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Natural religion most frequently means the "religion of nature", in which God, the soul, spirits, and all objects of the supernatural are considered as part of nature and not separate from it. Conversely, it is also used in philosophy, specifically Roman Catholic philosophy, to describe some aspects of religion that are knowable apart from divine revelation (see Deism).
Most authors consider natural religion as not only the foundation of monotheistic religions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam but also distinct from them. Natural religion is found universally among all peoples, often in such forms of shamanism and animism. They are still practiced in many parts of the world. The religions of Native American societies for example are considered natural religions.
Natural religion might have the following meanings:
- In the modern study of religion it is used to refer to the notion that there is a spontaneous religious apprehension of the world common to all human beings, see:
- As a reverent form of nature worship, embodied in a statement by Frank Lloyd Wright: "I put a capital N on Nature, and call it my Church."
- Referring to the religions of people prior to their Christianization.
The basic tenets of natural religion were outlined by Aristotle, whose hylomorphism considered all things as made of matter and form. The form of all living things is the soul, which guides and directs their development. Many natural religions consider God as the "soul of the universe." Most authors today consider these basic tenets of natural religion as rational. Although not set proven with empirical evidence, they present a non-material explanation for life, the mind, and the apparent purposefulness of nature, which modern science so far has been unable to explain.
Early monotheism had many naturalistic elements. Heaven and hell were considered physical places above and below the earth. "Salvation" was considered resurrection of the body.
In the fourth century, Christians were concerned that Jesus had not returned and wondered what happened to those who died before the Second Coming of Christ. Christians, led by Augustine of Hippo and under the influence of both gnosticism and neoplatonism, developed a new belief in the soul as capable of a separate existence abstract from the material world. The human souls, unlike those of animals, would survive death and, depending on God's judgment, be transferred to the non-material realms of heaven or hell and the new realm of limbo for unbaptized persons and purgatory for those who do not deserve hell but are not purified for heaven..
Another distinction from monotheism is found in the Christian belief in miracles, in which God intervenes in history from outside nature. Ancient Roman philosophers and others since objected to this Christian doctrine as God violating his own natural laws. Christians had to separate God more completely from the natural universe in order to show how this could be possible. There were similar neoplatonist tendencies in Judaism and Islam, which also saw God as acting in history.
Natural religions, on the contrary, consider the supernatural as part of the natural universe.
One of the first attempts to develop a science of religion was The Varieties of Religious Experience by the American philosopher William James. James saw the basic experience which unified all religions as a sometimes life-changing personal event in which one perceives the connectedness of all things as one unified whole.
James defined the basics of all religion, including natural religion, when he wrote: "Were one to characterize the life of religion in the broadest and most general terms possible, one might say that it exists of the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves hereto."
A few modern scientists such as UK biologist Rupert Sheldrake believe new discoveries coincide with Aristotle's belief in the soul. Forces such as magnetism, gravity, and quantum mechanics also point to non-material forces acting in nature.