Religion Comes Naturally to Us. Lactantius

Religion, worldview, philosophy (or whatever you want to call it) is a fact of being human. As thinking beings, we can’t stop thinking about how we should live and how we relate to one another. Religion flows naturally from who we are. We are not just religious because our parents or guardians have told us to be so. We are instinctively religious and this instinct is reinforced by those around us from cradle to grave but also from within. Consider: an animal might go forth and survive without parents or guardians but a human child cannot. A child is cast from its mother’s womb where its existence depends upon the moral judgments of others.

You are here, reading this page, because someone—at least one person—said “Yes” to your existence and affirmed your life. That “Yes” was affirmed daily in the nurture you received, which kept you going until you could survive on your own. But “Yes” is only half the story. At some point your parents or guardians also said “No” to you. Even if your parents or guardians were mute, they pulled you back from danger and limited what you could do.

As a father I recall changing diapers and guiding little hands away from the mess I was cleaning up. I can recall saying “No” to my child as I did so, and my wife has memories of doing the same thing (she also recalls saying “No” to the children while breast feeding since hard biting and scratching start pretty early). With word and motion we placed limits on our children. We drew boundaries for their sake and for ours as we willed them to live. (Read Genesis 2:15–17; Ezekiel 16:1–7.) Saying “Yes” meant that we would naturally say “No,” lest our children harm themselves or become so offensive that we could not embrace and care for them without harming ourselves. The legal aspect of religion is ever there. Universally, one of the first words children master is “No.” From the beginning of their lives, their thoughts divide into Yes and No, affirmation and denial, boundaries of right and wrong, of good and evil. So religion is among the first things we learn about. But I would also contend that the root of religion is instinctive. As reasoning beings, we make choices and our brains are hardwired to do so.

Lactantius comments on instinct and wisdom in “On the Workmanship of God” (ch 3).

“[Philosophers] complain that man is born in a more feeble and frail condition than that in which the other animals are born: for that these, as soon as they are produced from the womb, immediately raise themselves on their feet, and express their joy by running to and fro, and are at once fit for enduring the air, inasmuch as they have come forth to the light protected by natural coverings; but man, on the contrary, being naked and defenceless, is cast forth, and driven, as it were, from a shipwreck, to the miseries of this life; who is neither able to move himself from the place where he has been born, nor to seek the nourishment of milk, nor to endure the injury of time. Therefore they say that Nature is not the mother of the human race, but a stepmother, who has dealt so liberally with the dumb creation, but has so produced man, that, without resources, and without strength, and destitute of all aid, he can do nothing else than give tokens of the state of his frailty by wailing and lamentations. . . . What more can men do? unless it be this only, that they do not drive away their young when grown up, but retain them bound by perpetual relationship and the bond of affection. . . . I ask, therefore, from those who prefer the condition of the beasts to their own, what they would choose if God should give them the choice: would they prefer the wisdom of man together with his weakness, or the strength of the beasts together with their nature?” (ANF 7:283–84)

Notes: Historians of language/linguistics have noticed that expressions for “mother” and “father” almost universally occur with “m” sounds (e.g., “mamma”) or “b/p/d” sounds (e.g., “papa” or “dada”). This is seen in both ancient literature and in modern languages. This likely demonstrates two important things: (1) human languages are related to one another historically (linguists search for a “proto-language” and find many basic words commonly occurring across the major language families), and (2) children are making these sounds at about the same time their brains are forming words and mastering the basics of language (if you watch babies closely, they naturally make certain sounds at certain ages, gradually expanding their abilities as they learn to control their mouths; I first considered this in 2007 when my youngest was still mastering the “th” sound, which is tougher than “m” or “goo goo,” as we like to describe baby talk). The complexity of human language and communication is one of those important features of being human. Though other creatures communicate and some even have basic elements of what we call “language,” communication is one way that humans really distinguish themselves. This has to do with our highly social nature. We depend on one another from birth and must communicate our thoughts, yes and no being among the earliest and most important distinctions in verbal communication. Just as parenting and language are universal to humanity, religion is right there with us because affirmation and moral distinctions are of the essence of being human.

Early Church

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