What is the Pursuit for Natural Religion?

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Natural Religion is the idea that there is a religious apprehension of the world common to all human beings. According to Ivan Strenski it is part of the “normal course of the formation of human nature. We are not religious because of some miraculous divine intervention but rather because that’s the way people were made as a general species” (1). Walter Capps (1934-1997) explains that,

“… natural religion was understood to be accessible and available to all. It was inviting and tolerant, though not always very specific. Natural Religion, for instance, carried no special membership requirements, other than one’s humanity. It’s convictions and affirmations were publicly accessible. It could be verified empirically, and required no approvals or sanctions from ecclesiastical authorities” (2).

Human beings are religious just as they are moral, political, musical, and so on. However, despite its name, Natural Religion should not be confused with the worship of nature (which one might refer to as ‘naturism’), those religions that worship nature, or natural theology which looks at the physical universe and infers a God’s characteristics within them. According to Natural Religion the desire to worship God, a godhead, gods, understand nirvana, and so on, is basic to every human being, and so much so that if one lacked this natural religious sensibility then one could not truly be holistically human. Most would say there’s something wrong with the human being who lacks a sense of morality, and similarly, on the idea of Natural Religion, the human that lacks a religious instinct has something wrong with him or her. Natural Religion is thus not something that has to be taught, it it just simply part of human nature.

Natural Religion Versus Revealed Religion

Further, many historical and Enlightenment theorists worked with a distinction between Natural Religion and Revealed Religion. The Deist Thomas Pain (1737-1809) explains that,

“If we consider the nature of our condition here, we must see there is no occasion for such a thing as revealed religion. What is it we want to know? Does not the creation, the universe we behold, preach to us the existence of an Almighty Power that governs and regulates the whole? And is not the evidence that this creation holds out to our senses infinitely stronger than anything we can read in a book that any impostor might make and call the word of God? As for morality, the knowledge of it exists in every man’s conscience” (3)

Revealed religion refers to the religion of the church, the institutions, and specific authorities accompanied by doctrines, creeds, theologies, and liturgies. For number of historical commentators, revealed religion was seen in a negative light for it functioned as a system of tyranny and of intellectual enslavement (4). Attempts were therefore made to strip revealed religion of its excesses and to reduce it to its fundamental, core elements. According to Pain, and others, Natural Religion was the simplified religion free from things such as social organization, hierarchy, ritual, and so on. Efforts were made to discover this pure, uncorrupted religion, and because it embodied the essentials of religion, partisans saw it as the best of the religions.

Some Historical Theorists on Natural Religion

Such was highlighted by Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle (1657-1757) who contended the God that could be discerned in nature was not the God of any historical religion. Claude Adrian Helvetius (1715-1771) drew a distinction between Natural and Revealed Religion, and argued against ecclesiastical monopoly over religion and morality. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) too worked with the distinction between Natural Religion and Revealed Religion, arguing that the former referred to the common religious sensibilities of human beings, and the latter the religion of the church and the institution. Herbert of Cherbury’s (1583-1648) quest to find a “common mind” about religion led him to oppose exclusivist claims about any one religion, particularly the claims for ownership of revealed truth made by Christians. He argued that the pure, true religion is found in what the main religions shared, these including belief in God, that God should be worshiped, that virtue and piety are mutually related, that our crimes must be repented, and that judgment about good and evil will take place in the afterlife. This, for him, was Natural Religion. Jean Bodin (1530-1596) believed the oldest religion was this true religion. Seeking after a common mind of religion is evident in his Colloquium of the Seven about Secrets of the Sublime (1587) where he presents a fictional dialogue and debate between representatives of several different religions, religious and irreligious positions. He argued that the best and truest religion must be the oldest religion, and this coupled with his belief that the biblical Genesis account is both a true account of human origins and religion led him to contend that the true religion was the religion of Adam. Bodin claimed that Adam was monotheistic in that he believed in one God. He claimed this because he believed that Moses’ religion was guide given that Moses supposedly re-established the religion of Adam.

References

1. Strenski, I. 2015. Understanding Theories of Religion: An Introduction. p. 11.

2. Capps, W. 1995. Religious Studies: The Making of a Discipline. p. 7.

3. Thomas Paine. 1967. The Writings of Thomas Paine. Edited by Jazzybee Verlag. p. 627

4. Capps, W. 1995. Ibid. p. 7.

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