Table of Contents
2. Basic Concepts
3. The Image of God
4. Blake and the Deists
5. There Is No Natural Religion
6. Blake and the Church
7. Final Remarks
There Is No Natural Religion
“We have war, injustice, and unhappiness
because our way of life is founded on mistaken beliefs.”
This quotation by William Blake set me thinking and distracted me from my actual project: I wanted to write an essay on a poem. But during my work I, fortunately, ended up in a chaos of philosophical questions: Who are we? Where do we come from? Is our universe only a dust particle of something larger? Is there a force guiding us? Who or what is God?
From time immemorial, people have been racking their brains over these ageless and puzzling questions, and I doubt whether we are able to provide convincing responses to them. Someone who might give us a wise answer is William Blake (1757–1827). He is considered to be the first major Romantic poet, and a central theme of his works is religion ( e.g. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, The Book of Urizen) . Admittedly, there is no easy access to Blake because he is one of the most obscure and inscrutable poets. Nevertheless, I would like to make the daring attempt to uncover the secrets of Blake’s religious mysticism. For this reason, I will discuss one of his first works There Is No Natural Religion (1788).
My design is to make this essay accessible to a wide readership, especially to those who have so far avoided profoundly dealing with a particular topic: religion. I also had no serious interest in religion at all – until I started to learn Arabic. Once you have mastered “Allah’s difficult but most ornate language”, you have got a completely different outlook on the world. Beside this, I felt an urgent personal need to deal with the concept of faith in greater detail. This has in part something to do with the changing idea and role of religion in the 21st century. Unfortunately, a number of armed conflicts have been provoked grounded on disagreements between several religious groups, and since September 11 people fear that a potential third world war will be a war of religions, a war between cultures. So this subject is of utmost relevance to the current events.
I hope to provide a vivid, comprehensible and, above all, stimulating and entertaining essay. Keywords that I put in italics serve as a guide through our discussion. So let’s begin and explore the (still) unknown spheres of religion. William Blake will give us a hand.
2. Basic Concepts
The vast majority of the world’s population believe in something godlike. And they regard themselves as religious . We are all religious to some extent because religion is an inborn human trait. Especially those who find themselves in a miserable state, those who suffer from a serious disease or are suppressed, those who are shipwrecked, imprisoned or sentenced to death, all those people are especially susceptible to religion. Thus, religion is part of human nature. But what do we mean when we speak of religion?
The word religion comes from Greek and stands for “obligation, bond, reference”. According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary (1995, 1161), religion is “the belief in superhuman controlling power, esp. in a personal God or gods entitled to obedience and worship; [...] a particular system of faith [...]”. Also Blake believed in supernatural forces. He was a deeply religious person and well versed in the Bible. For him, faith was stronger than reason and he considered religion to be “the basic problem of mankind” (Demon 1988, 342). This may be the explanation why Blake developed his own personal religious mysticism, especially by objecting to the principles of a Natural Religion .
Before we can approach the idea of Natural Religion, it is vital to understand four concepts we inevitably come across when dealing with religion (and Blake): atheism , agnosticism , deism and theism . The order of these concepts is not arbitrary. Let us see why:
The term commonly known to most of us without having studied religion or philosophy at university is atheism . It is the direct counterconcept of theism (a- and theism) and is derived from Greek, signifying godlessness . So atheism is the belief that God does not exist, the “denial of the existence of a supreme being” (Webster 1993, 61). Furthermore, atheism often tries to explain the world by applying the laws of science.
Agnosticism – sometimes used synonymously with atheism – is the belief “that nothing is known, or can be known, of the existence or nature of God or of anything beyond material phenomena” (COD 1995, 26). According to this fairly non-scientific definition, the existence or non-existence of God cannot be explained by common sense because it is beyond human understanding. Even Charles Darwin, the great English scientist (1809–1882), had to admit that “the mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us; and I for one must be content to remain an agnostic”.
The concept most relevant to us when we discuss Blake is deism . It was coined in the period of Enlightenment and is derived from the Greek word deus , meaning god. Deism can be defined as a “movement or system of thoughts advocating natural religion based on human reason rather than revelation, emphasizing morality, and in the 18th century denying the interference of the Creator with the laws of the universe” (Webster 1993, 263). Supporters of this religious philosophy reject supernatural and irrational elements and disclaim the immanence of God in the world, although they consider God to be the Creator – something I find is a contradiction in terms.
The last concept we will look at is theism . According to definition, it is the “belief in the existence of [...] a god, esp. a God supernaturally revealed to man [...] and sustaining a personal relation to his creatures” (COD 1995, 1445). Theism is the antonym of deism – as far as God’s omnipotence (or total power) is concerned: God is still ruling and influencing the world.
Now the way I arranged these four terms becomes clear: all four concepts have the following in common – they say something about people’s belief or disbelief in a supernatural power (supposing God) and its present influence. They range from an emphatic denial of a deity (atheism) to an unquestioning acceptance of God’s existence (theism).
Before we will study one of these concepts in depth and from a different perspective, let me, as a conclusion, visualize this chapter:
illustration not visible in this excerpt
One concept we can find in all four definitions is God . But who or what is He? In the next chapter, I will offer an answer to this question.
3. The Image of God
There must be some force guiding us – call it destiny, fate or God . In metaphysics, a branch of philosophy, to prove the existence of God has become a serious engagement. We likewise should raise this issue and ask ourselves: Is there a god at all?
‘Yes, of course, there is.’ ...This reply I would have given some twenty years ago when I was a child – not knowing who or what God actually is. Amazingly, I would even have been able to provide a very clear description of God’s image: He is male, well advanced in years, He has got thin hair, He wears a long grey bushy beard and is dressed in a white robe. A bright golden halo moves above His head. He sits on a white cloud and supports Himself on a brown wooden walking-stick. He makes rain, wind and sunshine.
And when people on Earth don’t eat up their bowl of soup or do something evil, God gets angry and punishes them by creating gigantic thunderstorms and powerful earthquakes
This fairly romantic picture has in part remained within me to this day – although I am convinced that a deity in the physical sense cannot exist. We simply lack scientific evidence. Non-atheists would now argue that God’s non-existence has to be disproved as well before denying a supreme being.