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.