How Unnatural Is Religion?

January 27, 2012

For a species as thoroughly encultured as we are, it is curious how we often seek a more ‘natural’ way of living.

This quest for naturality is itself a by-product of advanced-stage civilization. Ponderings about how far we have strayed from the ‘natural’ life that was good enough for the ancestors, or was pure enough for the prophets, or was truer to our innate humanness from creation, are all intellectual manifestations of discontent with ongoing social conditions. The cry of “back to nature” is an act of rebellion against the decadence or anarchy of one’s times; it can serve as the foremost banner of a reform movement marching on the capital, or it may be the trailing flag of a utopian community heading into the wilderness.

Naturally, such protestors regards themselves as taking the more ‘natural’ stance on matters, in the multiple senses that the metaphor of ‘natural’ permits. The natural is easier, purer, simpler, healthier, harmonious, and trustworthy. The natural is closer to creation, closer to one’s true self, closer to the environment, and maybe closer to god. In short, the natural is good, really good, and surely much better than anything else going on during conflicted, complicated, and chaotic times. These protestors drape themselves in Nature, to display how Nature (and god) is on their side, and to discredit the decadent and immoral opposition’s alignment with unnatural ways and beliefs.

Only the neutral perspective of long history exposes to clear view how these ‘naturalist’ movements are just as ‘unnatural’ as anything that the brains of civilized humans can construct. The social schemes of these reformers and utopians are never as ‘natural’ as they represent; having little idea how ‘primitive humanity’ actually lived, and not really caring, ambitious reformers project their dreams back into the past. Whether that idealization is secular (like a social contract) or religious (like a divine covenant), there is nothing natural about such artificial designs besides their origins in the human imagination.

In our own times, those eager for religious reform and renewal are draping themselves in the “naturality” of religion. No segment of Western society has been more delighted than religious intellectuals to hear about how religion goes deep into humanity’s past, and deep into the human brain. To think that science can confirm how we were designed for faith! Tired of atheism’s thin story about religion’s origins in fear, ignorance, and conflict, this new scientific narrative about religion’s origins in intelligence and its supporting role in sociality sounds much more natural. Many religions have long said that the god(s) bestowed upon humanity its capacities for morality, justice, and piety so that our lives might be bountiful. Science’s gathering of evidence about religion’s true origins discredits scripture literalists, but this science is the greatest boon to natural theologians since the big bang theory. Natural theology had always claimed that there is plenty of evidence that people need religion.

Curiously, contemporary religion’s defenders are not promoting early (more ‘natural’?) forms of religion, those practices and beliefs which (mostly Christian) academics have long been labeling as animism, ancestor worship, totemism, shamanism, and polytheism. Listening to just some theologians or religious studies academics nowadays, you’d think that the first religion was supernaturalistic Trinitarianism or at least monotheistic deism (both ideas are less than 3,000 years old). Conservative religionists are even faster to abandon science -- if religion is natural, science must be unnatural!

One thing remains constant: the most ‘natural’ religion, in the view of today’s religious people, is naturally the one they themselves faithfully accept. Casting aside naturalism’s view that the origin of religion is due to just the human brain alone, natural theology is cynically appealing to science to stay academically respectable while frantically urging the faithful in the pews to scorn science in favor of creationism. Christianity, for example, is now marshalling resources for the next phase of its cultural clash with advancing secularity in its contest for the political soul of the West. If religion is natural for humanity, then atheism, science, and secularity are unnatural; and any political system promoting secularism is unnatural and alien. Guns once pointed at godless foreign communism are swinging around to point at Washington, D.C.

Is religion or atheism more natural for humanity? The question itself is one of the most unnatural invented. It cannot be answered by any amount of science, since science knows better than to ask whether any cultural construct best ‘fits’ a non-existent human ‘nature’. Although politics generates that question, it can’t handle that question either; endlessly contesting that question has far more political value than settling it. Religious ideas must have had natural origins (all things human do!) but religion’s perpetuation in endless variations have more to do with local cultural contexts than any innate intellectual drive. So do any deviances from religions.

Is atheism the only way to dissent? In a society dominated by religion A, those of minority religion B are heretics; while in a largely atheist society, any faithful will play the role of heretic. Is agreeably conforming to social tradition more natural for humanity, or is independently thinking for oneself more natural? The absurdity of that questioning is only more poignant when one recalls how every particular feature of culture, of civilization, was born from the conception of some individual deciding to do things a little differently. We all invent, and instruct, and conform by turns as the twisting path of life unfolds. Religion’s origins had to be natural, since only story-tellers were ever at work, but the way religion obstructs questioning and thinking is horribly unnatural. The fact that most of humanity has been religious only demonstrates how religion itself is intelligently designed to prevent people from escaping its delusions.

Over the long course of humanity’s history, the only safe generalization to make is that the majority are usually quite wrong, and if you find a majority that gets something right, it’s only because a courageously creative minority long struggled for wider acceptance. We should all be thankful for those who weren’t satisfied with the natural state of affairs and did their own thinking for themselves. We have an obligation to follow their fine example.



#1 Herb Van Fleet (Guest) on Friday January 27, 2012 at 3:23pm

You have an interesting perspective here. However, I would respectfully disagree with you. If human beings are products of nature, then it should follow that any a priori constructs or imaginings are also derived from nature. Consider, for example, dreams. Humans also have emotions – love, fear, joy, sympathy, desire – most of which we got from our hominid ancestors and then adapted to our species, I suppose mostly as a survival strategy. The trouble arises when we try to combine these unique, but quite natural human characteristics in such a way as to try to apprehend the reality we find ourselves in.

I’ve said many times that the universe doesn’t need laws and formulas to function. It’s only we humans that need them. Science and religion, or at least the theological religions, are equivalent to the extent they are both trying to make sense of the world; they observe and they draw conclusions. But in science the results are cold and calculating, which I would argue is an unnatural state. In religion, however, the results are all warm and fuzzy. And who doesn’t like to feel warm and fuzzy.

Then along come the non-believing, rational, reasoning, uber intellectuals telling the religionists that their warm and fuzzy notions are pure unadulterated nonsense. Their reaction quite naturally (pun intended) is much like how they would react witnessing someone field dressing Santa Clause right in front of their children. No, the Mr. Spock-meets-Jesus confrontation is never going to be successful with the general public. It should be an intellectual exercise   confined to academia. I think that would be quite natural.

#2 Edna Neutron (Guest) on Saturday January 28, 2012 at 7:50am

Sorry Van Fleet Old Thing…. But, humans don’t “apprehend the reality we find ourselves in”.  We INVENT it!  Since sentient beings on this planet find it almost impossible to imagine the universe without “them” in it they create elaborate schemes permitting themselves to deny death in one form or another.  That is the purpose of religion.
  Warm and fuzzy balderdash-vs-The Big Dirt Nap.  Adrift alone on a vast sea of comforting bullcrap the religious scan the horizon for rocks and unseen reefs.
  “Natural”?  How can we even speak of such things without smirking?

#3 Steff (Guest) on Sunday January 29, 2012 at 11:49am

This article is interesting, but it appears to equate all ‘religion’ in the world, with ‘natural theology’ with no regard to religions and religious beliefs which do not include such things as creationism.  This renders the whole argument arbitrary.  Also the final paragraph is refutable.  Generally, majorities begin as courageous minorities and sometimes these are true and sometimes false.  However those claiming authority to distinguish between truth and falsehood, can be right or wrong.  Look at Jesus, Muhammed, Martin Luther, and the almighty capitalism.  They all started small.  And finally, the majority in the west are religious, and the majority of these identify as Christian, but few agree on beliefs and definitions absolutely and some do not even believe in ‘God’.

#4 Steff (Guest) on Sunday January 29, 2012 at 11:51am


#5 Steff (Guest) on Sunday January 29, 2012 at 11:53am

Apologies - I see it’s my link not being accepted to I’ll break it up:

#6 Steff (Guest) on Sunday January 29, 2012 at 11:54am

The link was sea of faith christianity minus theism.

The two biblical creation myths probably collected by scribes and written into a book, like creation myths in other pre-scientific cultures, arose out of human attempts to understand their environment.  Belief in these dissolved into anachronisms as evidence of evolution emerged from the sciences.  As a consequence historical scholarship in the late nineteenth century demonstrated that the creation myths were not historical, but were ancient storytelling. Modern theology has been freed from religious dogma by theologians such as William James, Teilhard de Chardin, Deitrich Bonhoeffer, Paul Tillich, Bishop Gene Robinson, and Lloyd Geering. Much has been done to integrate science and secular society as theology does not influence the natural order or contradict science. Supernaturalism, a term still used by atheists, is therefore an inappropriate term to describe the personal religious beliefs of many people, including those identifying with Eastern religious faiths.

Geering for example, writes: “It is my belief that there is no ultimate meaning or purpose permeating the universe, amazing and mysterious though it is. The universe is as it is! If we want to find any meaning within the short time any of us are here, we have to create that meaning for ourselves. And we create the meaning of our lives by the way we live. For me “God” is a useful symbol, inherited from the past, to refer to that meaning, to those values I find to be supreme and to those goals I feel myself called to aspire. So when I say “I believe in God, I mean something like this “God” is the symbol which holds together in a unity all my bits of knowledge about the world and all the virtues I have come to value such as love, justice, compassion.”

For religious people generally in the world, the word ‘heresy’ is an anachronism too and a term only conservative churches occasionally make a song and dance about.

#7 gray1 on Sunday January 29, 2012 at 12:14pm

Although this wanders around somewhat in content there are some real keepers. By way of example, “religion itself is intelligently designed to prevent people from escaping its delusions.”  I love that one.  Of course science has no delusions, at least not until the next paradigm shift whereupon we discover just how deluded we have heretofore been.

“Science and religion, or at least the theological religions, are equivalent to the extent they are both trying to make sense of the world; they observe and they draw conclusions.” is another good one.  One would suspect that it is human nature to ask questions and seek answers of any sort. 

Having put forth much effort pondering that very question, my own conclusion is that on the one hand such efforts are primarily endorphin driven and on the other hand King Solomon was quite right with, “All is vanity”.

The remaining justification, if any, for this quisical nature inherent to most of mankind is to promote evolution of the human mind.  Religion evolves, science evolves, minds evolve.  Yes, it’s all quite natural.

#8 Steff (Guest) on Sunday January 29, 2012 at 12:22pm

Religions evolve, science evolves, beliefs and ideas evolve.  Yes indeed, that’s the nature of humanity.

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