Popular Science Monthly/Volume 37/July 1890/Why So Many Definitions of Religion?

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RELIGION is now recognized, as never before, to be a universal factor in race development. "Whether we descend into the lowest roots of our intellectual growth, or ascend to the loftiest heights of modern speculation, everywhere we find religion a power that conquers even those who think they have conquered it." This fact is to the scientific student of religious thought what the "cogilo ergo sum" was to Descartes, and what "justification by faith" was to Luther — the foundation on which all must rest, and the unquestioned presupposition from which he must start. It is certainly the fact that can not be doubted, and the one which no aqua regia of thought will dissolve.

But there are about as many definitions of religion as there are forms of religious belief. Herbert Spencer defines it as "an a priori theory of the universe." Matthew Arnold says it is "ethics heightened and lit up by emotion; or, more simply stated, morality touched by emotion." Max Müller seemingly differs widely from both, and calls it "the sense of dependence on something or some one not ourselves"; while Schleiermacher carries the idea still further and says, "It is a feeling of absolute dependence on something which, though it determine us, we can in no sense determine." Feuerbach makes religion "a mere covetousness, which manifests itself in prayer, sacrifice, and faith." Strauss combines the elements brought out in the last two definitions, and describes it as a "combination of absolute dependence and covetousness." To Hegel, the great genius of German thought, "religion is perfect freedom, for it is nothing more nor less than the Divine Spirit becoming conscious of Himself through the finite spirit." Very similar to this are the definitions of Luthardt and Martineau. The former says, "Religion is the human mind standing in reverence and inspiration before the infinite energy of the universe, asking to be lifted up into it, opening itself to inspiration"; while the latter expresses nearly the same idea, though more tersely, "Religion is mere assent through the conscience to God." Mr. Andrew Lang says: "Religion may be defined as the conception of divine or at least superhuman powers, entertained by men in moments of gratitude, need, or distress; when, as Homer says, 'all folk yearn after the gods'" Flint, in his Theism, regards it as a "belief in some god or powers above on which we depend, and who are interested in us; together with the feelings and practices resulting from such belief." Somewhat like this, but more explicit, is Prof. Whitney's definition, "A belief in a supernatural being or beings, whose actions are seen in the works of creation, and of such relation on the part of man toward this being or beings as to prompt the believer to acts of propitiation and worship, and to the regulation of conduct." De Pressensé thinks "true religion has to do with the relation of the soul to God," and Prof. Palmer sums it all up as "the bond between the science of ethics and the science of theology."

Many more definitions might be given, but let these few suffice; for they are typical of some sixty or more that have been examined. One is at once led to ask, Why are there so many definitions of a fact that is so universally admitted to be as real as any fact in the realm of mind or heart? Although the definitions are many, they can not be said to be contradictory or antagonistic. When carefully examined, it will be found that they each describe what their respective authors, either from personal experience or observation, thought was the controlling element exhibited at the moment of religious awakening. They are many, simply because the element exhibited then is not the same with all, but varies most markedly with environment, temperament, and general intellectual advancement.

It is now admitted that the religious element, if it appears at all, is called forth while one is reflecting on his personal destiny. There is then born a conviction that our future existence is not unalterably fixed, as that of the stone and the brute, but depends largely on our will. We feel that ideals have a large part to play in determining our future condition, and we desire to select such material out of all our environment—yes, ought to select such—to weave as a woof into the web of hereditary tendency, as will make for us characters most nearly like unto the pattern given in our ideal. In brief, it may be said that the religious element of the life is called out the moment one earnestly asks the question, "What must I do to be saved"—reach my ideal? That it does ever appear at this moment seems now to be a necessary conclusion from psychical study, a most careful examination of the marked religious awakenings in our own and other religious systems, from a study of the world's great religious leaders, and last of all, by a study of the varying element in the historic changes of religious thought. More than simply an enumeration of these lines of evidence can not be here given. Admitting this to be a fact, the reason why there are so many definitions will at once be perfectly clear; for it will be found they each describe what was thought to be the essential thing for the attainment of the great idea.

A brief examination of a few of the definitions just given will make this clear. When one of a pre-eminently scientific cast of mind comes, in self-reflection, to the moment of religious awakening, he at once desires to know more of self and environment, that he may act with greater certainty in determining his destiny. He feels destiny depends primarily on knowledge, and to him religion most naturally seems what it does to Herbert Spencer, "an a priori theory of the universe." To those who feel, activity based on knowledge is the all-important thing. Prof. Palmer's definition better expresses the essential element—"the connecting link between the science of ethics and the science of theology"—the former giving a knowledge of one's relation to his fellows, the latter of his relation to the gods, religion being the dynamic called forth by this twofold knowledge of personal duty. There are others, again, decidedly social in their make-up. Their chief delight is in pleasant mingling with their fellows. These, on becoming conscious that they are the molders of their own destiny, feel at once that their "salvation" depends largely on a "good-will to mankind," with the acts that result therefrom. All such can truly say, with Arnold, that their religious life is "ethics touched by emotion." There is another class in the social organism of a clinging, dependent disposition, always followers and never leaders in life. These generally become so overwhelmed at the thought of their own responsibility that they lose all confidence in their own ability to choose out their own way, and at once throw themselves helpless on "the powers that be." Fate, or God, or universe, or anything, they would sooner rely upon than their own judgment. To these religion is what Müller found it, "a feeling of dependence on some one or something hot ourselves." Extreme cases are better described by Schleiermacher—"absolute dependence on something which determines us, but which we can in no sense determine" (affect).

In marked contrast to the cases already named there are those whose lives are a perfect quintessence of egoism and selfishness. To these religion is always a "mere covetousness, which manifests itself in prayers, sacrifices, and faith." All such make Feuerbach's creed theirs too, "Mann ist was er isst." A higher type of religion than has been thus far named is that which feels "there is a divinity within us that shapes our ends," and that we are all "sons of the Highest." Such care not for self alone, but ever desire to become more and more altruistic. They study the microcosm only to more fully understand its functional place in the macrocosm. These, upon the religious awakening, have the egoistic thoughts thrust aside like the drift-wood by the sea, feeling that they are only a hindrance to the attainment of the God-consciousness. Hegel-like, they find that "religion is a perfect freedom, for it is nothing more or less than the Divine Spirit becoming conscious of itself through the finite spirit." They can also say, with Martineau, it is "the human mind standing in reverence and inspiration before the Infinite Energy of the universe, asking to be lifted into it," or "ascent through the conscience to God." Religion to them is the last step of the Leibnitz's monad coming into the consciousness of the divinity ever potentially present.

Besides the types of minds thus far studied, there is a large proportion of the race influenced almost entirely by what may be called personal influences—love, pity, sympathy, and the like. All these, upon becoming religious, at once bestow similar feelings on the gods, and imagine that these in turn bestow the same on them. This mode of religious awakening is almost a universal one in the earlier stages of race development. Many also feel, as Mr. Martineau says in his Study of Religion, that in some form or other this will be likewise the final and highest stage of religious growth. It is well described by both Profs. Flint and Whitney, as noted above, and is also implied in the terse expression of De Pressensé', "Religion is the relation of the soul to God."

Thus it will be seen that the various definitions of religion are but facets of a common precious truth, reflecting at different angles the light of a heart all aglow with the thought of personal responsibility in individual destiny. They vary at times so as to indicate almost generic differences, but they all describe facts having a common psychological cause and point to a single purpose. As the same sunlight that hardens the bricks in the cathedral walls also melts the waxen taper at the altar, so a reflection on personal destiny often calls forth in one a religious life entirely different from that in another; for the precise effect depends as much on surroundings and internal difference as on that which calls forth the religious life. These definitions are not found to be like the Ptolemaic planets, mere lawless wanderers, in the realm of religious thought, but have a common center, and are guided by a universal law.


Mr. John Aitkins's later observations on the number of dust-particles in the atmosphere show that a very large proportion of the pollution caused thereby is the product of human agencies. Both dust and humidity tend to decrease the transparency of the air. Humidity alone seems to have no influence on the transparency apart from the dust, but it increases the effect of dust by increasing the size of the particles. Its modifying effect is influenced by the temperature. Dust appears to condense vapor long before the air is cooled to the dew-point. Haze is shown in many cases to be simply dust, on which there seems to be always more or less moisture. All the fogs tested contained much dust.