Are human beings naturally religious?

Sociologist Christian Smith:

[H]uman beings are naturally religious when by that we mean that they possess, by virtue of their given ontological being, a complex set of innate features, capacities, powers, limitations, and tendencies that give them the capacity to think, perceive, feel, imagine, desire, and act religiously and that under the right conditions tend to predispose and direct them toward religion. The natural religiousness of humanity is not discerned in the (nonexistent) uniformity of empirical religious beliefs or practice in individuals or societies. It is instead located in natural features latent within our humanity and subject, as all innate capacities are, to the complexities of interactions and stimulations that do (and don’t) bring these features to the surface.

This not only helps to explain religion’s primordial, irrepressible, widespread, and seemingly inextinguishable character in the human experience, it also suggests that the skeptical Enlightenment, secular humanist, and New Atheist visions for a totally secular human world are simply not realistic—they are cutting against a very strong grain in the nature of reality’s structure and so will fail to achieve their purpose. But that is not the whole story. Taking the concept of “being religious by nature” in a properly critical sense also helps us interpret the data that tells us that human beings and societies often are not religious. This view tells us that nonreligious people possess the natural capacities and tendencies toward religion but that those capacities and tendencies have not been activated by environmental, experiential triggers or else have been activated but then neutralized or deactivated by some other social forces.

But what exactly are the natural tendencies toward religion grounded in human personhood? They are the interconnected set of orientations toward life and the world in which human beings continually seem to find themselves. We are speaking here about important aspects of the human condition.

The first of these natural human tendencies toward religion springs from our universal human condition in relation to what we affirm as true. As I have argued in my book Moral, Believing Animals, all human beings are believers, not knowers who know with certitude. Everything we know is grounded on presupposed beliefs that cannot be verified with more fundamental proof or certainty that provides us assurance that they are true. That is just as true for atheists as for religious adherents. The quest for foundationalist certainty, with which we are all familiar, is a distinctly modern project, one launched as a response to the instabilities and uncertainties of early-modern Europe. But that modern project has failed. There is no universal, rational foundation upon which indubitably certain knowledge can be built. All human knowing is built on believing. That is the human condition.

That means that religious commitment is not fundamentally different from any human belief commitment. It involves the same innate human need to believe more than one can “prove.” Otherwise we would live in a cognitive desert, unable to furnish our minds with enough perceptions and ideas to begin thinking. Religious believing thus shares the larger epistemic situation of all human believing.

The second natural tendency toward religion springs from the human capacity to recognize problems and our desire to solve them. By one way of thinking in sociology, which is surely right as far as it goes, religion has its deepest roots in the human desire to avert, forestall, or resolve real and perceived problems. And as human beings we are particularly capable of recognizing problems, and we want to overcome them. Of course, we encounter problems we have limited or no power to solve. Death provides the most obvious example, illness another. Yet precisely because we can throw our problems into cognitive form and want to solve them, we cannot ignore even the most intractable and seemingly unsolvable problems. We often want to solve problems we cannot solve. When the prospect of a helpful superhuman power is present to human minds, through culture, socialization, revelation, or some other means, it is quite natural for us to appeal to this power to help avert or resolve our problems.

Third, our existential condition also lends itself to the tendency toward religion. Human beings have both incredible capacities and severe limits. We know we will die but not what comes after death, for example. We often seek truth, goodness, and beauty but find so little of it in this world and oftentimes in ourselves. Many people naturally ask and wrestle with answers to the Big Questions: What should I live for and why? What should I believe, and why should I believe it? What is morality, and where does it come from? What kind of person should I be? What is the meaning of life, and what should I do in order to lead a fulfilling life? We are meaning-making and significance-seeking animals, yet we have difficulty creating satisfying meanings solely from within the horizons of the immanent world we occupy.

Religion has been the primary way that human cultures have answered these life questions. Still, religion is not the only way for human beings to answer them and live functional, happy lives. The human existential condition does not require that people be religious or feel the need to address and answer such questions—many people appear happy to focus on the present, live as well as they can, and not be bothered by the Big Questions. At the same time, however, the capacity to respond to the human existential condition in terms that are not religious does not mean that this existential condition does not exist or that its tendency to lead to religion is not powerful. It does and is.

Finally, the human need to make what Charles Taylor calls “strong evaluations” works as another tendency toward religion. We unavoidably operate in relation to moral beliefs that are taken to arise not from our personal preferences and desires but from sources transcending them. It is simply unnatural for human beings to think that morality is nothing but a charade, that all moral claims are nothing but relative human constructions.

Friedrich Nietzsche attempted some version of this but could not himself finally escape from arguing that some things were in fact true, that some positions were actually right—which is why he wrote his works to convince readers of his views. His “transvaluation of all values” still ended up committing him to certain values, truth claims, and beliefs about good and bad. “Slave morality” was for him bad, for instance, while the morality of the pagan noble warrior was good.

This innate tendency to make strong evaluations leaves us needing to account for where morality comes from, what makes it real. Some people are able to submerge such questions beneath their consciousness, but the moral questions recurrently return in cultures and social groups, if not in the lives of distinct persons. Again, religion is not the only source of answers, but historically it has been a foundational and central one. Even though few ordinary people are moral philosophers who care about intellectual consistency (not that most moral philosophers necessarily prove to be all that consistent either), the questions themselves never disappear from human life. This too, under the right conditions, triggers the human capacity for religion.

In short, the human condition entails genuinely natural capacities for religion, which these four tendencies often direct toward the actualized practice of religion. No human person or culture has to respond to these conditions religiously. Any such tendency, weak or strong, is merely a tendency—not a determination, necessity, or historical destiny. There are other, functional, nonreligious ways to deal with the human condition.

Still, we can justifiably say that human beings are naturally religious—as a matter of real, natural potentiality, capacity, and tendency—while at the same time acknowledging that very many human beings and even some cultures are not particularly religious at all. This view accounts for the seemingly contradictory evidence with which we began. Religiosity is widespread, yet not universal, and though not inevitable, impossible to extinguish.

What then does this tell us about matters in our own present age and likely into the future? That we are naturally religious does not mean that tomorrow will necessarily see a great revival, or that all secularists are secretly unhappy, “anonymous believers,” or somehow subhuman because they are living in some sense against the grain of their natures. But it strongly suggests that we should not expect human societies to become thoroughly secularized. Because we human beings are indeed religious by nature, secularization will be limited in effect, contingent in direction on various factors, and susceptible to long-term reversals.

— “Man the Religious Animal” (First Things)


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