September 02, 2009

Religion or philosophy redux: Are we humans innately religious?

An earlier post ("Is Buddhism a Religion? The Question that Won't Go Away") garnered plenty of comments. And it turns out it's true that the question won't go away. The discussion shows no signs of ending, here or on our Facebook page, and has prompted Editor-at-Large Andrew Cooper to remind me of one "Letters to the Editor" section that appeared many issues—and several years—back. In it, a reader objects to Cooper's assertion that Buddhism is indeed a religion, and that we are "inescapably religious" creatures.

It's a good give-and-take, and you can read it here. The reader is responding to an article Cooper wrote in the Spring 2003 issue of Tricycle titled "Modernity's God Shaped Hole."

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Tricycle » Is Buddhism a Religion? asks Gary Gach's picture

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Andrew Cooper's picture

While the forms of culture are not innate, humans are indeed culture-bearing creatures. Our genetic programming is so general that without the long process of enculturation, a human being is not, in any full sense, human at all. Such an individual would be unable to survive, to communicate, to be part of a social group, and his or life would be an unintegrated sequence of unshaped thoughts and random emotions. In other words, the capacity and necessity for culture is indeed innate.

Social science research tells us that religion is not a matter of theory, though that has entered the picture over the past two or three thousand years. That is, it is not, at its heart, an attempt to answer questions, existential or otherwise, It is a reflection and expression of a social groups deepest sense of what the world is and how humans can come to find their place in it. Theory was a very valuable addition, as it allowed for those concerned with religious matters, such as the Buddha or the Hebrew prophets, to reflect critically on the way religion was being practiced. And within this context, meaningful religious questions arise. Existential questions, as that term is typically understood, don’t really enter the picture until the early modern period in the West. This is one reason Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy is so remarkable. It is a contemplation of mortality that is haunted by a degree of uncertainty that probably was, generally speaking, a new experience of the world.

Science, by which we usually mean quantitative, materialist, reductive science, is not at all synonymous with rational thought, but is, rather, one very limited application of it. It has been extraordinarily effective at demonstrating how things work. But by its nature, it is unequipped to deal with meaning, the concern with which is one of the very qualities that make humans human. Indeed, the reductive methodology is designed to strip events of meaning. This is but one critique that those in fields such as anthropology, sociology, and psychology—at least those who advocate studying human being as human beings—raise in relation to applying the methods of material science to human experience. There are many other critiques in this rich body of literature.

Religion is that sphere of human life concerned with questions of meaning, at least that’s how social scientists see it. It is not science, and to understand it that way is to make a category mistake. That horrible things happen in religions should not surprise us. Horrible things happen in all spheres of life where much is at stake. Still we have to make each sphere the best we are able. Horrible things happen in economics, the sphere concerned with the distribution of resources and wealth, and horrible things happen in politics, the sphere concerned with governance, but we can’t very get rid of them. And I don’t think we can very well get rid of the need find and create meaning with others in this life. Science won’t cut it, because the moment it starts creating structures of meaning, value, and purpose, it ceases to be science.

James Shaheen's picture


Apologies. You do not have to subscribe to Tricycle to read the exchange, my mistake. You should be able to access it now. From time to time one of us forgets to make a cited article available (in this case, me).

All best,


Mark's picture

Another interesting question is why one should have to subscribe to Tricycle to read a six-year-old letter to the editor.

At any rate, religion is a complex cultural phenomenon, and culture is not innate. This is why, although supernatural beliefs are certainly widespread in human society, they are not ubiquitous by any means, the way truly innate things like sex, hunger, the drive to protect offspring, and other instinctual behaviors are. Given that our genome is almost completely similar to those of apes, if religion were innate it seems to me we should expect to see some kind of proto-religious behavior among apes, and we don't.

Religion, in its positive sense, is a cultural attempt to posit answers to existential questions that we cannot answer rationally by means of the evidence at hand. As such, the expansion of evidence and rational answers is always a threat to religion (the waning of religion in modern society being a major case in point). This is why religious conservatism (be it George up above, Bin Laden, certain bikkus, etc) attacks rational thought. Anti-intellectualism is crucial to religion's negative aspect: its project of imposing various hierarchical power structures inforced by appeals to irrational belief.

What may be innate is our desire to calm our existential fears and coexist harmoniously with other humans. We can do both without recourse to irrational metaphysical beliefs. Those teachers who are sometimes slurred with the phrase "modernist Buddhists" offer us a way to do just that.

George's picture

We are not so much religious as we have a desire to know a God of some sort. This is because fellowship with God our Creator was broken off in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve sinned against God by being tempted by the devil and thinking they were wiser than God and eating the forbidden fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Which caused the wages of sin is death,and brought suffering,sickness,sorrow, and death into the human race who before had fellowship with The LORD GOD, who was The LORD Jesus Christ who later came into the world to save his sinful creation from sin and hell fire forever by dying and shedding his sinless blood for their sins against God. And by being buried,and rising from the dead the third day to prove who he really was. Was seen of men,and went back up to heaven. And now commandeth all men everywhere to repent of their sins against God and trust him as their personal Saviour and LORD GOD. Who is the only way to Gods heaven,and eternal life their. He said, I am the way,the truth,and the life,no man cometh unto the Father but by me.John 14:6. In the Authorized King James Holy Bible,the preserved word of Almighty GOD. Sincerely; George , , or or