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The Nature of Religion

1923 to 1925
University of Glasgow

Paterson’s introductory comments in chapter 1 recount the aims of the Gifford lectureship and lay out his method of philosophical theism and philosophy of religion, concluding by outlining the characteristics of religion. He asserts that, ‘from the empirical point of view—as a synthesis of human faith, feeling, and endeavour, religion may well be thought to be the most extraordinary phenomenon that is encountered in the world of men’ (p. 23). Chapter 2, ‘The Types of the Religious Subject’, discusses the psychology of religion and the various conceptions of individual and collective subjects. Paterson posits three types of the individual subject: Man as Man, the Convert, and the Saint, who is the ‘utterly consecrated and devoted personality’ (p. 52); and two types of the collective subject: the Natural Community (i.e. ‘the tribe’) and the Ecclesiastical Community, which ‘lives and moves on a higher ethical plane than the nation’ (p. 68). Chapter 3, ‘Religion and the Instincts’, examines the religious instincts, or tendencies, of self-affirmation, self-subjection (or self-abnegation, the counterpart to self-affirmation), tenderness, curiosity. Paterson then details the metaphysical implications of such specifically religious instincts as supportive of religion itself; he asserts that the religious instinct is ‘an elemental fact of the spiritual constitution of man’ (p. 109). Chapter 4, ‘Religion and the Subconscious’, begins with a definition of the subconscious in light of modern psychology; the author then undertakes a discussion of the role the subconscious plays in the interpretation of immanent and transcendent phenomena and seeks to justify theological interpretation of the subconscious. Chapter 5, ‘The Religious Mind’, recognizes the intellectual and imaginative powers of the religious mind, ‘the ordinary cognitive powers which have been employed in man’s intellectual relations with the religious objects’ (p. 152), and then moves on to explore the modes of manifestation and control of the more intense and elevated forms of spiritual and intellectual experience. Paterson asserts that belief in salvation (heaven) is the practical purpose of all religion in chapter 6, ‘The Chief End of Religion’. He theorises three different conceptions of the nature of salvation: the mundane, which relates salvation to temporal well-being; the fugitive, that is, the ultimate detachment of the soul from the material world; and the plenary, which views salvation as total, both in the here-and-now and in the life to come. Chapter 7, ‘Religion as Duty to God’, explores the appeal of religion to the moral sensibilities of humankind and examines two competing forms of ‘obligational’ religion, which Paterson characterises as mixed, ‘in which the sense of duty to God has been conjoined with, and also in some degree has been nourished by, the worshipper’s faith and hope in the God of his salvation’ (p. 248), and pure, in which duty to God is free from incentive or expectation of any special blessing. Chapter 8, ‘Religion as Love of God’, asserts that religion cannot be reduced to feeling, much less any single feeling. Paterson analyses the experience of Divine Love at what he calls the natural, regenerate and saintly levels or stages of spiritual development (invoking his three categories, from chapter 2, of man as Man, Convert and Saint). This leads to a valuation of the various types of Divine Love in different religions. In chapter 9, ‘Religion as Light’, Paterson considers religion in terms of illumination, a view he finds only partially satisfactory, and contrasts the esteem of knowledge as a means of salvation with such esteem as an independent good. Chapter 10, ‘Man’s Vision of God’, classifies the variety of ideas about God into four ‘series’: the realistic, the dynamistic, the pneumatic and the agnostic. These he tests against ‘the criteria of value which are supplied in the religious view of existence and by the spirit of religious history’ (p. 339), finally asserting the preeminence of theism. Chapter 11, ‘The Way of Salvation’, begins by reaffirming the importance, indeed centrality, of the idea of salvation to the subject of religion. Paterson constructs an ascending series of methods to salvation, which he calls, respectively, the ways of coercion, ingratiation, obedience and faith. He concludes by discussing the bearing of salvation on faith, morals and sacramental rites. Various views of the origin of religion, from the theological (Christian) to the evolutionary (modern/secular), are examined in chapter 12, ‘The Problem of Origins’. Naturally, Paterson champions the version put forward in Christian theology. In chapter 13, ‘Concerning the Truth of Religion’, Paterson explains the significance of the nature of religion to the question of truth and outlines the conclusions of his overall inquiry. He contrasts the aspects of chaos in history with the unity offered in history when viewed through a religious lens, and posits this as the goal of religion. Finally, he champions the immutable truth and necessity of religion, writing:

the nature of religion, when it is understood, is its best apology. One of the weightiest of the arguments in support of the truth of religion is that which is founded on the consideration of its aims and provisions, and especially of the nature of the doctrine which has been transmitted to the later generations as the harvest from the spiritual history of mankind. We may sum up by saying that the study of the religions of the world makes, in the first instance, a bewildering impression of diversity and incoherence, but that the historical process is found to have been controlled and guided by unifying principles, and that the age-long occupation with god and divine things issued in conclusions which have a claim to finality. (pp. 457-58)

Paterson offers compendious evidence for the validity of religion, for the truth of the idea of God and for the claim of Christianity as the true and final religion.

  • Brannon Hancock, University of Glasgow