Tomorrow [correction, in a few days] I will be giving a keynote lecture at a philosophy of religion conference in Poland (see here). My lecture will be on whether or not theological reasoning, like more folk religious beliefs can be "natural". I think it can be, and that theology has important continuities with everyday reasoning.
Robert McCauley, who will also be giving a keynote at this conference, does not believe so. In his 2011 book "Why religion is natural and science is not", he argues that theology is as "unnatural" as science. He uses the term natural in a fairly restrictive sense, namely as "maturationally natural", by which he means, early developed, spontaneously emerging, easy to process and cross-culturally ubiquitous: "Like scientists, theologians occupy themselves with forms of reflection that are difficult to learn and difficult to master and that occasionally even issue in representations that are just as cognitively unnatural [as science] Theology is one of the few academic undertakings that can result in formulations that are very nearly as distant from and as obscure to humans' common understandings of the world as the most esoteric theoretical proposals of science are (McCauley, 2011, 212).
Theologians of the past seem to agree with this view. Thomas Aquinas, for instance, started from the observation that most people lack the time, patience, motivation, opportunity and intelligence to do theology to argue that faith does not require natural theological reasoning. McCauley (2011) cites the near-absence of theology in non-western, non-literate cultures.
More generally, in the cognitive science of religion there is a consensus that theology is a practice for the select few, working in highly institutionalized environments. If this were the case, we should expect theology to only appear in cultures with a high degree of literacy and social stratification, which would allow for a cognitive division of labor that is necessary for such an unnatural and arcane practice. Hence, we should only expect theology in the western traditions of Islam, Judaism and Christianity, and in Asian literature cultures, such as South and South-East Asia (e.g., Hindu and Buddhist theology). To offer just a few counterexample, I would like to discuss two highly sophisticated theologies from non-literate cultures.
[E]vil as well as good have been equally created and determined by Ugatame. Consequently he can be neither good, nor bad, but he must be indifferent. Evil and good to the Kapauku are always relative notions: an act may be good for one person while at the same time it is obviously harmful to someone else...As a further extrapolation from these premises the Kapauku argue that because everything has been determined by Ugatame there cannot be anything like a free will in man, and consequently there is no sin. After all, Creator created good as well as evil, so why should he punish a man for executing his own will? He would actually be turning against his own work (Pospisil 1978).
As in philosophical theology today, the Kapauku not only systematically reason about the properties of their supreme being, but also make inferences about how he relates to the world. They have come to a radical negative theology, similar to Maimonides, where they think that even existence is not something one can predicate to Ugatame. According to the Jewish medieval theologian Maimonides, existence is an accidental property of created things, God exists without possessing the attribute of existence. Similarly "He lives, without possessing the attribute of life; knows, without possessing the attribute of knowledge; is omnipotent without possessing the attribute of omnipotence" (Guide for the perplexed, bk 1, 57. Ugatame is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent, credited with the creation of all things and with having determined all events. Ugatame, similarly, is believed not to exist himself. When I questioned this contention, a Kapauku defended it skillfully by a question: "But how can he exist when he created all the existence?" (Pospisil 1978)
Not only do the Kapauku reflect on their own theology, they also reflect on other religious beliefs in a systematic fashion. For instance, Pospisil (1978) recounts the following incident that occurred in 1955:
A very old man from the Mapia region, supported by his two sons, managed to come to see me in the Kamu Valley. As he explained to me, his main purpose in coming was a problem he wanted to have clarified before he died. The problem concerned the white man. He could not understand how it was possible that the white man could be so clever and ingenious in designing such amazing contrivances as aeroplanes (which the old man could see flying over his valley), guns, medicines, clothes, and steel tools, and at the same time could be so primitive and illogical in his religion. "How can you think," he argued, "that a man can sin and can have a free will, and at the same time believe that your God is omnipotent, and that he created the world and determined all the happenings? If he determined all that happens, and (therefore) also the bad deeds, how can a man be held responsible? Why, if he is omnipotent, did the Creator have to change himself into a man and allow himself to be killed (crucified) when it would have been enough for him just to order men to behave?
The notion that anything can be absolutely bad or good was quite incomprehensible to him. Furthermore, the Christian notion of man resembling God in appearance appeared to him as utterly primitive (tabe-tabe, "stupid") (Pospisil 1978, 85).
Another fascinating example is the God of the West-African Yoruba, Olodumare, who is similar to Anselm's being than which nothing greater can be conceived.
John A. I. Bewaji discusses Yoruba theology and explains how they deal with the problem of evil. It is quite different from the Christian theistic problem of evil:
The implications of these [divine] attributes of Olodumare are that He is the most Powerful Being, the Creator, the Wise and Impartial Judge who exercises inexorable control over all in the universe. The problem of evil fails to arise within the context of Yoruba belief in Olodumare because a being with all the attributes stated above is conceivable as capable of both good and bad. He uses both for the ultimate good governance of the universe (38). In fact, to say that God does not or cannot do evil is to unnecessarily circumscribe His power. Some of the attributes of Olodumare are diametrically at variance with those of the Christian God. Consequently, some theoretical and doctrinal problems that arise within Christianity do not arise for Africans … The sources of evil are God-devised and help to maintain high moral standards. The Christian God is ever-merciful, slow to anger but quick to forgive (in fact He does not desire the death of the sinner but that he repent and be saved), whereas, the Yoruba Olodumare is a morally upright God who metes out justice here on earth and not necessarily in the hereafter where we are not sure anybody will witness and learn from it (39), see http://web.africa.ufl.edu/asq/v2/v2i1a1.htm for the full paper.
I would be interested to hear more examples of theologies from non-literate societies. The two examples I mentioned are monotheistic, but given that Greek, Roman and Hindu philosophers had/have sophisticated polytheistic theologies, I would not be surprised to find examples of polytheistic theological reasoning as well.