Is Religion (Merely) a Natural Phenomenon? (RJS)

I recently received a copy of The Blackwell Companion to Science and Christianity. This book, edited by J. B. Stump and Alan Padgett, consists of scholarly essays covering a variety of topics relating to the discussion of science and the Christian faith. The contributors range from believers to skeptics and approach the topics from a variety of different angles. The book is designed and priced for libraries, not the casual reader, but many of the essays introduce topics worth some consideration here. I expect to dip into the book occasionally over the next several months, starting today.

In the section on The Human Sciences two articles by Justin Barrett and Dylan Evans provide an interesting contrast. Today I will look at Barrett’s article – and then on Thursday come back and look at the article by Evans. Justin Barrett studies the psychology of religion. He recently moved from Oxford to Fuller Theological Seminary where he is the Thrive Professor of Developmental Science and Director of the Thrive Center for Human Development. He has published a number of books, including most recently Born Believers: The Science of Children’s Religious Belief.

In his article Toward a Cognitive Science of Christianity Justin Barrett discusses the hypothesis that there are basic common cognitive structures characteristic of the human mind that provide mental tools enabling religious belief. Religion is a common phenomenon across cultures. These different religions contain a set of overlapping ideas and structures because of a “cognitive naturalness” to religious thought. As Barrett describes it:

Normal human cognitive systems operating in normal human environments generate converging intuitions that find satisfaction in some core religious ideas (and subsequent practices).  (p. 321)

Natural religion is a form of religious belief that agrees with these converging “natural” intuitions. Christianity contains many elements that agree with natural intuition, but also deviates this natural religion in important ways. The study of the psychology of religion, however, raises questions about the truth of religious beliefs. Many assume that any rational explanation of religion is equivalent to explaining away justified religious belief. The idea of an inborn natural religion is seen as an argument against rational belief in the truth of any religion. As we will see on Thursday, Dylan Evans argues essentially this position.

Do you think a scientific explanation for religion undermines the truth of religious belief?

Is this a topic you find dangerous or of concern? Is the psychology of faith a topic that should be studied or one that should be considered taboo?

Barrett argues that the naturalness of religion and the study of the mental tools used in religious thinking are not intrinsically a threat to justified theistic belief.

That CSR [cognitive science of religion] can offer explanations for why people tend to believe in some kind of god does not mean that there is not God, nor does it mean that belief in the existence of God is unjustified or irrational. (p. 329)

He uses the example of a radio … learning how a radio works does  not impact the presence or absence of a signal. Likewise a radio will receive inputs from the environment, but these consist of both intentional signals and noise. The analogy can be pressed too far, but the point is an important one. He continues:

[E]xplaining the cognitive equipment relevant for forming beliefs in gods, souls, the afterlife, and other religious concepts does not importantly impact whether one is justified in holding such beliefs. (p. 329)

Barrett goes on to suggest that the diversity of beliefs across cultures may prevent science from explaining away belief in God. Although there are threads of similarity there are also significant differences. Thus it is difficult to conclude that our beliefs are merely instinctive. Or put another way, if humans had no choice but to believe in god, and a particular kind of god at that, Barrett would find the scientific explanation a far more serious challenge to the reality of any underlying truth to religious claims for the existence of God.

From a Christian point of view, Paul in Romans 1-2 reflects on the naturalness of religion, and of an inborn understanding of God. Barrett quotes both Romans 1:18-20 and 2:14-15 to make this point. The power of God is clearly seen so that all are without excuse, and the requirements of the law are written on the hearts of the gentiles. We should expect religion to be, at some level, natural.

Barrett does not get into evolutionary theories for the development of religious belief. Many conclude, as Dawkins outlines in his book The God Delusion, that religious belief is a tag-along corollary or even incidental and accidental, to the evolution of key characteristics of the human species (p. 172-190). If God is real, however, evolution of the collection of mental tools and cognitive equipment may simply represent a “natural” response to a real signal somewhat similar to the way eyes evolve in response to light and ears in response to sound.

The naturalness of religious belief is not proof of the truthfulness or falsehood of any religious belief. This must be argued on other grounds.

Deviations from Natural Religion. Barrett also reflects on Christian doctrines that deviate from natural religion. Theologians offer intellectual ways to reconcile doctrines such as free will and predestination, grace and merit but people will automatically fall into more “natural” ways of thinking. This is true even of many of those theologians when caught off guard. Such natural response can be studied by telling stories with gaps and recording how people fill in the gaps reflexively in real time.

The gap between these two conceptions is theological correctness. Like political correctness, when our intellectual guard is up, we use the ideas we know we are supposed to use; different ideas than those that come naturally. The further ideas deviate from Natural Religion, the harder they are to use reflexively in real-time situations. (p. 326)

This gap between theologically correct ideas and natural intuitive ideas leads to a number of interesting questions.  Many of the conflicts in our church, those causing divisions and the breaking of communion, arise from the perceived importance of theological correctness. To list just a few examples, issues of theological correctness arise when we consider the nature of scripture, the sinfulness of man, the response of God (can God change his mind?), the autonomy of human choice, the authority of the church, and presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

Calvinism, for example, is an intellectually coherent doctrine but in some respects an “unnatural” one (i.e. it conflicts in several ways with “natural” human cognitive structures). Could these conflicts with natural religion arise because the theologically correct doctrines of Calvinism deviate from truth? Barrett does not use precisely this example, although he does point out that some aspects of Calvinism deviate from natural religion.

But natural religion is not a sure guide for determining correct theology. In particular natural religion may be theologically incorrect because it uses an intuition developed in one context to make sense of a completely different level of reality. When we anthropomorphize God and define God using human characteristics, we use an intuition developed in one context to try to make sense of different level of reality. Any such attempt will of necessity introduce a level of error. Thus the truth or error in Calvinism must be judged on grounds other than naturalness.

Barrett does not give any specific conclusions in his article, but suggests that the naturalness and cultural scaffolding of Christianity are promising areas for future research into the cognitive structure of Christian faith.

Do you think the evidence for the naturalness of religion is a threat to justified belief?

What role should naturalness play in our understanding of Christian faith and doctrine?

If you wish to contact me directly, you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.

"Short answer: Virgins ensures male paternity."

The Demise Of The Soul Of ..."
"Lot to debate in this one.1) Do non Christians "reject Christ"? According to Paul they ..."

Universalism and “The Devil’s Redemption” and ..."
"Michael strikes again!I know he’s trying to posit himself an expert but in all due ..."

Universalism and “The Devil’s Redemption” and ..."
"Hi Everyone,This thread is called the devil's redemption. I guess my problem is what about ..."

Universalism and “The Devil’s Redemption”

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • DRT

    Excellent thoughts here.

    Do you think the evidence for the naturalness of religion is a threat to justified belief?

    I do believe it potentially provides ammunition to the cynic and to the extent that this can cause otherwise religious people to turn away it is a threat. But it is not a threat to strong justified belief since I don’t believe that god needs to be afraid of any of that. But our weak may be led astray. On the hole we should pursue it.

    What role should naturalness play in our understanding of Christian faith and doctrine?

    This is the most interesting question. Of course my natural intuition gives a strong “yes!” that naturalness should play a part. Further, it also seems obvious that the further a religious view is from natural thought the more danger it has in disconnecting its followers from reality, and a disconnect from reality could be good if they are correct, and quite bad if they are not. So there is inherent strong and significant risk involved with having beliefs that are intuitive naturally.

    So, at a minimum, a disconnect from natural thought should serve as a warning sign that there may be something wrong with the religious idea. Not proof, but a warning.

    The more I think about it the more I am thinking that a belief in contradiction to our discerned intuition may be something that should be avoided….. but the key has to be our collectively discerned natures….. interesting thoughts…

  • scotmcknight

    RJS, I like your suggestion on how evolutionary development may have developed to respond to signals (from God). I want to think about that.

    My studies in conversion theory, which got into the psychology of religion, led me to see the dialectical nature of faith and the normal processes of life, so I’m inclined to think the sketch above is of value for our understanding of religious faith.

  • RJS


    It is fairly common for people to point out that belief is a “natural” phenomenon and to construct ways in which this tendency evolved – and then to assign religious belief as a (fictional) tag-along. My main point it that this conclusion is based on an assumption about the nature of reality. It is not an objective conclusion from the data.

    If God is real, and if he created via evolutionary means, we would also expect a “natural” belief for the kind of reason I give in the post.

    I would not argue that the naturalness of religion is evidence for the truth of religious belief, but neither is it an argument against the truth of religious belief. A little critical thinking will show that a metaphysical view shapes the choice of conclusion here.

  • Bev Mitchell

    1 RJS,
    Interesting choice for the next series of topics. I wondered about your choice at first, but here I am tapping something out before even finishing your article. I’ll post before reading other responses, which will surely be numerous. 

    You point out,
    “if humans had no choice but to believe in god, and a particular kind of god at that, Barrett would find the scientific explanation a far more serious challenge to the reality of any underlying truth to religious claims for the existence of God.”

    This really is an important point. Our view of God can back us into a corner and have us building moats and draw bridges, or it can free us. Fortunately, many find in the Scriptures a God who sets us free.

    Related to this, it seems to me, is our view of spirit. (what else did you expect me to say? 🙂 ) Scriptures assume a whole new level of reality that we have great difficulty accepting, especially from a scientific point of view. On top of that, Scripture sees this spiritual reality (beginning with God, who is spirit) having direct effects on our material world. When we neglect this insight, as we often do, and attempt to explain religion without it, we miss a main point. The basic question that is seldom addressed directly is “does spiritual reality exist and, if it does, does it influence material reality?” We can easily accept that  our mind/brain is involved, that some kind of god exists, that we invent lots of gods, religious beliefs and practices that make us feel better. However, according to Scripture, this is only our side of the equation, and, by itself, nothing more than a wandering in the wilderness. What makes the essential link between the two realities is Spirit. Christianity presents a unique and exclusive understanding of how the two realities interact and of who makes both realities possible and governs their interactions.

    So often our thinking on the origins of religion has an ‘us to God’ axis, whereas both OTand NT exclusively adopt a ‘God to us’ viewpoint, when it comes to our knowledge of God. The two approaches could not be more different and are doomed to be two ships that pass in the night. I like the way Torrance summarizes the thinking of Irenaeus on this. Paraphrasing – our knowledge of God is firm and sure because it is anchored in the reality of God’s being. “That would not be possible without the aid of the Spirit of God……..(Through  Christ) God has accustomed his Holy Spirit to dwell in human nature and at the same time has adapted human nature to receive the Holy Spirit……to share in God’s knowledge of himself.” From T.F. Torrance “The Trinitarian Faith” pg. 32.

    Nobody but Christians believe this stuff.

    So, to answer your question “should we fear investigations into the psychology of faith?” I think the answer is, it depends on what kind of faith we espouse and it’s source. It is possible to have a faith that needs to be challenged to the point of defeat in order to make way for a faith that cannot be shaken.

    As for, “What role should naturalness play in our understanding of Christian faith and doctrine?” perhaps the answer lies in the direction observed by Irenaeus above “God has adapted human nature to receive the Holy Spirit.” The Spirit is at work in the world, not only in salvation and sanctification. His work can ‘condition’ each one of us to make it possible for us to freely respond to God’s will. Our natural, evolved beings, particularly our brain/mind is capable of interacting with Spirit (we are In God’s image, called to be God’s eikons). Again, we leave out a big part of the data when we approach this as a human to God relationship instead of God to human. Of course, there is a necessary human to God response, but here we are talking about how it gets started.

  • norman

    I think this is a great issue that ties in with the observation of the ancient Hebrews when they constructed Genesis. There is a statement in Gen 4:26 that notate the beginning of the faith lineage of the people of God when it observes that “this is when men begin to call upon the name of YHWH”.

    The author is pointing back in time to the origins of Israel indicating that there indeed was a beginning time when people begin to coalesce around the idea of one Supernatural Entity. The assumption presented is that at an ancient time in the past there was an early recognition of One God. Therefore the OT is the story of that transition from a simple recognition to more involved approaches ultimately culminating with the messianic fulfillment that confirms the earliest human inclination. However part of the story of scripture is the conflict that develops between competing concepts that constantly need to be resisted as perversions of revealed truth around the matter. That of course is what this article is examining as well.

    An interesting investigation is what was the state of religious affairs that were found in the Americas just 500 years ago. We see broad spectrums of religion not unlike what we also observed in the ANE historically but these peoples had been isolated from Asian and European peoples between 10 -20,000 years so they make a nice controlled study of the matter. Also I might point out that the Iroquois people in North American have anecdotally been identified with the possibility of having matured into a “One God” concept with a more egalitarian approach which seems to have started evolving toward the concepts of what we find in the OT about the One God. The jury is out though because it is historically difficult to verify whether the Jesuit Priest who interfaced with them early on were accurately describing their ideas or were reading their own concepts into the situation.

    It seems that people have an inclination toward the God concept and eventually toward a fair and just God if the environment allows for that evolving concept. Judaism is then a classic study of the maturity of the concepts in which justice and compassion become preeminent concepts of the One God. Messiah broke the bonds of an inferior approach allowing a higher plane of experiencing God. When people understand that story they gravitate toward a higher view of God.

  • Scot Miller


    I believe you are correct when you said:

    I would not argue that the naturalness of religion is evidence for the truth of religious belief, but neither is it an argument against the truth of religious belief. A little critical thinking will show that a metaphysical view shapes the choice of conclusion here.

    However, when the question is, “Is it more reasonable to believe the naturalness of religion alone or to believe in the naturalness of religion and God,” I think Ockham’s Razor would lead us to the simplest explanation: the naturalness of religion alone.

    I think why I’m persuaded by the naturalness of religion (and the methodological naturalism of science and history) without God is that the concept of God that we interject into these discussions is fundamentally flawed. Prior to the rise of modern science, God played a big role in explaining the intelligibility of the world. But with the advent of meteorology, we know that rain and drought and tornadoes, etc., are not the work of an angry God, but are merely natural phenomena. The same with the germ theory of disease as explaining why someone gets sick. God is not an explanatory factor in how the world works.

    Does this mean that God does not exist, or does it mean that certain ways of thinking of God are no longer plausible? I think it is better to admit that some ways of thinking about God are more problematic and other ways more promising. The natural phenomena of religion adequately accounts for all of our theological systems and ways of thinking, none of which are identical to God.

  • scotmcknight

    RJS, Yes, I see what you are saying and maybe could have made my point in a more neutral way. If God designed evolution, he designed the human to pick up signals in the brain, etc, from God… but one can at least wonder why the capacity.

  • That the brain is naturally inclined toward supernatural belief can be spun rhetorically in a variety of different ways, and doesn’t really prove much.

    But go further down this road of analyzing brain states and one will find a significant difficulty for the naturalist.

    Its unclear to me–on the naturalistic view–how one can escape being reductionistic toward all mental states. Given the mechanical nature of materialism all one’s beliefs about the nature of reality–religious or not–are unavoidably determined. Even the belief in materialism itself.

    Only a supernatural mind can keep us from having *all* our views of reality orchestrated by forces over which we have absolutely no control.

  • CGC

    Hi Everyone,
    Fascinating discussion . . . . One of my friends is going through a kind of “faith-crises” because the cognitive dissonance between faith and reason and even more, his worldview beliefs and his lack of experience is quite unsettling to him.

    One of the things it seems we humans do if we have some kind of truth, lived experience, intuitive or highly logical understanding of something and think that is the way it should be for everybody else. People should conform to our beliefs or our skepticism. People should conform to our experiences or our lack of experiences. Sometimes I feel the discussion between Christians and atheists would be like a discussion between married people and single people. The married people (have relationship with Jesus) want the single people to enjoy the wonder and benefit of what it is like to be married. They are living a shared life together. They try to convince the single people their lives would be better if they were married. The single people keep saying you married people don’t get it. I am perfectly content and happy single. As a matter of fact, I seem to have a lot greater freedom to do more “fun” things in life than you stuffy married folks. And besides, I see too many of you married people in disfunctional and bad marriages. Leave me out.

    And of course, there are married people who see all these other married people whose relationship is not even close to what being married is all about. People are not living a shared life but are still living desperate separated lives. There are those who have a marriage and those who say they are married. There are those who like being single by choice and there are those who inwardly wished they were not single and wonder if things in life could be different rather than it simply “is what it is.”

    There is also the problem of competing meta-naratives between religion and science. One tries to reduce or squeeze the other into a nice mold or tight fit. And since I am in a parable speaking mood today, I often think the interface of science and spiritual faith is like the scientist who builds a maze for a mouse to figure out. The mouse starts working through the maze and is in wonder at the sheer majesty, artistry, and magnificense of the maze. Finally the mouse figures out the maze and knows how to manuever through it. The mouse triumphantly says, now I know there is no scientist for I know how the maze works.

  • Jeremy

    I couldn’t help but think of Lewis as I read this. I don’t remember which book it’s in, although I suspect it’s Mere Christianity, but he essentially says that every hunger has a corresponding fulfillment. When our stomachs hunger, there is food to satisfy it. When we are thirsty, there is drink. We long for relationship, and there are family and friends. We long for beauty and there are mountains, sunsets, and women (okay, okay, men too). It just wouldn’t make sense that there a universal (and arguably even deeper) hunger for the eternal, for something more than what we perceive with our senses, and yet there is nothing to satisfy this hunger. What sense would it make for the most basic hunger of all to have nothing in existence that can satisfy it when we see the opposite pattern in effect in every other appetite we have?

    Forgive the obviously poor paraphrase. It’s been years since I read it, but that was what I took away from it and it’s really stuck with me.

  • CGC, the mouse not only learns the maze, but the mouse also performs the maze in record time with less activity from the cerebral cortex than when the mouse was observing the artistry along the way. Ann Graybiel at MIT has shown these memories are stored in the basal ganglia so the cortex can move to consider other things, and these memories form our cognitive intuition which is our default thinking pattern. Most of these pathways are established early in life — the ones resulting in good behavior we are thankful for and the other ones we spend a lifetime trying to submit to the Spirit. New pathways can be formed. Most of what we talk about all comes back to neuronal circuitry and brain chemistry. Many of our concepts of the Holy Spirit are natural in basis. It only makes sense that the “new” publishable area in psychology and brain function is the “God gene” or the “God spot” or the “religion is good spot” or whatever. It only makes sense from the evolutionary history of primitive deity worship that those who could focus on something that held them together would survive better than those who fought with each other. Survival basically came down to who could most efficiently reproduce successive generations. (Applies today, also). So, there is a build-in need for religion hard wired into the human brain, designed by God and formed from evolution, that provided the physical substrate into which He would pour His Spirit. The Natural Religion can be satisfied by anything — meditation, Buddhism, the wonderment of science, Christianity, humanism, Oprahism – whatever. The scripture even refers to the “natural” man. You mean, the “sinful” man? Oh no, can’t be. What is the definition of sin – falling short of the mark set by God. Where is organized Christianity today on the natural to spiritual chart? How much difference can unbelievers tell between the organized church and the world? The church today operates more out of the natural than the spiritual. People have no way of knowing what being filled with the Holy Spirit looks like unless the church shows them. If the church operated out of the power of the Holy Spirit that indwells, we wouldn’t be wondering about Natural Religion, because we would be setting the pace for growing to be like God. What primitive people did in their worship – chants – requirements of membership – etc. are done today in the name of worship and doctrine. What does that tell you about the power of the Holy Spirit operating in the church? The church (general) organizations have been operating out of self perpetuating humanism for so long that if the Holy Spirit showed up one Sunday morning as a visitor, people would probably ask Him to not come back. Like the people did to Jesus after the deviled ham episode.

    Jonathan Haidt, whose published book is being reviewed here, says that religion is good because it helps us to evolve better. He even suggests a concept of God, except it is a god created by human thinking. But it’s still good for us.

    So, is religion a natural phenomenon? The way it is practiced, the answer is mostly,”Yes.” Does God intend it that way? “No.”

    This is getting down to some core issues as to why the church is already showing signs of apostasy. This is very, very serious. And Christians who are Bible believing and have an understanding of real science have an opportunity to speak up and address this problem.

  • CGC

    Hi Theophilus,
    I always appreciate your words and insights and yes, the church is in trouble. So many “Christians’ are running with spiritual tanks on empty and fumes. After saying that, I was wondering who was going to nibble on my parable? 🙂 People are always wanting to press parables too far, literalize them, or press the details into something it was not speaking about. So I suspected that somebody would give me the scientific data on mice 🙂 Maybe I had set up a proverbial mouse-trap? 🙂

  • CGC

    PS – I think Theophilus and Bev bring up the important issue of where is the Holy Spirit in all this? If the Holy Spirit has been lost or marginalized in the discussion, and the Spirit of God is the Spirit of truth, hasn’t truth been lost and marginalized as well?

  • Patrick

    This research is not the first of it’s type. I’ve read 2 other studies detailing how humans are hardwired for faith.

    Christ is the light of all mankind. So, to me this corroborates that. We have to work at it to convince ourselves the universe created itself.

    However, on the atheist side, they explained in one of the articles how evolution planted this in us and is now changing this as we no longer need faith in anything bigger than our faces.

  • Tom F.

    Theo- need to be careful with your terms. “Natural Religion” for Barrett is the sort of religion that is intuitive, and uses our normal (cognitive) ways of making sense of the world (i.e., agency detection, theory of mind, ect). In Barrett’s terms, walking is a “natural” phenomenon, as nearly every human eventually learns this ability. On the other hand, something like chess-playing is “unnatural” and has to be learned through deliberate practice.

    Barrett does not mean “natural” as in “sinful” or even as “material vs. supernatural”. This is clear when he links “natural” religion with the Romans passage.

    Furthermore, I just want to highlight the way you have set “natural” and “spiritual” as entirely apart from each other. Is God not allowed to work through the natural processes that God created? What if it turns out that the Holy Spirit relates to us through the same (cognitive, physical) mechanisms through which we relate to other human beings? Does that limit the Spirit’s power? If so, why?

    “So, is religion a natural phenomenon? The way it is practiced, the answer is mostly,”Yes.” Does God intend it that way? “No.”

    Again, this is using “natural” in a very different way than Barret is using it. I don’t say this to criticize, just to make sure that you are really understanding what Barrett means by all this. Barrett is not saying that God can not also interact directly with believers through the Holy Spirit. He is saying that this relationship will be shaped by who we are as human beings, by the categories of thought that we as finite creatures are capable of.

    Think of it like any other relationship; at the beginning, we bring our assumptions, prejudices, and categories in order to make sense of this person we don’t know. This is the “natural” part of knowing God. As we get to know that person, we learn that they may surprise us in any number of ways, and we adjust. This is the “unnatural” part of religion (theology). But God is so much bigger than our “natural” categories, that there isn’t any possibility of fully adjusting, even as we know God (i.e., Calvinism as a coherent but unnatural theology).

    Perhaps some parts of “spiritual” experience are more “natural” to us (perhaps receiving comfort from God as a Father) and other parts are more “unnatural” (perhaps mystical experiences that overwhelm our capacities to know God cognitively- like Aquinas’s beatific vision.)

    The important point is that “natural” is not “material” as set against “spiritual”, at least in Barrett’s conception. This point can’t be overstated, at least if we are to learn anything about how our cognitive capacities affect our relationship with God.

  • Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Tom, and I completely agree. One of the realizations that is coming more and more apparent to me is there is a substantial blending of the interface between the physical and spiritual realms, the natural and the supernatural, so that the terms themselves become less distinct, at least in my mind, than they used to be. But, then, I used to have a lot more things figured out than I do now. 🙂 This is a pretty profound area, actually. It involves questions like, What was the image of God at creation; how did sin and separation from God affect that; what was physically present for man when God said it was “very good;” how much evolution of the “God spot” or whatever in the brain occurred during the Old Testament record; was the increase in revelation of God throughout the OT correlated with an increase in brain/religious evolution; what does “when the time was right” mean — more than Roman roads and Greek language, etc — does it mean enough brain development (and social development with it) to comprehend enough of God for the Holy Spirit to work; what did the Holy Spirit really bring on Pentecost; what does that have to do with the baptism in the Holy Spirit and the gift of the Holy Spirit.

    If there is a physical neuronal network that is wired for religion and everyone has it to some degree, even Richard Dawkins, is that natural or supernatural? Or is what one does with it where the natural or supernatural comes in? The “natural” in the NT is associated with Adam; the “spiritual” with Christ. Adam introduced sin. So we get back into definitions again.

    As I have watched our selfish and prideful and “my rights and benefits” society continue to decline and as I have watch our self-interest and entitlement-bound and self-preserving congress place their private ambitions above the good of this country, I can’t help but wonder, “Where has the church been?” Who will model better behavior for them? A bickering divided body of Christ? Why has the church (the universal) been filled with so much humanism that even the world recognizes its hypocrisy? Why does the church act as if it doesn’t know any better? It doesn’t know what the power of the Holy Spirit actually looks like? We don’t see events like in the first century, so we develop a doctrine that says that doesn’t happen anymore. Most intellectual. Are we operating out of the neuronal religion wired part of our brains and calling that “spiritual” when it is actually “natural?” (There’s that word again).

    My developing opinion is that God has continued the evolutionary process and will continue it until the end of time. Since God and Christ are in creation, and Christ holds it together, there was a blend of spiritual and physical evolution from the beginning. Physical evolution has slowed considerably, but since Pentecost spiritual evolution has taken over — or is supposed to take over. Christians should be well on the path to growing to be like God — that is the spiritual evolution — that is the work of the Holy Spirit. Since the church is so ineffective in even positively influencing society, I just can’t believe the church, or any of the members for that matter, are really “on track” with this. We were created to be like God (Eph 4:24) and I don’t think that is just the brain “God spot.” I cannot write fast enough to get all of this developed on my blog, but the church is not exempt from entropy, if the church sows to the flesh rather than the Spirit. That is what is happening — the church subjects itself to the laws of nature when it sows to the flesh, and the organized church shows all the signs of cycling into apostasy. More is given more is expected — the fall of the church in the US will be greater than in Europe because we have been given more, but we have not delivered. We have accumulated wealth in institutions and competed to preserve our divisions. So, from my perception of “natural” or Barrett’s perception of “natural” to someone else’s, I not sure that anyone understands clearly what it means in terms of the scriptural use of the word “flesh.”

    But this is more than a fascinating discussion, I really think it is vitally important that we understand it better, because I think we, and the church, are missing some pretty big time stuff. And when it becomes so apparent that we don’t need spiritual discernment to see it …. it will be too late.

    I appreciate your discussion, Tom, and others also.

  • Richard Worden Wilson

    The naturalness of religious /experience/belief/practice/ ought to give us some basis for /generalizing/rationalizing/conceptualizing/ a baseline for what does and doesn’t quite fit the mold, and hence give us reasons to think that an historical /intrusion/interaction/interpersonal-self-revelation/ into natural religious experience is very likely evidence for the existence of a super-natural being intent on making his-er (non–gendered deity intended here) known in the context of humanity’s naturally abled religious existence.

    Let me attempt to make this rather abstract and densely conceptual comment more transparent …. suppose that a nature-transcendent god desired to make him-er (non–gendered deity intended again here) self known to humanity, the now evolutionarily spiritually enabled pinnacle of his-er creation. Is it not reasonable to suppose that he-er (you get the idea?) would make his-er self known to some individual(s) progressively through historically contiguous interaction? There is no other religion than the Judeo-Christian tradition that matches this historical criterion within the conceptual framework of a “natural” religious development. (OK, so Judaism could meet these criteria too, but Messiahanity is the ultimate form of Judaism!). There is no other religion, no other religious experience, no other spiritually experienced god, that engages all of humanity in an ongoing HISTORICAL interaction like this.

    With due respect to our Islamic and Mormon(ic) contemporaries: the experience of one single individual who imagines a correspondence with the multi-millennium long continuity (however it may be in diversity; through multiple experiencers and scribal attesters, etc.), but who actually does not closely in their beliefs correspond to the recorded beliefs and experiences of those who embody the Judeo-Christian matrix of beliefs (as through Scripture), simply can’t be among those who have experienced THAT god who has made him-er self known through the experiences corresponding with those of the Christian scriptures.

  • Tom F.

    Theo- lots of good thoughts, and I selected just a few to talk further on.

    “If there is a physical neuronal network that is wired for religion and everyone has it to some degree, even Richard Dawkins, is that natural or supernatural?”

    I guess it would be natural? (I’m not the biggest fan of “supernatural” as a term anyway, but okay.) Everyone has the capacity, and what is “supernatural” is when that capacity is used to relate to the Triune God? (Admittedly, I’m getting speculative here.)

    Along those lines, I tend to be strongly in the “relational” understanding of the image of God, so that the image of God is being created with the capacity for a relationship with God, and sin is the disruption/breakdown of that relationship. As to the OT, my sense is that our neurological and cognitive capacities in relation to God (“God spot”) are basically the same. What has changed is the manner and mode by which those capacities are exercised in each covenant. I don’t think it’s “just” the “God spot” either, in the sense that our relationship in the church or with God is merely the firings of these half-million or so neurons rather than those other half-million or so neurons. Again, the comparison to human relationships is key: if a “spouse spot” was found in the brain, would that make marriage relationships any less important and meaningful? No, clearly not. As physical beings, our experience of God is mediated through physical processes.

    As to “flesh”, my sense was that Paul was using this term so flexibly as to basically mean “those parts of human persons and communities that are set against God” (thus NIV = “sinful”). That Paul is not really trying to get at the material (“natural”) world or physical human bodies being somehow evil is clear from passages like in Galations 5, where “the works of the flesh” include very non-physical sins, like jealousy, divisions, witchcraft, and heresy. So clearly “flesh” is not simply human physicalness or materialness. Sin cuts across the “spiritual” and the “physical” alike, and so does “flesh” in Paul’s writing.

    For another contrast, see 1 Corinthians 15:44, where when Paul wants to talk about merely “natural” bodies he uses “soma psuchikon” or “animated bodies”, like normal human and animal life, but he contrasts it to “spiritual” (pneuma) bodies. So “flesh” is not the same thing as normal, human bodily life. Neither, in this case at least, does it appear that “spiritual” means non-physical (though it does seem that this physicality is significantly different in resurrection bodies.)

  • Bev Mitchell

    Thanks so much for all of this. You are coming at it from a different angle than in my little piece but our sentiments line up in your statement “But this is more than a fascinating discussion, I really think it is vitally important that we understand it better, because I think we, and the church, are missing some pretty big time stuff.” Though I haven’t considered this matter along the lines of your concluding statement “And when it becomes so apparent that we don’t need spiritual discernment to see it …. it will be too late.” you may well be right.

    Clearly, religious evolution is humming along nicely, as are social, political, economic etc. Evolution that only takes maximum advantage of momentary conditions is, of itself, directionless – and our ‘progress’ on all these fronts should prove it for anyone who is awake. We have even lost the memory element that allows biological evolution to, at least, conserve the good things of the past. Guidance has to come from somewhere or the ship will do worse than sail in circles. This brings us back to spirit, and in the Christian setting to Holy Spirit. But, also in the Christian setting, it brings us back to spiritual conflict.  Because of Christ’s faithfulness we know the good outcome, but it hardly seems wise to ignore the battle, which we are assured by Scripture is spiritual in nature, though it affects everything.

    Of course, this was all much easier to accept and deal with 1800 years ago. Interestingly, it is also accepted and being dealt with in many societies outside the ‘sophisticated’ west today. We have all been amazed to hear the stories from the spiritual battlefront as told by folks who work in the two-thirds world.   Is it possible that our discernment, our armour and our weapons training programs are so weak that the enemy is having his way with us? Our weapons and training are second to none in the battle against physical threats, what about spiritual threats? Do we even recognize them, or do we prefer the three-monkey approach? 

    You raise so many good points that I could go on and on, but I have to stop and consider much of what you said more carefully. I’ve dabbled a bit in my reading re neuro-theology but, so far, find the treatments unsatisfactory. The lack of acknowledgment of spirit and Spirit outside of ourselves, affecting us, leaves a big hole in that work. We have to be careful that we, again, don’t write God (Spirit) out of the picture as we look for the  ‘God spot’

    It’s very good to have a place to discuss these essential matters

  • Thank you, Tom and Bev, for you comments. I think that we are headed in the same direction, but may have some different words to express the scenery on the exact path that we take, which is based on our backgrounds – similar in a lot of ways, a little unique in others. Tom, I agree that the key for spiritual development is relationship. I think it would be better to view the Trinity as God in three relationships than God in three persons. Same thing, different emphasis. The meanings we have for the words natural, supernatural, and even miracle are so contaminated with jargon that their usefulness in communication is compromised. Even for Christians, what is natural or supernatural or miraculous tends to be what I can explain or not. Not a very objective or quantifiable definition.

    The words “flesh” and “sin” are not as cut and dried, either. Flesh is not sin; but it is when these desires control us and we live to please “earthly” (another term) desires. A Godly controlled ambition isn’t sin; but an ambition that glorifies self at the expense of others (damaged relationships) that controls a person is sin. We tend to reflexly think of sin as breaking a commandment or doing something wrong, as in the O.T. Jesus said it is if you think about it. Ouch. I hate it when Jesus gets inside my head like that. But, thoughts yield control which yields actions which damages relationships person to person and person to God. So, one associates atonement in the OT as a sacrifice when someone did something bad, but in the NT atonement is because we are bad — not just what we may do, but what we don’t do. Either way, we fall short of the glory of God. So, forgiveness was developed to the max under Christ, but the definition of sin was clarified as well. The Pharisees didn’t think they sinned because they kept their set of rules; they were (self) righteous. Jesus told them they lived in sin. Do we think like the Pharisees – sin is something we commit occasionally? We all fall short of the glory of God, which is why we can’t judge one another. We are all busted without Christ. Sin is when we are controlled by the flesh. There is the slip of temper sin and there is the life totally under the control of anger sin. We almost need a classification of “sin strains” like bacteria.

    Years ago Desmond Morris published a book, “The Naked Ape,” which at the time I thought was absolutely toxic. I thought differently about many things back then. Morris basically said that all of our human violence and aggressions and competitiveness, etc, came from our evolutionary history of being apes back in the jungle playing hunger wars. I thought that was trash talk for a number of years, but one day read Galations 5 and Romans 1 and recognized some great ape behavior. Then I began to think maybe Morris was a theological scholar who didn’t know it. Control by the flesh is control by basic animal instincts? In my youthful enthusiasm to defend the faith once delivered to the saints, I once took that a bit to extreme in talking to some people who were upset and speaking in slanderous terms about other Christians as a justification for division, and I made the observation and said if you don’t want to be called a monkey stop acting like one. Lawful, maybe; expedient, not. So I came out of the flesh, myself.

    I tend to expand everything into a “big bang” discussion, like using a blender with the lid off. Sorry about that. But maybe discussion will bring about more focus.

    I enjoy people’s comments. Thanks.

  • norman

    Something we should realize is that humans like to domesticate wild animals and make them human friendly. There is no better example than the wolf being turned into man’s best friend. Where we don’t make the connection though is that humans also domesticate ourselves and I would venture we are continuing to do so by selective breeding. One aspect that studies reveal is that violence has decreased through the eons and part of the reason was that violent natured men were killed off and therefore through time we have been domesticating ourselves. We are still doing that today when we lock those who don’t meet our civilized standards up for long stretches of procreative years. Violence has grown steadily less as civilization progressed and the wild nature that may have been our heritage long ago has less benefits and more disadvantages now than 50- 100,000 years ago when survival of the more aggressive may have been advantageous. All of this seems to correlate with the unfolding of humanity and its capacity to embrace God on a higher plane in the fullness of time. I realize this is a PC issue that makes people nervous but the subject is not something that a true researcher can ignore.
    Harvard Professor Steven A. Pinker has researched this issue and produced a book that is insightful to our discussion. “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined,”
    Here is an excerpt from an article from the Harvard Crimson quoting Him.
    See Violence Decreasing, Pinker Says
    “n a world where headlines are dominated by stories of ethnic conflict, gang violence, and acts of terrorism, Harvard Psychology Professor Steven A. Pinker remains optimistic. His latest book, argues that the last few decades have been the most peaceful in human history and examines this development from a psychological perspective.

    While this idea may strike many as counter-intuitive, Pinker presents a wealth of statistical evidence demonstrating that the rate of violent deaths has fallen over the course of history.

    “There’s a misleading impression if you don’t look at the denominator of the expression—the number of people who are not murdered,” Pinker said. “Only studies that track violence over time give you an accurate impression.”

  • Some good points, Norman. We get peeved at the media because it primarily published with notoriety what people will read – emphasis on hellish bad news, or at least events that can be structured that way. But we probably all have impressions of how things are, were, or will be based on what we read on the Internet or see on TV (or iPad). Has violence decreased or has the expression of violence changed form and become more “civilized.” Maybe aggressiveness isn’t so much in murder as it is in political parties who would rather fight than find common ground. Both can be evolutionarily disadvantageous. Combat warfare has changed from even the 1970’s with technology and droids and robots, so battlefield casualty statistics have changed. But what about suicides; what about violence after coming back; what about the incidence of post-traumatic stress syndrome? These are data that should be considered, although correlating with conclusions about the spiritual nature would be difficult.

    What about character assassination — is that violence? It is almost routine in politics, but what about the church? What about splits in denominations about the Bible (of all things). I recall reading some comments on a different post about the Southern Baptists and infighting over Calvinism – who would win, who will put out who from membership. Someone commented that people of previous generations, like AT Robertson, were very Calvinistic, but they could behave honorably toward those of different opinion. This was contrasted to the demonizing of today. And it’s not just the So Baptists — it is everywhere. It’s easier to measure number of physical deaths for a statistical analysis than it is to measure the length of the crack of division. But it could be argued that both are an outcome related to a violent attitude.

    So, even if violent deaths are decreasing, has violence decreased or has the measure changed? And does that necessarily mean social evolution has taken place? And does it mean the church is any better, or does the church just use different liturgical terminology and sanctified clothing to do the same dirty work of the violence of chaos and division?

    This is a huge subject that seemingly touches on everything.