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,”〖See Harvard Classics, xxxiv, 311ff.〗 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.

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