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).
On this view, human beings are believed to be religious just as they are moral, political, and musical. But despite the name, Natural Religion should not be confused with the worship of nature (which one might refer to as ‘naturism’ and common within pagan religions), 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, 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. Just as most would claim that there is something wrong with the person who lacks a sense of morality, similarly Natural Religion suggests that 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 this 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) remarked 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, religious institutions, and specific authorities accompanied by doctrines, creeds, theologies, and liturgies. For a number of historical commentators, especially those active during the Enlightenment, 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.
This was in part to demonstrate the legitimacy of religion by showing that it was authentically human. It was also to do so by avoiding an appeal to divine revelation; Walter Capps explains,
“There was a profound discontent with the prospect that the only possible certification lay in divine revelation, or in teachings prescribed and authorized by the church. The same lack of satisfaction carried over to the claim that religious believers were true because they had been transmitted by reliable authorities from one generation to the next. Unwilling to allow religious truth to be certified circumstantially, the patrons of the Enlightenment intellectual sensitivities sought more rigorous canons or standards of legitimation and confirmation” (5).
Thus there was the distinction between Natural and Revealed Religion and for thinkers to place the former as a valid form of human experience. Many of these theorists noneless maintained that Natural Religion was the simplified religion free from things such as social organization, hierarchy, and ritual. 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 that 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 to 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 a guide to supposedly re-established the religion of Adam.
1. Strenski, Ivan. 2015. Understanding Theories of Religion: An Introduction. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons. p. 11.
2. Capps, Walter. 1995. Religious Studies: The Making of a Discipline. Minneapolis: Fortress Press. p. 7.
3. Thomas Paine. 1967. The Writings of Thomas Paine. Edited by Jazzybee Verlag. p. 627
4. Capps, Walter. 1995. Ibid. p. 7.
5. Capps, Walter. 1995. Ibid. p. 269.