Updating the Faith Instinct

Quite a few books have appeared recently about the faith instinct (or “religious instinct,” “God instinct,” etc.). The authors include theists, atheists, and agnostics. These studies frequently focus on biological factors – genetic predispositions, the arousal of areas in the brain, etc. They are often connected with theories in evolutionary psychology. (A continuing problem in evolutionary psychology is whether and how religion could have contributed to the survival of the human species, in spite of prima facie evidence to the contrary.) I discuss some of these books in my own book, The Existence of God and the Faith-Instinct.

St. Thomas Aquinas makes many references to an instinctive grounding for faith. For example, in the Summa theologiae II-II, q. 2, a. 9, he writes, “He who believes has a sufficient inducement to believe: for he is led to belief by an interior instinct of God inviting him.”

But the biological factors mentioned above are not what Aquinas had in mind. The faith-instinct discussed by Aquinas is a fundamental tendency, within each soul, for self-transcendence and worship of the God in whose image the soul has been created.

But if there is such an instinct, why is it not more manifest? The multiplicity of often contradictory religions and pseudo-religions in our world might lead us to believe that the instinct, if it indeed exists, must be confused or seriously weak. The fact that so many persons don’t seem to have “a religious bone in their body,” and even occasionally boast about this specific absence, seems to offer us counter-evidence for the existence of such an instinct.

But this is where the importance of the object comes to the fore. Consider the analogy of animal instinct, in situations where animals are deprived of the proper materials connected with their instincts – birds substituting materials for nests, beavers substituting materials for building dams, beasts deprived of normal prey and settling on substitutes.

In a college commencement speech, the writer David Foster Wallace focused on the inevitable but precarious search by humans for the proper object of the faith-instinct:

In the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshiping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship – be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles – is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. . . .Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.

The faith-instinct that Aquinas speaks of is not only susceptible to misdirection, but, as a natural orientation to the supernatural, is obviously paradoxical. It is probably best understood as an example of what Aquinas called an “obediential potency,” defined as a capacity “passive in relationship to God, who is able to elevate any creature to a state of higher actuality.”

In his book The Sense of the Supernatural, French philosopher Jean Borella attempts to unravel and clarify the paradox:

After the Fall a [God-like] possibility endured within [man’s] wounded nature, the memory of a spiritual destiny awaiting fulfillment.  And this memory is truly a natural capacity for the supernatural, a capacity impotent and formless in itself, but nevertheless real, and the means by which man is distinguished from the animals.  Grace comes specifically to endow this natural capacity for the supernatural with form, by opening it to the saving truths of faith and rendering it efficacious.

If indeed all humans are endowed with this faith-instinct, what are the implications for ecumenism? “Faith comes through hearing,” says St. Paul. When a person encounters the truths of faith, the possibility exists for the activation or implementation of an instinct that has always been there, but latent for lack of the proper object.

But what about the millions of persons living in conditions where it is difficult or impossible to “hear” anything about the faith? Countries like North Korea and Muslim countries in which any manifestation of Christianity is illegal and punishable by imprisonment or death.

A number of recent books offer examples of how something very like a faith-instinct led individuals to overcome almost insuperable obstacles to embrace the Christian faith. Liu Zhenying in China was able as a young man to find a copy of the prohibited Bible, memorize it, establish numerous house-churches, and finally escape from persecution and imprisonment to the West; Nonie Darwish escaped from suffocating anti-Christian Islamism to Christianity and American citizenship; Peter Hitchens, brother of militant atheist Christopher Hitchens, describes his emergence from all-encompassing materialism and atheism; William Murray, son of the notorious atheist, Madeline Murray O’Hare, overcame what seem to be insuperable odds in converting to Christianity; Hussein Hajji Wario, a former Kenyan Sunni Muslim, a member of an “unreached 99.98 percent Muslim people group,” overcame life-threatening tribal antipathy to become only the second member of the Orma tribe to convert to Christianity.

Presumably, the main hindrance to activation of the faith-instinct for most of us is not such dramatic and clear-cut obstacles, but the massive array of substitute objects surrounding us, which try to convince us, subtly or not so subtly, to give them our absolute commitment.


Howard Kainz, Emeritus Professor at Marquette University, is the author of twenty-five books on German philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and religion, and over a hundred articles in scholarly journals, print magazines, online magazines, and op-eds. He was a recipient of an NEH fellowship for 1977-8, and Fulbright fellowships in Germany for 1980-1 and 1987-8. His website is at Marquette University.