John Henry Newman on
Natural Religion
A supplemental consideration to
C. S. Lewis’s “We Have Cause to be Uneasy”
from Mere Christianity.
Who is John Henry Newman?
Born 1801, attended
Trinity College,
Entered ministry in
the Church of
Received into the
Catholic Church at
age 45.
Was made a cardinal,
shortly before his
death at age 89.
Newman discusses “natural religion”
in the Grammar of Assent.
In this book, he
explored the
elements of religious
conversion, e.g.
“What allows one to
submit one’s will in
Among these
elements, he
identified “natural
religion” that is, our
natural knowledge of
our duties to God.
Before “Revealed Religion”
comes “Natural Religion.”
That there is a Being (or beings) that
have made man, and to whom he owes
That disobedience to this Being is sin, and
merits retributive punishment.
That there are ways to atone (“make up”)
for sin, e.g. sacrifice of one’s goods.
That this Being reveals Himself, and
listens to the prayers of men.
Newman identifies three
sources of natural religion.
Our own minds
Voice of
(cultural beliefs
and rituals)
Course of
Through conscience we know that there is a
God from whom we receive the moral law.
The god Marduk giving the
law to Hammurabi, Babylonia
Moses receiving the Law from
God, Ancient Hebrew
Through conscience we know God first
as a lawgiver, then as a judge.
Judgment of Soul, Ancient Egypt
Traditional religion shows its “dark side
outward” – bad news first.
It is founded on the
sense of sin.
Its many varieties all
proclaim or imply
that man is in a
degraded, servile
It demands expiation,
reconciliation, and
some great change of
Traditional religions emphasize man’s
impurity, his need for cleansing.
Ritual purification in Ganges by Hindus
Initiation into the Eleusian Mysteries,
Ancient Greece.
Central to natural religion is a priesthood
that intercedes for the people.
The priest belongs
to an elect group.
He prays as a
mediator for the
Most importantly,
he offers sacrifice
in atonement for
Sacrifice characterizes religions around the
world and throughout history.
Ancient Greeks sacrificing a
Ancient Egyptians preparing to
sacrifice an ox.
Sacrifice is an act of atonement,
“making up” for sin.
Hebrew priest offering a
holocaust in the Temple
Atonement implies
the “substitution of
something offered,
or some personal
suffering, for a
penalty which would
otherwise be
All nations, cultures
and periods of
history have ritual
forms of atonement
and expiation.
By contrast, “civilized” religion
is more cheerful!
This is not an
with natural
religion, but a
It leaves
behind all
notions of sin
and guilt – it is
wholly artificial.
Nature gives a mixed message – it
offers blessings, but suffering as well!
Natural religion has a “bright
side” as well as a “dark side.”
Religion offers
hope of benefits
from the gods.
Sacrifice and
atonement imply
that the gods can
be appeased.
Prayer implies that
they listen to our
Ancient Romans praying to the
“household gods.”
When Paul preached to the pagans, he said that
God had made Himself known to them through
providence of nature. (Acts. 17)
Revelation is a blessing of natural
religion – the gods reveal themselves.
Disciple being lead by Thoth (Ancient Egypt)
Angels appear to Abraham
(Ancient Hebrew)
What is natural religion?
The natural knowledge we have of
our duties to divine authority.
Possible to us without Revelation.
Indeed, prepares men for it.
Even in Christians, it cannot be
separated from their Christianity.

John Henry Newman on Natural Religion