The question can be unpacked, as religion consists of a number of elements, only some of which may be innate. First, does the human brain have a proclivity to make and find meaning in myth, or sacred narrative? Claude Levi-Strauss thought so. He theorized that myth is a way in which the mind holds without reconciling opposites such as life and death. For example, the notion of resurrection maintains the duality of life and death without resolving their opposition. The resurrected Christ walks through a door but is hungry and eats a fish. The tension in the myth is not resolved; rather, the opposition between life and death is transcended. It is the human discomfort with unresolved basic oppositions that spurs the mind on to mythmaking, according the Levi-Strauss. Just because myth or sacred narrative (e.g., the Passion story) serves a purpose does not mean that mythmaking or believing in a living myth is innate. Automobiles serve a purpose in transporting humans, but cars are not innate. So too, religious story may be an external tool. In fact, a religion’s mythology or sacred story can be distinguished from dreams, which are innate. In other words, myths are formed externally, whereas dreams are entirely manufactured by the mind during sleep. For example, a myth could be created out of a conversation between co-religionists. Their own agendas, and at the very least their intentions, can impact the story. Peter’s followers may have added the part about Jesus giving the keys to Peter, for example. Such strategizing makes the myth at least in part artificial. Moreover, the content of some myths is different from the world in which we live that myth-making may be artificial rather than natural. It is not as if the notion of the world beginning as an egg, as in Hinduism, automatically occurs to Hindu children. The myth must be conveyed externally.
Second, the act of worship can be distinguished from the cognitive activity in myth-making and believing. Do humans have an innate proclivity to worship? Here belief in the object to be worshipped can be distinguished from worshipping as an activity. Taking the object itself, are the divine attributes and descriptions innate or manufactured? The answer may be found by investigating whether young children untouched by a religion think about a transcendent object of the sort that would be worshipped. I don’t know the answer to this question, but I suspect that the developed theologies of the established religions do not naturally spring from young minds untouched by religious instruction.
For example, viewing God as “Father” does not automatically follow from a sense of God as a power or even as the source of Creation. We don’t view seeds as the fathers of plants. We don’t think of lava as the father of a volcano. To project the concept of father onto metaphysical concepts is anthropomorphic, which means ascribing human characteristics or relations to non-human objects. Even to say “that plant is happy there” is anthropomorphic. To apply a human characteristic to something not of the world is even more of a stretched. Hume suggests that it is difficult for the human mind to hold on to an idea of invisible divine simplicity (e.g. God as the One—Plotinus’s notion) that the mind adds anthropomorphic “layers” onto the pure idea. A religion thus becomes increasingly about us until it is finally discredited as too much “of the world.”
One might be tempted to conclude that divine simplicity is therefore innate. However, if such an idea is difficult for a human mind to embrace, it is not likely that the idea comes from the mind. Rather, it is more likely external to the mind, interlarded from an external source such as a parent or religious teacher. If the human mind naturally has any internally-sourced sense of a religious or spiritual phenomenon, thing or entity, it is likely vague and mostly undefined in a cognitive sense. It is unlikely that “God is one in essence” would spontaneously dawn on a boy as he walks through the woods or down a residential street. Instead, such a lad might be inclined to wonder, and thus have a sense of mystery. “Why does the sun move so regularly?” he might wonder. “Is there a bigger force behind it? Will the sun always rise and set? What happens to me after I die? Grandma died—is she somewhere hidden? I’m just a boy. Is there something larger out there that I don’t see?” The boy might have a sense of himself and even the world he knows as somehow part of something bigger, as when he looks out at all the stars on a clear warm night. “Is there any limit? Any end?” He might have a sense of himself as small relative to what he observes, whether it be the myriad of stars or a powerful storm. He would be apt to have awe for the infinity and power, respectively, even though you or I might tell him that neither infinite space nor forces of nature are themselves divine. When he gets older, he might explain that what he had observed as a child gave him an intuitive sense of bigness, and thus of beyondness. From this standpoint, the emphasis that some religions place on creed is rather contrived, or artificial in nature.
Even if some vague sense of something divine or transcendent comes naturally to mind in the development of the human mind that is untouched by religious instruction, one can ask whether worship activity, such as devotion other than how one would be devoted to one’s parents or family, for instance, is innate. If it is, how much emphasis does the worshipper naturally give to the activity relative to the object? In institutional religions, the tendency is to emphasize the nature of the object even at the expense of the worship experience. Lectures about the deity can cut into worship time in a religious service. So much emphasis can be placed on cognitive assent to a description of the deity that actual communing with it, such as just after taking communion in the Mass, can easily be marginalized.
Before my teenage years, I was raised largely outside of organized religion. The morality stories of Jesus were about all I got from an occasional Sunday School lesson at a Congregational Church in which theology was all but absent. My mother’s parents had both been raised Quaker, which stresses the personal or private aspect of spirituality. My grandfather practiced charity toward neighbor, such as by delivering free produce and eggs to friends on Sundays. Honesty was among the most important virtues, as was genuineness and tolerance. Theology was not required in order to instill these virtues. As a young teenager, I attended a Unitarian Universalist Society for a few years with my parents. Religion was even less in evidence in Sunday School there, as “UUism” was then dominated by humanism. When I was a freshman in high school, I attended Catholic Mass with friends on a regular basis. I found the ritual completely novel and interesting. Watching the laity kneel after receiving communion, I saw sustained and concentrated worship in terms of trying to commune in the sense of transcending. While in college, I became a member of the Catholic Church. In graduate school, I was so interested in the religion thing I had discovered that I thought seriously about a religious vocation. Thinking I would want to eventually marry, I joined the Episcopalians. However, I did not get a sense of worshipping after communion that I had witnessed in Catholic churches.
My religious or spiritual experience has not been limited to institutional religion. For two years while I was in High School, I practiced Transcendental Meditation on a regular basis. Although repeating a mantra (a word without meaning) to give one’s mind a rest from thinking (i.e., “pure consciousness”) is not in my view religious or spiritual, I would eventually apply the technique during the “corpse pose” at the end of yoga sessions. I began attending yoga sessions when I was in graduate school. Depending on how the instructor handles the practice and especially the final resting pose, yoga can even be explicitly spiritual without any hint of the existence of the world religions. It dawned on me that institutional religion is not inevitable, even within the religious or spiritual domain. In fact, the institutional religions may not be very good at providing dedicated worship activity.
For example, in the Mass the worshipping just after the Body of Christ is ingested is typically truncated in favor of ending the Mass and getting outside. The ritual, I concluded, is prep rather than the point, but this point had somehow been lost along the way. Similar to Hume’s theory that it is difficult for the mind to hold onto an idea of divine simplicity, it may be difficult for the mind to stay in a pure or unadulterated worship experience. The mind tends to wander, or we get bored or tired reaching to transcend in a religious sense. If so, the worshipping activity is not innate; rather, it must be learned and practiced, not the least of which through socialization.
My experience in institutional religion spanned from the religious left to the traditionalists in Christianity (i.e., not counting UUism), with occasional attendance of “mainstream” Protestant denominations including evangelical meta-churches. In Catholicism alone, my experience ran from the post-Vatican II movement back to the hegemony of the traditionalists. The theology and rituals I was taught were so different from my boyhood “religious wondering” and the spirituality in yoga practice that I have concluded that theology and worshipping must be artificial rather than innate. Put another way, the cognitive and praxis content of a revealed religion is so qualitatively different (i.e., in kind) from the wondering and activity of a child or young adult unschooled in any institutional religion and the spirituality outside the religions that an organized religion is likely constructed rather than natural or innate.
Lest be objected that religious worship is too universal to be a function of externals, religiosity has been far from universal. Only 15 percent of Europeans attend weekly religious services, while most people are just fine leading a secular life. Among hunter-gatherers, the !Kung bushmen of southwestern Africa have a highly developed religious belief-system, while the Hadza of eastern Africa have minimal religion and do not believe in an afterlife. Were the idea of a deity and the action of worshiping innate, the Hadza (and Europeans) would instinctively comply. Prosperity and security would not be inversely related to religiosity, and rough conditions in primitive societies and financial inequality in modern ones would not be associated with increasing religious worship.
Therefore, just as theological concepts such as Trinity do not just dawn on people who are unfamiliar with Christian theology, there is probably not a worshipping instinct in the human brain either. Without being socialized into an organized religion, a person is not apt to spontaneously reconstruct an existing theology or start worshipping. I did not come even close to worshipping when I “wondered” as a kid about “big questions” and had a sense of being a limited being compared with the universe and life itself. Realizing I will die one day and wondering what that means, it did not even occur to me to pray to a divine being so I could continue existing after death or even go to heaven. Belief in an afterlife is not innate to the human mind; the reason many people hold such a belief is probably psychological in nature. Specific worshipping via ritual, including prayer, undoubtedly comes from socialization. Children of Catholic parents are taught that the Virgin Mary exists and should be used as an intercessor in prayer. The children are taught how to pray.
The conclusions here do not mean that I have rejected religious or spiritual experience. Just because I do not view them as a necessary part of me or as obligatory does not mean that I recognize no value in worship. Having been socialized into specific worshipping techniques, I have found value in the experience. From my experience, I have found that the specific characteristics of the object being worshipped are less important than that the yearning to transcend in the direction of the mysterious beyond, or “beyondness,” is the worshipper’s sustained focus during the activity. I have found that regular experiencing of this sort heightens sensitivity outside of the worshipping experience. The world having been transcended is seen clearer or more distinctly, hence the heightened sensitivity to subtle things such as another person’s change in mood. The added sensitivity in turn naturally renders the regular worshipper more compassionate to others. Rather than being innate, the external tool impacts something natural. So there is value in a worship activity even though it is difficult for the human mind to do. While theology provides a background or context for the activity, worshipping can transcend even theological concepts of God. Those concepts may be useful as a launching pad, after which concentration can turn to the experience itself—the action of yearning to transcend. If I am right, it is the experience of yearning that is the religious experience, with compassion as a byproduct.
For additional material, see Gregory Paul’s “Why Belief in God Is Not Innate,” in the Wall Street Journal of April 10, 2013.