Natural theology and the three modes of handling it the dogmatic the philosophical and the historical.
THE subject of these lectures is a branch of natural theology. By natural theology I understand that reasoned knowledge of a God or gods which man may be supposed whether rightly or wrongly capable of attaining to by the exercise of his natural faculties alone. Thus defined the subject may be treated in at least three different ways namely dogmatically philosophically and historically. We may simply state the dogmas of natural theology which appear to us to be true: that is the dogmatic method. Or secondly we may examine the validity of the grounds on which these dogmas have been or may be maintained: that is the philosophic method. Or thirdly we may content ourselves with describing the various views which have been held on the subject and tracing their origin and evolution in history: that is the historical method. The first of these three methods assumes the truth of natural theology the second discusses it and the third neither assumes nor discusses but simply ignores it: the historian as such is not concerned with the truth or falsehood of the beliefs he describes his business is merely to record them and to track them as far as possible to their sources. Now that the subject of natural theology is ripe for a purely dogmatic treatment will hardly I think be maintained by any one to whatever school of thought he may belong; accordingly that method of treatment need not occupy us further. Far otherwise is it with the philosophic method which undertakes to enquire into the truth or falsehood of the belief in a God: no method could be more appropriate at a time like the present when the opinions of educated and thoughtful men on that profound topic are so unsettled diverse and conflicting. A philosophical treatment of the subject might comprise a discussion of such questions as whether a natural knowledge of God is possible to man and if possible by what means and through what faculties it is attainable; what are the grounds for believing in the existence of a God; and if this belief is justified what may be supposed to be his essential nature and attributes and what his relations to the world in general and to man in particular. Now I desire to confess at once that an adequate discussion of these and kindred questions would far exceed both my capacity and my knowledge; or he who would do justice to so arduous an enquiry should not only be endowed with a comprehensive and penetrating genius but should possess a wide and accurate acquaintance with the best accredited results of philosophic speculation and scientific research. To such qualifications I can lay no claim and accordingly I must regard myself as unfitted for a purely philosophic treatment of natural theology. To speak plainly the question of the existence of a God is too deep for me. I dare neither affirm nor deny it. I can only humbly confess my ignorance. Accordingly if Lord Gifford had required of his lecturers either a dogmatic or a philosophical treatment of natural theology I could not have undertaken to deliver the lectures.
The method followed in these lectures is the historical.
But in his deed of foundation as I understand it Lord Gifford left his lecturers free to follow the historical rather than the dogmatic or the philosophical method of treatment. He says: “The lecturers shall be under no restraint whatever in their treatment of their theme: for example they may freely discuss (and it may be well to do so) all questions about man's conceptions of God or the Infinite their origin nature and truth.” In making this provision the founder appears to have allowed and indeed encouraged the lecturers not only to discuss if they chose to do so the philosophical basis of a belief in God but also to set forth the various conceptions of the divine nature which have been held by men in all ages and to trace them to their origin: in short he permitted and encouraged the lecturers to compose a history of natural theology or of some part of it. Even when it is thus limited to its historical aspect the theme is too vast to be mastered completely by any one man: the most that a single enquirer can do is to take a general but necessarily superficial survey of the whole and to devote himself especially to the investigation of some particular branch or aspect of the subject. This I have done more or less for many years and accordingly I think that without being presumptuous I may attempt in compliance with Lord Gifford's wishes and directions to lay before my hearers a portion of the history of religion to which I have paid particular attention. That the historical study of religious beliefs quite apart from the question of their truth or falsehood is both interesting and instructive will hardly be disputed by any intelligent and thoughtful enquirer. Whether they have been well or ill founded these beliefs have deeply influenced the conduct of human affairs; they have furnished some of the most powerful persistent and far-reaching motives of action; they have transformed nations and altered the face of the globe. No one who would understand the general history of mankind can afford to ignore the annals of religion. If he does so he will inevitably fall into the most serious misconceptions even in studying branches of human activity which might seem on a superficial view to be quite unaffected by religious considerations.
An historical enquiry into the evolution of religion prejudices neither the question of the ethical value of religious practice nor the question of the truth or falsehood of religious belief.
Therefore to trace theological and in general religious ideas to their sources and to follow them through all the manifold influences which they have exerted on the destinies of our race must always be an object of prime importance to the historian whatever view he may take of their speculative truth or ethical value. Clearly we cannot estimate their ethical value until we have learned the modes in which they have actually determined human conduct for good or evil: in other words we cannot judge of the morality of religious beliefs until we have ascertained their history: the facts must be known before judgment can be passed on them: the work of the historian must precede the work of the moralist. Even the question of the validity or truth of religious creeds cannot perhaps be wholly dissociated from the question of their origin. If for example we discover that doctrines which we had accepted with implicit faith from tradition have their close analogies in the barbarous superstitions of ignorant savages we can hardly help suspecting that our own cherished doctrines may have originated in the similar superstitions of our rude forefathers; and the suspicion inevitably shakes the confidence with which we had hitherto regarded these articles of our faith. The doubt thus cast on our old creed is perhaps illogical since even if we should discover that the creed did originate in mere superstition in other words that the grounds on which it was first adopted were false and absurd this discovery would not really disprove the beliefs themselves for it is perfectly possible that a belief may be true though the reasons alleged in favour of it are false and absurd: indeed we may affirm with great probability that a multitude of human beliefs true in themselves have been accepted and defended by millions of people on grounds which cannot bear exact investigation for a moment. For example if the facts of savage life which it will be my duty to submit to you should have the effect of making the belief in immortality look exceedingly foolish those of my hearers who cherish the belief may console themselves by reflecting that as I have just pointed out a creed is not necessarily false because some of the reasons adduced in its favour are invalid because it has sometimes been supported by the despicable tricks of vulgar imposture and because the practices to which it has given rise have often been in the highest degree not only absurd but pernicious.
Yet such an enquiry may shake the confidence with which traditional beliefs have been held.
Thus an historical enquiry into the origin of religious creeds cannot strictly speaking invalidate still less refute the creeds themselves though it may and doubtless often does weaken the confidence with which they are held. This weakening of religious faith as a consequence of a closer scrutiny of religious origins is unquestionably a matter of great importance to the community; for society has been built and cemented to a great extent on a foundation of religion and it is impossible to loosen the cement and shake the foundation without endangering the superstructure. The candid historian of religion will not dissemble the danger incidental to his enquiries but nevertheless it is his duty to prosecute them unflinchingly. Come what may he must ascertain the facts so far as it is possible to do so; having done that he may leave to others the onerous and delicate task of adjusting the new knowledge to the practical needs of mankind. The narrow way of truth may often look dark and threatening and the wayfarer may often be weary; yet even at the darkest and the weariest he will go forward in the trust if not in the knowledge that the way will lead at last to light and to rest; in plain words that there is no ultimate incompatibility between the good and the true.
To discover the origin of the idea of God we must study the beliefs of primitive man.
Now if we are indeed to discover the origin of man's conception of God it is not sufficient to analyse the ideas which the educated and enlightened portion of mankind entertain on the subject at the present day; for in great measure these ideas are traditional they have been handed down with little or no independent reflection or enquiry from generation to generation; hence in order to detect them in their inception it becomes necessary to push our analysis far back into the past. Large materials for such an historical enquiry are provided for us in the literature of ancient nations which though often sadly mutilated and imperfect has survived to modern times and throws much precious light on the religious beliefs and practices of the peoples who created it. But the ancients themselves inherited a great part of their religion from their prehistoric ancestors and accordingly it becomes desirable to investigate the religious notions of these remote forefathers of mankind since in them we may hope at last to arrive at the ultimate source the historical origin of the whole long development.
The beliefs of primitive man can only be understood through a comparative study of the various races in the lower stages of culture.
But how can this be done? how can we investigate the ideas of peoples who ignorant of writing had no means of permanently recording their beliefs? At first sight the thing seems impossible; the thread of enquiry is broken off short; it has landed us on the brink of a gulf which looks impassable. But the case is not so hopeless as it appears. True we cannot investigate the beliefs of prehistoric ages directly but the comparative method of research may furnish us with the means of studying them indirectly; it may hold up to us a mirror in which if we do not see the originals we may perhaps contemplate their reflections. For a comparative study of the various races of mankind demonstrates or at least renders it highly probable that humanity has everywhere started at an exceedingly low level of culture a level far beneath that of the lowest existing savages and that from this humble beginning all the various races of men have gradually progressed upward at different rates some faster and some slower till they have attained the particular stage which each of them occupies at the present time.
Hence the need of studying the beliefs and customs of savages if we are to understand the evolution of culture in general.
If this conclusion is correct the various stages of savagery and barbarism on which many tribes and peoples now stand represent broadly speaking so many degrees of retarded social and intellectual development they correspond to similar stages which the ancestors of the civilised races may be supposed to have passed through at more or less remote periods of their history. Thus when we arrange all the known peoples of the world according to the degree of their savagery or civilisation in a graduated scale of culture we obtain not merely a comparative view of their relative positions in the scale but also in some measure an historical record of the genetic development of culture from a very early time down to the present day. Hence a study of the savage and barbarous races of mankind is of the greatest importance for a full understanding of the beliefs and practices whether religious social moral or political of the most civilised races including our own since it is practically certain that a large part of these beliefs and practices originated with our savage ancestors and has been inherited by us from them with more or less of modification through a long line of intermediate generations.
The need is all the more urgent because savages are rapidly disappearing or being transformed.
That is why the study of existing savages at the present day engrosses so much of the attention of civilised peoples. We see that if we are to comprehend not only our past history but our present condition with all its many intricate and perplexing problems we must begin at the beginning by attempting to discover the mental state of our savage forefathers who bequeathed to us so much of the faiths the laws and the institutions which we still cherish; and more and more men are coming to perceive that the only way open to us of doing this effectually is to study the mental state of savages who to this day occupy a state of culture analogous to that of our rude progenitors. Through contact with civilisation these savages are now rapidly disappearing or at least losing the old habits and ideas which render them a document of priceless historical value for us. Hence we have every motive for prosecuting the study of savagery with ardour and diligence before it is too late before the record is gone for ever. We are like an heir whose title-deeds must be scrutinised before he can take possession of the inheritance but who finds the handwriting of the deeds so fading and evanescent that it threatens to disappear entirely before he can read the document to the end. With what keen attention what eager haste would he not scan the fast-vanishing characters? With the like attention and the like haste civilised men are now applying themselves to the investigation of the fast-vanishing savages.
Savage religion is to be the subject of these lectures.
Thus if we are to trace historically man's conception of God to its origin it is desirable or rather essential that we should begin by studying the most primitive ideas on the subject which are accessible to us and the most primitive ideas are unquestionably those of the lowest savages. Accordingly in these lectures I propose to deal with a particular side or aspect of savage religion. I shall not trench on the sphere of the higher religions not only because my knowledge of them is for the most part very slight but also because I believe that a searching study of the higher and more complex religions should be postponed till we have acquired an accurate knowledge of the lower and simpler. For a similar reason the study of inorganic chemistry naturally precedes the study of organic chemistry because inorganic compounds are much simpler and therefore more easily analysed and investigated than organic compounds. So with the chemistry of the mind; we should analyse the comparatively simple phenomena of savage thought into its constituent elements before we attempt to perform a similar operation on the vastly more complex phenomena of civilised beliefs.
But only a part of savage religion will be dealt with.
But while I shall confine myself rigidly to the field of savage religion I shall not attempt to present you with a complete survey even of that restricted area and that for more reasons than one. In the first place the theme even with this great limitation is far too large to be adequately set forth in the time at my disposal; the sketch—for it could be no more than a sketch—would be necessarily superficial and probably misleading. In the second place even a sketch of primitive religion in general ought to presuppose in the sketcher a fairly complete knowledge of the whole subject so that all the parts may appear not indeed in detail but in their proper relative proportions. Now though I have given altogether a good deal of time to the study of primitive religion I am far from having studied it in all its branches and I could not trust myself to give an accurate general account of it even in outline; were I to attempt such a thing I should almost certainly fall through sheer ignorance or inadvertence into the mistake of exaggerating some features unduly diminishing others and omitting certain essential features altogether. Hence it seems to me better not to commit myself to so ambitious an enterprise but to confine myself in my lectures as I have always done in my writings to a comparatively minute investigation of certain special aspects or forms of primitive religion rather than attempt to embrace in a general view the whole of that large subject. Such a relatively detailed study of a single compartment may be less attractive and more tedious than a bird's-eye view of a wider area; but in the end it may perhaps prove a more solid contribution to knowledge.
Introductory observations. The question of a super-natural revelation excluded.
But before I come to details I wish to make a few general introductory remarks and in particular to define some of the terms which I shall have occasion to use in the lectures. I have defined natural theology as that reasoned knowledge of a God or gods which man may be supposed whether rightly or wrongly capable of attaining to by the exercise of his natural faculties alone. Whether there ever has been or can be a special miraculous revelation of God to man through channels different from those through which all other human knowledge is derived is a question which does not concern us in these lectures; indeed it is expressly excluded from their scope by the will of the founder who directed the lecturers to treat the subject “as a strictly natural science” “without reference to or reliance upon any supposed special exceptional or so-called miraculous revelation.” Accordingly in compliance with these directions I dismiss at the outset the question of a revelation and shall limit myself strictly to natural theology in the sense in which I have defined it.
Theology and religion how related to each other.
I have called natural theology a reasoned knowledge of a God or gods to distinguish it from that simple and comparatively though I believe never absolutely unreasoning faith in God which suffices for the practice of religion. For theology is at once more and less than religion: if on the one hand it includes a more complete acquaintance with the grounds of religious belief than is essential to religion on the other hand it excludes the observance of those practical duties which are indispensable to any religion worthy of the name. In short whereas theology is purely theoretical religion is both theoretical and practical though the theoretical part of it need not be so highly developed as in theology. But while the subject of the lectures is strictly speaking natural theology rather than natural religion I think it would be not only difficult but undesirable to confine our attention to the purely theological or theoretical part of natural religion: in all religions and not least in the undeveloped savage religions with which we shall deal theory and practice fuse with and interact on each other too closely to be forcibly disjoined and handled apart. Hence throughout the lectures I shall not scruple to refer constantly to religious practice as well as to religious theory without feeling that thereby I am transgressing the proper limits of my subject.
The term God defined.
As theology is not only by definition but by etymology a reasoned knowledge or theory of a God or gods it becomes desirable before we proceed further to define the sense in which I understand and shall employ the word God. That sense is neither novel nor abstruse; it is simply the sense which I believe the generality of mankind attach to the term. By a God I understand a superhuman and supernatural being of a spiritual and personal nature who controls the world or some part of it on the whole for good and who is endowed with intellectual faculties moral feelings and active powers which we can only conceive on the analogy of human faculties feelings and activities though we are bound to suppose that in the divine nature they exist in higher degrees perhaps in infinitely higher degrees than the corresponding faculties feelings and activities of man. In short by a God I mean a beneficent supernatural spirit the ruler of the world or of some part of it who resembles man in nature though he excels him in knowledge goodness and power. This is I think the sense in which the ordinary man speaks of a God and I believe that he is right in so doing. I am aware that it has been not unusual especially perhaps of late years to apply the name of God to very different conceptions to empty it of all implication of personality and to reduce it to signifying something very large and very vague such as the Infinite or the Absolute (whatever these hard words may signify) the great First Cause the Universal Substance “the stream of tendency by which all things seek to fulfil the law of their being”1
and so forth. Now without expressing any opinion as to the truth or falsehood of the views implied by such applications of the name of God I cannot but regard them all as illegitimate extensions of the term in short as an abuse of language and I venture to protest against it in the interest not only of verbal accuracy but of clear thinking because it is apt to conceal from ourselves and others a real and very important change of thought: in particular it may lead many to imagine that the persons who use the name of God in one or other of these extended senses retain certain theological opinions which they may in fact have long abandoned. Thus the misuse of the name of God may resemble the stratagem in war of putting up dummies to make an enemy imagine that a fort is still held after it has been evacuated by the garrison. I am far from alleging or insinuating that the illegitimate extension of the divine name is deliberately employed by theologians or others for the purpose of masking a change of front; but that it may have that effect seems at least possible. And as we cannot use words in wrong senses without running a serious risk of deceiving ourselves as well as others it appears better on all accounts to adhere strictly to the common meaning of the name of God as signifying a powerful supernatural and on the whole beneficent spirit akin in nature to man; and if any of us have ceased to believe in such a being we should refrain from applying the old word to the new faith and should find some other and more appropriate term to express our meaning. At all events speaking for myself I intend to use the name of God consistently in the familiar sense and I would beg my hearers to bear this steadily in mind.
Monotheism and polytheism.
You will have observed that I have spoken of natural theology as a reasoned knowledge of a God or gods. There is indeed nothing in the definition of God which I have adopted to imply that he is unique in other words that there is only one God rather than several or many gods. It is true that modern European thinkers bred in a monotheistic religion commonly overlook polytheism as a crude theory unworthy the serious attention of philosophers; in short the champions and the assailants of religion in Europe alike for the most part tacitly assume that there is either one God or none. Yet some highly civilised nations of antiquity and of modern times such as the ancient Egyptians Greeks and Romans and the modern Chinese and Hindoos have accepted the polytheistic explanation of the world and as no reasonable man will deny the philosophical subtlety of the Greeks and the Hindoos to say nothing of the rest a theory of the universe which has commended itself to them deserves perhaps more consideration than it has commonly received from Western philosophers; certainly it cannot be ignored in an historical enquiry into the origin of religion.
A natural knowledge of God can only be acquired by experience.
If there is such a thing as natural theology that is a knowledge of a God or gods acquired by our natural faculties alone without the aid of a special revelation it follows that it must be obtained by one or other of the methods by which all our natural knowledge is conveyed to us. Roughly speaking these methods are two in number namely intuition and experience. Now if we ask ourselves Do we know God intuitively in the same sense in which we know intuitively our own sensations and the simplest truths of mathematics I think most men will acknowledge that they do not. It is true that according to Berkeley the world exists only as it is perceived and that our perceptions of it are produced by the immediate action of God on our minds so that everything we perceive might be described if not as an idea in the mind of the deity at least as a direct emanation from him. On this theory we might in a sense be said to have an immediate knowledge of God. But Berkeley's theory has found little acceptance so far as I know even among philosophers; and even if we regarded it as true we should still have to admit that the knowledge of God implied by it is inferential rather than intuitive in the strict sense of the word: we infer God to be the cause of our perceptions rather than identify him with the perceptions themselves. On the whole then I conclude that man or at all events the ordinary man has properly speaking no immediate or intuitive knowledge of God and that if he obtains without the aid of revelation any knowledge of him at all it can only be through the other natural channel of knowledge that is through experience.
The nature of experience.
In experience as distinct from intuition we reach our conclusions not directly through simple contemplation of the particular sensations emotions or ideas of which we are at the moment conscious but indirectly by calling up before the imagination and comparing with each other our memories of a variety of sensations emotions or ideas of which we have been conscious in the past and by selecting or abstracting from the mental images so compared the points in which they resemble each other. The points of resemblance thus selected or abstracted from a number of particulars compose what we call an abstract or general idea and from a comparison of such abstract or general ideas with each other we arrive at general conclusions which define the relations of the ideas to each other. Experience in general consists in the whole body of conclusions thus deduced from a comparison of all the particular sensations emotions and ideas which make up the conscious life of the individual. Hence in order to constitute experience the mind has to perform a more or less complex series of operations which are commonly referred to certain mental faculties such as memory imagination and judgment. This analysis of experience does not pretend to be philosophically complete or exact; but perhaps it is sufficiently accurate for the purpose of these lectures the scope of which is not philosophical but historical.
Two kinds of experience the experience of our own mind and the experience of an external world.
Now experience in the widest sense of the word may be conveniently distinguished into two sorts the experience of our own mind and the experience of an external world. The distinction is indeed like the others with which I am dealing at present rather practically useful than theoretically sound; certainly it would not be granted by all philosophers for many of them have held that we neither have nor with our present faculties can possibly attain to any immediate knowledge or perception of an external world we merely infer its existence from our own sensations which are as strictly a part of our mind as the ideas and emotions of our waking life or the visions of sleep. According to them the existence of matter or of an external world is so far as we are concerned merely an hypothesis devised to explain the order of our sensations; it never has been perceived by any man woman or child who ever lived on earth; we have and can have no immediate knowledge or perception of anything but the states and operations of our own mind. On this theory what we call the world with all its supposed infinitudes of space and time its systems of suns and planets its seemingly endless forms of inorganic matter and organic life shrivels up on a close inspection into a fleeting a momentary figment of thought. It is like one of those glass baubles iridescent with a thousand varied and delicate hues which a single touch suffices to shatter into dust. The philosopher like the sorcerer has but to wave his magic wand
“And like the baseless fabric of this vision
The cloud-capped towers the gorgeous palaces
The solemn temples the great globe itself
Yea all which it inherit shall dissolve
And like this insubstantial pageant faded
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.”
The distinction rather popular and convenient than philosophically strict.
It would be beyond my province even if it were within my power to discuss these airy speculations and thereby to descend into the arena where for ages subtle dialecticians have battled with each other over the reality or unreality of an external world. For my purpose it suffices to adopt the popular and convenient distinction of mind and matter and hence to divide experience into two sorts an inward experience of the acts and states of our own minds and an outward experience of the acts and states of that physical universe by which we seem to be surrounded.
The knowledge or conception of God has been attained both by inward and by outward experience.
Now if a natural knowledge of God is only possible by means of experience in other words by a process of reasoning based on observation it will follow that such a knowledge may conceivably be acquired either by the way of inward or of outward experience; in other words it may be attained either by reflecting on the processes of our own minds or by observing the processes of external nature. In point of fact if we survey the history of thought mankind appears to have arrived at a knowledge or at all events at a conception of deity by both these roads. Let me say a few words as to the two roads which lead or seem to lead man to God.
The conception of God is attained by inward experience that is by the observation of certain remarkable thoughts and feelings which are attributed to the inspiration of a deity.
Practical dangers of the theory of inspiration.
In the first place then men in many lands and many ages have experienced certain extraordinary emotions and entertained certain extraordinary ideas which unable to account for them by reference to the ordinary forms of experience they have set down to the direct action of a powerful spirit or deity working on their minds and even entering into and taking possession of their bodies; and in this excited state—for violent excitement is characteristic of these manifestations—the patient believes himself to be possessed of supernatural knowledge and supernatural power. This real or supposed mode of apprehending a divine spirit and entering into communion with it is commonly and appropriately called inspiration. The phenomenon is familiar to us from the example of the Hebrew nation who believed that their prophets were thus inspired by the deity and that their sacred books were regularly composed under the divine afflatus. The belief is by no means singular indeed it appears to be world-wide; for it would be hard to point to any race of men among whom instances of such inspiration have not been reported; and the more ignorant and savage the race the more numerous to judge by the reports are the cases of inspiration. Volumes might be filled with examples but through the spread of information as to the lower races in recent years the topic has become so familiar that I need not stop to illustrate it by instances. I will merely say that among savages the theory of inspiration or possession is commonly invoked to explain all abnormal mental states particularly insanity or conditions of mind bordering on it so that persons more or less crazed in their wits and particularly hysterical or epileptic patients are for that very reason thought to be peculiarly favoured by the spirits and are therefore consulted as oracles their wild and whirling words passing for the revelations of a higher power whether a god or a ghost who considerately screens his too dazzling light under a thick veil of dark sayings and mysterious ejaculations.2
I need hardly point out the very serious dangers which menace any society where such theories are commonly held and acted upon. If the decisions of a whole community in matters of the gravest importance are left to turn on the wayward fancies the whims and vagaries of the insane or the semi-insane what are likely to be the consequences to the commonwealth? What for example can be expected to result from a war entered upon at such dictation and waged under such auspices? Are cattle-breeding agriculture commerce all the arts of life on which a people depend for their subsistence likely to thrive when they are directed by the ravings of epilepsy or the drivellings of hysteria? Defeat in battle conquest by enemies death by famine and widespread disease these and a thousand other lesser evils threaten the blind people who commit themselves to such blind guides. The history of savage and barbarous tribes could we follow it throughout might furnish us with a thousand warning instances of the fatal effects of carrying out this crude theory of inspiration to its logical conclusions; and if we hear less than might be expected of such instances it is probably because the tribes who consistently acted up to their beliefs have thereby wiped themselves out of existence: they have perished the victims of their folly and left no record behind. I believe that historians have not yet reckoned sufficiently with the disastrous influence which this worship of insanity—for it is often nothing Less—has exercised on the fortunes of peoples and on the development or decay of their institutions.
The belief in inspiration leads to the worship of living men as gods.
Outward experience as a source of the idea of God.
To a certain extent however the evil has provided its own remedy. For men of strong heads and ambitious temper perceiving the exorbitant power which a belief in inspiration places in the hands of the feeble-minded have often feigned to be similarly afflicted and trading on their reputation for imbecility or rather inspiration have acquired an authority over their fellows which though they have often abused it for vulgar ends they have sometimes exerted for good as for example by giving sound advice in matters of public concern applying salutary remedies to the sick and detecting and punishing crime whereby they have helped to preserve the commonwealth to alleviate suffering and to cement that respect for law and order which is essential to the stability of society and without which any community must fall to pieces like a house of cards. These great services have been rendered to the cause of civilisation and progress by the class of men who in primitive society are variously known as medicine-men magicians sorcerers diviners soothsayers and so forth. Sometimes the respect which they have gained by the exercise of their profession has won for them political as well as spiritual or ghostly authority; in short from being simple medicine-men or sorcerers they have grown into chiefs and kings. When such men seated on the throne of state retain their old reputation for being the vehicles of a divine spirit they may be worshipped in the character of gods as well as revered in the capacity of kings; and thus exerting a two-fold sway over the minds of men they possess a most potent instrument for elevating or depressing the fortunes of their worshippers and subjects. In this way the old savage notion of inspiration or possession gradually develops into the doctrine of the divinity of kings which after a long period of florescence dwindles away into the modest theory that kings reign by divine right a theory familiar to our ancestors not long ago and perhaps not wholly obsolete among us even now. However inspired men need not always blossom out into divine kings; they may and often do remain in the chrysalis state of simple deities revered by their simple worshippers their brows encircled indeed with a halo of divinity but not weighted with the more solid substance of a kingly crown. Thus certain extraordinary mental states which those who experience and those who witness them cannot account for in any other way are often explained by the supposed interposition of a spirit or deity. This therefore is one of the two forms of experience by which men attain or imagine that they attain to a knowledge of God and a communion with him. It is what I have called the road of inward experience. Let us now glance at the other form of experience which leads or seems to lead to the same goal. It is what I have called the road of outward experience.
Tendency of the mind to search for causes and the necessity for their discovery.
When we contemplate the seemingly infinite variety the endless succession of events that pass under our observation in what we call the external world we are led by an irresistible tendency to trace what we call a causal connexion between them. The tendency to discover the causes of things appears indeed to be innate in the constitution of our minds and indispensable to our continued existence. It is the link that arrests and colligates into convenient bundles the mass of particulars drifting pell-mell past on the stream of sensation; it is the cement that binds into an edifice seemingly of adamant the loose sand of isolated perceptions. Deprived of the knowledge which this tendency procures for us we should be powerless to foresee the succession of phenomena and so to adapt ourselves to it. We should be bewildered by the apparent disorder and confusion of everything we should toss on a sea without a rudder we should wander in an endless maze without a clue and finding no way out of it or in plain words unable to avoid a single one of the dangers which menace us at every turn we should inevitably perish. Accordingly the propensity to search for causes is characteristic of man in all ages and at all levels of culture though without doubt it is far more highly developed in civilised than in savage communities Among savages it is more or less unconscious and instinctive; among civilised men it is deliberately cultivated and rewarded at least by the applause of their fellows by the dignity if not by the more solid recompenses of learning. Indeed as civilisation progresses the enquiry into causes tends to absorb more and more of the highest intellectual energies of a people; and an ever greater number of men renouncing the bustle the pleasures and the ambitions of an active life devote themselves exclusively to the pursuit of abstract truth; they set themselves to discover the causes of things to trace the regularity and order that may be supposed to underlie the seemingly irregular confused and arbitrary sequence of phenomena. Unquestionably the progress o civilisation owes much to the sustained efforts of such men an if of late years and within our own memory the pace of progress has sensibly quickened we shall perhaps not err in supposing that some part at least of the acceleration may be accounted for by an increase in the number of lifelong students.
The idea of cause is simply that of invariable sequence suggested by the observation of many particular cases of sequence.
Now when we analyse the conception of a cause to the bottom we find as the last residuum in our crucible nothing but what Hume found there long ago and that is simply the idea of invariable sequence. Whenever we say that something is the cause of something else all that we really mean is that the latter is invariably preceded by the former so that whenever we find the second which we call the effect we may infer that the first which we call the cause has gone before it. All such inferences from effects to causes are based on experience; having observed a certain sequence of events a certain number of times we conclude that the events are so conjoined that the latter cannot occur without the previous occurrence of the former. A single case of two events following each other could not of itself suggest that the one event is the cause of the other since there is no necessary link between them in the mind; the sequence has to be repeated more or less frequently before we infer a causal connexion between the two; and this inference rests simply on that association of ideas which is established in our mind by the reiterated observation of the things. Once the ideas are by dint of repetition firmly welded together the one by sheer force of habit calls up the other and we say that the two things which are represented by those ideas stand to each other in the relation of cause and effect. The notion of causality is in short only one particular case of the association of ideas. Thus all reasoning as to causes implies previous observation: we reason from the observed to the unobserved from the known to the unknown; and the wider the range of our observation and knowledge the greater the probability that our reasoning will be correct.
The savage draws his ideas of natural causation from observation of himself.
Hence he explains the phenomena of nature by supposing that they are produced by beings like himself. These beings may be called spirits or gods of nature to distinguish them from living human gods.
All this is as true of the savage as of the civilised man. He too argues and indeed can only argue on the basis of experience from the known to the unknown from the observed to the hypothetical. But the range of his experience is comparatively narrow and accordingly his inferences from it often appear to civilised men with their wider knowledge to be palpably false and absurd. This holds good most obviously in regard to his observation of external nature. While he often knows a good deal about the natural objects whether animals plants or inanimate things on which he is immediately dependent for his subsistence the extent of country with which he is acquainted is commonly but small and he has little or no opportunity of correcting the conclusions which he bases on his observation of it by a comparison with other parts of the world. But if he knows little of the outer world he is necessarily somewhat better acquainted with his own inner life with his sensations and ideas his emotions appetites and desires. Accordingly it is natural enough that when he seeks to discover the causes of events in the external world he should arguing from experience imagine that they are produced by the actions of invisible beings like himself who behind the veil of nature pull the strings that set the vast machinery in motion. For example he knows by experience that he can make sparks fly by knocking two flints against each other; what more natural therefore than that he should imagine the great sparks which we call lightning to be made in the same way by somebody up aloft and that when he finds chipped flints on the ground he should take them for thunder-stones dropped by the maker of thunder and lightning from the clouds?3
Thus arguing from his limited experience primitive man creates a multitude of spirits or gods in his own likeness to explain the succession of phenomena in nature of whose true causes he is ignorant; in short he personifies the phenomena as powerful anthropomorphic spirits and believing himself to be more or less dependent on their good will he woos their favour by prayer and sacrifice. This personification of the various aspects of external nature is one of the most fruitful sources of polytheism. The spirits and gods created by this train of thought may be called spirits and gods of nature to distinguish them from the human gods by which I mean the living men and women who are believed by their worshippers to be inspired or possessed by a diving spirit.
In time men reject polytheism as an explanation of natural processes and substitute certain abstract ideas of ethers atoms molecules and so on.
But as time goes on and men learn more about nature they commonly become dissatisfied with polytheism as an explanation of the world and gradually discard it. From one department of nature after another the gods are reluctantly or contemptuously dismissed and their provinces committed to the care of certain abstract ideas of ethers atoms molecules and so forth which though just as imperceptible to human senses as their divine predecessors are judged by prevailing opinion to discharge their duties with greater regularity and despatch and are accordingly firmly installed on the vacant thrones amid the general applause of the more enlightened portion of mankind. Thus instead of being peopled with a noisy bustling crowd of full-blooded and picturesque deities clothed in the graceful form and animated with the warm passions of humanity the universe outside the narrow circle of our consciousness is now conceived as absolutely silent colourless and deserted. The cheerful sounds which we hear the bright hues which we see have no existence we are told in the external world: the voices of friends the harmonies of music the chime of falling waters the solemn roll of ocean the silver splendour of the moon the golden glories of sunset the verdure of summer woods and the hectic tints of autumn—all these subsist only in our own minds and if we imagine them to have any reality elsewhere we deceive ourselves. In fact the whole external world as perceived by us is one great illusion: if we gave the reins to fancy we might call it a mirage a piece of witchery conjured up by the spells of some unknown magician to bewilder poor ignorant humanity. Outside of ourselves there stretches away on every side an infinitude of space without sound without light without colour a solitude traversed only in every direction by an inconceivably complex web of silent and impersonal forces. That if I understand it aright is the general conception of the world which modern science has substituted for polytheism.
But while they commonly discard the hypothesis of a deity as an explanation of all the particular processes of nature they retain it as an explanation of nature in general.
When philosophy and science by their combined efforts have ejected gods and goddesses from all the subordinate posts of nature it might perhaps be expected that they would have no further occasion for the services of a deity and that having relieved him of all his particular functions they would have arranged for the creation and general maintenance of the universe without him by handing over these important offices to an efficient staff of those ethers atoms corpuscles and so forth which had already proved themselves so punctual in the discharge of the minor duties entrusted to them. Nor indeed is this expectation altogether disappointed. A number of atheistical philosophers have courageously come forward and assured us that the hypothesis of a deity as the creator and preserver of the universe is quite superfluous and that all things came into being or have existed from eternity without the help of any divine spirit and that they will continue to exist without it to the end if end indeed there is to be. But on the whole these daring speculators appear to be in a minority. The general opinion of educated people at the present day could we ascertain it would probably be found to incline to the conclusion that though every department of nature is now worked by impersonal material forces alone the universe as a whole was created and is still maintained by a great supernatural spirit whom we call God. Thus in Europe and in the countries which have borrowed their civilisation their philosophy and their religion from it the central problem of natural theology has narrowed itself down to the question Is there one God or none? It is a profound question and I for one profess myself unable to answer it.
Whether attained by inward or outward experience the idea of God is regularly that of a cause inferred not perceived.
If this brief sketch of the history of natural theology is correct man has by the exercise of his natural faculties alone without the help of revelation attained to a knowledge or at least to a conception of God in one of two ways either by meditating on the operations of his own mind or by observing the processes of external nature: inward experience and outward experience have conducted him by different roads to the same goal. By whichever of them the conception has been reached it is regularly employed to explain the causal connexion of things whether the things to be explained are the ideas and emotions of man himself or the changes in the physical world outside of him. In short a God is always brought in to play the part of a cause; it is the imperious need of tracing the causes of events which has driven man to discover or invent a deity. Now causes may be arranged in two classes according as they are perceived or unperceived by the senses. For example when we see the impact of a billiard cue on a billiard ball followed immediately by the motion of the ball we say that the impact is the cause of the motion. In this case we perceive the cause as well as the effect. But when we see an apple fall from a tree to the ground we say that the cause of the fall is the force of gravitation exercised by the superior mass of the earth on the inferior mass of the apple. In this case though we perceive the effect we do not perceive the cause we only infer it by a process of reasoning from experience. Causes of the latter sort may be called inferential or hypothetical causes to distinguish them from those which are perceived. Of the two classes of causes a deity belongs in general if not universally to the second that is to the inferential or hypothetical causes; for as a rule at all events his existence is not perceived by our senses but inferred by our reason. To say that he has never appeared in visible and tangible form to men would be to beg the question; it would be to make an assertion which is incapable of proof and which is contradicted by a multitude of contrary affirmations recorded in the traditions or the sacred books of many races; but without being rash we may perhaps say that such appearances if they ever took place belong to a past order of events and need hardly be reckoned with at the present time. For all practical purposes therefore God is now a purely inferential or hypothetical cause; he may be invoked to explain either our own thoughts and feelings our impulses and emotions or the manifold states and processes of external nature; he may be viewed either as the inspirer of the one or the creator and preserver of the other; and according as he is mainly regarded from the one point of view or the other the conception of the divine nature tends to beget one of two very different types of piety. To the man who traces the finger of God in the workings of his own mind the deity appears to be far closer than he seems to the man who only infers the divine existence from the marvellous order harmony and beauty of the external world; and we need not wonder that the faith of the former is of a more fervent temper and supplies him with more powerful incentives to a life of active devotion than the calm and rational faith of the latter. We may conjecture that the piety of most great religious reformers has belonged to the former rather than to the latter type; in other words that they have believed in God because they felt or imagined that they felt him stirring in their own hearts rather than because they discerned the handiwork of a divine artificer in the wonderful mechanism of nature.
Besides the two sorts of gods already distinguished namely natural gods and living human gods there is a third sort which has played an important part in history namely the spirits of deified dead men.
Thus far I have distinguished two sorts of gods whom man discovers or creates for himself by the exercise of his unaided faculties to wit natural gods whom he infers from his observation of external nature and human gods or inspired men whom he recognises by virtue of certain extraordinary mental manifestations in himself or in others. But there is another class of human gods which I have not mentioned and which has played a very important part in the evolution of theology I mean the deified spirits of dead men. To judge by the accounts we possess not only of savage and barbarous tribes but of some highly civilised peoples the worship of the human dead has been one of the commonest and most influential forms of natural religion perhaps indeed the commonest and most influential of all. Obviously it rests on the supposition that the human personality in some form whether we call it a soul a spirit a ghost or what not can survive death and thereafter continue for a longer or shorter time to exercise great power for good or evil over the destinies of the living who are therefore compelled to propitiate the shades of the dead out of a regard for their own safety and well-being. This belief in the survival of the human spirit after death is world-wide; it is found among men in all stages of culture from the lowest to the highest; we need not wonder therefore that the custom of propitiating the ghosts or souls of the departed should be world-wide also. No doubt the degree of attention paid to ghosts is not the same in all cases; it varies with the particular degree of power attributed to each of them; the spirits of men who for any reason were much feared in their lifetime such as mighty warriors chiefs and kings are more revered and receive far more marks of homage than the spirits of common men; and it is only when this reverence and homage are carried to a very high pitch that they can properly be described as a deification of the dead. But that dead men have thus been raised to the rank of deities in many lands there is abundant evidence to prove. And quite apart from the worship paid to those spirits which are admitted by their worshippers to have once animated the bodies of living men there is good reason to suspect that many gods who rank as purely mythical beings were once men of flesh and blood though their true history has passed out of memory or rather been transformed by legend into a myth which veils more or less completely the real character of the imaginary deity. The theory that most or all gods originated after this fashion in other words that the worship of the gods is little or nothing but the worship of dead men is known as Euhemerism from Euhemerus the ancient Greek writer who propounded it. Regarded as a universal explanation of the belief in gods it is certainly false; regarded as a partial explanation of the belief it is unquestionably true; and perhaps we may even go further and say that the more we penetrate into the inner history of natural religion the larger is seen to be the element of truth contained in Euhemerism. For the more closely we look at many deities of natural religion the more distinctly do we seem to perceive under the quaint or splendid pall which the mythical fancy has wrapt round their stately figures the familiar features of real men who once shared the common joys and the common sorrows of humanity who trod life's common road to the common end.
The deification of dead men presupposes the immortality of the human soul or rather its survival for a longer or shorter time after death.
When we ask how it comes about that dead men have so often been raised to the rank of divinities the first thing to be observed is that all such deifications must if our theory is correct be inferences drawn from experience of some sort; they must be hypotheses devised to explain the unperceived causes of certain phenomena whether of the human mind or of external nature. All of them imply as I have said a belief that the conscious human personality call it the soul the spirit or what you please can survive the body and continue to exist in a disembodied state with unabated or even greatly increased powers for good or evil. This faith in the survival of personality after death may for the sake of brevity be called a faith in immortality though the term immortality is not strictly correct since it seems to imply eternal duration whereas the idea of eternity is hardly intelligible to many primitive peoples who nevertheless firmly believe in the continued existence for a longer or shorter time of the human spirit after the dissolution of the body. Now the faith in the immortality of the soul or to speak more correctly in the continued existence of conscious human personality after death is as I remarked before exceedingly common among men at all levels of intellectual evolution from the lowest upwards; certainly it is not peculiar to adherents of the higher religions but is held as an unquestionable truth by at least the great majority of savage and barbarous peoples as to whose ideas we possess accurate information; indeed it might be hard to point to any single tribe of men however savage of whom we could say with certainty that the faith is totally wanting among them.
The question of immorality is a fundamental problem of natural theology in the wider sense.
Hence if we are to explain the deification of dead men we must first explain the widespread belief in immortality; we must answer the question how does it happen that men in all countries and at all stages of ignorance or knowledge so commonly suppose that when they die their consciousness will still persist for an indefinite time after the decay of the body? To answer that question is one of the fundamental problems of natural theology not indeed in the full sense of the word theology if we confine the term strictly to a reasoned knowledge of a God; for the example of Buddhism proves that a belief in the existence of the human soul after death is quite compatible with disbelief in a deity. But if we may use as I think we may the phrase natural theology in an extended sense to cover theories which though they do not in themselves affirm the existence of a God nevertheless appear to be one of the deepest and most fruitful sources of the belief in his reality then we may legitimately say that the doctrine of human immortality does fall within the scope of natural theology. What then is its origin? How is it that men so commonly believe themselves to be immortal?
If there is any natural knowledge of immoratality it must be acquired either by intuition or experience: it is apparently not given by intuition; hence it must be acquired if at all by experience.
If there is any natural knowledge of human immortality it must be acquired either by intuition or by experience; there is no other way. Now whether other men from a simple contemplation of their own nature quite apart from reasoning know or believe themselves intuitively to be immortal I cannot say; but I can say with some confidence that for myself I have no such intuition whatever of my own immortality and that if I am left to the resources of my natural faculties alone I can as little affirm the certain or probable existence of my personality after death as I can affirm the certain or probable existence of a personal God. And I am bold enough to suspect that if men could analyse their own ideas they would generally find themselves to be in a similar predicament as to both these profound topics. Hence I incline to lay it down as a probable proposition that men as a rule have no intuitive knowledge of their own immortality and that if there is any natural knowledge of such a thing it can only be acquired by a process of reasoning from experience.4
The idea of immortality seems to have been suggested to man both by his inward and his outward experience notably by dreams which are a case of inward experience.
What then is the kind of experience from which the theory of human immortality is deduced? Is it our experience of the operations of our own minds? or is it our experience of external nature? As a matter of historical fact—and you will remember that I am treating the question purely from the historical standpoint—men seem to have inferred the persistence of their personality after death both from the one kind of experience and from the other that is both from the phenomena of their inner life and from the phenomena of what we call the external world. Thus the savage with whose beliefs we are chiefly concerned in these lectures finds a very strong argument for immortality in the phenomena of dreams which are strictly a part of his inner life though in his ignorance he commonly fails to discriminate them from what we popularly call waking realities. Hence when the images of persons whom he knows to be dead appear to him in a dream he naturally infers that these persons still exist somewhere and somehow apart from their bodies of the decay or destruction of which he may have had ocular demonstration. How could he see dead people he asks if they did not exist? To argue that they have perished like their bodies is to contradict the plain evidence of his senses; for to the savage still more than to the civilised man seeing is believing; that he sees the dead only in dreams does not shake his belief since he thinks the appearances of dreams just as real as the appearances of his waking hours. And once he has in this way gained a conviction that the dead survive and can help or harm him as they seem to do in dreams it is natural or necessary for him to extend the theory to the occurrences of daily life which as I have said he does not sharply distinguish from the visions of slumber. He now explains many of these occurrences and many of the processes of nature by the direct interposition of the spirits of the departed; he traces their invisible hand in many of the misfortunes and in some of the blessings which befall him; for it is a common feature of the faith in ghosts at least among savages that they are usually spiteful and mischievous or at least testy and petulant more apt to injure than to benefit the survivors. In that they resemble the personified spirits of nature which in the opinion of most savages appear to be generally tricky and malignant beings whose anger is dangerous and whose favour is courted with fear and trembling. Thus even without the additional assurance afforded by tales of apparitions and spectres primitive man may come in time to imagine the world around him to be more or less thickly peopled influenced and even dominated by a countless multitude of spirits among whom the shades of past generations of men and women hold a very prominent often apparently the leading place. These spirits powerful to help or harm he seeks either simply to avert when he deems them purely mischievous or to appease and conciliate when he supposes them sufficiently good-natured to respond to his advances. In some such way as this arguing from the real but as we think misinterpreted phenomena of dreams the savage may arrive at a doctrine of human immortality and from that at a worship of the dead.
It has also been suggested by the resemblance of the living to the dead which is a case of outward experience.
This explanation of the savage faith in immortality is neither novel nor original: on the contrary it is perhaps the commonest and most familiar that has yet been propounded. If it does not account for all the facts it probably accounts for many of them. At the same time I do not doubt that many other inferences drawn from experiences of different kinds have confirmed even if they did not originally suggest man's confident belief in his own immortality. To take a single example of outward experience the resemblances which children often bear to deceased kinsfolk appear to have prompted in the minds of many savages the notion that the souls of these dead kinsfolk have been born again in their descendants.5
From a few cases of resemblances so explained it would be easy to arrive at a general theory that all living persons are animated by the souls of the dead; in other words that the human spirit survives death for an indefinite period if not for eternity during which it undergoes a series of rebirths or reincarnations. However it has been arrived at this doctrine of the transmigration or reincarnation of the soul is found among many tribes of savages; and from what we know on the subject we seem to be justified in conjecturing that at certain stages of mental and social evolution the belief in metempsychosis has been far commoner and has exercised a far deeper influence on the life and institutions of primitive man than the actual evidence before us at present allows us positively to affirm.
The aim of these lectures is to collect a number of facts illustrative of the belief in immortality and of the customs based on it among some of the lower races.
Be that as it may—and I have no wish to dogmatise on so obscure a topic—it is certain that a belief in the survival of the human personality after death and the practice of a propitiation or worship of the dead have prevailed very widely among mankind and have played a very important part in the development of natural religion. While many writers have duly recognised the high importance both of the belief and of the worship no one so far as I know has attempted systematically to collect and arrange the facts which illustrate the prevalence of this particular type of religion among the various races of mankind. A large body of evidence lies to hand in the voluminous and rapidly increasing literature of ethnology; but it is dispersed over an enormous number of printed books and papers to say nothing of the materials which still remain buried either in manuscript or in the minds of men who possess the requisite knowledge but have not yet committed it to writing. To draw all those stores of information together and digest them into a single treatise would be a herculean labour from which even the most industrious researcher into the dusty annals of the human past might shrink dismayed. Certainly I shall make no attempt to perform such a feat within the narrow compass of these lectures. But it seems to me that I may make a useful if a humble contribution to the history of religion by selecting a portion of the evidence and submitting it to my hearers. For that purpose instead of accumulating a mass of facts from all the various races of mankind and then comparing them together I prefer to limit myself to a few races and to deal with each of them separately beginning with the lowest savages about whom we possess accurate information and gradually ascending to peoples who stand higher in the scale of culture. In short the method of treatment which I shall adopt will be the descriptive rather than the comparative. I shall not absolutely refrain from instituting comparisons between the customs and beliefs of different races but for the most part I shall content myself with describing the customs and beliefs of each race separately without reference to those of others. Each of the two methods the comparative and the descriptive has its peculiar advantages and disadvantages and in my published writings I have followed now the one method and now the other. The comparative method is unquestionably the more attractive and stimulating but it cannot be adopted without a good deal of more or less conscious theorising since every comparison implicitly involves a theory. If we desire to exclude theories and merely accumulate facts for the use of science the descriptive method is undoubtedly the better adapted for the arrangement of our materials: it may not stimulate enquiry so powerfully but it lays a more solid foundation on which future enquirers may build. It is as a collection of facts illustrative of the belief in immortality and of all the momentous consequences which have flowed from that belief that I desire the following lectures to be regarded. They are intended to serve simply as a document of religious history; they make no pretence to discuss philosophically the truth of the beliefs and the morality of the practices which will be passed under review. If any inferences can indeed be drawn from the facts to the truth or falsehood of the beliefs and to the moral worth or worthlessness of the practices I prefer to leave it to others more competent than myself to draw them. My sight is not keen enough my hand is not steady enough to load the scales and hold the balance in so difficult and delicate an enquiry.