We are all religious, every one of us.
Religion is deeply rooted in human nature and a response to certain profound and universal needs of humankind.
I write these words after reading the essay "Man The Religious Animal" in the April issue of First Things. Authored by Professor Christian Smith of Notre Dame, it limps toward the conclusion that human beings are naturally religious, but does so in such an equivocal and even schizophrenic way that one is left with the idea that Professor Smith barely believes his own argument. He argues both sides of the issue with roughly equal fervor, telling us along the way that religion is not an essential part of who we are; rather, it is closer to a capacity or a predisposition that is triggered by particular circumstances. You cannot extinguish religion, Smith says, but it is not inevitable.
I don't think so.
Religion is that part of our being that gives expression to the human craving for transcendence. In our often ugly world, religion does not tell us what is but what should be. It responds to the conviction, present in us all, that there is something more to our lives than the fulfilling of an immediate need or the gratifying of an immediate desire. For the human animal, in other words, religion is the wellspring of optimism and hope.
Religion is also the way in which human beings respond to the Biblical directive (Genesis 2:18) that "it is not good that man be alone." The Bible is right; we fear aloneness. To overcome it and to deal with the fragility and vulnerability of our lives, we seek the comforts of religious community and the songs, prayers and rituals that it provides.
Religion can be misused, of course. It can become an instrument for pushing away those who choose not to join our religious community and not to accept the truths that our community proclaims. Even worse, it can become a tool for wielding power, invoked by fanatic nationalists and other evil doers to justify vile deeds and immoral acts.
But real religion is usually something very different: a way for people to see the world through the eyes of others and to move us in the direction of caring, healing and peace. The desire for such things runs so deep that eventually, phony religion of the fanatic sort gives way to religious teachings that imbue our lives with holiness -- and provide meaning that extends beyond the relatively few moments that we spend on earth.
"Very many people" are not religious, Professor Smith says, and are quite content to leave religion behind. To this I would respond that approximately 85 percent of the world's population is made up of "religionists" who identify with one of the world's 10,000 religions. I would also point to the exuberant religiosity of our world at this time and the vibrancy of religious life (as opposed to religious institutions, which may or may not be strong). And I would argue -- mostly without evidence that neither I nor Professor Smith possesses -- that those outside of religious frameworks, even if they speak in secular language, find it impossible to suppress in their own lives the awe and wonder that religious people cherish, the religious questions that they ask and the yearning for religious community that they feel.
Professor Smith, we are all religious, like it or not.