures on physical religion and proceeds to explain what is meant by anthropological religion: namely, religion founded on the nature of man. Lecture IV takes as its focus ‘The Historical Proof of the Existence of God’. The study of the religion convinces us that there is a God in nature, an Infinite behind the finite. He recounts again the findings of his previous lectures, reasserting that man’s religious impulse and inclination toward a belief in God is both a universal and inevitable fact given man’s nature and experience of the natural world around him. Being therefore associated with a multitude of natural elements, God, who has many names but is beyond all names, understands well whatever names human beings use for the Infinite; the names of the Infinite may keep on changing without affecting the reality that lies beyond such names.
Lecture V, ‘About the True Character of Ancestor-worship’, begins with a definition of anthropological (which might have better been ‘anthropic’) religion, which ‘comprehends the history of the various attempts at discovering something infinite and divine in man or mankind, beginning with the first surmises of the existence of something different from the body, and culminating in a belief in the divine sonship of man, the true key-note of the religion of Christ’ (p. 115). Müller claims that ancestor worship is one, but far from the only (as has been claimed by other scholars), source of religious sentiment. In Lecture VI, ‘The Untrustworthiness of the Materials for the Study of Religion’, Müller argues that knowledge of the language(s) of a religion is of chief importance for any study of religion to assume a truly scientific character, for mere outside observers, ignorant of the language of the people, are not able to give trustworthy information as to the real religion of any race, civilised or uncivilised.
In Lecture VII, ‘The Discovery of the Soul’, Müller explains that physical religion is incomplete on its own, for it fails to bridge the gulf between man and the Supreme Being, between the finite and the Infinite. Real religion requires not only a belief in God but also a belief in man, a close relationship between God and man and in a life to come. Man came first to speak about a soul by the simplest observation of material facts: blood, breath, life and death; the cessation of breathing at the time of death suggested the idea that there is something in man (soul or spirit) that is different from the decaying body. In Lecture VIII, ‘Discovering of the Soul in Man and in Nature’, Müller progresses from the soul to the psyche, examining how man’s conception of the former served to shape the latter. Parallel observations in nature, namely of shadows, and man’s experiences with his own dream life seems to reinforce the idea of the soul and of the infinitude of man. For Müller, belief in the soul of man is necessary for, if not synonymous with, belief in God, because ‘The soul is to man what God is to the universe’ (p. 230). His lecture on ‘Funeral Ceremonies’ (IX) is an inquiry into man’s earliest thoughts about the soul. Ancient customs contain expressions of man’s thoughts and feelings about death; this is crucial to the overall inquiry, for ‘feelings roused by death are naturally of a religious character’ (p. 236). For example, funeral rites disclose man’s ideas about the moment of death, and so Müller embarks on a detailed discussion of the subject that continues in Lecture X, ‘What Was Thought about the Departed’. Funeral rites demonstrate the general conception that at the time of death, the agent (soul) departs the body and goes on to exist somewhere. A comparative study of beliefs about the soul after death leads Müller, in Lecture XI, to discuss Greek and Finnish epic poetry, post-Homeric poets, Plato, mystery cults and the like.
In his penultimate lecture (XII, ‘What Does It Lead To?’), as in the final lecture of Physical Religion, Müller again defends his pursuit against the query ‘what does it lead to?’ and asserts the superiority of the historical method. Müller’s final lecture explores how certain religions solved the problem of atonement between God and man, or, as the title indicates, between ‘The Divine and the Human’ (XIII). He reminds the reader that the primary aim of anthropological religion has been man’s search for the god-like element in human nature, which has been carried out historically and comparatively via the broad examination of this search across cultural and religious traditions. Again, Müller posits that ‘the true conception of the relation between the Divine in nature and the Divine in Man’ is found in Christianity, the core beliefs of which involve Jesus Christ as Man (‘son of man’) and Divine (‘son of God’), who calls God ‘Father’—not only his own Father but the Father of all humankind, bringing God that much nearer to humanity.