Skip to content
Catholic Online Logo

Naturism is the term proposed by Réville to designate the worship of nature. It differs from Naturalism, which is not a religion, but a system of atheistic philosophy, and from natural religion, which sets forth those truths about God and man attainable by the native power of human reason and forming the prolegomena to Revelation, e.g., the existence of God , the spiritual and immortal nature of the human soul, the moral order. As a theory of religion Naturism exhibits three phases: I. Ethnographic Naturism. II. Philosophic Naturism. III. Science-Naturism.

I. ETHNOGRAPHIC NATURISM

According to Réville, Naturism is the primitive form of religion, the basis and source of all existing forms. This is the thesis of comparative mythology, which is said to reveal a primitive nature worship. Its foundation is a twofold assumption:

  • (1) the philosophic assumption of evolution, which maintains that man is a development by slow and successive stages from the animal; hence the corollary advanced by Spencer and Thorn as as the first principle in the evolutionary history of religion, viz., that primitive man was a creature of emotion, not of intelligence which is the product of more advanced culture;
  • (2) the ethnographic assumption that primitive man existed in the savage state, a condition and mode of life akin to that prevailing among the non-civilized races of today, e.g., Tylor, Lubbock, Tiele, Réville, and Spencer.

The core and essence of nature-worship is that nature is animated throughout. In the conception of animated nature, Réville is in touch with de Brosses and Comte, who claim that Fetishism is the primitive religion and by Fetishism understand the primitive tendency to conceive external objects as animated by a life analogous to that of man. He differs from Tylor, who specifies the cause of the animation, e.g., spirits or souls, and from Comte in holding that the primitive animation in its initial Stage is not Fetishism, but becomes so when in process of development the spirit or soul is distinguished from the object. Thus with Réville, the Animism of Tylor and Spencer is the intermediate link between Naturism and Fetishism. Tylor, however, considers nature-worship as the connecting bond between Fetishism and Polytheism, yet admits that the stages of this process defy any more accurate definition. Giddings follows Tylor in holding that religious ideas are of two groups: animistic interpretation of the finite, and animistic interpretation of the infinite ("Induct. Sociol", New York, 1901). In like manner Blackmar teaches that nature-worship was nothing more than spirit-worship localized in the various objects of nature (Elem. of Sociology, New York, 1905). On the other hand Guyan calls Naturism, Physiolatry, of which zoolatry, i.e., worship of animals, is a department (The Non-Religion of the Future, New York, 1907). Hadden holds that primitive folk do not draw a sharp distinction between things animate and inaminate (The Study of Man, New York, 1898). Jastrow says that the savage and primitive man does not differentiate between such an object of nature as the sun and its personification as a being possessing life in some form, and teaches that it is an axiom of primitive man's science to ascribe life to all things (The Study of Religion, London, 1902). Schrader says the common basis of the ancient Indo-European religion was a worship of nature, and appeals to linguistics which shows that the ancient Aryans designated objects perceived as doing something, e.g., the rain rains, the fire burns ("Prehistoric Antiquities of the Aryan Peoples", tr. by Jevons, London, 1890). Hence the discovery of the soul or spirit as distinct from the object is the origin of Animism. This theory is sometimes called personification of natural forces, but only in the sense that nature is conceived as living, as vital with creative and preservative powers. Personification, in the strict sense of investing material things with the attributes of a person is far above the power of early man and appears only in later forms of developed belief. Hence, according to Réville, there is first the naive cult of natural objects as possessing life and in some way supposed to influence man ; this is followed by Animism and Fetishism ; and finally a third stage known as the natural mythologies founded on the dramatization of nature, e.g., the historic polytheisms of China, Egypt, Babylonia, of the Teutonic, Greek, Latin, and Vedic races.

Primitive man faces the world about him in childlike wonder. The succession of the seasons, of night and day, of storm and cloud, the growth of living things, exhibit nature in constant and varied changes. He views natural phenomena as the effects of causes beyond his comprehension and control. Conscious of his own agency, though unable yet to distinguish soul from the parts of the body, he attributes agency like his own to the objects which surround him. Awe and delight possess him. Having no idea at all of God, writes Keary, he makes the things themselves gods by worshipping them ("Early Relig. Develop." in Nineteenth Cent., Aug., 1878). Hence Brinton writes that nature is known to man only as a force which manifests itself in change (The Religious Sentiment, New York, 1876). Ratzel explains this craving for causality in an animistic sense as tending to vivify all the higher phenomena of nature by attributing to them a soul, and applies the word Polytheism to all religions of the lower grades ("Hist. of Mankind ", tr. Butler, London, 1896). With Crawley the phenomena of change exhibits a vital principle analogous to man's own and this principle of life vaguely conceived by primitive man but strongly felt is the origin of religion; in a later stage of development Vitalism passes into Animism (The Tree of Life, London, 1905). Shaw says the difference between Naturism and Spiritism is largely a difference of emphasis, because neither can be excluded from the interpretation of a primitive which as yet has made no sharp separation between subject and object. Hence the worshipper of nature seems to ally himself with external objects which, as he surveys them anthropopatically, serve as a support and mirror of his own fleeting fancies. These natural objects are further conceived by primitive man as either friendly or inimical to him. In the particular view of Fetishism the physical and psychical further appears. Thus Shaw in the primitive Naturism resulting from the contact of man with the phenomena of the external world, attempts to reconcile the psychological theories of fear as set forth by Hume, Clodd, Tiele, Deinker, and of desire either natural with Brinton or morbid by Feuerbach.

Pfleidner holds that nature is animated throughout, that this view was just as natural for the childlike fancy of the primitive man as it is still today for children and poets. According to him this animation of nature is not to be explained by saying that the primitive man only compared natural phenomena with living beings or even that he thought of them as a domicile or operation of spirits of human origin. Such a view would suppose a definite distinguishing of the sense element and of the supersensible element; but this distinction only appeared later, whereas, for the original mythological notion, the sense element and the subject that was active in it was still conceived as one. He says the real sources of religion are external nature and the soul of man ; for the prehistoric belief in spirits, out of which developed the belief in God, cannot yet be properly called religion; it only contained the germs of religion. Tylor teaches animation of nature, but, as with him the soul or spirit animates material objects, nature-worship is ranged under the concept of Fetishism. De la Saussaye objects to this view on the ground that nature-worship bears the strongest impress of originality, and therefore is not a phase of Fetishism, which is not original. Darwin seems to combine the ascription of life to natural objects, dreams, and fears (Descent of Man, I, p. 65). Thomas says that, while theoretically separable, magic religion, belief in ghosts and in nature-worship practically run into one another and become inseparably mingled; therefore it is idle to attempt to establish a priority in favour of any one of them (Social Origins, Chicago, 1909).

De la Saussaye confesses that it is equally difficult to determine the limits of nature-worship in the opposite direction. The classification of religions shows how wide an area it covers. Thus Tiele divides the religions of the world into nature-religions and ethical religions, and holds that the latter developed from the former. Caird keeps the same division, but uses the terms "objective" and "subjective", and says they unite in Christianity. Jastrow objects to the classification of Tiele, that the higher nature-religions contain ethical elements. Hegel holds the primitive religion was an immediate nature-religion, which betrays its features in various primitive peoples and in a more advanced form in Chinese, Pali, and Sanscrit cults. The transition from the lowest stage to the next higher, according to him, is effected by means of the Persian dualism, the Phœnician religion of pain, and the Egyptian religion of mystery. De la Grassière (Des religions comparées, Paris, 1899) says Naturism is at the origin of religions. He distinguishes a lesser Naturism and a greater Naturism. The lesser Naturism passes into Animism, which in turn develops into Fetishism, Idolatry, and Anthropomorphism. With its earlier forms the object is adored in its concrete reality; at a later period, the soul or spirit is separated from the object and becomes the real object of worship. Lesser Naturism embraces the primitive gods, e.g., those which personify the woods, mountains, and rivers. It has many forms, e.g., worship of animals as in Greek and Egyptian mythology, worship of trees, e.g., laurels of Apollo, myrtle of Venus, worship of groves as with Druids, worship of stones, water, springs, lakes, mountains, the elements. Hence it embraces the mythologic naiads, fauns, dryads, fairies, and sirens.

Greater Naturism refers to vast gatherings of objects and especially heavenly bodies, e.g., sun, moon, stars. This he says is the basis of the Vedic religion, e.g., Varuna, i.e., heaven at night, Mitri, i.e., heaven at day, Indra, i.e., rain, Agni, i.e., fire, and survives in Sabæism. This Naturism is at the origin of Greek and Latin mythology, e.g., Zeus, i.e., the Heaven, Aurora, i.e., the dawn, Apollo, i.e., light, Hephæstos, i.e., fire, and the worship of mother earth. Tiele holds that the religions of the Redskins and negroes are just as much nature religions as the Babylonian, the Vedic, and Greek, though he admits a great difference exists between the former and the latter. Von Hartmann designates the lowest stage of religion as "naturalistic henotheism". Jastrow holds that man's consciousness of his own weakness in the contemplation of the overwhelming strength of nature furnishes the motive for seeking support from certain powers of nature and to accomplish this he must make them favourably disposed to him. He says this theory can be variously put, hence can furnish a starting point for pessimistic views, e.g., Von Hartmann, and of optimistic views of man's position in the universe, and it appeals to minds in sympathy with religion as to those, e.g., Feuerbach, who regard religion as an illusion.

Thus Naturism teaches that man originally was destitute of religion, and that ignorant awe in face of natural forces was the cause of his earliest faith. But this theory cannot be accepted.

  • (1) Its basis, viz., that man has evolved from an animal state, is false. "We know now", writes Max Müller "that savage and primitive are very far indeed from meaning the same thing" (Anthrop. Relig., 150). Talcott Williams shows the necessity of revising and limiting the confidence with which the modern savage has been used to explain a nobler past (Smithsonian Report of 1896). Müller and Kuhn refute Mannhardt and Meyer by showing that popular beliefs of modern folk-lore are fragments of a higher mythology.
  • (2) It does not explain how man gained the predicate God , which is the real problem of religion. Jastrow says mere personification of nature lacks a certain spiritual element which appears to be essential to the rise of a genuine religious feeling in man. Hence, he adds, Müller postulated "the perception of the Infinite " (Hibbert Lectures, 1878), and Tiele appeals to "man's original unconscious innate sense of infinity " (Elem. of the Scien. of Rel., II, 233). Thus Fairbairn says, "the constitutive element is what mind brings to nature, not what nature brings to mind " (Studies in the Philos. of History and Religion, New York, 1876).
  • (3) The theory is defective, for it does not explain all the facts of early religious consciousness. If nature were the only source of religion, man would express his ideas of God in terms drawn from nature alone. Now the science of language shows that primitive man expresses his idea of God :
    • (a) In terms drawn from physical nature, e.g., Dyans Pitar of the Indo-Europeans; Zeus pater of the Greeks; Jupiter of the Latins; Tieu, i.e., heaven, of the Chinese; the Persian Dæva; the Celtic Dia from the Sanscrit root Div., i.e., to shine.
    • (b) By moral and metaphysical concepts: thus, e.g., Jahweh, i.e., the one who is; Ahura, i.e., the living one; El, i.e., the powerful shown in Elohim, Allah, Babylonia ; Shaddai, i.e., the mighty; Bel, i.e., the lord; Molech, i.e., king; Adonai, i.e., lord. Such concepts are found with barbarous peoples, e.g., Unkululu of the Zulus, i.e., father; Papang of the Australian, i.e., father; the Mongolian Teng-ri and Hunnish Tang-li, i.e., lord of the sky. Furthermore the earliest Indo-European conception of God is Dyaus Pitar, i.e., the heaven-father.

    Hence the idea of paternity is characteristic of their primitive consciousness. Such a concept is too sublime and elevated to be explained on the principles of Naturism; which is utterly unable to account for the second class of terms.

  • (4) The main support for the theory of Naturism is the Vedic religion. It is true that traces of nature-religion are found in the Vedas. But to say that the Vedic gods are nothing more than nature personified or that nature-worship is the primitive type of Indian religion is to betray the superficial observer. The moral and spiritual conceptions are older than the physical faith. That the ancient Aryans viewed nature as active is not ground to hold that for this reason they worshiped nature. We express ourselves after this fashion in ordinary conversation. The great truth shown by the Vedas is the fact of degeneracy.

II. PHILOSOPHIC NATURISM

This phase is based on the philosophic unity of animated nature. The ancient cosmogonies represent the efforts of the human mind to attain a unity amid the multiplicity of external things. In the Stoic conception of God as the soul of the world is set forth a Naturism which satisfies the intellectual craving for unity and gives scope to the exercise of the religious emotions. Hence it was that these philosophers could look with indulgent tolerance upon the religious practices of the common people. The basic principle with both was the same; e.g., the worship of animated nature. To the cultured Roman this principle was conceived as a philosophic unity; to the ordinary mind it was viewed in manifold forms and activities which were the source and explanation of their countless nature-deities. Pantheism in its various forms exhibits the same thought. This is especially true of modern Pantheistic theories. The substance of Spinoza, the synthesis of Fichte, the identity of Schelling, the absolute idea of Hegel is at basis the same conception. Its religious significance is twofold:

  • (a) the more spiritual and metaphysical form appears in Neo-Hegelianism which teaches the unity of human and Divine consciousness. This reflects the nature-philosophy of Hegel which exhibits the idea, i.e., God in its finitude.
  • (b) The idealistic Naturism is shown in the writings of the Romantic school, e.g., Goethe, Shelley, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and attains its full expression in Transcendentalism.

To Emerson as to Goethe, God was the soul of the world. Emerson seems to consider religion as the delight which springs from a harmony of man and nature. Emerson taught that the universe is composed of nature and the soul, and by nature means all the not me , i.e., physical nature ; art, other man, and his own body. Hence in germ the worship of humanity is contained in Emerson's teaching, just as it is latent in Neo-Hegelianism, and appears in the Hegelian evolution of the idea, i.e., the Absolute or God, when viewed from its human side, i.e., as a human process.

III. SCIENCE-NATURISM

This is the religion of the science-philosophy and appears under two forms:

  • (a) The religion of humanity was first presented in systematic form by Comte, and contains the principles of the humanitarian theories so prevalent a generation ago. God does not exist or at least cannot be known, therefore mankind calls forth the sole and supreme expression of our veneration and service.
  • (b) Cosmic religion, a title invented by Fiske, and designated the homage of reason to forces of nature or the awe of phenomena which suggest mysterious and destructive power.

Spencer speaks of the emotion resulting from the contemplation of the unknowable into which as into a mystery all cosmical questions resolve. Fiske develops this thought and makes the essence of religions emotion very largely consist in the sense of mystery. To Fiske the unknowable manifests itself in a world of law and is yet conceived to be in itself something beyond these manifestations. Hence worship is ever the dark side of the shield of which knowledge is the bright side. Thus Matthew Arnold's definition of religion as morality touched by emotion becomes with Tyndall poetry and emotion in face of matter instinct with mind. Cosmism, according to Fiske, is, however, more than a mere sentiment. He says the fundamental principle of religion is obedience to the entire requirements of nature. This is righteousness, just as sin is a wilful violation of nature's laws. Science-Naturism finds its most complete delineation in Seeley's "Natural Religion". He uses the term "Natural Religion" in contrast with the supernatural. In rejecting supernaturalism and submitting to science is presented a theology to which, he says, all men do actually agree, viz., nature in God and God a mere synonym for nature. Hence there is no power beyond or superior to nature nor anything like a cause of nature. Whether we say God or prefer to say nature, the important thing is that our minds are filled with the sense of a power, to all appearance infinite and eternal, a power to which our own being is inseparably connected, in the knowledge of whose ways alone is safety and well-being, in the contemplation of which we find a beatific vision. Religion begins with nature-worship which in its essence is admiration of natural objects and forces. But natural mythology has given place to science, which sees mechanism where will, purpose, and love had been suspected before and drops the name of God, to take up instead the less awful name of Nature. Nature is a name comprehending all the uniform laws of the universe as known in our experience. It is the residuum that is left after the elimination of everything supernatural, and comprehends man with all his thoughts and aspirations not less than the forms of the material world.

Here, according to Seeley, we have the kernel of Christianity and the purified worship of natural forms, i.e., the higher paganism. He holds that this is not Pantheism, for not the individual forms of nature are the objects of worship, but nature considered as a unity. Art and science as well as morality, form the substance of religion, hence culture is the essence of religion and its fruit is the higher life. Thus religion, in his view in the individual is identified with culture, in its public aspect is identified with civilization. For Seeley the Church is the atmosphere of thought, feeling, and belief that surrounds the State; it is in fact its civilization made more or less tangible and visible. His universal Church is universal civilization. And as culture is a threefold devotion to beauty, goodness, and truth, so the term civilization expresses the same threefold religion, shown on a larger scale in the characters, institutions, and customs of nations. (Cf. ANIMISM ; DEITY; FETISHISM; TOTEMISM ; TRANSCENDENTALISM.)


More Encyclopedia

The Catholic Encyclopedia is the most comprehensive resource on Catholic teaching, history, and information ever gathered in all of human history. This easy-to-search online version was originally printed in fifteen hardcopy volumes.

Catholic Encyclopedia

Designed to present its readers with the full body of Catholic teaching, the Encyclopedia contains not only precise statements of what the Church has defined, but also an impartial record of different views of acknowledged authority on all disputed questions, national, political or factional. In the determination of the truth the most recent and acknowledged scientific methods are employed, and the results of the latest research in theology, philosophy, history, apologetics, archaeology, and other sciences are given careful consideration.

No one who is interested in human history, past and present, can ignore the Catholic Church, either as an institution which has been the central figure in the civilized world for nearly two thousand years, decisively affecting its destinies, religious, literary, scientific, social and political, or as an existing power whose influence and activity extend to every part of the globe. In the past century the Church has grown both extensively and intensively among English-speaking peoples. Their living interests demand that they should have the means of informing themselves about this vast institution, which, whether they are Catholics or not, affects their fortunes and their destiny.

Copyright © Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company New York, NY. Volume 1: 1907; Volume 2: 1907; Volume 3: 1908; Volume 4: 1908; Volume 5: 1909; Volume 6: 1909; Volume 7: 1910; Volume 8: 1910; Volume 9: 1910; Volume 10: 1911; Volume 11: - 1911; Volume 12: - 1911; Volume 13: - 1912; Volume 14: 1912; Volume 15: 1912

Catholic Online Catholic Encyclopedia Digital version Compiled and Copyright © Catholic Online


Newsletters

Newsletter Sign Up icon

Stay up to date with the latest news, information, and special offers

Daily Readings

Reading 1, First Corinthians 1:26-31
26 Consider, brothers, how you were called; not many ... Read More

Psalm, Psalms 33:12-13, 18-19, 20-21
12 How blessed the nation whose God is Yahweh, the ... Read More

Gospel, Matthew 25:14-30
14 'It is like a man about to go abroad who summoned ... Read More

Saint of the Day

Saint of the Day for August 30th, 2014 Image

St. Rumon
August 30: St. Rumon, also known as Ruan, Ronan, and Ruadan, was probably a ... Read More

Inform, Inspire & Ignite Logo

Find Catholic Online on Facebook and get updates right in your live feed.

Become a fan of Catholic Online on Facebook


Follow Catholic Online on Twitter and get News and Product updates.

Follow us on Twitter