The Harvard Classics Vol. 51/Religion I.



By Professor R. B. Perry

THERE are two ways of reading the documents of religion. In the first place one may read the book of one's own faith, as the Christian reads his Bible. In this case one reads for instruction or education in some source to which one attributes authority, and finds there the familiar and well-loved symbols of one's own belief and hope. Such a relation between a man and a book is only possible under peculiar conditions. It is the work of time and tradition and social experience. A book does not become a man's "bible" unless it has been the principal quickening influence in his spiritual life and the source of his illumination, so that he returns to it when he needs to reanimate his purposes or confirm his belief. A "bible" is the proved remedy to which a man confidently resorts for the health of his own soul. It becomes associated in his mind with all that he owes to it, and all that he hopes from it; so that it is not only an instrument, but a symbol. The sacred book of any racial or historical religion is, of course, more than such a personal bible, by as much as a race is more than an individual or history than a lifetime. But it is the personal relation, that between a man and the book that has become his sacred book, that I want here to emphasize. It is evident that in such a relation the reader's attitude will be unique; it will differ from his attitude to any other book. Religious documents are usually and normally read in this way. Each man reads his own bible. And it is only when a document is somebody's bible in this sense that it is a religious document at all.


But there is a second way in which such documents may be read, and it is this second way that must be adopted by those who wish to read religious literature with any comprehensiveness. One may read another man's bible. Now this requires a quite different attitude, and one that may need to be cultivated. It will not do to look for the same value which one finds in the book of one's own religion; or to judge by one's own peculiar spiritual standards. For then the other man's bible will seem cold, repugnant, superstitious, or heretical. Nor will it do to read another man's bible as so much secular literature, for then it will appear curious, fantastic, or at best poetical. It is necessary to bring one's self by imagination and sympathy to an understanding of the other man's outlook and needs. The outward aspect of Mohammedanism is to the Christian traveler only a curious local custom. But, "I would have you," says H. Fielding in his "Hearts of Men," "go and kneel beside the Mohammedan as he prays at the sunset hour, and put your heart to his and wait for the echo that will surely come." It is in the inward value of this outward posture that its religion lies. And the same is true of any sacred writings. Their religious meaning is relative to the believer whom they exalt, stir, comfort, enlighten, or strike with awe. And no one can apprehend that meaning who cannot bring himself at least for the moment into the believer's attitude.

Perhaps this seems to ask too much. How can one convert oneself in turn into a Buddhist, a Mohammedan, a Christian, a Brahman, and a Confucian? There is, however, a saving possibility. May there not be some attitude common to all believers? May one not divest oneself of what is peculiar to one's own religion and yet retain a something which is in all religion, and by this come to a better understanding of each religion? An Englishman may understand a Frenchman by becoming less English and more human. Similarly it is possible that a Christian may understand Mohammedanism by becoming less Christian and more religious. "No matter where you go," says Fielding, "no matter what the faith is called, if you have the hearing ear, if your heart is in unison with the heart of the world, you will hear always the same song." There is, in other words, a sameness in all religion, which is the link between one special cult and another; and by coming to know and feel this common religion one may pass beyond the limits of one's native religious province.

There is a danger that this important truth should be misunderstood. Some years ago a Parliament of Religions was held in connection with the World's Fair at Chicago. It was a spectacular and impressive event which no doubt did much to liberalize and broaden religious opinion in America. But it encouraged the mistaken opinion that because all religions are equally religious they must be equally good or true. It would be equally reasonable to argue that because all forms of political organization are equally political, one must be as sound or equitable as another. All polities arise in response to the same fundamental need for order and justice, and in so far as they are accepted and persist, they must to some extent satisfy that need. And to understand a foreign polity I must see how it accomplishes in its way and for its place and time what my polity accomplishes in another way for me. But it does not follow that the two are equally sound in principle, or that the one might not be corrected in the light of the other. Similarly religion arises in response to the same fundamental need, a need that is world-wide and for all time. But one religion may meet that need more genuinely and permanently than another; it may be based on a truer notion of man or God, and so deserve preference in a comparative and critical study.

It is also important to avoid the error of supposing that religions should lose their individuality and retain only what they have in common. A religion which consisted only of what it had in common with all other religions would probably be no religion at all. There are peculiar needs as well as common needs. A religion must satisfy the concrete community or individual, and not the abstract man. Perhaps, in all strictness, there must be as many religions as there are believers or worshipers. But this is quite consistent with the important truth that there is one constant factor in life from which all religions spring, and which makes of religion a common necessity. And if one is to study the forms or read the literature of a religion that is not one's own, one must see them in this light. One must become for the purpose simply religious; one must become alive not only to one's peculiar needs, but to that deeper and identical need from which all religions have sprung.

I have suggested that this attitude requires cultivation. This is doubtless the case with the great majority even of enlightened readers of the present day, and is very apparent in the history of European thought. By a curious working of the laws of habit and imitation we are for the most part blind to the meaning of our commonest social practices. How many men who obey law and authority, or who are loyal to the peculiar political institution under which they live, reflect upon the utility of government? Most men take government for granted, or fail to think of it at all; and merely assert their factional differences or personal grievances. Similarly for most men religion as a general fact, as a human institution, does not exist. They are conscious only of their particular religious differences; or they identify religion so thoroughly with a special religion that they can think of alien religions only as irreligion. For the vast majority of Christians to be religious means the same thing as to be Christian; not to believe as they believe means the same thing as to be an "unbeliever." Nevertheless a great change has taken place in the course of the last three centuries, and it will be worth our while briefly to trace it.


As everyone knows, modern thought arose as a protest against a tendency in the Middle Ages to take too many things for granted. Reason was to be freed from authority, tradition, and pedantry. But this meant, at first, only that man was to exercise his reason in the fields of physics and metaphysics. It was supposed in the seventeenth century that he could do this and yet not question the authority of the state, the church, and the established ethical code. The man of reason was to be internally free, but externally obedient. Institutions, in short, were still to be taken for granted. But in the eighteenth century the liberated reason was directed to institutions themselves, and there arose a rational ethics, a new political science, and a theory of "natural religion." Hobbes, a century earlier, was the forerunner of this movement, and so the original author of all modern social revolutions in so far as these arose from ideas and not from immediate practical exigencies. Of religion Hobbes wrote as follows: "In these four things, opinion of ghosts, ignorance of second causes, devotion toward what men call fear, and taking of things casual for prognostics, consisteth the natural seed of 'religion'; which by reason of the different fancies, judgments, and passions of several men, hath grown up into ceremonies so different, that those which are used by one man are for the most part ridiculous to another." This passage appears in the "Leviathan,"[1] published in 1651. In 1755 Hume wrote a treatise bearing the title "The Natural History of Religion," in which he contended that polytheism is the original form of religion, and that "the first ideas of religion arose not from a contemplation of the works of nature, but from a concern with regard to the events of life, and from the incessant hopes and fears which actuate the human mind." Agitated by "the anxious concern for happiness, the dread of future misery, the terror of death, the thirst of revenge, the appetite for food, and other necessaries ... men scrutinize, with a trembling curiosity, the course of future causes, and examine the various and contrary events of human life. And in this disordered scene, with eyes still more disordered and astonished, they see the first obscure traces of divinity." Both of these passages represented a manner of regarding religion which was revolutionary and offensive to the conservative opinion of the time. They meant that in a certain sense Christianity must be regarded as on a par with the most despised superstitions, since all spring from the same seed in human nature, or from the same general situation in which all men find themselves. It is man's fear of fortune, his hope of controlling the deeper forces of nature for his own good, from which his religion has sprung, and all religions alike may be judged by their power to dispel this fear and fulfill this hope. So there arose the difference between "natural religion," religion conceived as springing from the constitution of man and the common facts of life, and "positive religion," which consists in some specific institution, tradition, and dogma. One now has a new standard by which to judge of religion. Just as one may compare monarchy and democracy with reference to their utility as instruments of government, so one may compare Christianity and Buddhism with reference to their fulfillment of the general religious need. Which is the better religion, in the sense of doing better what a religion is intended to do? And quite apart from the question of comparative merits there is a new field of study opened to the human mind, the study of religion as a natural historical fact.


Hume's "Natural History of Religion" has developed in two directions. First, the emphasis in the nineteenth century on history and evolution, the interest in the sources and manifold varieties of all growing things, promoted the development of what is now called "Comparative Religion." Missionaries, travelers, and in recent years students of anthropology and ethnography have collected the religious literature and described the religious customs of India, China, and Japan, as well as of primitive and savage peoples in all parts of the globe. Ancient religions have been made known through the development of archæology. Most important of all for the recovery of the past has been the increased knowledge of languages. The knowledge of Sanskrit opened the way to an understanding of the sources of the ancient Indian religions; the translation of hieroglyphics and cuneiform characters has brought to light the ancient religions of Egypt, Babylonia, and Assyria. More refined methods have shed a wholly new light upon Greek and early Semitic religions. The possession of this wealth of material has made possible new generalizations concerning the generic character of religion, or concerning its origin and evolution.

The work of Tylor, Spencer, Max Müller, Andrew Lang, and Frazer may be said to signalize a genuinely new branch of human knowledge in which religion as a universal human interest or aspect of life is made an object of dispassionate and empirical study.


Second, toward the close of the nineteenth century a great impetus was given to the science of psychology, and this is reflected in another extension of Hume's "Natural History of Religion," in what is called "Psychology of Religion." There is the question of the genesis of the religious consciousness from instincts and sentiments such as fear and reverence. There are psychological types of religion such as James's "sick soul" and "religion of healthy mindedness." There is the elaborate analysis of the mystical experience, with its "rhythm," its "disconnection," and its characteristic stages. Special psychological importance attaches to religious crises, such as "conversion," and their relation to physiological conditions such as adolescence. Certain religious states border upon hysteria and belong to the domain of abnormal psychology, others illustrate the play of the great social forces of imitation and suggestion. Professor James's great book has given currency to its title "Varieties of Religious Experience," and these varieties are being collected, described, and catalogued by an ever-increasing body of observers.

But both Hobbes and Hume, as we have seen, attempted to name the generic essence of religion. What amid all its varieties external and internal, amid its bewildering manifoldness of ritual, dogma, and mental state, is its common character? Were these authors correct in tracing all religion to man's fear of the influence of the deeper causes of nature on his fortunes? This question is still the interesting question which vitalizes the patient empirical studies in comparative religion and the psychology of religion, and constitutes the problem of philosophy of religion.


To what universal fact does religion owe its existence? Is it perchance a fact concerning human nature? It has often been taught that man possesses a distinct and original faculty called "the religious consciousness" by which he forms the idea of God. All men, possessing the same mental constitution, will thus agree in conceiving of a God. But this view is based upon an obsolete psychology. It is now generally believed that a man is born with instincts and capacities which enable him to cope with his world, but which do not predetermine his ideas. These result from experience, from the interaction between his instincts and capacities and the environment in which he is called upon to exercise them. As respects religion in particular it has become fairly evident that it calls into play various factors of human nature, such as the instincts of fear or of curiosity, no one of which is in itself peculiarly religious. The religious consciousness, in other words, is complex and derived rather than original; a product of experience rather than an innate possession of the mind. How then is the universality of religion to be accounted for? There is a second possibility. Perhaps God, the object of religion, is a common and familiar object, like the sun so palpable, so ubiquitous that no man can fail to acquire a notion of it. But if one sets aside all preconceived ideas and looks out upon one's world with the eye of a first discoverer, or of a Martian just arrived upon earth, one does not find God. God is not an evident fact in any ordinary sense. Herbert Spencer attempted to trace religion to a belief in ghosts founded upon the experience of dreams. To one who interprets dreams naively it is doubtless a fact that persons "appear" after death and seem to speak and act where their bodies are not. But in so far as a ghost is such a commonplace and evident fact it is not a God. It is merely one sort of curious creature that inhabits this teeming world. And the religious man finds objects of worship in what is most substantial and least ghostlike. It is a forced and far-fetched hypothesis that would have us explain the worship of the sun, or the sea, or the Creator, by supposing that man has projected into nature the substances of his dreams. God is not a substance. He is not more vaporous or incorporeal than he is liquid or solid, except in sophisticated theologies. And it is certainly only in a careless or figurative sense that God can be said to be manifest in his works, in the splendor or terrors of nature. He may be inferred or interpreted from these, but he is not perceived as literally present in their midst. "The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handiwork," but not to the eye of the mere observer of fact even though it be placed at the end of a telescope.

There seems to me to be only one alternative left. We must, I think, conclude that in so far as religion is universal it arises from the conjunction of man and his environment. Its seed is the situation in which man finds himself, a situation made up of two interacting parts, man and his world. Let us see if we can describe this situation so as to see the inevitableness of religion.

Life may be broadly described as seeking something under given circumstances. Man is impelled toward ends, and limited by an existing situation. If we view our world dramatically, and assign to man the role of hero, the fundamental fact is his dependence on environment. He exists, as it were, despite the environment, which, though it has given birth to him, is ever threatening to devour him; and whatever he gains must be wrung from that environment. Life must be conducted, in short, on terms dictated by its environment. But before religion we must suppose life to have already conquered something of nature and made it its own. When man finds himself, there is already much that he can control. He can move about freely on the surface of the earth; he can manipulate physical objects and so procure himself food and shelter; and through individual prowess or through combination he can control other men. Within certain limits, then, man has the upper hand, and may make his fortune as he wills. But these limits are narrow. They are, of course, most narrow in the early stages of human development. But there has been no time in which they have not been pitifully narrow. Man may deceive himself. He may so magnify his achievements or be so preoccupied with his affairs as to enjoy illusions of grandeur and self-sufficiency. But it is a question if our Western, modern, and "civilized" boastfulness does not betoken a more imperfect sense of proportion than that consciousness of dependence which was once felt more keenly and is still felt wherever man finds himself in the immediate presence of the unharnessed energies of nature. In any case man is periodically reminded, if he is not perpetually mindful, of the great residual environment that is beyond his control. Man proposes, but after all something beyond him disposes. Floods, droughts, pestilence, rigors of climate, subjection, error, failure—these are the facts that teach and drive home the lesson of dependence. The most impressive and unanswerable fact is death. The whole fabric of personal achievement, woven by innumerable painstaking acts, all the fruits of struggle and of growth—possessions, power, friendship—are apparently annihilated in an instant, and with an ease that would be ridiculous if it were not so deeply tragic.

Now how shall man profit by this bitter lesson? He must not despair if he is to live; for to live is to hope for and to seek a way out of every predicament. To live in the consciousness of finitude and dependence means to look for help. If the forces that man cannot control do actually determine his destiny, then he must seek to win them over, or to ally himself with them. Here, I believe, is the root of religion: the attempt of man, conscious of his helplessness, to unite himself with the powers which do actually dominate. Religion is a sense of need, a conviction of the insecurity of any merely worldly advantage that he may gain for himself, and a way of salvation through coming to terms with that which controls his destiny. Religion is both founded on fear and consummated in hope.

It will perhaps seem strange that one should thus have attempted to describe religion without referring to deity. But the reason for the attempt lies in the fact that deity is not the cause of religion, but the product of religion. God is not, as we have seen, a manifest fact among facts; but is an object invoked to meet the religious need. Let us consider briefly the various types of deity to which religion has given rise.


The commonest of all objects of worship is some prominent aspect of nature, such as the sky, sun, moon, and stars, the earth, the sea, rivers, winds, the seasons, day, and night. Before the development of science man cannot control the operations of these phenomena. Whether they shall favor him with moderate rains, fertility, a calm passage and temperate weather, or torture and destroy him with drought, flood, storm, and the extremes of heat and cold, he can neither foretell nor predetermine. He can only wait and tremble, hope and pray. That he should hope and pray is inevitable. It is the instinct of any living thing toward that which is to decide its fate and which it is impotent otherwise to control. The sun thus regarded as able either to bless or to destroy, and therefore an object of importunity, already begins to be a god. But there is lacking a factor which if it be not absolutely indispensable to deity, is almost invariably present. I refer to what is commonly called "personification." What is worshiped is the "spirit" in the sun, or the sun construed as spirit. But this factor, too, arises, I believe, directly from the practical situation and not from any metaphysics on the part of the worshiper. It is the sequel to the familiar fact that we impute interest or will to any agency that helps or hurts. I do not mean that there is any express judgment to that effect, but that our emotional and practical response is similar to that which we accord to other living individuals. The animal will exhibit rage toward the rod with which he is prodded, the child will chastise the blocks which "refuse" to stand up, as his father will revenge himself upon the perverse golf stick by breaking it across his knee. Similarly it is natural to love, eulogize, caress, or adorn any object to which one owes pleasure or any other benefit. These responses are equivalent to imputing an attitude to their objects, an attitude of malice or hostility when the effect is hurtful, and one of benevolence when the effect is helpful. This, I believe, is the root of religious personification. The sun, in so far as its effects are good, is an object of gratitude for favor shown; in so far as its effects are bad, it is an object of solicitous regard in the hope that its hostility may be averted and its favor won. The sun so regarded or worshiped is the sun god. The extent to which the will or intent, and the power over man, are divorced from the visible and bodily sun and regarded as a "spirit" is of secondary importance; as is also the extent to which such a god has a history of his own apart from his treatment of man. For the exuberant imagination of the Greeks the sun god becomes an individuality vividly realized in art, poetry, and legend. But for practical people like the Chinese, "it is enough," as Professor Moore points out, "to know what the Gods do, and what their worshipers have to do to secure their favor, without trying to imagine what they are like."[2]

A second type of deity is the ancestor; the actual human ancestor, as worshiped by the Chinese, the mystical animal ancestor of totemism, or any deity adopted as ancestor, as the Christian God is claimed as Father by his believers. The idea of kinship with the object of worship is very widespread, and its motive is clearly intelligible in the light of what has been said above. Kinship implies alliance, the existence of friendly support and the right to claim it. One's departed ancestors belong to that world beyond from which emanate the dread forces that one cannot control. Their presence there means that there are friends at court. Man is not surrounded by indifferent strangers, but by beings bound to him by nature and inseparable ties, partisans who are favorably inclined.

A third type of deity is the tutelary god, conceived ad hoc to render some special service. He may be the personal, tribal, or national protector; or the good genius of some human or social activity, such as is the god who presides over husbandry, war, or navigation, or the homely household god of the hearth and the "cooking furnace." Here the insistent need invents and objectifies its own fulfillment.

All three notions of deity may be united in a local tribal deity, "who on the one hand has fixed relations to a race of men, and on the other hand has fixed relations to a definite sphere of nature," so that "the worshiper is brought into stated and permanent alliance with certain parts of his material environment which are not subject to his will and control."[3]


There is one further notion of deity that demands recognition in this brief summary, the notion, namely, of the supreme deity. As men develop in intelligence, imagination, and in range of social intercourse, it is inevitable that one god should be exalted above all others, or worshiped to the exclusion of all others. Such a religious conception arises from the experience of the unity of nature or of the unity of man. There is an evident hierarchy among the powers of nature; some are subordinated to others, and it is natural to conceive of one as supreme. Most evident to sense is the exultation of the heavens above the earth and the intermediate spaces. So we find Heaven to be supreme God among the Chinese, and Zeus among the Greeks. On the other hand, there is a hierarchy among tutelary and ancestral gods. As the patron gods of individuals, of special arts, or of tribes and provinces are subordinated to the national god, so the national god in turn is subjected to the god of a conquering nation. Allied with the idea of universal conquest is the idea of an all-dominant god, the god of the ruling class. Or a tutelary god may be universal in proportion to the universality of the activity over which he presides. The gods of the same activity though belonging originally to different cults may come to be identified; so that there arises the conception of a god that shall be universal in the sense of presiding over the common undertaking in which all men are engaged. And similarly the god from whom all men are descended will take precedence of the gods of families, tribes, and nations. Thus there are several more or less independent motives which may lead to a universal religion, such as Christianity, whose god is a god of all men, regardless of time, place, race, or station.

Deity, then, in the generic sense common to all religions, high and low, is some force beyond the range of man's control, potent over his fortunes, construed as friendly or hostile, and so treated as to secure, if possible, its favor and support. It is important in the next place to point out two different motives in worship, connected with two different ways in which the worshiper and his god may be brought into unison. To put it briefly, one may propose to have one's own way, or surrender to the god's way. This is the religious application of the fact that there are two ways to obtain satisfaction and peace of mind; to get what one wants, or to want what one gets. Religion may be said always to lie somewhere between these two extremes. It is natural and reasonable to try the former method first. And this is undoubtedly the earlier motive in worship. Man wants food, and long life, and victory over his enemies, and he seeks to gain the deity's support in these undertakings. But there is never a time when he does not recognize the necessity of making concessions. He pays sacrifices, or observes taboo, or adopts the code of conduct which his god prescribes. And it is the common religious experience that the conditions of divine favor become more exacting, while the benefit is less evident. Thus there arises what philosophers call the problem of evil, of which the classic Christian expression is to be found in the Book of Job,[4] who "was perfect and upright, and one that feared God, and eschewed evil," and nevertheless was visited with every misery and disaster. In so far as Job solved this problem he found the solution in entire surrender to the will of God. "Naked came I out of my mother's womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord." Nevertheless in the end "the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before." Certainly a religion of utter renunciation would be no religion at all. There would be no motive in worship unless one were in some sense blessed thereby. The tendency in the evolution of religion is to substitute for the carnal or worldly blessing for which one had at first invoked divine aid a new and higher good which one learns to find in the mode of life which religion prescribes. Religion becomes thus not merely instrumental, but educative. From it one learns not so much the way to satisfy one's natural and secular wants, as the way to despise those wants and set one's heart on other things. It is this mingled self-assertion and self-surrender in religion that makes reverence its characteristic emotion. God is both the means by which one realizes one's end, and also a higher law by which one's end is reconstructed.


The religion in which entire renunciation is most closely approximated is the philosophical or esoteric religion of India. All the varieties of this religion reflect one fundamental attitude to life, the feeling that no good can come of persistent endeavor. The attempt to fulfill desire is hopeless. The Indian does not abandon himself to despair; but he differs from his occidental brother in this, that whereas the latter hopes by divine aid, or in the distant future, to achieve either personal happiness or the perfection of what he calls "civilization," the former regards the whole attempt as founded on error. Its inevitable failure does not signify real failure, but the adoption of a wrong standard of success. According to the teaching of the "Upanishads" even separate individuality is an illusion perpetuated by desire.

When all the passion is at rest
That lurks within the heart of man
Then is the mortal no more mortal,
But here and now attaineth Brahman.[5]

In Brahman, the deeper unity of the world, the individual has his true being and is saved.

The importance of regarding the conception of God, not as the root of religion, but as the product of religion, appears when we come to the consideration of Buddhism.[6] For Buddhism is, in fact, a godless religion, paradoxical as that may seem. It is true that Buddha himself has come like Confucius to be an object of religion. Every founder of a religion is almost inevitably deified by his followers. But Buddha did not deify himself. He taught men to regard even the soul itself as a transient and illusory experience. Suffering is the universal law of existence. Existence is the penalty of desire, a rebirth owing to Karma, the dispositions and desert which are the precipitate of a previous existence. There is a fatal recurrence of existence, for life tends ever to create the conditions of its own reincarnation and continuance. Salvation means not successful existence, the realization of actual desires, but escape from existence, through the conquering of desire. In such a religion there is no god, for there is no ulterior power in or through which man is to fulfill his positive longings. But it is nevertheless religion, in that it is a release of man from his predicament. Nirvana is perhaps from all other points of view equivalent to annihilation; but from the point of view of man, conscious of his helplessness and failure, it means salvation. It is a philosophy of life, an accord between man and his world by which he wins the greatest good that he can conceive.

In order to understand the general scope of religious literature it is not sufficient that one should grasp the general principle of religion. One must know something of the forms which religion assumes in human life; and especially important is it to know something of its relations to science on the one hand, and to art and poetry on the other hand.


By science let us understand knowledge founded on fact or rigorous reasoning. How far is one to construe religious literature as science, that is, as the work of man's theorizing and cognizing faculties? There is probably more confusion in this matter at the present time than there has ever been in the past. The increase of doubt, the scientific refutation of beliefs once authorized by religion, have led to various attempts to retain these beliefs by a sheer act of "faith," or on account of their subjective and imaginative values. Since the ascendancy of Catholic orthodoxy in the fourteenth century there has been a steady tendency to regard one Christian teaching after another, the story of Jonah and the whale, the account of creation in Genesis, and now even the miracles of the New Testament, as fictions which are to be valued as symbols, tradition, poetry, or as parts of a system of faith which as a whole is to be judged not by reference to historic fact but by its comforting or regenerating effect upon the believer. But if we recall to our minds that original human need in response to which religion arises, it is unmistakably evident that there must be a nucleus of truth in a religion if it is to meet that need at all. In religion man seeks to relate himself profitably to things as they are. He seeks to save his soul by adopting the course that is consistent with the deeper reality. If he is misled as to the nature of reality, then his whole plan is founded on error and is foredoomed to failure. If the forces of nature have no power, or are not to be influenced by human importunity, then it is folly to worship them. If there be no deeper cause that guarantees the triumph of righteousness, then the Christian's hope is illusory, and his prayer and worship idle. In short, every religion is at heart a belief in something as true, and if that something be not true, then the religion is discredited.

Nevertheless, although there is a scientific nucleus in every religion, that nucleus is but a small fraction of it. In the first place religion differs from science proper in that it deliberately adopts a view of things according to which man is the central fact of the universe. Religion is interested in cosmic affairs only in so far as they bear upon human fortunes. Hence it finally expresses itself not in judgments of fact, but in emotion, such as hope, fear, confidence, despair, reverence, love, gratitude, or self-subjection. Its object is the cosmos or some ulterior cosmic agency, construed as helpful or hurtful, colored by the worshiper's solicitude. Hence much religious literature, such, for example, as the Psalms,[7] or St. Augustine's Confessions,[8] are essentially expressions of the religious emotions, characterizations of deity not by the use of cold scientific formulas, but by the use of epithets that signify the feelings and attitude of the worshiper himself.

A second non-scientific factor in religion is that contributed by the imagination and by social tradition. Religion differs from theory in that it comes after and not before belief. Religion is not effective, does not do its work, until after some interpretation of cosmic forces has been adopted by an individual and has become the accepted basis of his life. Buddhism begins as a religion when the individual enters upon that course of discipline by which he hopes to attain Nirvana; and Christianity begins when the believer actually follows the way of salvation by prayer, obedience, and good works. And in all important historical religions the underlying dogmas are assimilated not only to personal but also to social life. They are commonly and collectively believed, and have become the unconscious presuppositions of a community worship. The office of the religious imagination is in making these scientific presuppositions vital and effective. A religion of hope is not a series of propositions concerning the favorable bearing of cosmic forces, but a vivid realization of the purport of such propositions, a hopefulness translated into emotional buoyance or confident action. By the imagination religious truth is made impressive, so that it evokes the affections and motivates action. The social counterpart is found in tradition and symbolism, which secures the continuity and solidarity of religious feelings and practices. In brief, then, we may expect to find in all expressions of religion, such as religious literature, certain underlying assumptions which are capable of being converted into scientific propositions; but these will be overlaid and obscured by an imaginative and symbolic representation in which their meaning is emotionally and practically realized.

There is another important respect in which religion differs from science, namely, in its proceeding beyond the limits of evidence. There never was and never will be a religion which possesses the same verification that is demanded in the case of a scientific theory. Religion is a leap in the dark. The reason for this is evident. For practical purposes it is necessary to conclude matters that for strictly theoretical purposes one would postpone in the hope of further light. Life is an emergency, a crisis, or as William James has said, a "forced option."[9] One must make up one's mind quickly, or live altogether at random. What shall one make of this world, and what shall one do to be saved? The decision cannot be postponed; and yet the evidence is, strictly considered, inconclusive. Faith means to believe what seems probable, and to believe it not half-heartedly, but with conviction. For if one believes half-heartedly, one cannot proceed according to one's belief, or attain salvation by it. The element of sheer faith may be more or less, according to the degree of critical and philosophical power which the worshiper possesses. But in every case there will be some basis in experienced fact and in inference, and also some "will to believe" or reliance on authority. And we shall consequently find in religious literature a note of dogmatic certainty and of willfulness, which is as inevitable in such a context as it would be intolerable in science.


There is one further topic to which even so brief an introduction as this must allude. What is the relation between religion and morality? Are we to regard ethical teachings such as those of the Book of Proverbs or the Sayings of Confucius[10] as religious? To answer this question, we have only, I think, to bear clearly in mind the generic meaning of religion. A mode of life becomes religious only when it is pursued under certain auspices; only when it is conceived as sanctioned by the general nature of the cosmos, and as constituting a way of salvation. If justice be prized as a means of social welfare, it is ethical; if it be adopted as a means of winning the favor of God, or as a means of achieving Nirvana, it is religious. The moral life takes on a religious character when it is in some way connected with the cosmic life. In the so-called "ethical religions" the mode of life prescribed by religion tends to coincide with that prescribed by the moral consciousness, and righteousness is conceived as the way of salvation. Needless to say, such a contraction of morality greatly enhances its impressiveness and appeal. In all ethical religions that are inspired with hope, religion adds to a good conscience the sense of ascendency or victory over nature. Right living takes on the aspect of ultimate reality. To sheer duty is added confidence, inspiration, the expectation of limitless and durable achievement. Even in pessimistic religions of the ethical type, morality acquires prestige as having supreme importance for escape from the misery of existence. And from the religious consciousness as such, irrespective of its special claims and beliefs, morality acquires a certain dignity and reinforcement. For religion encourages man to look at life roundly and seriously. It frees him from the obsession of passion and the circumscription of immediate interests. It keeps alive the cosmic imagination, and invites attention to the problem of life as a whole in all its bearings, internal and external.

Thus it is fair to conclude that religion is universal in two senses. On the one hand it springs from a universal need. On the other hand, it possesses a universal value, and cannot fail, however much of error or blindness there may be in it, to elevate and dignify life. True religion is better than false, but it is not less certain that religion is better than irreligion.

  1. See Harvard Classics, xxxiv, 311ff.
  2. G. F. Moore: "History of Religions," p. 22.
  3. W. Robertson Smith: "Religion of the Semites," p. 124.
  4. H. C., xliv, 71ff.
  5. Quoted by G. F. Moore, op. cit., p. 270.
  6. See lecture by Professor Lanman, below.
  7. H. C., xliv, 145ff.
  8. H. C., vii, 5ff.
  9. "The Will to Believe," p. 3.
  10. H. C., xliv, 5ff., and lecture by A. D. Sheffield, below.