Are human beings naturally religious? Should we take religion to be in some way an innate, instinctive, or otherwise inevitable aspect of human life? Or is religion a historically contingent, nonessential aspect of basic human being?

These are not questions of merely academic curiosity. The answers have big implications for how human personal and social life should be properly ordered. They often imply positions about the truth value of religious and secular claims about reality. Answers and arguments about them are also bound up with massive historical projects that seek to shape social orders. These include the neo-Enlightenment project to create a rational, secular modernity and various religious projects to create a modernity that socially accommodates religious worldviews if not place them at the center. The futures of world civilizations around the globe are today being contested by movements that are affected by different answers to the questions posed above. The stakes of the answers are therefore high for implications in public policy, institutional practices, and deep cultural formation over time.

By “what pertains to human beings by nature,” I mean what is essential and universal for human beings, at least since the Axial Age beginning circa 800 b.c. and probably since the Neolithic era beginning circa 9500 b.c. I make claims about anthropological universals, which should apply to human beings in all other cultures, not just Christendom or the West.

The empirical evidence gives us four facts that do not consistently answer the question. First, very many people in the world are not religious, and some entire cultures appear to be quite secular, without apparent damage to their happiness and functionality. This suggests that religion is not natural to human being but an accidental or inessential practice only some human beings experience.

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