Why are human beings, among all the creatures on Earth, uniquely religious? Although this question would no doubt evoke various answers, I believe that sociologist Christian Smith presents us with a fascinating response that makes sense.
The question as to the human being’s unique religiosity is a reasonable one. As we previously interpreted from the thirteen studies on prayer, religion appears to be the manifestation of tensions motivating persons to reach out to superhuman forces in hope for these forces to provide assistance. However, human beings are certainly not the only animal to experience tension between their natural capacities and limitations. All animals experience such tensions, but why is it only humans that address these tensions through religion? In answer, Smith says that to “practice religion requires the possession of a particular combination of capacities that, of all animals, only we humans have” (1). Smith presents ten capacities he sees as essential to religion (2):
 Mental representation: the ability to conceive mental images of objects or states of affairs in the world other than oneself, depictions that have an “about-ness” of something to them or are directed at something.
 Volition: the ability to will, to desire, to aspire to, to set purposeful goals.
 Assigning causal attributions: the ability to perceive, intuit, or analyze the relations among events and the causal powers of entities in order to understand the operations of specific causes and effects.
 Episodic and long-term memory: the ability to store and retrieve images, associations, knowledge, reminiscences, and other memory contents providing cognitive links to the past.
 Interest formation: the ability to identify and rank those states, conditions, and experiences believed to serve one’s well-being and that of others one values, which one then desires to attain.
 Anticipating the future: the ability to project outcomes of different events and courses of action that have not yet happened.
 Inter-subjective understanding: the ability to understand, at least somewhat correctly, the subjective beliefs, thoughts, emotions, desires, intentions, goals, interests, moods, and meanings of other members of one’s species.
 Abstract reasoning: the ability to exercise cognitive powers to reflect, calculate, and analyze abstractly and deliberatively in ways that inform one’s understanding and decision-making.
 Creative imagination: the ability to visualize, dream, invent, connect, and conceive ideas, possibilities, and images that do not yet exist in reality.
 Symbolization: the ability to use certain ideas or objects to represent other ideas or objects and their attributes, meanings, and emotional associations
Smith maintains that some animals share sophisticated and sometimes elementary versions of many of these capacities. However, to be religious requires all ten capacities and to eliminate any one of them would make the practice of religion impossible; Smith writes that,
“Without the capacity for significant abstract reasoning, for example, it would not be possible to conceptualize some of the elementary aspects of religious ontology—the ideas of particular superhuman powers, meaningful practices, causally produced blessings and deliverances—necessary to even the simplest of religions. The same is true of creativity and symbolization. Humans are uniquely religious, therefore, because only human beings possess the capacities for abstract reasoning, creative imagination, and symbolization (and arguably certain other capacities) at levels of sophistication sufficient to generate and sustain the practice of religion” (3).
Some primatologists, such as Franz de Waal, who emphasize the similarities between humans and other primates, claim that chimpanzees and bonobos may not be completely deprived of some of the last capacities on the list (4). However, that these creatures have not developed or practiced religion suggests that these capacities are not advanced enough within them to make this possible. “Thus we see why religion is unique to humans: They and only they possess the set of capacities required to be religious” (5).
1. Smith, Christian. 2017. “Why Are Humans Religious?” In Religion: What It Is, How It Works, and Why It Matters, 190-233. Princeton University Press.
2. Smith, Christian. 2017. Ibid.
3. Smith, Christian. 2017. Ibid.
4. Smith, Christian. 2017. Ibid.
5. de Waal, Franz. 2005. Our Inner Ape. New York: Riverhead Books.