Do humans have a religious instinct? Despite recent data, which point to increasing numbers of self-identified non-believers, a theory persists that people have an innate need to worship. According to this theory, true atheism is extremely rare.
More commonly, those who say that they reject God simply find another “god” to worship instead, another idol to satisfy the religious instinct. Let me give some examples.
Instead of the one true God, some will worship a celebrity, a political leader, a significant other, their children or grandchildren, a career path or a hobby. Some revere food, money, travel or shopping. There are alternate Scriptures, such as home décor magazines, social media sites and preferred news channels.
One can make pilgrimage to other houses of worship with their distinctive rituals: sports arenas, gyms, concert halls and golf courses. All these things I have listed are good when rightly ordered, when they are not distorted into demagoguery.
The religious instinct is not a new idea. Blaise Pascal, the 17th-century French philosopher, posited the idea of a God-shaped hole within every human heart. It’s a void that we can attempt to fill with other things, but only God will truly fit.
Pascal knew what he was talking about. He was also a mathematician and scientist who developed our modern physics concept of the vacuum. Pascal discovered that air itself is matter, and that invisible forces are pushing and pulling on the space around us. It’s a short leap to suggest that the same kind of unseen forces are at work in our spiritual life.
Centuries later, G.K. Chesterton observed, “He who does not believe in God will believe in anything.” Writer C.S. Lewis put it this way: “A car is made to run on gasoline. … God designed the human machine to run on Himself. He Himself is the fuel our spirits were designed to burn.”
Modernity offers us no shortage of other things to believe in — other fuel sources to throw into the spiritual furnace.
The Advent and Christmas season provide us a wonderful opportunity to reflect on who and what we worship. I have always thought of this time of year as a cherished, if temporary, truce between the secular and the religious worlds. It’s true that not every aspect of the holiday season is spiritually oriented (and some can even be spiritually damaging), but consider the profound pull that the Nativity of our Lord has on our society for the better part of two months.
For a moment, Mariah Carey is singing about Jesus. Images of the Holy Family, angels and shepherds grace even the most secular lawns and mantles. For a day or two, every store is closed and every church is open. Christmas offers us a glimpse of the rightly-ordered life, with Jesus at the center and everything else fitting in somewhere at the periphery.
There is a reason why Christmas feels so right. As people who are hard-wired to worship, even if we wander, we instinctively find our way each winter to Jesus.