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Is Man Naturally Religious?

Does the religious impulse spring from human nature? Or is it divinely inspired? Or, perhaps, is it something artificial, even pathological? In the following lecture, Fr. Thomas Joseph White, O.P. outlines two opposing answers to the question “Is man naturally religious?”

The first, which originates with St. Augustine, contends that the virtue of faith is not natural but supernatural — a gratuitous gift from God. Without it, we are inclined toward idolatry. The second, according to White, originates with modern philosophers such as Immanuel Kant and culminates in the atheism popularized by Ludwig Feuerbach, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud. According to these later thinkers, the religious impulse is unnatural — a social or psychological pathology that distorts our understanding of reality and serves as an instrument of social or political control.

To the question “Is man naturally religious?” these two lines of thought answer “No,” albeit in different ways. In contrast to these, Fr. White proposes a third answer. Following St. Thomas Aquinas, he argues that man is naturally religious. And yet, because we are fallen creatures, this impulse is often imperfectly or even improperly expressed. So St. Augustine was partly right: We need supernatural grace — but to perfect, rather than correct, our fallen natures.