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Chapter 1: Introduction

The search for the real.

THE mind of man refuses to acquiesce in the phenomena of sense. By an instinctive, an irresistible impulse it is driven to seek for something beyond, something which it assumes to be more real and abiding than the shifting phantasmagoria of this sensible world. This search and this assumption are not peculiar to philosophers; they are shared in varying degrees by every man and woman born into the world. Take, for example, a ploughman. He wakes at cock-crow and prepares to begin the familiar round of labour. He sees his wife lighting the cottage fire and preparing his morning meal, his children gathering expectant round the table: he hears the crackling of the fire on the hearth, the lowing of cows, the distant bleating of sheep and barking of dogs. And with these sights before his eyes and these sounds in his ears he has more or less consciously in his mind the scene that awaits him in the fields and on the way to it. He has a vision, for a vision it is, of the village church and churchyard with its solemn yews and its grassy mounds sleeping in the morning sunshine; of the turn in the road where he catches a glimpse of a winding river and of far blue hills; of the gate opening into the field where he is to toil till evening, pacing behind the plough drawn by the patient horses up and down the long furrows of upturned brown earth. He does not reflect on these things, still less does he question their reality. He assumes that they exist somewhere outside and independently of him, and that other eyes will see the old familiar scenes and that other ears will hear the old familiar sounds when his own are stopped for ever in the churchyard mould.

A supposed real world constructed by imagination behind the immediate date of sense.

In the same way every one of us is perpetually, every hour of the day, implicitly constructing a purely imaginary world behind the immediate sensations of light and colour, of touch, of sound, and of scent which are all that we truly apprehend; and oddly enough it is this visionary world, the creation of thought, which we dub the real world in contradistinction to the fleeting data of sense. Thus viewed, the mind of man may be likened to a wizard who, by the help of spirits or the waving of his magic wand, summons up scenes of enchantment which, deceived by the very perfection of his art, he mistakes for realities. Only by deliberate reflection is it possible to perceive how unsubstantial, in the last resort, is the seemingly solid structure of what we call the material universe. In the literal acceptation of the word, it consists of such stuff as dreams are made of. The only difference between the dreams of sleep and the dreams which we call our waking life is the greater orderliness which distinguishes the latter. Their succession is so regular that to a great extent we can predict it with confidence, and experience daily and hourly confirms the prediction. We anticipate, for example, the sights that will meet us when we pass into the garden or the neighbouring street, and the anticipation is invariably fulfilled. This fulfilment, countless times repeated, of our expectation is perhaps the principal cause, as certainly it is the best justification, of our instinctive belief in the reality of an external world. It is this regularity in the succession of phenomena which breeds in our mind the conception of a cause; in the last analysis cause is simply invariable sequence. The observation of such sequences is essential to the conduct, nay to the existence, of life, not only in men but in animals; with its help we are able to foresee the future and to adapt ourselves to it; without it we must perish prematurely.

Two philosophic theories of the ultimate reality, the materialistic and the spiritualistic.

But while mankind in general tacitly assumes that behind the phenomena of sense there is a real world of a more substantial and abiding nature, there are men who occupy themselves by predilection with the investigation of that assumed external world. They ask, is there really such a world hidden behind the veil of sensible phenomena? and if so, what are its origin and nature? and what laws, if any, does it obey? The men who ask these questions as to the ultimate reality of the world are philosophers in the widest sense of the word, and, roughly speaking, their answers fall into one of two classes according as they find the ultimate reality of the world in matter or in mind. On the one view, the ultimate reality is dead, unconscious, inhuman; on the other view, it is living, conscious, and more or less analogous to human feeling and intelligence; according to the one, things existed first and mind was developed out of them afterwards; according to the other, mind existed first and created, or at all events set in order, the realm of things. On the one view, the world is essentially material; on the other, it is essentially spiritual. Broadly speaking, science accepts the former view, at least as a working hypothesis; religion unhesitatingly embraces the latter.

Need for simplification and unification of phenomena.

Ancient Greek philosophy attempted to simplify phenomena by reducing them to one or a few elements.

Modern scientific simplifications in physics and biology.

Whichever hypothesis be adopted, the mind, in obedience to a fundamental law, seeks to form a conception which will simplify, and if possible unify, the multitudinous and seemingly heterogeneous phenomena of nature. Thus, to deal first with the materialistic hypothesis, ancient Greek philosophers attempted to reduce the apparent multitude and diversity of things to a single element, whether it was water, or fire, or what not. Others, less ambitious, were content to postulate the existence of four distinct and irreducible elements, fire, air, earth, and water. For a long time modern chemistry continued to multiply the apparently ultimate and irreducible elements of which the material universe was believed to be composed, till the number of elements had reached some eighty-eight. But, as has been observed by an eminent philosopher of our time,1 science could not rest content with the theory that the universe was built up out of just eighty-eight different sorts of things, neither more or less; to limit the kind of atoms to eighty-eight seemed as arbitrary as to limit the number of fundamental religious truths to thirty-nine. In both cases the mind naturally craves for either more or less; and for the sake of unity and simplicity it prefers less rather than more. In the case of science that craving has in recent years been satisfied by the more or less probable reduction of all the old chemical elements to the single element of hydrogen, of which the rest would appear to be only multiples.2 Similarly in biology the theory of evolution reduces the innumerable species of plants and animals to unity by deriving them all from a single simple type of living organism.3

The apparent simplifications of science are probably illusory, concealing inner complexities which the progress of knowledge will later reveal.

Thus alike in regard to the organic and the inorganic world the science of to-day has attained to that unity and simplicity of conception which the human intellect imperiously demands if it is to comprehend in some measure the infinite complexity of the universe, or rather of its shadows reflected on the illumined screen of the mind. Yet, as that complexity is infinite, so the search for the ultimate unity is probably endless also. For we may suspect that the finality, which seems to crown the vast generalizations of science, is after all only illusory, and that the tempting unity and simplicity which they offer to the weary mind are not the goal but only halting-places in the unending march. The fair-seeming fruit of knowledge too often turns out to be apples of Sodom. A closer inspection of the apparently simple result may reveal within it a fresh and as yet undreamed-of complexity, which in its turn may prove to be the starting-point of another quest, longer and more arduous than that which had yielded to the mind a brief and transient repose. For the thinker there is no permanent place of rest. He must move for ever forwards, a pilgrim of the night eternally pressing towards the faint and glimmering illumination that eternally retreats before him. With Ulysses he may say that—

All experience is an arch wherethro’

Gleams that untravell'd world, whose margin fades

For ever and for ever when I move”.4

A like process of simplification and unification may be traced in the history of religion.

Savages assume the existence of a multitude of spirits.

A gradual process of simplification and unification, like that which marks the progress of science or the materialistic interpretation of the world, may be traced in the history of religion or the spiritualistic interpretation of the world. Savages explain the phenomena of nature and of human life by supposing the existence of a multitude of spiritual beings, whether gods or ghosts, who people the sky, the air, the sea, the woods, the springs, the rivers, and by their assume the actions bring about all the varied effects which a materialistic philosophy refers to the agency of impersonal forces. Such, for example, was the theory of the Polynesians before, for their misfortune, a European flag ever floated in the Pacific. “By their rude mythology, each lovely island was made a sort of fairy-land, and the spells of enchantment were thrown over its varied scenes. The sentiment of the poet that—

Millions of spiritual creatures walk the earth,

Unseen, both when we wake and when we sleep,’

was one familiar to their minds; and it is impossible not to feel interested in a people who were accustomed to consider themselves surrounded by invisible intelligences, and who recognized in the rising sun—the mild and silver moon—the shooting star—the meteor's transient flame—the ocean's roar—the tempest's blast, or the evening breeze—the movements of mighty spirits. The mountain's summit, and the fleecy mists that hang upon its brows—the rocky defile—the foaming cataract—and the lonely dell—were all regarded as the abode or resort of these invisible beings.”5

A like assumption made by the ancient Greeks.

The same theory long persisted among peoples at a far higher level of culture than the rude islanders of the Pacific.

The lively Grecian, in a land of hills.

Rivers and fertile plains, and sounding shores,—

Under a cope of sky more variable,

Could find commodious place for every God.

The traveller slaked

His thirst from rill or gushing fount, and thanked

The Naiad. Sunbeams upon distant hills

Gliding apace, with shadows in their train,

Might, with small help from fancy, be transformed

Into fleet Oreads sporting visibly.

The Zephyrs, fanning, as they passed, their wings,

Lacked not, for love, fair objects whom they wooed

With gentle whisper.”6

Primitive animism, the theory that everything is animated by a spiritual principle like that of man.

When man began seriously to reflect on the nature of things, it was almost inevitable that he should explain them on the analogy of what he knew best, that is, by his own thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Accordingly he tended to attribute to everything, not only to animals, but to plants and inanimate objects, a principle of life like that of which he was himself conscious, and which, for want of a better name, we are accustomed to call a soul. This primitive philosophy is commonly known as animism. It is a childlike interpretation of the universe in terms of man. Whether or not it was man's earliest attempt at solving the riddle of the world, we cannot say. The history of man on earth is long; the evidence of geology and archaeology appears to be continually stretching the life of the species farther and farther into the past. It may be that the animistic hypothesis is only one of many guesses at truth which man has successively formed and rejected as unsatisfactory. All we know is that it has found favour with many backward races down to our own time. To illustrate it by a concrete example I will quote a dialogue between a missionary and his native pupil which was published in the present year of grace (1924), and which sets in the clearest light the antithesis between the savage and the civilized interpretation of physical phenomena. The contrast is all the more striking because the materialistic hypothesis of phenomena is here advocated by a Christian missionary, who would doubtless apply to the universe in general that spiritualistic theory which he scouts as absurd in particular cases. The scene of the dialogue is in British New Guinea or Papua, as it is now called. The missionary writes as follows:

Dialogue between a missionary and his pupil on the subject of animism.

“I knew the natives believed that when a tree was felled its soul was dispossessed and had to seek an abiding-place in another tree. Its preference was for a tree of the species from which it had been expelled, but failing it there were alternative species in which it could dwell temporarily. As an illustration I was told that when an aravea tree was felled its soul entered a laura, a species of the acacia group, and remained there until it could re-establish itself in another aravea tree. I saw in this belief an opportunity to question the other belief in the presence of a soul in everything that exists. Assuming that timber had no soul because when the tree was felled from which it came its soul was expelled, I took as an object likely to help me to prove my case an old table standing on the verandah of our house.” On the subject of this table the missionary thereupon engaged in an edifying conversation with a native Papuan lad who had come to lay the cloth for dinner. As recorded by the missionary, the conversation ran thus:

The soul of a table.

The soul of sawdust.

“I began something in this way. ‘Your people say that everything has its own soul, but they also say that when a tree is felled its soul is expelled.’ He replied, ‘That is so.’ ‘Well, then,’ I asked, ‘how can this table have a soul, seeing that when the tree was felled from which its timber was sawed, the tree soul fled to another tree habitat?’ I can recall the image of that lad's face as I write; it beamed with amused interest as he put this question, ‘How could it be here as a table if it had not a soul inside it to hold it together?’ I did not regard that as a poser, and replied, ‘It is here as a table because skilled men sawed the timber from a felled tree, cut it into lengths, shaped them into legs and top, nailed and glued the parts together, and it is held together by glue and nails, not by a soul.’ A Papuan does not contradict any one whom he regards as a chief. He could not even seem to confuse me, or in any way to suggest that my ignorance was palpable to him. He stooped down, got under the table, drew his finger-tips along the planks, came from under the table, stood up, drew quite near to me, held the finger-tips so that I could see them plainly and said, Those tiny pellets you can see under my finger-nails came from the table, others will fall from it like them, and so the table will go on wasting until it will crumble away altogether; then, and not till then, its soul will flee away and it will no longer be a table. It was my turn, but I had nothing to say; only much to think about, to marvel about. He had not done, however, until he had given me what he considered the most conclusive evidence of the presence of soul in things. Again he stretched his right hand towards me and said, ‘Each of those little pellets between my finger-nails has its soul; if it had not we could not see it, it could not be.’ Such were his views of the omnipresence of soul.”.7

Tendency of thought to empty the external world of spiritual contents by substituting unconscious forces for spirits.

Thus while the savage stoutly maintained the spiritualistic theory of natural phenomena, the missionary as stoutly maintained the materialistic theory and rejected the spiritualistic interpretation as childish and absurd. In doing so he contents by undoubtedly followed the general trend of civilized thought, which for centuries has been gradually emptying the external conscious world of all spiritual contents and reducing it to a welter of unconscious forces.

The passing of the gods.

Unbewusst der Frcuden, die sie schenket,

Nie entzückt von ihrer Herrlichkeit,

Nie gewahr des Geistes, der sie lenket,

Sel'ger nie durch meine Seligkeit;

Fühllos selbst für ihres Künstlers Ehre,

Gleich dem toten Schlag der Pendeluhr,

Dient sie knechtisch dem Gesetz der Schwere,

Die entgötterte Natur.

“Morgen wieder neu sich zu entbinden,

Wüklt sie heute sich ihr eigenes Grab,

Und an ewig gleicher Spindel winden

Sich von selbst die Monde auf und ab.

Müssig kehrten zu dem Dichterlande

Heim die Götter, unnütz einer Welt,

Die, entwachsen ihrem Gängelbande,

Sich durch eignes Schweben hält.”8

Yes, the gods of Greece are gone, and only poets are left to mourn their departure:

Great God! I'd rather be

A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;

So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,

Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;

Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;

Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.”

The unlimited number of indwelling spirits is gradually reduced to a limited pantheon of deities believed to control the various departments of nature: animism is replaced by polytheism.

This process of despiritualizing the universe, if I may be allowed to coin the phrase, has been a very slow and gradual one, lasting for ages. After men had peopled with a multitude of individual spirits every rock and hill, every tree and flower, every brook and river, every breeze that blew, and every cloud that flecked with silvery white the blue expanse of heaven, they began, in virtue of what we may call the economy of thought, to limit the number of the spiritual beings of whom their imagination at first had been so prodigal. Instead of a separate spirit for every individual tree, they came to conceive of a god of the woods in general, a Silvanus or what not; instead of personifying all the winds as gods, each with his distinct character and features, they imagined a single god of the winds, an Aeolus, for example, who kept them shut up in bags and could let them out at pleasure to lash the sea into fury. To put it otherwise, the innumerable multitude of spirits or demons was generalized and reduced to a comparatively small number of deities; animism was replaced by polytheism. The world was now believed to be governed by a pantheon of gods and goddesses, each with his or her individual character, powers, and functions, in virtue of which they were entrusted with the control of particular departments of nature or of human life. By this generalization the instinctive craving of the mind after simplification and unification of its ideas received a certain measure of satisfaction; but the satisfaction was only partial and temporary. The intelligence could not finally acquiesce in the conception of a number of separate and more or less independent deities, whose inclinations and activities constantly conflicted with each other.

In time the many gods are deposed in favour of one: polytheism passes into monotheism.

The same process of abstraction and generalization, the same desire for simplification and unification, which had evolved polytheism out of animism, now educed monotheism out of polytheism; the many gods, who had deposed long divided among them the sway of the world, were deposed in favour of one solitary deity, the maker and controller of all things. At first this one God was conceived, for example, by the Jews, as regulating the whole course of nature by a series of arbitrary acts of will and as liable to be deflected from his purposes by judicious appeals to his passions or his interests. But as time went on, and the uniformity of nature and the immutability of natural law were gradually recognized and firmly established by every advance of science, it was found necessary, or advisable, to relieve the deity of his multifarious duties as the immediate agent of every event in the natural world, and to promote him, if I may say so, to a higher sphere in the supernatural world, as the creator or architect of the universe; while the management of affairs in this sublunary region was committed to his subordinate agents, the purely physical forces of attraction and repulsion, which modern science, if I apprehend it aright, appears to resolve into gravitation and electricity, or possibly into electricity alone. Thus the spiritualistic theory of the world has undergone a process of simplification and unification analogous to that undergone by the materialistic theory: as the materialistic hypothesis has reduced the multitudinous forms of matter to one substance, hydrogen, so the spiritualistic hypothesis has reduced the multitude of spirits to one God.

Both theories, the materialistic and the spiritualistic, aim at explaining the reality of a world beyond the immediate data of sense.

Both theories aim at ascertaining and defining the ultimate reality; the one discovers it in hydrogen and electricity, the other in a deity. How far the two supplement or conflict with each other, is a nice question which might suitably be discussed by a Gifford lecturer; but an adequate discussion of it would require a combination of philosophic and scientific attainments to which I can lay no claim. All that I desire to point out is that both hypotheses aim at explaining and justifying our instinctive belief in the reality of a world beyond the immediate data of sense. This is no less true of the materialistic than of the spiritualistic hypothesis; for we must constantly bear in mind that the atoms and electrons into which modern science resolves the material world are as truly beyond the reach of our senses as are gnomes and fairies, and any other spiritual beings. It is true that we may have much better reasons for believing in the existence of atoms and electrons than of ghosts and hobgoblins; but in themselves atoms and electrons, ghosts and hobgoblins are equally hypothetical and therefore, in the strict sense of the word, imaginary, beings, invented to account for sensible phenomena. The supposed effects of both we can perceive, but not the things themselves. We can see, for example, the grassy ring which is said to be made by the feet of fairies dancing their rounds by moonlight on the greensward, but the fairies themselves we cannot see. We can perceive the bright line which is said to be the luminous trail left behind by an atom of helium shooting athwart a darkened chamber;9 but the atom itself escapes our purblind vision as completely as do the fairies.

The present analysis of matter into atoms and electrons is probably not final.

Even if, through some as yet undreamed-of refinement of our scientific instruments, atoms and electrons should be brought within the ken of our senses, can we doubt that science would at once proceed to analyse the now perceptible atoms and electrons into some minuter and imperceptible particles of matter, and so on to infinity? Already science assumes that every atom is, as it were, a little sun with planets in the form of electrons revolving about it.10 May it not be that each of these tiny suns comprises within itself a still tinier sun, or rather an incalculable number of such suns in the shape of atoms, and that in every one of these atoms of an atom a solar system, nay a whole starry universe, a miniature copy of ours, with all its wealth of vegetable and animal life, is, like our own, in process of evolution or decay? Conversely, we may imagine that this universe of ours which seems to us so inconceivably vast, is no more than an atom vibrating in a vaster universe; and so on to infinity.11

Incapacity of the human mind to apprehend the infinities between which it is poised.

Thus it is that thought perpetually outstrips sense in the human infinitely little as in the infinitely great; however far we extend the field of vision, whether to stars of unimaginable distance, or to corpuscles of unimaginable minuteness, thought still passes beyond them in the endless search after the real, the invisible, the eternal. We stand as it were at a point between two infinities neither of which we can ever hope to reach, yet both of which, by the pressure of some force unknown, we are perpetually urged to pursue. Thought is poised on a knife-edge between two abysses, into the unfathomable depths of which she is for ever peering, till her sight grows dim and her brain reels in the effort to pierce the thick gloom that closes the vista on either hand. Yet we understate the mystery that compasses about our little life when we speak of it as if it were only twofold, the mystery of the infinitely great and the infinitely small in space; for is there not also the twofold mystery of time, the mystery of the infinite past and the mystery of the infinite future? Thus our metaphor of thought poised between two abysses needs to be corrected and expanded: not two, but four infinities, four gulfs, four bottomless chasms yawn at her feet; and down into them some Tempter—or is it some bright angel?—whispering at her ear, perpetually lures her to plunge, only, it would seem, to beat and flutter her ineffectual wings in the impenetrable darkness. Yet even here, unappalled by the apparently insoluble nature of the enigma, the human mind refuses to acquiesce in these manifold antitheses. Of late, if I apprehend it aright, philosophy or science (for on fundamental questions these two sisters after following the circle of human knowledge in opposite directions, tend to meet and kiss at last), philosophy or science has recently been at work to simplify the ultimate problems by reducing the seemingly irreducible principles of space and time to a single reality.12 It is not for me to pronounce an opinion on this bold generalization. I refer to it only as perhaps the latest effort of the philosophic or scientific mind to unify and harmonize the apparently heterogeneous and discordant constituents of the universe.

The Gifford lectures intended to promote the study of natural theology.

The subject of the present course is the religion of ancient and backward races.

The Gifford lectures were founded to stimulate and advance the study of natural theology. By natural theology I understand the conception which man, without the aid of revelation, has formed to himself of the existence and nature of a God or gods. The theme is a vast one, exceeding the capacity of any single man to treat of adequately in a course of twenty lectures. Accordingly your lecturers have naturally and rightly chosen to deal with those particular sides or aspects of the subject with which their own special studies had made them in some measure acquainted. I propose to follow their example. As you are perhaps aware, my attention has been given almost exclusively to the early history, I may almost say to the embryology, of natural religion; I mean, to the ideas which the ancients and the backward races of mankind formed of the divine nature and its relations to the world. Accordingly in the lectures which I have the honour to deliver in this place I purpose to take certain of these ideas as my subject, to describe the conceptions themselves and the practical consequences which have been deduced from them, whether in the shape of ritual or of rules for the guidance of life, I am aware that the description of beliefs and customs which the enlightened portion of mankind has long agreed to dismiss as false and absurd, if not as monstrous, vicious, and cruel, is apt to be somewhat tedious and repellent; certainly it lacks the vivid interest which would naturally attach to a discussion such as I have indicated of the relations between the latest advances of science and the latest advances, or retreats, of theology. Still I trust that an account even of crude theories and preposterous practices may not be wholly destitute of interest and instruction, if it enables us to picture to ourselves something of the effort which it has cost our predecessors to grope their way through the mists of ignorance and superstition to what passes with us of this generation for the light of knowledge and wisdom. They were the pioneers who hewed their way through a jungle that might well have seemed impenetrable to man: they made the paths smooth for those who were to come after: we walk in their footsteps, and reap at our ease the harvest which they sowed with labour and anguish. The gratitude we owe them for the inestimable service which they have rendered us should temper the harsh judgments which we are too apt to pass on their errors, on what a hasty verdict stigmatizes as their follies and their crimes; and the lesson which we draw from the contemplation of their long wanderings and manifold aberrations in the search for the true and the good should be one rather of humility than of pride; it should teach us how weak and frail is human nature, and by what a slender thread hangs the very existence of our species, like a speck or mote suspended in the inconceivable infinities of the universe.

The theology be discussed is that of simple folk, not that of the schools.

Under simple folk are included savages and the uneducated classes in civilized countries.

Accordingly the natural theology of which I propose to treat is the theology of simple folk, not the theology of the schools, where the doctrine of the divine nature has been elaborated and refined by age-long discussion and the successive contributions of generations of subtle thinkers. Who then are the simple folk whose theological notions we are about to study together? The great bulk of them may be described as savages, by which I mean the races of lower culture, so far as their customs and beliefs have not been modified by contact with civilization. Under simple folk I include also the uneducated classes in civilized countries, and especially the peasantry, among whom ancient modes of thought and of practice commonly linger long after they have disappeared among the more enlightened members of the community. The beliefs and customs handed down by tradition from time immemorial among the unlearned are commonly comprised under the general term of folk-lore; as the great bulk of them probably originated in a very remote antiquity, they furnish valuable evidence as to the habits and ideas which may be presumed to have prevailed generally in former times, before the advance of knowledge, and with it of civilization, gradually ousted them from polite society and drove them into holes and corners, where they subsist like bats and owls in the darkness of ignorance and superstition. Accordingly I shall sometimes appeal to folk-lore for evidence of ancient modes of thought and practice, which, however strange and barbarous they may seem to civilized eyes, often shed a flood of light on the religion of our primitive forefathers.

The religions of the civilised nations of antiquity will also be considered, because these religions are essentially popular creations.

Lastly, I shall draw not a few of my illustrations from the ancient religions of India, of Egypt, of Babylon, of Greece, and of Rome. As society in these countries at the epochs to which I shall refer was not only civilized, but had recorded its civilization in copious and elaborate literatures, it might be objected that. I have no right to include these peoples among the simple folks from whom I profess to derive the materials of these lectures. It is true no doubt that in many respects the theology and ritual of ancient India and classical antiquity had been modified and refined, even in very early days, by the influence of a higher thought and a purer morality than can be expected of an ignorant and unenlightened multitude. Yet after making every allowance for such improvements, gradually and no doubt for the most part silently effected by the intellectual and moral progress of the leaders, we must still regard the national religions of these civilized peoples as essentially popular creations, and as bearing on their face the indelible imprint of their origin. In other words, they were not, like the great historical religions, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam, created each at a blow by the genius of a single founder, who was raised far above his fellows by the loftiness or the energy of his personal character, by the force of his moral enthusiasm or of his worldly ambition, and by the breadth of his intellectual outlook. In the contrary, all the evidence points to the conclusion that the national religions of ancient India and the Mediterranean basin were in general the fruit of a long, gradual, and so to say natural evolution, which lasted for many ages and was effected rather by the tacit and almost unconscious co-operation of the many than by the purposeful intervention of a few outstanding individuals.

The religion of Israel, unlike the popular religions of classical antiquity, bears the imprint of moral reformation instituted by individual legislators and prophets.

To this general rule perhaps the only exception is the religion of ancient Israel, which undoubtedly bears the clearest marks of having been profoundly and repeatedly modified not only by the deliberate action of able and far-seeing legislators, but by the moral enthusiasm of the prophets. Yet even these men, who have exerted on the history of humanity an influence which it would hardly be possible to exaggerate, even they did not create the religion Of their people; the substance of it had no doubt been handed down, generation after generation, from times beyond the memory of man: all that the great lawgivers and prophets did was to reform the ancient faith by purging it of its grosser elements and adapting it in some measure to their own high ideals of religion and ethics. But these reformations were not complete; indeed they could not be so; the weaknesses and imperfections of human nature alike in reformers and reformed forbade, as they will always forbid, the realization of the fairest dreams. Hence it came about that even after the reformers had done their work, the national religion of Israel retained not a few crudities that had been bequeathed to it from ruder ages, relics of ignorance and barbarism which neither legislators nor prophets had been able to efface from the book of the law and the hearts of the people. Such relics are folk-lore, and to some of them I may allow myself to refer in the course of these lectures without, I trust, incurring the suspicion of trespassing on the forbidden ground of revelation.

The principal forms of natural religion in its earlier stages.

The natural religion of simple folk falls into two branches, the worship of nature and the worship of the dead.

Such, then, are the sources from which I propose to draw most of the facts illustrative of that department of natural theology which I have taken as the subject of my lectures. Before closing this general introduction to the course, it remains to indicate briefly the principal forms which natural religion is commonly found to assume in its earlier stages, with which alone we are here concerned.

As I have already pointed out, the natural religion to which I purpose to confine my attention is that of simple folk, or in other words of primitive peoples, if I may be allowed to use the ambiguous word primitive in a relative, not an absolute sense, to denote a level of culture much below that which has been reached by educated persons in modern civilized society. If then, we survey the natural religion of primitive peoples in all parts of the world, we shall probably discover that it everywhere assumes one of two forms, which, far from being incompatible with each other, are usually found to be embraced simultaneously and with equal confidence by the worshippers. One of them is the worship of nature, the other is the worship of the dead. I. must say a few words about each.

The worship of nature is based on the personification of natural phenomena.

First, in regard to the worship of nature, I mean by that the worship of natural phenomena conceived as animated, conscious, and endowed with both the power and the will to benefit or injure mankind. Conceived as such they are naturally objects of human awe and fear. Their life and consciousness are supposed to be strictly analogous to those of men; they are thought to be subject to the same passions and emotions, and to possess powers which, while they resemble those of man in kind, often far exceed them in degree. Thus to the mind of primitive man these natural phenomena assume the character of formidable and dangerous spirits whose anger it is his wish to avoid, and whose favour it is his interest to conciliate. To attain these desirable ends he resorts to the same means of conciliation which he employs towards human beings on whose goodwill he happens to be dependent; he proffers requests to them, and he makes them presents; in other words, he prays and sacrifices to them; in short, he worships them. Thus what we may call the worship of nature is based on the personification of natural phenomena. Whether he acts deliberately in pursuance of a theory, or, as is more probable, instinctively in obedience to an impulse of his nature, primitive man at a certain stage, not necessarily the earliest, of his mental evolution attributes a personality akin to his own to all, or at all events to the most striking, of the natural objects, whether animate or inanimate, by which he is surrounded. This process of personification appears to be the principal, though it is probably not the only source of the worship of nature among simple folk. The worship of nature will form the subject of my Gifford lectures.

The worship of the dead rests on the assumption of their existence and of their power to influence the living for good or evil.

The other form of natural religion to which I have referred is the worship of the dead. While it differs from the worship of nature in itself and in the presuppositions on which it rests, it is perhaps equally diffused among men13 and has probably exerted at least an equal influence on their thought and of and institutions. The assumptions on which the worship of the dead is founded are mainly two: first, that the dead retain their consciousness and personality, and second, that they can powerfully influence the fortunes of the living for good or evil good or evil. To put it otherwise, the human soul is supposed to survive the death of the body and in its disembodied state to be capable of benefiting or injuring the survivors. Thus a belief in immortality, or at all events in the survival of consciousness and personality for an indefinite time after death, is the keystone of that propitiation or worship of the dead which has played a most important part in history and has been fraught with the most momentous consequences for good or evil to humanity.

Both courses of lectures to be devoted to the worship of nature.

When I undertook to deliver these lectures, my intention was to devote my first course to the worship of nature, and my second course to the worship of the dead, thus rounding off, in outline at least, the whole sphere of natural religion among simple folks. But when I addressed myself to the writing of the lectures, I found the materials for the study of the worship of nature far too copious to be compressed into a course of ten lectures. They overflowed the prescribed limits and promised to furnish ample materials for a second course. Accordingly, instead of attempting to deal more or less cursorily with the two forms of natural religion, the worship of nature, and the worship of the dead, I have decided that it will be better to give both courses to a more thorough investigation of the worship of nature alone. In my next lecture I will open the subject with some account of the worship of the sky in Aryan antiquity.

  • 1.

    Bertrand Russell, The A B C of Atoms (London, 1923), p. 19.

  • 2.

    “Physicists now believe that all of the elements are compounded of hydrogen atoms, bound together by negative electrons. Thus helium is made up of four hydrogen atoms, yet the atomic weight of helium (4) is less than four times that of hydrogen (1 008). The difference may represent the mass of the electrical energy released when the transmutation occurred” (G. E. Hale, The New Heavens, New York and London, 1922, p. 80). At present the number of multiples of hydrogen, and consequently the number of the elements, postulated by physicists appears to be ninety-two, but of these several remain to be discovered, their existence being rendered probable by gaps in the series of atomic numbers, which begins with hydrogen at one and ends with uranium at ninety-two. See Sir William Bragg, Concerning the Nature of Things (London, 1925), pp. 36 sq. In this passage Sir W. Bragg is speaking of the difference between the elements as consisting, not in the different multiples of hydrogen, but in the different number of electrons which they can normally attract or hold as satellites. But apparently the number of multiples of hydrogen in an element is identical with the number of its electrons, and both of them with its atomic number.

  • 3.

    For a full and clear statement of the evidence, see A. Dendy, Outlines of Evolutionary Biology, Third Edition (London, 1923).

  • 4.

    Tennyson, Ulysses.

  • 5.

    W. Ellis, Polynesian Researches, Second Edition (London, 1832-1836), i. 331.

  • 6.

    Wordsworth, The Excursion, Book IV. II. 718-721, 871-879.

  • 7.

    J. H. Holmes, In Primitive New Guinea (London, 1924), pp. 154 sq. In quoting the text I have substituted for the native word imunu the English word “soul”, which is its nearest equivalent. Mr. Holmes defines imunu as “soul, living principle”, “the soul of things”, p. 150.

  • 8.

    Schiller, Die Götter Griechenlands.

  • 9.

    Sir William Bragg, Concerning the Nature of Things, pp. 25 sqq.

  • 10.

    Sir William Bragg, Concerning the Nature of Things, p. 29; F. Soddy; Matter and Energy (London, 1920), pp. 186 sq.

  • 11.

    The thought of the two infinities, the infinitely great and the infinitely little, which equally evade the utmost span of man's puny intellect, was long ago eloquently enforced by Pascal in a famous passage. See Pascal, Pensées sur la Vérité de la Religion Chrétienne, par J. Chevalier (Paris, 1925), i. 43 sqq. In modern times the same idea has been set forth by Ernest Renan in what we may call his confession of philosophic faith written towards the end of his life. See E. Renan, “Examen de Conscience philosophique”, Feuilles détachées (Paris, 1892), pp. 407 sqq.

  • 12.

    Compare Bertrand Russell, The A B C of Relativity (London, 1925), pp. 58 sqq. In speaking so glibly of infinities, as I have done in the text, I should mention that at the present time several scientific gentlemen are engaged in reconstructing the universe on a new and improved pattern of finite dimensions. Indeed, two of these reconstructions are now complete and ready for delivery. But is the two differ fundamentally from each other, and the value of both seems dubious, the unscientific laity may perhaps be pardoned for temporarily acquiescing in the old-fashioned infinities and in the antiquated notion of a radical distinction between space and time. See Bertrand Russell, The A B C of Relativity, pp. 164 sqq. “Two somewhat different finite universes have been constructed, one by Einstein, the other by De Sitter”, etc. The difference between the two, according to Mr. Russell, is that, whereas in Einstein's universe it is only space that is queer, in De Sitter's universe both space and time have gone mad, so that only a hatter would be in a position to understand them. Even Einstein, it appears, after ejecting absolute space and time by the front door, has smuggled them in by the back—a melancholy backsliding which deals a staggering blow to the reconstructed universe and encourages the profane to indulge in a chimerical hope of the continued existence and sanity of both space and time.

  • 13.

    Compare Max Müller, Introduction to the Science of Religion, p. 211: “The worship of the spirits of the departed is perhaps the most widely spread form of natural superstition all over the world.”

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