Chapter 2 - Universality of Religion

"As soon as man grew distinct from the animal he became
religious." No one gifted with a sense of humour could have gravely penned a
suggestion so grotesque as this. That the remote descendant of an ape might
become intelligent, philosophical, mathematical, musical, poetical, scientific
- all this possibly we could understand; but why should he become

And yet this dictum of Renan's is most important as a testimony
from such a quarter to the fact that man is a religious being. The universality
of religion has, indeed, been denied ; but the denial is based on grounds that
are inadequate.

"The statement," says Professor Tiele, "that there are
nations or tribes which possess no religion, rests either on inaccurate
observations, or on a confusion of ideas. No tribe or nation has yet been met
with destitute of belief in any higher beings, and travellers who asserted
their existence have been afterwards refuted by facts. It is legitimate,
therefore, to call religion, in its most general sense, an universal phenomenon
of humanity." And in quoting these words, Professor Max Muller declares: "We
may safely say that, in all researches, no human beings have been found
anywhere who do not possess something which to them is religion."' And Charles
Darwin himself admits that "a belief in all-pervading spiritual agencies seems
to be universal."

Accepting the conclusion, therefore, that man is by
nature religious, the question remains, How can this fact be accounted for?
Philosophers may amuse themselves with the theory that it is due to his losing
a tail and learning to talk; but all who acknowledge the reign of law, and
insist on seeking a cause for an effect, will see in it a proof of that, as
even heathen poets taught, man is in a special sense the offspring of God. This
conclusion suggests the inquiry why it is that he is so unworthy of his origin.
Were there a competent court to issue the writs, what damages human nature
might obtain in libel actions against biological science and Augustinian
theology! Bad as it is to proclaim that man is the child of an anthropoid ape,
it is almost worse to declare that, through and through, and in every sense, he
is only and altogether bad. True it is that the history of the race has been
black and hateful. No less true is it that wrong-doing is easy, whereas
well-doing calls for sustained effort. But in this connection such facts,
important though they be, are not everything. In a real sense the truest test
of a man is not what he does, but what he approves; not what he is, but what he
would wish to be. Vicious indulgence may have so depraved him that vice seems
no longer vicious, for just as his physical faculties may be destroyed by
abuse, so his conscience may become "seared as with a hot iron;" but this in an
abnormal condition.

What is called the "moral" law is so described because
it is the law of our being. It was not the commandment which made thieving
wrong. It was because it was wrong that the commandment was given. It has been
said, indeed, by a modern disciple of Hobbes, that "Thou shalt not steal" is
merely the selfish precept of the hog in the clover to warn off the hog outside
the fence. But such teaching is the outcome of a reprobate mind, and merely
exemplifies the fact that a man may sink morally to the level of a hog. But, it
may be urged, we can point to communities that see no evil in theft. True; and
we could also point to a nation whose women have stumps instead of feet. But
let the lowest savage and the Chinese woman be removed in infancy from the
influences which distort the conscience of the one and the limbs of the other,
and in both cases nature will assert itself.

A full discussion of this
problem would fill a volume. But no such discussion is necessary here. For no
infidel will raise the question; and in the case of the believer an appeal to
the Scripture should settle it. Its testimony is clear:
"When Gentiles
which have no law do by nature the things of the law, these, having no law, are
a law unto themselves; in that they show the work of the law written in their
hearts, their conscience It may be useful to note that it is not the law, but
the work of The law, which is written in man's heart by nature bearing witness
therewith, and their thoughts one with another accusing or else excusing them." (Romans 2:14-15) 
Words could not be plainer. A heathen, though destitute of a Divine revelation,
has a knowledge of good and evil, for that is inherent in man. That such a
knowledge was implanted in him by his Creator will be very generally admitted,
but the popularity of a belief is no pledge of its truth. According to
Scripture man was created innocent, and it was his lapse from innocency that
brought him the knowledge of evil. But the knowledge of good and evil would not
of itself make man religious. He was religious before he acquired that
knowledge, and the atheistic evolutionist is theoretically right in holding
that he might possess it now apart from religion. The fact is that what is so
commonly mistaken for "conscience" is but a subordinate characteristic of
conscience. For it is what may be termed God-consciousness, and not the
knowledge of good and evil, which constitutes man a religious being ; and it
was this that the Creator implanted in him when He made him a spiritual being.

Here then is the question : Man being the "offspring of God," and having
instincts befitting his origin, how is it that he does not always choose the
good and turn from the evil? Who will dare to answer that it is because he
cannot? Not the Christian, certainly; for his Scriptures assert the
responsibility of man; and indeed the whole doctrine of future judgment is
based upon that truth. Nor yet the infidel, for the dignity of humanity is his
favourite theme. But the fact remains that while some, not only among Pagans,
but even among those who, like Renan for example, affect to ignore all
religions, can lead worthy and excellent lives, these are few and exceptional.
The lives of the vast majority of men are evil. And they choose the evil in
spite of knowing that it is evil, and in spite of a fitful desire to shun it.
Apart from special depravity, a man's higher nature turns toward the good even
while he yields to the evil. He praises virtue though he practises vice. It is
his will that is paralysed, not his judgment. He is like a bird with a broken
wing, whose instincts prompt it to fly while it flounders helplessly on the

Man has instincts and aspirations which indicate for him a noble
origin and a still nobler destiny, but yet he is practically a failure. How is
this to be accounted for? In the whole range of nature, man excepted, there is
nothing to correspond with it. It must of course be due to the operation of
some law which applies only to the human race. All other creatures fulfil the
patent purpose of their being; man alone not merely falls short of this but
out-rages it. How is this mystery to be explained? It may be said perhaps that
man's vices are merely the natural propensities of the brute from which he is
derived. But here we can silence the evolutionist once again by appealing to
the phenomena of religion. The religious instincts of the race are certainly
not derived from the brute, and it is precisely in this sphere that the
corruption and perversity of human nature are most manifest. If it were merely
a question of animal-worship among Pagan races, the evolutionist might again
bring in his theories. But the fact to be explained is that, in the most
advanced civilisations, whether of classic heathendom or of modern Christendom,
religion has invariably tended to degenerate, and to make its votaries a prey
to superstition.

Let us approach the matter from another standpoint. The
bird is unable to fly: is it unreasonable to suppose that some mishap must have
occurred to it? Let us then tentatively adopt the suggestion that some disaster
in the moral and spiritual sphere befell the human race in primeval times; and
let us consider what results might be expected as the consequence of such a
catastrophe? Man's moral equilibrium would of course be disturbed. The
machinery of his moral being would, so to speak, be thrown out of gear. But the
effect upon his spiritual nature, by reason of its greater delicacy and
sensitiveness, would be absolutely disastrous. A broken water-pipe may in a
measure serve its purpose, but no electricity will pass along a broken

And is not this precisely in accordance with experience? In the
sphere of morals men differ vastly from one another. Apart from Christianity
altogether, some men lead pure and excellent lives. Others are steeped in vice.
And the fact that some are moral is proof that all might be so. In this limited
sphere, indeed, we may, even at the risk of being made the quarry in a heresy
hunt, adopt the dogma of Pelagius, "That as man has ability to sin, so has he
also not only ability to discern what is good, but likewise to desire it and to
perform it." And the truth of this is recognised when our selfish interests are
involved. If a man steals his neighbour's cash, he goes to gaol; for "original
sin" is no defence to a criminal charge. True it is that a thief comes in time
to weaken his moral power to keep his hands out of his neighbour's pocket. But
prison discipline is rightly deemed a useful tonic in such a case. And what the
fear of human judgment is to the criminal, the fear of Divine judgment is
intended to be to the sinner. But orthodoxy so dins it into men's ears that
they have no power to live moral and virtuous lives, that they naturally
believe it, and cease to make the effort. That they can, but will not, is the
righteous basis of the judgment that awaits them.

The vital error of the
Pelagian heresy was the application of it in the spiritual sphere. But in the
fifth century, revealed truth had been so obscured by theology that the
distinction was ignored. A traveller who has missed his way in a forest can
stand upright and walk like a man; but so long as the heavens are shut out from
his view, he cannot direct his steps, he is lost. The morality of Saul of
Tarsus, the profane persecutor, was as unimpeachable as that of Paul, the
inspired apostle; but his splendid morality only served to bring into stronger
relief the depth of his spiritual blindness and depravity.
(Footnote - Some people are held in high esteem by all who do
not know them: the Apostle Paul could appeal to those who had known him from
his youth (Acts xxvi. 4, 5). "I have lived in all good conscience before God
until this day," he could declare in the scene of his early life (xxiii. i).
His life throughout had been blameless (Phil. iii. 6). Never perhaps did any
other mere man live a life so perfect. therefore it was he wrote the words:
"Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief" (i Tim.
i. 15). The claim to stand forth as "first" in all the long line of sinners,
was not inspired (as with thousands who since have adopted the words) by "the
pride that apes humility;" it was due to the fact that while he had had
advantages which raised him above all other men, his religion had served only
to make him a God-hater, "a blasphemer and a persecutor." Mere religion always
drags a man down spiritually.)

Man, then, is a religious being,
not moral, merely, but religious. And he is religious because he is spiritual.
Here is the parting of the ways, where we must break once for all with the mere
evolutionist. It is idle for him to talk to us of "embryonic developments
"-dog's teeth and donkey's ears, and any amount besides. Even if we accept his
account of the origin of man's animal structure, the fact remains that the
spiritual element in his complex being must have come from God.

But this
only serves to emphasise our difficulties. Were we to reason out the matter
a priori, we should expect to find complete unity in the religious
beliefs of the race, and they would have for us the same certainty as the
truths and facts which are apparent to reason or the senses. And further,
religion would always and inevitably tend to elevate and en-noble mankind. But
if we could imagine any so ignorant and simple as to cherish such dreams, the
records of the past and the facts of life on earth should bring them a rude
awakening. As for the religious beliefs of the world, there is nothing too
crude, too wild, too false, too monstrous, to find enthusiastic adherents. And
whenever a great teacher has appeared, and has sought to elevate the religion
of men, his system has soon been perverted and depraved.

It has ever been
so. Of the early Egyptian religion, all that was sublime was demonstrably
ancient, and its last stage was the grossest and most corrupt. In China the
lofty system of ethics formulated by Confucius has suffered the utmost
deterioration. In India the pure nature-worship of the Vedas has ended in
superstitious puerilities. And the teaching of Gautama, sublime in its
rejection of all idolatry and priestcraft, has ended in the gross asceticisms
and superstitions of modern Buddhism. The Divine revelation of Judaism was
degraded to the level of "the Jew's religion," which made the race the common
enemy of God and His people. And Christianity itself has been almost swamped by
"the religion of Christendom," that tangled skein of Divine truth and Pagan
superstition. The whole history of the race records no exception to the rule.
It is a law, like that of gravitation, that religion ever tends to degenerate,
and in its decadence to corrupt and deprave mankind. This subject will claim
further notice in these pages. The question here is, What explanation can be
given of facts so patent and yet so extraordinary?

In the moral sphere we
have to account for the phenomenon of a right judgment thwarted and violated.
But in the spiritual sphere the problem is stranger still. It is not that the
bird has a broken wing, but that instead of endeavouring to fly, its normal
instinct is utterly perverted, and it clings to the ground and even struggles
to burrow into it. How is this mystery to be accounted for? Only one solution
of it has ever been proposed, and that is the story of the Eden Fall. And that
explanation is so entirely reasonable and adequate that if it had been left for
some thinker to suggest it, the discovery might well have evoked an exclamation
such as that with which Huxley is said to have greeted the Darwinian theory of
the origin of species, "How stupid not to have thought of that "

I do not
stop to inquire whether the story of the Fall should be taken literally or as
an allegory, for I desire to avoid here all side issues. If any choose to
regard the forbidden tree as a "sacrament" (I use the word in the classical,
not the superstitious and pagan, sense), it will not affect the argument.