The Natural Desire for God



Hunger to know

St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that we have a natural desire for God. This desire has its origin in our intellects, so it is not like the bodily desire for food or drink or the desire to flee from harm or lash out at someone who angers us. It is more like the hunger to know things. In fact, it arises out of our desire to know everything.

How we know

St. Thomas’ explanation for how we know things might seem odd to us, but it is worth considering. The way we know things is a consequence of the fact that we are rational animals. We are animals with rational intellects.


First, let’s look at the animal side of “rational animal.” We are like other animals in that we have senses in which we take in the world around us. We see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. Like the higher animals, we have memory, and an imagination, and can form intentions. As already mentioned, we also have bodily passions that direct us. Like other animals, when faced with danger we will fight, flee, or freeze. Like them, we play. Like them, we delight in or are disgusted by sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touches. This is why lots of people can’t tell the difference between rational animals and non-rational animals, also why some consider their pets full members of their families.


How are we different? It is in the rational side of “rational animal.” We see the forms of things. We don’t just see a bunch of hairy four-legged creatures running around. We see cats, dogs, deer, coyotes, wolves and so on. We can abstract from the things we see what is essential to that animal, what makes it the kind of thing it is. We form the abstract concept of “catness” and “dogness” and can identify which actual things can be properly named a cat or a dog. We have an idea, which is immaterial, that lets us understand something which is material. We can also classify everything according to their forms. Really smart people can form ideas about ideas or even ideas about ideas about ideas.

St. Thomas saw—I think we must say correctly—that everything in our intellects was first in our senses. That is, we take in our experiences through our senses—but then are able to conceptualize them. So what does this have to do with desire for God?


One of the things that our rational intellects make possible is the search for the cause of any effect. Think about how many times a young child will ask “why?” about anything and everything. In our desire to know, we want to know the reason for things. The pagan philosophers could see that there had to be a First Cause, that is, something that was uncaused that had the ability to bring about all the causes and effects we experience. St. Thomas says this First Cause is what everyone calls God. With our rational intellects that can correctly perceive the essences of created things, and from them conclude there must be this uncreated thing. We can also reason out other truths about this First Cause or God, that he must be simple, his essence and existence must be identical, he must be timeless, all powerful, and good, to name a few of these truths.

The problem

So, to summarize our desire for God so far, due to the power of our intellects we can and want to know the causes of things, and our minds do not rest until we reach these causes, until we reach the cause of all causes.

But here is the problem with our natural desire to know God.

We can know that God exists and we can know things about him due to his effects in creation, but we can never know him as he is, in his essence, using reason. We can know that God or the First Cause exists, but we cannot see him. The pagan philosopher Aristotle thought, and Thomas agrees, and the Catholic Church officially teaches, that our desire for God will never rest until we can actually see God directly as he is.

The natural desire for God, then, in itself, is frustrated, because of the impossibility of the creature—however intelligent—to see God.

The solution

This is why Divine Revelation is necessary in this life. It tells us things about God that we would either not know because they are impossible to know (like God is a loving Trinity of persons), or very difficult to know (for many of us, that God actually exists). It is also why grace is necessary to help us make an act of faith in what God reveals. It is also why in heaven we will need grace—what Thomas calls the light of glory—to elevate our intellects so that we can directly (although never fully) see God.


I’d like to end with the idea of gift. Our human nature is God’s gift to us. In the gift of an intellect is the implicit desire for God. Divine Revelation and grace are gifts, too. Finally, God will offer us the light of glory so that we can see him face to face in the Beatific Vision, thus completely fulfilling the desire for God that he planted within us.

This brings us to St. Augustine’s famous saying that pertains both to the natural desire for God and Beatific vision which fulfills that desire:

You have formed us for Yourself,
and our hearts are restless
till they find rest in You. (Confessions 1:1)

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14 thoughts on “The Natural Desire for God”

  1. I think Aquinas’ argument from desire comprises more than the desire to know the origin of the universe. If I understand it correctly, the argument is that there must be a corresponding real object that satisfies every natural, innate desire felt by human beings. So if humans have a desire for some kind of transcendant joy and fulfillment that can’t be experienced on earth, there must be something, somewhere, thast will satisfy it.

    This concept brings up so many questions!

    In addition to intellect, humans have imagination, which allows them to wish for many naturally unattainable things–the ability to fly, limitless intelligence, invulnerability, avoidance of aging, justice in human society and fair play in the universe. And, of course, immortality. Perhaps even the desire to have the biggest, most bad-ass Father of them all who can outdo all the other Fathers, and who loves his kids unconditionally. Are these natural and innate desires, or the result of tens of thousands of years of shared stories that structured complex cultures along with the human brain?

    I don’t think we’re close to teasing out nature from nurture in human beings, so I don’t find the argument persuasive.

    But the article seems to drift towards the First Cause argument–the argument that everything must have a cause and that therefore we can trace the beginning of the universe (or multi-verse) back to a supernatural, uncaused domino that started it all. This domino is labeled “God.”

    In the atomic world of interactions we can identify cause and effect on the basis of our senses. The interaction may be complex, but it can be observed and documented. At the subatomic level of elementary particles, we struggle to observe causes indirectly, and the principles of interaction aren’t necessarily the same as in the visible world. Is it valid to assume that causation works the same way as a rope and pulley at the cosmological level, where the variables may include dark matter, a singularity, and the non-existence of time? I think we have to admit, we don’t know.

    We can’t rule out a First Cause, but we can’t assume it either. .

    I’ve never understood that anything was accomplished by getting an atheist to admit that a First Cause could not be disproved. Because that is where we remain stuck–a First Cause outside of nature cannot be disproved. If you assume it exists, what then? It’s outside of nature, so it’s unknowable to us. We can make up stories about the possibly-existing entity, and wow, we sure have. There twelve classical religions, apparently split into infinite sects. That doesn’t count all the animist perspectives. Unfortunately all the stories are rife with human assumptions about moral values and meaning. It’s folks, all the way down!

  2. In summing up the give and take on this thread by an atheist protagonist who speaks for a community of like minded fellows I have come to the conclusion that their quest for a standard to prove God’s reality is unattainable. What would satisfy one scientist would not convince the whole just as there is no complete agreement on what constitutes beauty or justice or love. What each of them want and need is a personal demonstration of God’s existence in their life that they are loathe to admit or name as it would make them appear (to themselves) foolish. In asking what it would take for YOU to believe they seem to blanch at the notion that maybe if they ID the unbelief it would (shudder) possibly manifest itself. My answer in this particular situation would have been that I would help you in your unbelief by using the abundant gift of faith I have received to beg God to give you the bread required for your own epiphany and believing full well that YOU would not be given a stone. (Matt 7-9)

  3. We have a natural desire for God. It is more like the hunger to know things. In fact, it arises out of our desire to know everything.

    We have evolved with a natural curiosity to understand things, and phenomena that interest us, not to necessarily know everything. That natural curiosity,knowledge and understanding is in a constant state of natural,progressive evolution.

    We can know that God exists.

    That statement seems to assume too much, and seems arrogant . One can believe,think, or hope that god exists, but to “know” that god exists seems to fly in the face of logic and reason, given the lack of credible evidence.
    Admittedly one can understand that for some whose brain is wired toward
    a religious bent, philosophical evidence , may be all that is needed.
    The rest of us will require more credible evidence of a quantitative empirical nature.

    Even if we assume for argument sake, that we can know that god exists, we have no reason to assume that this entity is the god of the Catholic religion or any other religion.

    1. ” The rest of us will require more credible evidence of a quantitative empirical nature.”

      And pray tell, what exactly would that be ?

    2. what would that be?

      Something like this, evidence and interpretation of such in accordance with scientific method which supports the god hypothesis. I know of course you will come back with that the rejoinder that the concept of god is not a scientific hypothesis;-)

      Now we can spiral round and round on this, deeper into the philosophical rabbit hole, but I am not going to go there,as philosophical argument with theists always leads eventually to the rabbit hole. which is why I prefer the scientific method and the observations and conclusions of scientists on most matters. I will leave other more esoteric and ethereal matters that don’t depend upon credible evidence for things ….. such as souls, the existence of an afterlife and god, to the elitist circle of those that know that god exists.

      But believe me, when the scientific community comes up with credible evidence for the existence of god using the scientific method I will sit bolt upright paying attention.

      Victor Stenger: “A majority of scientists at all levels do not believe in any god. Yet most are unwilling to challenge the religious beliefs of others. I am a physicist who, along with others dubbed the New Atheists, is willing to challenge religious belief.

    3. I would never try to dissuade your logic with reason, faith or “knowing” something you do not. My question still remains unanswered – what would
      it take for you, you personally, to believe in God in this physical material world ?

    4. We have evolved with a natural curiosity to understand things, and phenomena that interest us, not to necessarily know everything. That natural curiosity,knowledge and understanding is in a constant state of natural,progressive evolution.

      What is this natural curiosity you mention twice and how is it different than the natural desire to know everything?

      The crux of the matter is that we want to know the cause of things. We know the cause of something when we grasp that cause’s substance. I can’t think of anything that human beings are not interested in understanding. Can you?

    5. The existence of the first cause is a combination of empirical evidence and logic. We begin with observation of reality gained through our senses. Then we reason from effects to causes concluding there must be a first cause that is itself not caused but is capable of causing other things. The first cause can’t be directly observed or measured.

      I don’t see why you demand that the evidence be “quantitate and empirical.” The demand that only quantitative empirical evidence is valid cannot be established quantitatively or empirically.

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