No, humans do not have a religious instinct

    By Joseph McCabe | 1927
    Positive Atheism

    The next fallacy that we have to dismiss is the very common idea of writers on religion that there is a special urge or instinct or sense in the human breast which compels men and women to be religious. So frivolous are some of these serious and profound writers on religion that they only invented or discovered this religious instinct at a time when the general experience of the world entirely refuted it. No one heard of the religious instinct in the days when everybody was religious. It was invented when tens of millions of people in every advanced civilization abandoned all religion.

    It was invented for the plain reason that the old type of argument for religion was being increasingly discredited. Deism shot to pieces the old arguments for Christianity in particular, which are based upon totally false historical statements. Then science and Agnosticism shattered the arguments for God and immortality. Apologists were reduced to the use of ancient “demonstrations” which had lost all intellectual respectability. Very well, they said, we will leave the material universe to science and the Bible to the Higher Critic. We will urge people to rely upon their own feelings about religion, and we will assure them that these are the pronouncements of a faculty, the religious sense, which is in its way as normal and authoritative as reason itself.

    This idea grew out of the older psychology which is now entirely discarded. Instinct was supposed to be a “faculty” in the animal, and more feebly in man, just as reason, memory, will, etc., were “faculties.” The word never meant more than a capability. If we can remember, desire, and reason, we obviously have, in a sense, the “faculties” to do these things. But the older philosophers and psychologists tended to take the abstract word in a more or less substantial sense. The “soul” was a spiritual substance, and its “faculties” were as real and distinct as the five senses. Today the soul and its faculties are regarded as relics of pre-scientific thought, and the idea that man has a special “faculty” for seeing religious truth has no meaning. The only real differences we can assign, are different regions of the brain for separate mental acts. Even Mrs. Besant has not ventured to find a brain-center for this religious faculty.

    The word “instinct” was just as unfortunate. Half a century ago, when anthropology was imperfect, it was possible to hold that every branch of the human race believed in a God or gods. We have seen that this is quite false, but, while the belief lasted, the explanation of it was supposed to be that there was an instinct in human nature itself which impelled all men to believe in gods just as an instinct impelled all birds to mate and to build nests. The whole theory was miserably superficial even half a century ago. Since a crude reasoning power and a docility to tradition are actually common elements in all savages, the proper thing to do was to see if these would not explain the common religious beliefs. Savage belief is almost entirely a matter of blind acquiescence in tradition. Some writers — Newman and others — of the last generation even said that if children were brought up without either religious or anti-religious education, this “instinct” gave them religious sentiments and beliefs. You could test that today in the experience of millions of families. There is not a shred of truth in it.

    Meantime science has made an end, not only of the supposed universality of belief in gods, but of the word instinct itself. We still, it is true, speak of an animal’s habitual actions as instinctive, but we mean only that there is a certain structure or mechanism of nerve and muscle in an animal which acts automatically when it is stimulated. No matter how complex this mechanism may become by special evolution, it is always a mechanism. Of instinct as a “faculty” we know nothing.

    The name is, therefore, altered, and we now generally read about a “religious sense.” But the change of name is not of the slightest advantage to this antiquated and superficial theory. We know no “senses” except the special receptiveness or perceptiveness associated with differently constructed bodily organs, such as the eye and ear. Even what we call the internal sense is only a matter of the irritation of internal nerves. There is not the slightest analogy between what the physiologist or the psychologist calls our “senses” and what apologists call “the religious sense.” You might just as well call it the religious diaphragm or selenium cell.

    It is necessary to say this because religious writers blandly suppose that there are quite definite and recognizable meanings to their words when they talk about these things. There is no more definite meaning than there is in the mind of the pious but unphilosophical lady who says that God speaks “in her heart.” And the more closely we examine what these writers mean, or can mean, the more clearly we see that this religious sense is manufactured, not as a theory to explain certain facts, but as a practical expedient to induce the faithful not to listen to skeptics. No psychologists will hear of it. Clerical writers alone are the “scientific” authorities for it. The idea of it is simply this: If you have a conviction that, let us say, there is a God, regard it as the authoritative declaration of some power in you which has as much right to a say in the matter as your reason.

    But you have no right whatever to regard it as such if there is a plainer explanation of the presence of this conviction in you. In the long run the procedure is really humorous. A clergyman — whether acting through the government in the school, or through parents in the home, or through clerical influence on the press, or directly in church — plants in you from your earliest and most impressible days a conviction that there is a God. In children, obviously, such a conviction is a matter of authority. Most people remain children in that respect and never reflect on the ground of their conviction. Some may reflect on it, ask the reasons for belief, and consider them sound, but this “religious sense” is generally invoked in cases where there is some doubt about the soundness of the reasons. What it amounts to, therefore, is that the clergyman has implanted in you, directly or indirectly, a conviction that God exists, and he is now asking you to recognize this conviction itself as a proof of the existence of God! There is no other possible meaning in his appeal to your “inner voice” or “the whispers of your heart” or anything of that sort.

    I once met a pompous ass of a believer who had this religious-sense theory in an exaggerated degree. It is not at all my custom to obtrude the question of religion in conversation, but somebody maliciously tried to draw the man into debate about God with me. He would say nothing but, with comic solemnity: “I know there is a God.” He would not explain further, but his meaning was clear. He felt it. He sensed it. And there is but one possible form in which he could have given precise expression to his actual experience. He was visibly annoyed, but still silent, when I put it. It is: “I have a strong conviction that God exists.”

    A desperate apologist might say that, just as it is possible that such a man’s conviction was due to education, it is also possible that it is due to a personal sense. You remember how Descartes, trying to bring his beliefs down to something which was absolutely certain, and might therefore be used as a safe foundation upon which to build, said: “I think, therefore I am.” It is — I should agree with Descartes anyway — a plain declaration of the mind and is authoritative. Well, why may not some other voice or power or sense — “Don’t press me for exact definitions,” this type of apologist implores — say with equal authority within me: “God exists.” The answer is simple. Things are not to be multiplied without necessity. You have a mind which is quite capable of saying to you, “God exists,” and if you say that you have in addition this mystic voice, you must prove it. You can’t. Your conviction may tell you a good deal about religion, but it can tell you nothing about itself.

    In another volume (Little Blue Book No. 1060, The Futility of Belief in God) I have considered this religious sense or instinct from another point of view, and I gave there certain considerations which really dispense us from dealing further with it. The first is that it decreases as knowledge and intellectual development increase. The research which Professor Leuba (The Belief in God and Immortality), made into the proportion of believers and unbelievers amongst freshmen, sophomores, ordinary professors, and more distinguished professors affords very striking statistical evidence of this. As you rise in the scale of age and culture, the believers shrink from eighty to ten percent, the unbelievers grow from twenty to nearly ninety percent. Apart from this, it cannot be questioned that if you take five hundred farmers in Kentucky and compare them with five hundred university teachers, religious belief will be fairly solid amongst the farmers and absent from at least half the professors. It would be strange if a mental power grew feebler in proportion as we train and refine the mind. The real meaning is obvious. Religion is just an ordinary conviction in the mind and it is enfeebled when we accumulate knowledge, because it is essentially based upon ignorance. We see this on a very much broader scale in the collective experience of our time. There never was less religion in the world before, and there never was so much knowledge.

    I further pointed out how this supposed religious sense gives entirely contradictory sentiments about religion, and even about God, in each different creed, sect, sub-sect, or phase of belief. The best educated religious believers of our time (Millikan, Lodge, Calkins, Adler, Pupin, etc.) are precisely the men different from each other as to the nature of God: and they all agree that the religious convictions of the crowd of pious believers are quite false. So belief has varied from age to age and country to country. Practically all educated men in China have had no religious sense whatever since the days of Kung-fu-tse and in Japan since Confucianism was introduced into that country. The thinkers of Greece, who meditated on religion as deeply as any body of men that ever existed, held every variety of opinion about it that can be conceived. Plato believed in a personal God and personal immortality: Aristotle believed in an impersonal and totally different God and denied immortality. The Pythagoreans and Eleatics believed that everything was spiritual: the Stoics held that even the gods, if there are any, are material: the Epicureans and Skeptics said that all religion was superstition. Roman thinkers and Moorish thinkers were just as divided, and the modern philosophic world is as far as ever from agreement.

    In face of these masses of historical and contemporary facts it is futile to ask us to believe in a religious sense or instinct. Why should a million cultivated men like myself be totally devoid of it, and a million small store-keepers or Mexicans or Rumanian peasants have it in as robust a condition as their limbs? Why is it so constantly associated with stupidity and coarseness and so constantly dissociated from developed intellect and refinement? There is quite obviously no such thing as a special religious sense. We must take religious convictions and sentiments as we take any other beliefs and sentiments, and see if there is anything left which requires a special psychological explanation.

    One of the giants of not only English atheism, but world atheism, Joseph McCabe left a legacy of aggressive atheist and antireligious literature that remains fresh and insightful today. His many works — he wrote nearly 250 books — could constitute a library of atheism by themselves. Born in 1867, Joseph McCabe became a Franciscan monk at the age of nineteen. But disgusted with his fellow monks and the Christian doctrine, he left the priesthood for good on February 19, 1896. Not long afterwards, he began to write — first against the priesthood itself and then for the position of Atheism. He was one of the founding members of Britain’s Rationalist Press Association, and was a prolific writer for Haldeman-Julius Publications. He was also a much-respected speaker, giving, by his own estimate, three or four thousand lectures in the United States, Australia, and great Britain by the age of eighty. Still fighting against the injustices and dishonesties of religion, he died on January 10, 1955, at the age of eighty-seven. The epitaph he requested was: “He was a rebel to his last day.”

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