St. Thomas did more than anyone to show the reasonableness of the Faith, and yet his argument that religion is natural (and I here really mean religion, not some shorthand for Christianity) is that man simply cries out to something greater than himself when he is beset by his weakness and need. I’m reminded of a PBS drama that showed a group of Jews at a concentration camp arguing about the existence of God, and by the end of the show everyone had proven that God did not and could not exist. In the last moment of the show, when they are led away to be killed, one of them asks “so what do we do now?” and another, with calm assurance, says “Now? Now we pray.”
Science, learning, and sophisticated argumentation all require leisure. St. Thomas himself benefited from the prosperity of the 13th century. The sophisticated disputes among philosophers: rational theism vs. atheism; empirical science vs. metaphysics; mechanism or naturalism vs. the possibility of spiritual existence, etc. all presuppose the prosperity of leisure. We contemporary persons enjoy a tremendous amount of such prosperity and we have churned out debates, books, and even whole schools of thought by the thousand. But all this is happening away from the experiential and existential ground from which religious practice arises. Science and sophisticated argument arise from our leisure; religion from our necessity. Religion does not arise on the level where we are seeking evidence, weighing claims, reflectively and dispassionately looking at a abstracted experience. This does not make it irrational or subjective or a matter of wish fulfillment – these are dangers that can afflict any discourse, even leisured discourse. Religion is no less objective or rational than hunger or sexual desire, though it is not natural in exactly the same way as they are. Religion is natural more in the way that forming families is natural: it typifies all nations and at all times, but in such a way that it can be wiped out for some amount of time through large populations.
This is not to say that the leisured argument of atheism or theodicy is worthless, but if religion is a weed, an atheist’s success or the failure of theodicy would only pluck off a leaf.