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 rôle 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 pains-taking 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.

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