Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Relgious Instincts

I love Terry Gross and I don't care who knows it. She does one of the most intelligent interviews in any medium. Her National Public Radio program Fresh Air is almost always worth hearing.

Yesterday she spoke with Jennifer Senior, author of All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood. I only heard a few minutes of the interview but this statement by Senior caught my attention:

So, like, my kid at one month looked directly at me at one point and kind of cooed. It was this recognition. It was like oh, like, you're my mom. And I'd like to think that when I'm dying I'll remember that because it was really wild. And if you don't have any religious instincts, which unfortunately I don't, I was like born without them, that is like as close as I'm going to come to awe.

Two things:

1. I wonder why Senior thinks it unfortunate that she lacks religious instincts.

2. Is she right that we are born with religious instincts?

What do you think?


  1. Was she saying it was unfortunate? Or was she just being silly?

    Either way, I don't know if I'd say that children are born with religious instincts, per se, but it largely depends on how we define religion. Children certainly seem to be born with superstitious instincts. We repeat actions we've seen modelled often with no thought to the reasons for doing them (there's a story about a cut turkey that's relevant - person always cuts their turkey before baking. When asked why, they confess that it's because their parent always did it. When the parent is asked, they say that their pans were too small for a whole turkey).

    I have a toddler (on the cusp of being a preschooler) myself, and it's wildly entertaining to hear him try to reason out the reasons for things. When he saw a picture of a whale in an aquarium, for example, he told us a whole story about how the whale must have been scared of sharks, so they took him out of the ocean and put him in the special box to keep him safe. None of it particularly likely, but it is reasonable given the information and construct of the world that he has to work with. I imagine that the basis for this sort of thinking is probably quite similar to how early supernatural beliefs started.

  2. I didn't have the impression that Senior was being silly in her remark. She was speaking off-handedly, as evidenced by her verbal tic of using "like" as a placeholder. So, it probably wouldn't do to put too great an emphasis on her use of the word "unfortunately." Still, it caught my attention.

    As for the definition of religion, I'd say from context that Senior's meant something like "a capacity to experience awe." And that, I think, is what I mean when I ask if religious instincts are innate to some individuals. Is the capacity for awe coded into our DNA?

    Personally, the rational side of my nature could live happily without God. The mystical side--a side that I don't think everyone, not even all religious people, have--just cannot deny God, the numinous, the Divine, whatever name you choose to give it.

    I have a friend, by the way, a physics major in college and now a Lutheran pastor, who would agree with your assessment that supernatural beliefs arose from ancient people making a reasonable model of the universe from the information they had available to them. He calls religion the "first science." I don't disagree. I would, however, suggest that supernatural belief systems also provided a language by which the mystics could speak of their experience of the numinous.

    Back in March 2010 I used a variation on your turkey story in a post about the role of tradition in the Lutheran churches' debates on human sexuality.