The aptly named Christian Smith, professor of sociology at Notre Dame, has posted an article in First Things claiming that “man” (sorry women) is a religious animal. With a gender correction, the question he poses is: “Are human beings naturally religious?” Setting aside for a moment that the Christian professor at Notre Dame probably has an a priori answer, he begins with this astonishing statement:
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.
This simply won’t do.
Let’s start with the fact that if we are searching for human “nature,” we can’t start at the end. This is what Smith does when he concatenates history and begins his story with the Axial Age or perhaps even the Neolithic transition. For anthropologists, the Axial Age is like yesterday and the Neolithic the day before.
Fully modern humans had been roaming the earth for several tens of thousands of years before some settled into the domestic and religious routines of Neolithic or agricultural life. If we are seeking human “nature,” doesn’t it make sense to look for it among those people? Don’t they have “natural” history? Doesn’t that history tell us something fundamental about what humans are (or can alternatively be) absent the powerful social patterning of modern societies?
It’s not surprising that Smith would start his search for anthropological “universals” and human “nature” with the Axial Age. The very (contested) notion of “essences” derives from the Axial strand that began with Plato and culminated in Christianity. There is an apt genealogical basis for Nietzsche’s comment that Christianity is “Platonism for the people.”
There were of course other Axial strands and places in the world where Axial movements had little or no impact. In those places, usually out of the main commercial way and relatively untouched by post-Neolithic modernity, life carried on in ways that resembled the deep past which Smith has chosen to ignore. In these places too we might find something important about the possibilities and idiosyncracies of human “nature.”
With such an inauspicious beginning to his essay, it’s not surprising to find that Smith’s conception of human “nature” is parochial. His view of human “essence” is not a timeless universal but is a situated and timely view from somewhere. That somewhere happens to be Notre Dame, a place where the concerns and prejudices of the post-Enlightenment Christian West are often projected onto the world and others as “universal human nature.” These concerns and prejudices are neither universal nor natural.
While I can agree with Smith that humans naturally generate supernatural ideas, this default is due to ordinary operations of the brain-mind. Humans aren’t, as Smith claims, naturally religious because we need to make truth claims, problem solve, create meaning, or act morally. These needs, which Smith calls strong tendencies, are precisely those which arose after (and in conjunction with) the Neolithic. They are not, therefore, universal in either time or space.
If you are quixotically seeking “anthropological universals,” the first place to look is in the deep or prehistoric past. The next would be in those societies that were relatively untouched by Neolithic modernity and Axial movements. Had Smith done this, he would have found that his supposed universals aren’t universal.
Smith’s error here is a common one which I recently wrote about while gently criticizing Czech moral economist Thomas Sedlacek’s argument that humans are naturally greedy. This is an historically challenged fallacy of the post hoc ergo propter hoc variety:
If we are talking about the human condition since the advent of agriculture, Sedlacek’s story has a great deal of validity. Sedlacek errs, however, in asserting that greed — always wanting more — is an “innate natural phenomenon” that marks the “beginning of our history.” This is a common error whether we are talking about economic history or religious history.
It arises from the illusion that everything essentially began with the Neolithic transition and “civilization.” As this myth goes, there was no history or society for the people who hunted and gathered for tens of thousands of years before settlements and cities. But these people, and some of their descendants who continued foraging until recently, had history. This history suggests that greed — always wanting more — is not an “innate natural phenomenon.”
While there are pan-human tendencies based in common neurobiology, classifying these as “natural” or “universal” or “essential” is an enterprise fraught with agendas and difficulties.