Is Man Religious by Nature?
The Nature of Human Beings
Let’s start with… well… everything! Reality exists: both natural and supernatural. The natural realm is everything that we can detect, observe, or measure. This part of the created order includes atoms, molecules, and matter, in general, but it also includes unseen forces like gravity, electromagnetism, and the like. All of this exists in space and time, in a closed system where matter is neither created nor destroyed. But is there more?
The “more” would be above nature or “supernatural.” The supernatural is all that exists apart from the material and natural realm. Angels, demons, and the Creator Himself all exist apart from the visible observable universe. Truly, God deserves His own category as the only Necessary Being whereas everything else is contingent on Him.
We speak of the things of our material universe as Nature. Here on Earth, nature includes the elements: earth, fire, water, wind, and life. However, there is another usage of the term “nature” which is more important to our conversation today. The nature of a thing is the basic or inherent features of that thing.
So, when we speak of human nature, we are not necessarily referring to the things which can be observed in human behavior or external characteristics shared by homo sapiens. Human nature is the basic or inherent features of being human. What is written into the very heart of man? What pertains to the nature of the human person from the beginning, now, and forever? This is what we mean by human nature.
All Human Beings Have the Same Nature
All human beings have the same nature. If they did not, then they would not be human. Again, the vital distinction is in the difference between observable behaviors on the one hand and those intrinsic and essential aspects on the other. The former is merely behavior and the latter is the necessary realities of being human.
We are human beings, after all, not “human doings.” So, if someone has a mental disorder that causes them to act in a way that is opposed to human nature, they are nonetheless still human.
This distinction is important because we hear people speak of such and such phenomena “existing in nature” and drawing the conclusion that the observed phenomena must be “natural.” Quickly falling apart upon examination, this line of thinking leads to great confusion about human nature.
A coworker recently brought up an example of this with the phenomenon of geophagy. In certain instances, pregnant women will begin to experience an inordinate desire to consume dirt and clay. The ingestion of this non-food item is compulsive and might derive from a deficiency in iron. At any rate, it is not “normal” or “well-ordered” to eat dirt and clay. Yet, geophagy “exists in nature.” So, is it part of human nature to eat dirt and clay? No. Something is seriously off in this phenomenon. Just because some human beings do certain things or even desire certain things, this does not make it part of human nature.
What We Ought to Be
Because all human beings have the same nature, endowed by the Creator, there are certain standards consistent across the entire human race. When we say what a human being essentially is, there is an implication of what human beings ought to be.
From before recorded History, human beings have been self-reflective - incidentally, self-reflection and powers of abstraction is an intrinsic part of human nature. In this self-reflection, human beings have interrogated the known and the unknown, within and without themselves.
The fundamental questions resound through the ages: who are we? Why are we here? What is the purpose of life? Why is there life at all? Who am I? What is a human being? What does it mean to be a human being? Is there something after death? Do I have a soul? And so on…
These questions are universal: in every time and in every place, human beings have voraciously questioned everything. Many of these questions require philosophical investigation and others require scientific examination. But philosophy and science can only get us so far in inquiry. From the beginning, human beings have also relied on the queen of the sciences: theology.
Admittedly, theology was not called the “queen of the sciences” until the High Middle Ages. Schools of higher learning used the trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric and the quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy to investigate the universe - both seen and unseen, within and without. Nevertheless, theology as the study of God and the divine in general could be called religion.
What is Religion?
Before we can define what religion actually is, we need to understand what we, as human beings, are capable of. Man is made in the image and likeness of God. Being made in the image and likeness of God is to possess a rational soul. Human beings have the ability to know things (intellect) and the ability to choose freely the good (will). Endowed with freedom, man seeks the good and is capable of understanding the ordering of reality, established by the Creator.
Given possession of a rational soul, man ardently seeks after reality. The disposition of the soul towards the good, true, and beautiful, in practice, is religion. The word religion has derived diverse meanings over the last few millennia. Cicero seeks religion as deriving from the verb relegere which means “to treat carefully.” On the other hand, the fourth century Christian apologist Lactantius says:
“We are tied to God and bound to him [religati] by the bond of piety, and it is from this, and not, as Cicero holds, from careful consideration [relegendo], that religion has received its name (Divine Institutes, IV, xxviii).”
Speaking in a Neoplatonic mode, the great St. Augustine in City of God gives a sense of recovering God: “having lost God through neglect [negligentes], we recover Him [religentes] and are drawn to Him.” However, he later leaves behind this idea in favor of Lactantius' view, saying, “Religion binds us [religat] to the one Almighty God.”
St. Thomas Aquinas, in the Summa, does not make a decision between the three views but sees them as all valuable: careful consideration, recovering God, and binding oneself. In a general sense, religion is the free choice to subject oneself to God. We are binding ourselves to God and Him to us in the practice of true religion.
Are Human Beings Religious?
Certainly, some human beings are religious, but would it be proper to say that all human beings are religious? Controversy is perpetual surrounding this question, especially in the modern world. How many times have you heard someone say, “Oh. I’m spiritual, but not religious.” Or perhaps you have heard the usually evangelical Christian idea that religion is opposed to the true practice of faith in Jesus Christ which is a relationship. However, I hope to show by the end of this short article that all human beings are truly religious, at the deepest metaphysical level.
The first example of being spiritual and not religious is something that I will get to in a moment. But, let us begin with the second notion of relationship versus religion. If religion is about voluntary subjugation to God and binding ourselves to Him and Him to us, then I would suggest that religion, properly understood, is entirely about relationships. Right relationship with God bears fruit in the right relationship with our neighbor. The practice of true religion is all about relationships. Often, when people levy this rejoinder, it is from a misconception or false view of what religion ought to be.
Spiritual, But Not Religious?
Now to the notion of spiritual, but not religious. At the core of our being, as human persons, we are religious. This is the fundamental fact of our nature. It is right to say that we are spiritual, but it would be equally correct to say that we are corporeal. We are body and soul. If we were bodies without souls, we would be zombies. And if we were souls without bodies, we would be ghosts. So, our bodily-ness and spiritual-ness are part and parcel of our humanity. Yes, we are spiritual. But how then could we not also be religious?
The human heart is made to worship. The notion of worship comes from the Middle English word worthschipe. Literally, it is an amalgamation of the word worth meaning “worthy” or “honorable” and the suffix -ship which means a denotation of a property or state of being. To worship something is to show with the depths of our being, body and soul, what we put worth in. What is worthy to us? This is what we worship. Centering and prioritizing our lives conveys what we worship and bears fruit in our actions.
Oxford University professor Roger Trigg said in 2011 that,
“We tend to see purpose in the world. We see agency. We think that something is there even if you can’t see it… All this tends to build up to a religious way of thinking… If you’ve got something so deep-rooted in human nature, thwarting it is in some sense not enabling humans to fulfill their basic interests. There is quite a drive to think that religion is private. It isn’t just a quirky interest of a few, it’s basic human nature.”
Professor Trigg hits the nail on the head. Religious thinking is basic human nature. All human beings have a hardwired religious drive. Now, an atheist might say that this is a bio-evolutionary oddity which motivated us in the past but is antiquated. They might say, like Marx, that religion is the opiate of the masses. I would say that the atheist and the marxist are in denial about their own nature and are dismissing as a nuisance the idea that perhaps God is in control. Because what is marxism or atheism if not a deep desire for control over the uncontrollable, for knowledge over the unknowable?
Everyone puts worth in something. If they are not worshiping God - who alone is worthy - then that religious drive, essential to human nature, will be directed to something else. The rub is that the new object of worship will always be infinitely less than the Almighty. And so, aiming far below the Way, the Truth, and the Life, man falls prey to his base desires and can never find happiness. The conception of “spiritual, but not religious” does not conform to reality and will always result in the worship of creation rather than the Creator. Our soul, at the deepest level, desires to bind itself to the higher things. If we aim at God, then He will bind us to Himself. If we aim at lesser things, then we will be bound to them, to our detriment and perhaps even our damnation.
Human Nature Cannot Be Repressed
Any attempt to repress, control, or snuff out human nature in the realm of religion has miserably failed and has always been accompanied by widespread human suffering. In the 20th Century alone, we can look to the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, the Nazi regime in Germany, the later Soviet policies in Russia, the Cultural Revolution in China, and other instantiations of godless Communism and Socialism.
Human nature is hardwired into our being at the deepest levels. The human heart will always seek out God and will only be satisfied in Him. As St. Augustine said in the opening of his Confessions, “Our hearts are restless, until they rest in Thee.” Our restless hearts are religious. They want to worship. Who or what are they worshiping?
Even for the believer, the exercise is worthwhile: what is the object of our worship, our desire, and our ultimate affection? If the answer is God, then we must beg the Lord for the grace to grow in this. If the answer is anything else, the pruning shears need to spring into action.