Are human beings naturally religious? Should we take religion to be in some way an innate, instinctive, or otherwise inevitable aspect of human life? Or is religion a historically contingent, nonessential aspect of basic human being?
These are not questions of merely academic curiosity. The answers have big implications for how human personal and social life should be properly ordered. They often imply positions about the truth value of religious and secular claims about reality. Answers and arguments about them are also bound up with massive historical projects that seek to shape social orders. These include the neo-Enlightenment project to create a rational, secular modernity and various religious projects to create a modernity that socially accommodates religious worldviews if not place them at the center. The futures of world civilizations around the globe are today being contested by movements that are affected by different answers to the questions posed above. The stakes of the answers are therefore high for implications in public policy, institutional practices, and deep cultural formation over time.
By “what pertains to human beings by nature,” I mean what is essential and universal for human beings, at least since the Axial Age beginning circa 800 b.c. and probably since the Neolithic era beginning circa 9500 b.c. I make claims about anthropological universals, which should apply to human beings in all other cultures, not just Christendom or the West.
The empirical evidence gives us four facts that do not consistently answer the question. First, very many people in the world are not religious, and some entire cultures appear to be quite secular, without apparent damage to their happiness and functionality. This suggests that religion is not natural to human being but an accidental or inessential practice only some human beings experience.
Second, religion generally is not fading away in the modern world as a whole. Even the most determined attempts by powerful states to repress and extinguish religion (in Russia, China, Revolutionary France, Albania, and North Korea, for example) have failed. Religion thus also seems to be incredibly resilient, perhaps incapable of being destroyed and terminated. This suggests that religion is somehow irrepressibly natural to human being.
Third, even when traditionally religious forms of human life seem to fade in some contexts, new and alternative forms of life often appear in their place that engage the sacred, spiritual, transcendent, and liturgical needs of human beings. New Age ideas and claims to be “spiritual but not religious” are obvious instances. Organizations, movements, and practices as different as “secular” environmentalism, academic economics, and sports spectacles have religious dimensions. Many of today’s most popular films, fiction, and television shows deal with superhuman powers, supernatural realities, and spiritual themes.
Even those in traditional religious groups who seem religiously disengaged exhibit arguably religious practices, including what sociologists call “vicarious religion,” “believing without belonging,” and “everyday religion.” Some, like St. Augustine, have argued that many apparently antireligious activities—including drunkenness, carousing, promiscuous sex, harsh athletic training, committed political activism, incessant material consumption, and drug addiction—actually represent deeply driven human religious longings and searching, which happen to be misdirected quests for the true religious good. The presence of these religious alternatives adds credence to the view that religion is irrepressibly natural to human being.
The fourth fact points back to the view that religion isn’t an essential part of who we are. The role of religion in the lives of individuals and societies depends greatly upon personal and historical experiences and developments. They are, as sociologists say, “path dependent.” Different people and groups can and do head in quite different directions when it comes to religion. No one narrative or trajectory tells the whole story, and in fact there simply may not be a dominant story. At best, scholars can note and interpret broad patterns and associations. This suggests that religion is not natural, if by natural we mean consistently expressed.
What should we make of these four facts, which seem to speak both for and against the idea that humanity is naturally religious? I believe there is a way to make sense of all of the evidence. What is necessary is to understand what it means to say that something is “natural” for human beings.
People often cannot understand the question of human nature because their way of understanding it is framed (whether they know it or not) by the ideas of positivist empiricism. Positivism tries to read human nature off the surface of human behavior. It tells us to look for regular associations between observable empirical events and defines “explanation” as identifying the strongest, most significant associations between them. Once positivists find these explanations, they apply them as “covering laws” to all relevant cases and situations. Applied to the question at hand, the debate thus proceeds on the unquestioned assumption that either human beings definitely are naturally religious, and so religion will always persist in human societies, or they are not naturally religious, and so modernity will inevitably secularize people and society as we shed the accidents of our cultural past.
But this is not an adequate view of what nature means. We need instead to take a realist approach, which observes that everything that exists in reality possesses distinctive characteristics and capacities by virtue of its particular ontological makeup. The “nature” of anything refers to the stably characteristic properties, capacities, and tendencies it possesses at a “deep” level by virtue of what it is. By nature, as I have argued in my book What Is a Person?, human beings have specific features, capacities, powers, limits, and tendencies, and human nature is defined by these as expressed by human beings taken as a whole. The tendencies normally direct the use of our capacities in particular directions and not others. People have the capacity to exercise their muscles but tend to do so in certain ways—for example, to walk upright because that is easier and more efficient than crab-walking.
The causal capacities and tendencies of real things are neither determined or determining nor random or chaotic. They are therefore neither absolutely predictable nor incomprehensible. Human beings are in their nature-guided actions neither determined nor fully autonomous. Nevertheless, because the tendencies normally direct the capacities in certain directions, when we speak about human nature we are pointing to a certain grain in the expressed features, abilities, tendencies, and operations of persons. When we say that a social activity, arrangement, or pattern is in accord with or contrary to human nature, we are saying that it works either with or against that grain of nature.
To understand these matters well, we also have to distinguish potentiality from actuality, mere possibility from full realization. Different environments activate, or don’t activate, different combinations of capacities and powers. A child’s aptitude for math or music or baseball, for example, is realized or fulfilled (or not) depending upon environmental conditions that do or don’t activate and nurture it in various ways. Natural potentials may go unrealized. But that does not make them unreal or not part of the nature of things. It simply means that they are currently dormant and unrealized.
Social reality develops through complex processes of interaction and emergence that in different contexts will produce quite different events and outcomes. But variability in social reality does not mean that nothing has a nature but that real nature can and will be expressed in various ways.
Thus, the highly variable characteristics of both individual human beings and particular human societies flow from rather than contradict the idea that we human beings have a stable nature. Our natural capacities and tendencies must actually be realized or expressed, and a culture-making animal like the human being realizes and expresses them in all kinds of different ways. Another way of putting the point is to say that certain natural powers and potentials exist at a deep level and are triggered and activated only under certain conditions and when activated are realized in certain ways and not others.
Thus, when we consider whether or not human beings are naturally religious, we need to reject the empiricist notion that we can read human nature off the surface of human behavior. Instead, as realists, we have to use all available empirical evidence to understand what we can’t always see, including the innate capacities and aptitudes we observe in their highly complex expressions when they are realized but cannot see when they are not. Our task is not (as it is for positivism) to discover the covering laws that explain and predict observable associations of conditions and events, but to use all available empirical evidence and powers of reason to develop conceptual models that as accurately as possible describe the real capacities and causal processes operating at the deeper, unobservable level of reality. This is what scientists do with subatomic particles, for instance. It is what all human knowledge requires.
How does this help us understand the question about whether human beings are naturally religious? I begin by stating my position negatively. First, human beings are not by nature religious if by that we mean “by nature” in the positivist-empiricist sense of being compelled by some natural and irrepressible need, drive, instinct, or desire to be religious. Plain observation shows that some people are religious and some are not, often quite happily and functionally so.
Second, and closely related, human beings are not by nature religious if by that we mean that every human culture has a functional need or intractable impulse to make religion one of its centrally defining features. Like particular people, societies vary in how important a role religion plays in their lives. Some are highly religious. Others are quite secular, with religion operating on the margins. At the level of observation the most we can say is that complete secularity appears to be impossible for societies. But that is a long way from saying that human beings are naturally religious.
Nonetheless, human 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.
Christian Smith professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame. A version of this essay was delivered to the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center.