Religion and the Natural State of Humanity

In a recent blog about the natural state of humanity, New Epicurean commented on my recent post re: religion as a natural phenomenon. In his commentary to my blog, Cassius said:

I see this as analogous to “friendship” being a natural activity, in distinction to the allegations that in the “state of nature” men live as isolated brutes. Just as it is natural for men to aspire to live lives better than whatever they are living at the moment, and to look up to the idea that other “beings” may already be doing that, it is natural for men to find greatest happiness in society. So both “religion” properly under stood and “society” properly understood are totally natural for men to experience. Just because it *can* be experienced “improperly” does not mean that it *can’t* be experienced properly, and that should be our goal.

In De Rerum Natura, Lucretius proposed a naturalist explanation of how friendship originated in human culture as a way to avoid harming and being harmed. I delve into this a bit in Naturalist Reasoning on Friendship. The entire project that Lucretius took up had to do with demystifying things that used to be considered holy or to be the objects of fear or veneration and to show them as entirely natural. This he did with friendship, but religion has not been subjected to the same level of rigor, perhaps due to the politically correct attitude that we’ve been hammered with, which tends to place religion above reproach.

This idea of humanity “in its natural state” is hugely controversial in philosophy, with some pessimistic philosophers arguing that man is naturally violent and needs a strong authoritarian state and religion to keep him from harming others, while others (like Rousseau and Thomas More) idealizing primitive man as innocent and essentially good. As usual, both claims are not mutually exclusive. Just as apes in their natural habitat exhibit both innocence and savagery, so do humans in their natural state.

In the article in reply to my blog, Cassius states:

People today who are familiar only with false religions based on supernatural gods tend to discount the possibility of any benefits arising from anything associated with “religion,” but Epicurus pointed the way toward a “true religion” of spiritual feeling based in reality rather than in fantasy.

This naturalist religion has been elusive for many centuries. Auguste Comte, for instance, attempted to create a humanist religion, which was a popular idea for a bit but did not remain. Humanists have celebrants officiating at weddings and funerals, but humanism lacks that extra umph that makes traditional religion popular. I suspect that, like the Lokayata tradition from India, its lack of adaptability to human nature and psychology may eventually work against it.

Finnish Epicurean blogger Ilkka, of the Menoeceus blog, has proposed that Epicureanism confers a particular religious identity, even if that identity is heavily secular, but he has not yet given many details of his hypothesis. I do know that Epicurus used to have his Garden “piously decorated” for the monthly celebrations on the twentieth, and that when his pupils took their conversion oath they did so as a sacrament and with the blessing of the official gods of the city and community.

Cassius later cites a passage from Jackson Barwis where he argues that there is never a time when man is NOT in a state of nature. He may be forced to subject his savagery and animal instincts for the sake of the state and of society, but he’s always in a state of nature. Man in the polis, as in the jungle, is still an animal, a natural being. This is self evident. Man continues to eat, to work for his meals, to exhibit territorial instincts, to mate, etc. He also constructs society and religion, both in the polis and in nature.

To take an analogy from other species: chimpanzees living in a zoo will form bonds similar to those they form in nature, they will form hierarchies, choose an alpha, and in general exhibit normal behavior for their species. To take an analogy from other domesticated animals like humans: household dogs and cats who live in human households continue to exhibit hunting instincts. A cat will chase anything small that is seen running, and dogs will recognize his human owner as the alpha, and his human family as the wolf pack.

When any other species of animals is made a subject of inquiry, we always treat of it as being in its natural state. And we very justly determine that to be the natural state of any species of creatures which is found consonant to the true laws of its nature, and as far as the motives or actions of any creature be dissonant to the same laws (by whatever means such dissonance arise) so far must they be deemed unnatural, and the creature out of its natural state.

Barwis later argues that man under government is no less natural than bees in a comb or ants in a colony. Based on this argument, which resonates with the optimist naturalist views of Rousseau and More, Barwis argues that it is therefore the role of government to keep man in his natural state, not to remove him from it. What Cassius is saying is that we can replace here the word government with the word “religion”, to get a naturalist appreciation of the purpose and role of religion.

Now if the violation of the true laws of nature do (as being an anti-natural thing) put men into an unnatural state, and if to correct and reform such violations be to reduce men to their natural state again, and if that can only be effectually done by the help of good government, must we not conclude that the true end of government is to keep men in their natural state? And that men under such government are really much more in a natural state then they were when under no government at all?

Parents frequently treat God as a babysitter, believing that God can replace traditional authority figures in the mind of a child when the parents are not there. These intuitions are vindicated by a study, which involved Rick Gervais, which demonstrated that people’s prejudice and distrust against atheists diminished when in the presence of secular authority figures (like cops, or judges). What this shows is that a deity, when accepted as such, works just like any other authority figure.

This is a controversial claim, that religious men in a more natural state than men with no religion. Furthermore, heavily secular countries (like those in Scandinavia) are by far much less violent, authoritarian and hostile to the civil rights of its citizens than religious countries, particularly those in the Middle East, and robust secularism tends to correlate to higher levels of education and good standards of living. Seen from this light, that religious man is “in a natural state” does not necessary indicate that he is a healthier, happier man, even if many who leave religion after it’s been a prominent force in their upbringing, tend to sometimes miss it later in life.

I think the key, in Epicurean terms, to our conversation is whether religion can be considered a natural and necessary desire and pleasure, or whether it’s unnecessary. I have argued in the past that it’s possible that it may be neither natural nor necessary, but I have a tendency to believe that it’s natural and unnecessary because of the universality of various forms of religion. I will continue to ruminate these thought, but it seems clear to me that in the end, it is based on our conclusions as to whether religion is natural and necessary, that we may or may not agree with Cassius.

Just because it *can* be experienced “improperly” does not mean that it *can’t* be experienced properly, and that should be our goal.

About hiramcrespo

Hiram Crespo is the author of 'Tending the Epicurean Garden' (Humanist Press, 2014) and 'How to Live a Good Life' (Penguin Random House, 2020), and founder of He's also written for The Humanist, Eidolon, Occupy, The New Humanism, The Secular Web, Europa Laica, AteístasPR, and many other outlets.
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2 Responses to Religion and the Natural State of Humanity

  1. Pingback: Epicureanism as a Religious Identity | The Autarkist

  2. Pingback: Reasonings on Religion | Epicurean Database

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