Sensus Divinitatis


“Is there any human being who has not entered on the first day of his life with an idea of that Great Head?” rhetorically inquired Arnobius of Sicca. Arnobius further inquired: “In whom has it not been implanted by nature, on whom has it not been impressed, aye, stamped almost in his mother’s womb even, in whom is there not a native instinct, that He is King and Lord, the ruler of all things that be?”(Aga. Hea. 33)

Arnobius echoed the idea that could be traced back to Cicero(Cic. Leg. I. 8) and beyond that human have an implanted knowledge of God(s) which when left to its natural function tends to direct them to acknowledge the existence of God(s).  This innate knowledge, which is also called the sense of divinity, is for Tertullian of Carthage, “the crowning guilt of men, that they will not recognize One, of whom they cannot possibly be ignorant”(1 Apo 17)

Even though God is ineffable and incomprehensible, John of Damascus resounded a similar understanding that “God, however, did not leave us in absolute ignorance. For the knowledge of God’s existence has been implanted by Him in all by nature.”(De Fide Orth. 1.1) The denial of the existence of God emerges from human’s fallen nature (1.3)

Noting John of Damascus’ work, Thomas Aquinas also argued that “[t]o know that God exists in a general and confused way is implanted in us by nature, inasmuch as God is man’s beatitude.”(Sum. The. A richer development of this view is found in the works of  John Calvin. Calvin contended,

That there exists in the human minds and indeed by natural instinct, some sense of Deity, we hold to be beyond dispute, since God himself, to prevent any man from pretending ignorance, has endued all men with some idea of his Godhead, the memory of which he constantly renews and occasionally enlarges, that all to a man being aware that there is a God, and that he is their Maker, may be condemned by their own conscience when they neither worship him nor consecrate their lives to his service. (Inst. 1.3.1)

Calvin went further,

All men of sound judgment will therefore hold, that a sense of Deity is indelibly engraven on the human heart. And that this belief is naturally engendered in all, and thoroughly fixed as it were in our very bones, is strikingly attested by the contumacy of the wicked, who, though they struggle furiously, are unable to extricate themselves from the fear of God. (1.3.3)

The reason that there never has been any society on earth that did not hold to kinds of beliefs in deities[and I will add life after physical death], according to Calvin, is due to the fact that sensus divinitatis is naturally inscribed on every human’s heart.

Cognitive science of religion is bringing in more reasons and evidence, for the first time as far as I understand, showing that it is true that humans are endowed with cognitive faculties that naturally stimulate sensus divinitatis. (Atran 2002, Bering 2002, Bloom 2007, Kelemen 2007 )

Further Readings

Atran, Scott (2002) In Gods We Trust. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Bering, Jesse (2002) “Intuitive Conceptions of Dead Agents’ Minds: The Natural Foundations of Afterlife Beliefs as Phenomological Boundary.” Journal of Cognition and Culture 2:263–308.

Bloom, Paul (2007) “Religion Is Natural.” Developmental Science 10: 147–151.

Kelemen, Deborah (2007) “Are Children ‘Intuitive Theists?’ Reasoning about Purpose and Design in Nature.” Psychological Science 15:295–301.

Paintings: Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino(Header) + Victor Mottez(Cover)