Suppose you believe that man has been created in the image and likeness of God. Could you, consistently with that belief, hold that only some possess a religious disposition?
I have discussed this before, but the question came up again in an e-mail from a reader.
I often say things like the following:
The religious person perceives our present life, or our natural life, as radically deficient, deficient from the root (radix) up, as fundamentally unsatisfactory and unameliorable by unaided human effort whether individual or collective; he feels it to be, not a mere condition, but a predicament; it strikes him as vain or empty if taken as an end in itself; he sees himself as homo viator, as a wayfarer or pilgrim treading a via dolorosa through a vale of tears that cannot possibly be a final and fitting resting place but is instead a place of probation and a vale of soul-making; he senses or glimpses from time to time the possibility of a Higher Life; he feels himself in danger of missing out on this Higher Life of true happiness. He feels his fellows to be fools endlessly distracted by bagatelles, sunken deep in Pascalian divertissement, as Platonic troglodytes unaware of the Cave as Cave.
I maintain that one in whom the above doesn't strike a chord, or sound a plaintive arpeggio, is one who lacks a religious disposition. In some the disposition is simply lacking, and it cannot be helped. I 'write them off' no matter how analytically sharp they are. One cannot discuss religion with them, for it cannot be real to them, any more than one can share one's delight in poetry with the terminally prosaic, or one's pleasure in mathematics with the mathematically anxious. For those who lack the disposition, religion is not what William James in "The Will to Believe" calls a "living option," let alone a "forced" or "momentous" one. It can only be something strained and ridiculous, a tissue of fairy tales, something for children and old ladies, an opiate for the weak and dispossessed, a miserable anthropomorphic projection, albeit unconscious, a wish-fulfillment, something cooked up in the musty medieval cellars of priest-craft where unscrupulous manipulators exploit human gullibility for their own advantage.
A perceptive interlocutor raises an objection that I would put as follows.
You say that some lack a religious disposition. I take it you mean that they are utterly bereft of it. But how is that consistent with the imago dei? For if we are made in the divine image, then we are spiritual beings who must, as spiritual beings, possess at least the potentiality of communion with the divine source of the spirit within us, even if this potentiality is to no degree actual. After all, we are not in the image of God as animals, but as spiritual beings, and part of being a spiritual being is having the potentiality to know itself, and thus to know that one is a creature if in fact one is a creature, and in knowing this to know God in some measure.
How might I meet this objection?
One way is by denying that all biologically human beings bear the divine image, or bear the divine image in its fullness. Maybe it is like this. The existence of specimens of the zoological species to which we belong is accounted for by the theory of evolution. God creates the physical universe in which evolution occurs, and in which human animals evolve from lower forms. The story of Adam and Eve in Genesis is not an account of how human animals came to be that is in competition with the theory of evolution. It is not about human animals at all.
Adam is not the first man; there was no first man. Eve is not the first woman; there was no first woman. Adam and Eve are not the first human animals; they are the first human animals that, without ceasing to be animals, became spiritual beings when God bestowed upon them personhood, which involves self-consciousness, free will, and moral sense, but also the sense of the divine and a call to a higher life. But the free divine bestowal was not the same for all: from some he withheld the sensus divinitatis and with it the power to know God and become godlike.
I know that this is not theologically orthodox. But it fits with my experience. I have always felt that some human beings lack depth or spirit or soul or inwardness or interiority or whatever you want to call it. It is not that I think of them as zombies as philosophers use this term: I grant that they are conscious and self-conscious. But I sense that there is nothing to them beyond that. There is no sense of the Higher. They sense no call to the task of self-individuation. There is no depth-dimension: they are surface all the way down. They are bereft of spirit. They may have moral sense, but it doesn't point them beyond this life. They may have conscience but it is only a product of acculturation and not a source of spiritual insight. They are human biologically but not normatively: there is a sense in which, ringing a change on Nietzsche, the death of God is by the same stroke the death of man: he suffers demotion and is after God's death back among the animals and in series with them, just the cleverest of the land mammals.
So the first conjecture is that not all human animals, even if biologically normal, are spiritual beings.
But it may be that a better line for me is the simpler one of saying that in all there is the religious disposition, but in some it is undeveloped or unmanifested, rather than saying that in some it is not present at all. (A disposition need not be manifested to exist; glass is disposed to shatter if suitably struck, but a particular piece of glass needn't shatter to possess (actually not potentially!) the disposition to shatter.)
The "perceptive interlocutor" (Steven Nemes) mentioned above responds (and these are his actual words):
To suppose that some persons lack the religious disposition is certainly not theologically kosher, at least not from the Christian perspective. This is more akin to certain varieties of predestinarian gnosticism to which early Christian theologians (e.g., Origen, Irenaeus, et al.) vehemently objected. These gnostic theories proposed that there were various different classes of human persons, some of whom were structurally determined to realize saving knowledge (gnosis) of Reality whereas others were cruder, baser, and doomed to live unenlightened lives in the body. The difference between classes was not choices they had made or anything of the sort; it was simply their ontological structure to reach enlightenment or not. The early Christians objected to this in two ways: first, it is denial of the freedom of the will of the human person, since some evidently are intrinsically incapable of choosing salvation; second, it is incompatible with God's goodness, since if he is good, he desires the salvation of all and works to accomplish it.
I don't disagree that these are among the theologically orthodox responses to my suggestion above. How good they are, however, is a separate question. First, if God does not grant to some class of persons the religious disposition, that is not a denial to them of freedom of the will. They can be as free as you please; they just lack that particular power, the power of achieving salvific knowledge. I am not free to fly like a bird, but it doesn't follow that I am not free.
As for the second point, there may be a confusion of damnation with non-knowledge of God. The suggestion above is that only some biologically human persons are disposed to seek God and possibly know God. That is not to say that these persons are predestined to a state in which they are conscious of God's existence but cut off from God.
God desires the ultimate beatitude of all that have the power to achieve it -- but not all have this power on the above suggestion. If God desires the ultimate beatitude of all whether or not they have the power to know God, then God desires the ultimate beatitude of dolphins and apes and cats and dogs.
I suppose these are the two greatest problems for the quasi-gnostic position you consider above. Another problem would be that it might ethically justify mistreatment and prejudice against persons deemed to lack a religious disposition. After all, if they cannot sense God's existence and enjoy communion with him, how are they any different from animals? If God himself didn't care to make them such that they could know him, why should theists and those having the religious disposition care for them any more than for a dog?
I don't see any problem here either. Not all human beings have the same powers, but people like me and my interlocutor would not dream of using this fact to justify mistreatment of certain classes of people. (Analogy: I don't believe that animals have rights, but I don't need to assign rights to them to have good reason to treat them humanely
Many if not most people in the West these days fail to manifest a genuine religious disposition. (Going along to get along by attending services etc. does not attest a genuine disposition.) While it does not follow that they lack such a disposition, absence of manifestation is defeasible evidence of the disposition's nonexistence. Supposing there is no religious disposition in some, the theist can, consistently with his theism, explain the fact in the unorthodox 'Gnostic' way sketched above.
Or the theist can insist that the disposition is present in all, but in some so buried under the detritus of sin and social suggestions as to be indiscernible by the person himself or others.
On the other hand, if one is a metaphysical naturalist, the problem dissolves: there is no God and the religious disposition is an evolutionary quirk in some that bespeaks nothing.