The Natural Human Propensity Towards Faith

As scholars of religion, one of our principal tasks, perhaps indeed even our most important task, is to define the object of our study. Within the academic study of religion, there is much debate on this matter. While there is always a place for constructive criticism within any academic field, the study of religion has effectively been split by diametrically opposed viewpoints regarding the ontological basis of religious phenomena. The constructive potential of these criticisms has arguably expired, and the criticism are beginning to form a deep wound within the discipline, threatening its legitimacy as a distinct academic enterprise. If we have a vested interest in the academic study of religion (which, of course, as scholars of religion, we do), then we cannot safely ignore these problems surrounding the nature of the object of our study.

The purpose of this paper is to defend the theoretical cogency of Eliade’s theory of sui generis religion by showing how it is supported by the views of other theorists of religion such as W. C. Smith with his notion of “faith,” John Hick with his concept of “salvation/liberation,” Charles Davis with his understanding of faith as “first and fundamentally given and transmitted prereflectively,” (Davis 1974, 219) and Ninian Smart with his notions of “the real” and “the existent.” The intent is to extract the meaning of sui generis religion from the work of Eliade and the other theorists mentioned above, and to carefully examine the implications of the sui generis view for the academic study of religion. 

In The Sacred and the Profane, Mircea Eliade contends that “Whatever the historical context in which he is placed, homo religiosus always believes that there is an absolute reality, the sacred, which transcends this world but manifests itself in this world, thereby sanctifying it and making it real” (Eliade 1959, 202). For Eliade, while the religious person openly and readily acknowledges the existence of the sacred or the transcendent, the non-religious person is pre-occupied with specifically denying the existence of these things, placing a greater emphasis on history as a source of meaning: “Modern non-religious man assumes a new existential situation; he regards himself solely as the subject and agent of history, and he refuses all appeal to transcendence” (Eliade 1959, 203). But for Eliade, the modern non-religious person is involved in a pointless struggle against his/her own natural religious instinct: “To acquire a world of his own, [the non-religious person] has desacralized the world in which his ancestors lived; but to do so he has been obligated to adopt the opposite of an earlier type of behavior, and that behavior is still emotionally present to him, in one form or another, ready to be reactualized in his deepest being” (Eliade 1959, 204).

Implicit then in Eliade’s argument is that there is something very real behind historical man’s religious behavior. Thus, modern man, insofar as he has become nonreligious, can only be denying the existence of something that is in fact really there. For Eliade, there is little doubt that the objects of the profane man’s denial, that is to say the trans-human meanings associated with sacred attitudes and beliefs (what Eliade refers to as the “sacred”), are objects with a certain ontological status. In his analysis of the behaviors and attitudes proper to homo religiosus, Eliade concludes that “by reactualizing sacred history, by imitating the divine behavior, man puts and keeps himself close to the gods – that is, in the real and the significant  (my emphasis)” (Eliade 1959, 202). By associating religious behavior with the terms “real” and “significant,” Eliade is implicitly suggesting that religion is not merely a fictitious product of the human imagination, and that the religious person somehow possesses a level of understanding of the world not accessible to the secular person, a “superior” understanding of sorts. While Eliade is careful not to go beyond qualifying ultimate reality as merely an object of belief, that is to say, something of an unconfirmed truth, he does assign to this belief the function of making the world real for homo religiosus (Eliade 1959, 202), once again associating the sacred with the real.

Eliade therefore understands the human religious response as a very specific type of human experience that is common to all religious people in the world. In any given historico-religious context, the human experience of the sacred involves some kind of transcendence toward a deeper level of reality and significance. This sacredness commonly experienced by all religious people implies that religion is sui generis or “self-generated,” and that it therefore cannot be reduced or “explained away” by other known determinants of human behavior. The sui generis status of religion has important implications for the academic study of religion since it beholds the idea of religion as a specific area of study and as a subject worthy of independent inquiry. Modern social science, with its empirical methods and tools, may be inclined to challenge the sui generis view of religion, but such a science, with its inherently limited methods, shows clear signs of intellectual strain as it desperately attempts to reduce that which cannot be fully quantified, tested or explained to that which can. For Eliade and other proponents of the sui generis view of religion, such reductionistic theories are false, since the body of human religious history points to a different conclusion entirely.

Another proponent of the sui generis view of religion is John Hick, for whom it is no less rational or scientific to begin one’s analysis with the presupposition that the object of religious thought and experience is real and proceed from there.  In An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent, John Hick contends that religious transcendence, which he refers to as “salvation/liberation,” is “the transformation of human existence from self-centeredness to Reality-centeredness” (Hick 1989, 51). Hick describes this transformation, which he considers to be a fundamental theme within each of the major world religions, as “the sudden or gradual change of the individual from an absorbing self-concern to a new centring in the supposed unity-of-reality-and-value that is thought of as God, Brahman, the Dharma, Sunyata or the Tao” (Hick 1989, 36). To Hick, each of the world religions presents this “absorbing self-concern” as a natural yet undesirable human tendency that must be overcome through religious transcendence. Self-centeredness is, among other things, thought to be at the source of human anxiety, and the world religions in one way or another endeavor to assist individuals in freeing themselves from this harmful self-centeredness. For the unenlightened and self-centered individual, reality consists of an endless sequence of perceived threats to his/her being, whereas for the adherent to a world religion, it is rather the state of freedom from self-centeredness that is truly real. Hence, religious experience can be understood as a response to this idea of a “transcendent” reality.

In his elucidation of the world religions’ common motioning towards a transcendent reality, and by his very use of the term “reality” to describe the object of religious transcendence, Hick, as if to recall Eliade’s association of religious meaning with “the real and the significant,” specifically intends to raise the possibility often rejected implicitly or explicitly by modern social science that religious experience might be grounded in something real. Hick admits the impossibility of refuting the naturalistic or reductionist understandings of religion, but also insists on “the equal impossibility of refuting the interpretation of religion as our varied human response to a transcendent reality or realities – the gods, or God, or Brahman, or the Dharmakaya, or the Tao, and so on” (Hick 1989, 1). To Hick, our modern scientific mindset all too easily causes us to dismiss without hesitation the supernatural as a legitimate possibility within our analysis of any religious phenomena, but the “pervasive ambiguity of the universe” (Hick 1989, 1) is such that there is no real, scientific basis to support a definite conclusion either way. In this sense, Hick might be resonating with Charles Davis (discussed later), who understands faith in terms of a question rather than an answer. 

To Hick, the standard opposition between naturalistic and religious interpretations of religious phenomena is an over-simplification of the matter: “the alternatives are not that the intentional object of religious worship or contemplation is either entirely illusory or else exactly as described in this or that sacred text” (Hick 1989, 8). While it is clear that human factors have affected the formation of religious concepts throughout history, it does not follow that all religious concepts are purely human fabrications. Indeed, Hick proposes that a modern understanding of the transcendent “must show reason to believe that this vast and multifarious field of human faith is nevertheless not wholly projection and illusion – even though there is much projection and illusion within it – but constitutes our variously transparent and opaque interface with a mysterious transcendent reality” (Hick 1989, 9).

In The Meaning and End of Religion, Wilfred Cantwell Smith argues that “To be a participant in a religious movement is to recognize that that movement points to something or Someone beyond itself. The observer sees the movement; the participant sees what it signifies” (Smith 1962, 118). For W. C. Smith, that which we call religion, or what W. C. Smith prefers to refer to jointly as the “cumulative tradition” and “faith,” involves a unique transaction between the religious participant and that which is situated beyond him/herself. W. C. Smith admits that the object of faith is not directly observable, but for W. C. Smith this does not constitute a limitation as such, since “all serious study of man as personal is a study of matters not directly observable. Ideas, ideals, loyalties, passions, aspirations, love, faith, despair, cannot be directly observed, but their role in human history is none the less consequential for that, nor the study of them less legitimate” (Smith 1962, 169). Thus, W. C. Smith argues that the observational limitation does not undermine the legitimacy of the religious transaction, nor does it negate the reality or the significance of the object of the participant’s faith. Rather, the observational limitation is necessary in order to distinguish religious experiences from other types of human experiences, since “a religious tradition has no meaning unless it enables those within it to see something that those without do not see” (Smith 1962, 118).

For W. C. Smith, the significance of religious faith “lies in the fact that it points beyond itself, to the spirit of the man who framed it and beyond him to the transcendent vision that he saw” (Smith 1962, 156). Expressions of religious faith should be understood as unique forms of human expression insomuch as “men’s involvement with them is an involvement through them with something greater than they” (Smith 1962, 155). For W. C. Smith, religious faith may be expressed in any number of different ways by people belonging to different religious groups, and indeed even by people belonging to the same religious group, but the fact that religious faith always “points beyond itself”  to something greater is what makes it specifically religious. The sui generis character of religious faith in W. C. Smith’s theory is therefore given by the transcendent characteristic that is common to all types of religious experience. Indeed, for W. C. Smith, “what [the different religious groups] have in common lies not in the tradition that introduces them to transcendence, not in their faith by which they personally respond, but in that to which they respond, the transcendent itself” (Smith 1962, 173).

Let us now consider Charles Davis, who rightfully questions the usefulness of religion if it does not somehow provide the participant with a special knowledge and experience not accessible through other, non-religious means. In “’Wherein There is No Ecstasy,’” Davis contends that “To assume that the subject-matter of religious people can be investigated in the same fashion as the objects of natural science is to run counter to both the convictions and the practice of religious people. What, one may well ask, is the point of religious discipline if any worldling of a philosopher has access to the same level of religious meaning as the tried ascetic” (Davis 1984, 394)? For Davis then, religion must constitute a specific and unique human knowledge and experience which cannot be reduced or explained away by other domains of scientific investigation into human phenomena.  But this is not so simply because the legitimacy and relevance of the academic study of religion as an independent social science might otherwise be called into question, although this indeed is serious threat posed by the reductionist view. For Davis, the phenomenological specificity of religion has to do with the experience of faith:  “The student of religion is unavoidable concerned with the experience of faith” (Davis 1984, 394). As such, religious faith should constitute the object of a legitimate investigation into a special and distinct human phenomenon.

But what exactly is Davis’ understanding of religious faith? First, as if to set the record straight, Davis argues that “Religious faith, in itself, in its term, in its embodiments, is already constituted by religious meaning, prior to any investigation” (Davis 1984, 394). It is clear then, for Davis, that religious faith is imbued with a certain ontological substance even though we may only with great difficult ascertain the nature of that substance scientifically or intellectually. The fact remains, for Davis, that the human appeal to the transcendent cannot simply be understood as an imaginative response to some human anxiety. Religious faith, if it is to have any merit from a theoretical perspective, that is to say, if it is truly worthy of scientific investigation, must constitute a special type of meaning, a meaning specifically intended to fill a particular gap within humankind’s comprehension of itself and the world. In this sense, Davis can be understood as advocating the sui generis view of religion, since he understands religious faith as a unique phenomenon even “prior to any investigation.”

Second, Davis understands faith generally as “the coincidence of opposites” (Davis 1984, 396). For Davis, “Faith is a negative and not just a positive experience. Faith is emptiness as well as plenitude, absence as well as presence, loneliness as well as communion, darkness as well as light, ecstasy and aridity, certitude and doubt, assurance and a cry of abandonment” (Davis 1984, 395). Davis therefore challenges the notion, rooted in the scientific method, that a phenomenological explanation must not present inherent contradictions; the first step towards understanding faith is to accept its paradoxical nature. For Davis, “Authentic faith is an experience of a nothingness that is supremely real, of an absence that is a presence, of a bliss that is pain” (Davis 1984, 396). On the basis of this paradoxical understanding of faith, Davis concludes that secular humanism constitutes negative faith: “The emptiness of secular humanism, its lack of any sense of the transcendent, can become the negative experience of faith” (Davis, 396).  The reductionists’ ignorance of the transcendent is, for Davis, precisely a manifestation of the very thing they are denying. Indeed, for Davis, “Faith is the experience of ignorance, not just of knowledge” (Davis 1984, 396).

For Davis, as mentioned earlier, “Faith is primarily a question, not an answer” (Davis 1984, 397). It is “A question [that] implies both ignorance and knowledge – ignorance of the reality that will answer the question, but enough knowledge to allow the question to be asked” (Davis 1984, 397). Furthermore, “The knowledge that makes the question possible is imperfect, fragmentary, subject to revision, correction, and growth” (Davis 1984, 397). For Davis, religious beliefs and practices are the non-transcendent expressions of this imperfect and fragmentary knowledge, and as such they are susceptible to reductionistic explanation. But the unknown answers to the questions of faith, the reality that is the object of faith’s ignorance, the transcendent – these can less easily succumb to reductionist attacks.  

Let us turn now to the theory of Ninian Smart. Although his voice may be the most discreet among the theorists examined here in relation to sui generis religion, Ninian Smart in his own way seems to advocate that religions, or “worldviews” as he prefers to call them, do have some defining characteristics which make them unique and non-reducible. In Dimensions of the Sacred: An Anatomy of the World’s Beliefs, Smart is careful not to define religion as such: “I do not here wish to affirm a definition in the strict sense” (Smart 1996, 2). Instead, Smart employs a dialectical approach whereby various religious phenomena are understood as “dimensions,” such as the “ritual and practical dimension” and the “experiential or emotional dimension,” which feed off each other as part of an ongoing, dialectical process. As evidenced by his “dialectical phenomenology,” Smart is specifically looking for patterns in human behavior: “If we can discern patterns [of change], that is what I call dynamic phenomenology” (Smart 1996, 7). Smart’s approach is also purposely non-essentialist. In Smart’s view, “Because of essentialism (the view that a given type of phenomenon has a common essence) and other factors, earlier phenomenology tends to be synchronic and static” (Smart 1996, 7). But this does not imply that, for Smart, there is no essence to religion. Rather, Smart’s dimensional approach in and of itself would seem to suggest a certain religious essentialism, since the seven dimensions upon which his approach rests all pertain specifically to religious phenomena.

In much the same manner as Smart excludes the definition of religion from his scope, so does he distance himself from any philosophical evaluation of religious truth claims: “the reflective mode, about truth and value in worldviews, is not strictly relevant to my approach in this book, even if this book is highly relevant to the reflective mode. It is not relevant because our purpose here is not to judge worldviews or to worry about their truth or otherwise” (Smart 1996, 19). In order to avoid such value judgments, Smart introduces the notion of “focus” as a way to understand religion: “The notion of focus enables us to talk about worship and other activities in meaningful ways without having to comment on their validity, without having to comment on whether there is a Vishnu or a Christ” (Smart 1996, 9). Smart’s concept of “focus” is therefore a way for him to point towards an essence of religion without affirming it as such. Smart’s notion of focus enables us “to think of Vishnu as focus entering into the believer’s life, dynamizing his feelings, commanding his loyalty and so on” (Smart 1996, 9). To the extent that participants in all religions experience this kind of “focus,” they can be understood as manifesting a specific and unique form of human behavior, the source and essence of which is difficult to define using strictly scientific methods. Once again as a way to remove himself from ontology debate and to shield himself from the attacks of the reductionists, Smart distinguishes between the “real” and the “existent” in relation to the object of religious focus: “For the believer the focus is real, and we can accept this even if we do not want to say that it (or he or she) exists. I thus distinguish between ‘real’ and ‘existent’ as adjectives. The former I use, in this context, to refer to what is phenomenologically real in the experience of the believer. Whether the real in this sense exists is an altogether different question” (Smart 1996, 9). Even though Smart intends with this device to acquit himself of value judgments, through it he is nonetheless still implicitly motioning towards sui generis religion. The phenomenological reality of the believer’s experience, the ‘real’ as it were, even if it is only from the perspective of the believer, constitutes a certain essence of religion in Smart’s theory. This is so because the “reality” of the believer’s focus makes it uniquely and irreducibly religious; other, non-religious types of focus do not produce the same experience of reality within the human subject.  

As I have tried to demonstrate thus far, each of the theorists discussed above is somehow motioning towards sui generis religion.  The idea that a religious experience is somehow “real,” at least for the participant or believer, is a recurring theme among these thinkers: Eliade associates religion with experiencing “the real and the significant;” Hick describes “salvation/liberation” as the transformation from self-centeredness to reality-centeredness; W. C. Smith describes religious faith as that which points beyond itself, presumably to some ultimate form of reality; Davis describes authentic faith as “an experience of a nothingness that is supremely real;” and Smart refers to “focus” as that which is phenomenologically real in the experience of the believer.  Each of these thinkers acknowledges that the experience of faith is unquestionably real for the believer, even though the existence of the object of faith cannot be proven empirically or scientifically. Insomuch as this lack of proof does not bother the faithful, neither should it bother the scholar of religion. As Hick points out, “the pervasive ambiguity of the universe” is such that we cannot conclude either way on the existence of such an object. Perhaps, as W. C. Smith suggests, the unverifiable nature of the object of faith is what gives it its meaning. Perhaps, as Eliade and Davis note, faith is still in everyone, but for some it is buried more deeply than for others. Finally, insomuch as religious faith contains a special kind of meaning for human beings, insomuch as it always comprises the human attempt to answer certain specific types of questions, it constitutes a unique phenomenon worthy of special scholarly attention. The natural human propensity towards faith is what generates religion, and when we ponder the mystery of what may lie at the source of such a natural human propensity, we are already engaging in the complex exercise of faith. Religion is self-generated since faith is, as Davis puts it, “first and fundamentally given and transmitted prereflectively” – it is always already present the human ability and desire to engage in it.


 Davis, Charles. 1974. “The Reconvergence of Theology and Religious Studies.” Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses 4/3: 205-221.

 Davis, Charles. 1984. “’Wherein There is No Ecstasy.’” Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses 13/4: 393-400.

 Eliade, Mircea. 1959. The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion. San Diego: A Harvest/HBJ Book.

 Hick, John. 1989. An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent.  New Haven: Yale.

 Smart, Ninian. 1996. Dimensions of the Sacred: An Anatomy of the World’s Beliefs. Berkeley: University of California Press.

 Smith, Wilfed Cantwell. 1962. The Meaning and End of Religion: A New Approach to the Religious Traditions of Mankind. New York: Mentor Books.

Historicizing Religion

In Genealogies of religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam,[1] Talal Asad states that his aim is “to problematize the idea of an anthropological definition of religion by assigning that endeavor to a particular history of knowledge and power (…) out of which the modern world has been constructed” (Asad, 54). For Asad, each historical period is characterized by a specific interplay between religious power and knowledge, and it is through an appreciation of this interplay within a particular historical period that we may arrive at a definition of religion applicable to that period: “What we call religious power was differently distributed and had a different thrust. There were different ways in which it created and worked through legal institutions, different selves that it shaped and responded to, and different categories of knowledge which it authorized and made available” (Asad, 29). But for Asad, there can be no transhistorical definition of religion. Variations in the historical relationships between power and knowledge are such that the search for a universal definition of religion constitutes, for Asad, a pointless exercise. Asad argues “that there cannot be a universal definition of religion, not only because its constituent elements and relationships are historically specific, but because that definition is itself the historical product of discursive processes” (Asad, 29). Any attempt to produce a tranhistorical definition of religion therefore constitutes a senseless denial of the historical specificity of religious phenomena.  

The modern anthropological focus on religion as a distinct category of human behavior carries with it the implicit assumption that religion is “a distinctive space of human practice and belief which cannot be reduced to any other” (Asad, 27). For Asad, this irreducibility suggests that religion contains an “autonomous essence – not to be confused with the essence of science, or of politics, or of common sense” (Asad, 28). Furthermore, this understanding of religion as a transhistorical essence has been the result of a specifically Western tendency to remove the religious discourse from the political arena: “the theoretical search for an essence of religion invites us to separate it conceptually from the domain of power” (Asad, 29). But for Asad, this theoretical disposition is historically traceable to Christianity and should therefore be understood as being distinctively Christian. Our understanding of various phenomena deemed “religious” is largely a product of specifically Christian attempts to understand them: “the entire phenomenon is to be seen in large measure in the context of Christian attempts to achieve a coherence in doctrines and practices, rules and regulation” (Asad, 29).

Asad cites the early modern European construction of Natural Religion as a case in point. For Asad, Natural Religion, understood as “a shift in attention (…) from God’s words to God’s works” whereby “’Nature’ became the real space of divine writing” (Asad, 41), “was a crucial step in the formation of the modern concept of religious belief, experience, practice” (Asad, 41). Indeed, for Asad, Natural Religion constituted the first attempt at a universal definition of religion, a definition which happened to emphasized the concept of belief: “This emphasis on belief meant that henceforth religion could be conceived as a set of propositions to which believers gave assent, and which could therefore be judged and compared as between different religions and as against natural science” (Asad, 41). Furthermore, Asad points out that the concept of belief at the base of theoretical and comparative studies in religion is a fundamentally Christian one. The Christian church has therefore not had a small part to play in the construction of Natural Religion and the subsequent universal category “religion”: “it is preeminently the Christian church that has occupied itself with identifying, cultivating, and testing belief as a verbalizable inner condition of true religion” (Asad, 48).

For Asad then, the historical and anthropological construction of the category religion with its transhistorical essence must be understood in terms of its inherent Christianity. The universal definition of religion is more Christian than universal. For Asad, the pursuit of such a universal definition is at best a theoretically unreasonable project, and at worst an attempt to impose fundamentally Christian ideas on peoples of other traditions.

[1] Talal Asad, Genealogies of religion : Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam (Baltimore : The John Hopkins U.P., 1993).