Lesson: Is Christianity a Natural Religion?

Note: Certain Chinese terms are in Chinese Big-5 encoding.

Does the Christian faith seem like a natural religion1 developed by our ancestors to satisfy their desire for spiritual beliefs?  What does it imply if it doesn't seem like a natural religion?

What is a "Natural Religion?"

A natural religion is a spiritual system created by people and gradually evolved over a long period of time.  It is a collection of local beliefs, customs, objects, and rituals.

What is the Cause of the Occurrence of Natural Religions?

It seems to be a natural human instinct to worship a higher being.  This may be the result of the breath of God given to Adam.  There is no ancient culture that does not have some kind of worshipping.  Even the earliest Chinese offered sacrifices to "Heaven" despite the fact that Heaven's identity was not known by the later worshippers, including Confucius.

What are the Characteristics of a Natural Religion?

As spiritual systems resulting from people's desire to worship higher beings, natural religions generally have some common characteristics that are easily explained by our understanding of human behavior.  Some of these characteristics and the reasoning behind them are listed here:
     * Relevance to some local objects or phenomena - generally, the inspiration of a natural religion comes from some local object (e.g., a thousand-year-old tree) or phenomena (e.g., periodic volcanic eruptions).  The religion may seek to appeal to the local objects that command some respect already, or to reduce the occurrence of the phenomenon.  Since credibility of a religion is crucial to its success, appealing to a reverend object can help strengthen the religion's own status.
     * Legends that explain the source of these beliefs and natural phenomena that people couldn't understand - since many natural religions grew out of people's ignorance about the things around them, they tend to create legends to explain them.  For instance, people could explain that the eruption of the volcano is the sign that their gods are angry at them, and they need to offer maidens as sacrifices in order to appease the gods.
     * Relevance to local lifestyle - many beliefs have their sources in the common concerns of the people.  Fishermen, for example, would try to find ways to increase their chances of returning home safely.
     * A defined shape and form - since the religion is created to facilitate worshipping of a being, a defined shape and form would make worshipping easier.
     * Rules and guidelines for worship - as a result of evolution over time, rules and guidelines for worship will emerge.  This helps the economics of the religion (e.g., fund-raising via sale of incense), and help keep the people under the control of the religious leaders.
     * Mystical practices - since these religions are created partly to cover up people's ignorance, expanding on these ignorance can help instill fear into the hearts of the people and keep them in line.  The fear for the unknown, mystical entities help the leaders maintain authority over the followers, and in many cases help finance the religious activities.  Mystical practices (e.g., strange rituals) are common to almost all religions, and after a while rationale for these practices are created to further add to the credibility of these religions.
     * Rules for conduct - many natural religions also enhance their moral authority by specifying rules for conduct along with rules for worship.  To enforce these rules, a system of rewards and punishments are often set up (e.g., afterlife, causality [ karma,  ¦] ªG ], benevolence merits [ ¥\ ¼w ], reincarnation [ §ë ­L ], and repeated life cycles [ ½ü °j ]) to provide incentives for obedience to the rules.

A Biblical Example

When Moses was talking to God on Mt. Sinai, the Israelis were troubled by his long absence and demanded Aaron to make them a god for them to worship.  Aaron, not knowing any better, followed their demands and made a golden calf out of their donations.  Though this cult was too short-lived to become a full natural religion, it's clear that it was just the first step in becoming a full natural religion.  They wanted something visible to worship, so they made a calf, a common deity form of the Egyptians.  Calf is chosen probably because the Israelis were originally herdsmen and cows were their most valued possessions.  They were making great noises at the altar -- apparently they also have some basic rules for worshipping.  It probably wouldn't be long before they credit the calf with the miracles that happened in Egypt and the parting of the Red Sea.

A Chinese Example

Chinese folk religions are unambiguous examples of natural religions.  Perhaps the best known example is Ma Tzu ( ¶ý ¯ª ).  She is supposed to be a normal girl from a fishing village.  One day her father went out to the sea but did not return, so she took a lantern and waited for him day and night.  Her light became a guide to the fishermen, and her filial piety won her great reverence.  Many years later she was made into a goddess by the fishermen, for they believed that she has the power to bring them home safely.  Now she is said to have the power to protect others, and sometimes bring fertility to the barren womb.

Does the Old Testament Seem Like a Natural Religion?

Let us consider the aforementioned characteristics and judge for yourself.
     * Relevance to some local objects or phenomena - for the Israelis, this is the opposite of what happened.  God told them to leave Egypt2 and basically created a new culture for them.  It is their faith that initially shaped their civilization instead of the reverse.
     * Legends that explain the source of these beliefs and natural phenomena that people couldn't understand - the accounts in Genesis could be considered as Israelis' legends.  These legends, however, differ from legends of other civilization in many strange ways (discussed in our lesson Creation... Or Was It?), and their special characteristics cast doubts on the hypothesis of human origin for these legends.  For the Israelis, many of these supernatural phenomena occurred after they came to know God (instead of making up deities to explain these phenomena as natural religions do).
     * Relevance to local lifestyle - this is somewhat true.  Circumcision is known to be good for living in the desert environment, and animal sacrifices are feasible since the Israelis started as herdsmen.  It is even truer that their faith formed their lifestyle.  Even today, the orthodox Jews still observe the teachings of the Old Testament, and these teachings define what we consider as Jewish-ness.
     * A defined shape and form - God explicitly forbids forming idols of any shape or form to facilitate worshipping.  Even the Tabernacle is just a symbolic residence for us to worship in, not to worship to.
Rules and guidelines for worship - God stated in detail how each sacrifice and offering are to be made.  Yet these rules are not meaningless.  They tend to foreshadow Jesus and the truths revealed in the New Testament.  Thus the rules do not seem to be designed to help consolidate the power of the religious leaders; instead, they seem to tell us the mysteries of things to come (e.g., Jesus, our salvation . . . etc.).
     * Mystical practices - like the rules for worship, most mystical practices done in the Old Testament have meanings that are revealed in the New Testament.  They may have helped instill fear into the people, but that does not seem to be God's intention at all.  Even financial support for the practice of the religion is obtained in a very straightforward manner.
     * Rules for conduct - the Ten Commandments and other statutes are written down explicitly, along with the proper ways of punishment for disobedience.

Does Christianity (the New Testament) Seem Like a Natural Religion?

     * Relevance to some local objects or phenomena - Christianity is very universal, in fact, believers are given a new set of objects (e.g., psalms, dancing, and some concepts) often not consistent with their native environment.
Legends that explain the source of these beliefs and natural phenomena that people couldn't understand - these are inherited from the Old Testament, but today many of these legends can be understood scientifically or allegorically.
     * Relevance to local lifestyle - Christianity has a set of principles applicable to almost all human beings, regardless of location.  It de-emphasizes formalities, which makes it universal and practical.
     * A defined shape and form - though Jesus, as a human being also, has a definite shape and form, we are still prohibited from making images for the purpose of worship.
     * Rules and guidelines for worship - there is one main one now: worship in the Spirit and in Truth.  Our worshipping is now detached from any specific location such as the Tabernacle.
     * Mystical practices - those that are foreshadowing New Testament truths and events are no longer practiced.  New ones appeared and they mostly serve practical purposes, e.g., laying of hands, speaking in tongues, and water baptism.
     * Rules for conduct - the old rules are no longer stated explicitly, but instead Jesus gave us two commandments: love God and love others.  These two commandments fulfill everything stated in the Old Testament and more.  The law is now written on our hearts, and we no longer need dead rules to teach us how to live.

What is Christianity? (to be discussed)

(1)  The definition of natural religion here may be different from the usual definition found in academic theological studies.
(2)  We assume that Genesis was written later on by Moses or someone else, and thus the actual account should have begun with Moses.  Exodus begins the contemporary recording of God's work and the history of the Israelis.

This lesson was developed by George Huang.  Got a question or want to publish this lesson?  E-mail me.

Last updated: 2/10/2000