Did Man Invent Religion?
The opponents of the religious life argue that religion was put together as a sort of outpouring of man’s feeling of powerlessness in the world or of his feelings of relief and gratitude when rescued from powerlessness. In summary form, the argument goes like this:
Certain natural phenomena proved impenetrable to man’s understanding and control and so he attributed them to a creator. Or, man attached to certain natural phenomena an aura of sacredness because he derived an unreliable benefit from them. Indeed, he went so far, in some cases, as to deify such phenomena. Thus it was, they say, that the river Ganges came to be held sacred by the people of India, or the Nile by the people of Egypt, and, in different ways, the cow by both. Confronted by fearful insecurity in the world, they say, man sought to secure himself by revering and appeasing what he supposed to be the source of his security or insecurity. The division, in some cultures, of this aura of sacredness between two deities, one good the other evil, led to the attribution of love and mercy to one, and of terror and punishment to the other. The argument carries on to ‘explain’ in a similar way the concept of hell and heaven, and eventually concludes with the observation that religion became, for the middle classes of people in society, a comforting illusion, and for the men of power in that society, and most especially for the men of religion, a means of manipulating the masses in short, ‘the opiate of the people’
Does this argument have any real foundation?
It does not.
Religion is not by any means a consequence of infirmity in reason nor does it depend upon any infirmity of will.
Among the meanings of the term religion are obedience, recompense, and a way or path. These meanings are interlinked. The path is the way that leads, through obedience, to God, the All Mighty, and at the end of life man will have to render full account of his good and bad deeds, all that he did on the way. In a more technical sense, religion may be defined as ‘the whole of the Divine Law as it guides any person possessed of reason to do good’. Just as the Law distinguishes a legally responsible person from one who is not, so also the demands of the religious life are addressed to a being capable of reason and not to one incapable. Religion is not there because man cannot reason or because of what he cannot understand; rather, it is there because, by God, he can reason and because of what, by God, he can understand. Further, man obeys or disobeys God by exercising his free will. Obedience is required of him, it is not imposed. The notion that religion happens simply because man desires to obtain a good harvest and to avoid a bad one, in other words simply because he has no choice, no control, in his affairs, is utterly absurd. The true religion does not negate free will. On the contrary, it most particularly points out that nature was not created to impose upon man but to benefit him and enlarge his potential, and it emphasizes that man was endowed with the ability to choose his way by exercising the freedom to do so.
They say that religion comes about as a result of defective use of reason, but in truth religion is primarily grounded in faith. Although it is possible to deduce the existence of the Creator of the universe through an exercise of human reason, such a deduction is bound to be vulnerable and insecure. A sound belief in God is possible only through the guidance of a Messenger. Every Messenger was endowed with certain signs confirming his appointment by God. In addition to the miracles he worked the Divine Scripture with which he was sent is the most significant demonstration of his Messengerhood. Whether a man lived during the lifetime of the Messenger or long after the Messenger’s death, he is required to follow the Book and the Messenger in his beliefs and actions. See also: What Is Messengerhood?
It is not any kind of ordinary, worldly power that the Messenger thus exercises over his followers. All of the Messengers endured extraordinary hardships and suffering, and yet demanded nothing in return. They expected nothing of the world, although they could have acquired any worldly good whatever if they had agreed to (as they were urged to) abandon their missions. The last Messenger was not a man of pleasures, whether of the body or of the spirit, but one who had dedicated his life to the service of mankind for the sake of God.
It may be asked if any person cannot have direct access to his Lord and so receive a revelation of religion directly from Him. Indeed it might be possible if the person had a perfectly purified soul, but except by God that is impossibility. Therefore God (chose and) purified certain men and endowed them with Messengerhood: God chooses Messengers from the angels, and from mankind. Just as, from innumerable angels, God chose Gabriel to convey His message to His Messenger, so He chose the Messengers from among mankind for the mission of teaching religion. They were men of pure character, and their companions were likewise distinguished souls since they carried the responsibility of transmitting the religion to future generations.
If the argument that religion comes about to help mankind cope with difficult events or difficult natural phenomena had any foundation, we should expect that religion would be occasional. We should expect that the need for it would arise only on certain occasions, and when the occasions passed away so would the need for religious preparation or response until time brought the same or similar circumstances round once more. But true religion, is not concerned only with ceremonies for birth and death and marriage, or with other rites to deal with crisis points in individual or collective life. The religion concerns itself with the disposition of the whole life of man as the responsible creature of God, as much in his inward being as in all the outward forms of his existence. The religion guides and protects all the ordinary business of everyday living, even there where man is, by God, in steady, reliable control. The call to prayer comes all through the day, and every day, and it is directed to the whole community, not to a particular class among them. The religious life is not an answer to eclipses or thunderbolts or other natural phenomena; it is the means, allowed to man through the Messengers, by which he may make himself worthy of faith and capable of steadily choosing the good.
Our daily prayers strengthen our faith and renew our covenant with God. As long as we do every act of worship with alert, conscious intent, we shall receive assurance from God, strengthening our will and ability to discharge our obligations in other areas of life.
The religion includes certain rules and norms to order our everyday life. A believer is required to seek the approval of God through his dealings with his fellow men, as well as through formal or informal prayer. For example, his commercial transactions must be strictly in accordance with the Divine Law which is, we may here mention, another element of the religion which reinforces faith. By abiding by this Law, a believer submits to the decrees of God in the particular matter and so transcends his own worldly preferences. For example, one who sells must inform the one who buys of any defect in the goods he is selling. His profit may be greatly diminished, even annulled, if he does this, but he will gain the satisfaction of obeying his Lord, and not becoming a servant of his own desires. When he stands in prayer before his Lord, this satisfaction will return to strengthen his faith and commitment. See also: Faith, Faith And Reason, The Horizons of Faith
Such observance provides to the believer practical means of reaching the Divine Presence. And the believer must aspire to this end, as it is the command of the Messenger of God. He teaches us, when telling of the three men who were trapped in a cave, the mouth of which had been closed by a big rock displaced by the flood, how each of the three men offered God a good deed as a ransom to free them from the cave. Now it is impossible for us to resemble the Messenger in physical appearance, much as we might wish it, but we must try to resemble him in way of life. That will provide us with the ransom to offer to God against the torments of Hell.
And remember that virtue inheres also in the avoidance of sins: we must keep away from what God has forbidden just as we would refrain from dealings involving interest, however much, at first sight, they may appear to offer advantage.
The pursuit of virtue, whether by observance or by avoidance, the practice of prayer and remembrance, the effort to establish the Law and justice, according to the teaching of God and His Messenger, and the penalties therein prescribed, are all essential elements in the unity of the religious life. And that unity is integral (not aggregate) the parts cannot be separated from one another, any more than you could separate the vital elements of a tree. Just as water, light and heat, seed, roots, and branches, leaves, flowers and fruit, and the gardener who tends to it, are vital to the tree, so also are faith, worship, remembrance of God, the example of the Messenger, and the Divine Law, vital and integral elements of the religion.
God created man as His vicegerent, His steward, on this earth. God, whom we worship, is Himself Absolute, Transcendent, independent of all things. He does not need our worship. Rather, it is we who need to worship Him. It is by His will that we do so we would be incapable of managing it ourselves; the initiative is by God. God wills that, in accordance with the ordinances of the Holy Book, we should seek to lead a balanced life. He has opened to us a clear, straight path, so that we need not go astray. It is by following the Holy Book, this straight path, that (collectively as well as individually) man can develop his full potential and attain to true humanity.
We are in need of religion. Indeed, if we only understood what we truly need, we should be able directly to perceive man’s innate disposition toward eternal happiness. Then we should cultivate this innate disposition and, in different ways, proclaim our true need and desire: ‘O God, give us a way of which You approve, that we may be safe from any sort of deviance.’
Religion is not formulated by certain men to manipulate others, nor has it been formulated by mankind in general as a way of coping with the natural world. God has revealed religion to man as a portion of His Mercy, because man is in need of it and cannot be truly man independently of its guidance. Only the man who has passed through the trials of religious experience can be worthy of eternal happiness. Indeed, only through his following the clear way of religion will any man be distinguished in the hereafter. The Messenger of God, said: As you distinguish your horse in a herd by the blaze on its head, so will I distinguish my community in the hereafter by the brightness of the parts of the body washed in ablution.
The clear way of religion, as revealed by God through His Messengers, consists of fundamentals and branches. The fundamentals have always been the same for all the Divinely revealed religions from the time of the first Messenger to that of the last. The Divinely revealed religions have differed from one another in the regime of worship and observances. God placed the obligation of a certain kind of worship upon the people of each epoch in accordance with their social conditions and capacities.
Belief in the resurrection, for example, has been central in every religion, and every Messenger has preached this belief in one way or another. If this belief had not been so emphasized, religion would have been reduced to merely a social economic or psychological system of rules and norms, powerless to inspire man inwardly to do good and avoid evil. Had belief in the resurrection not existed, worship sincerely directed to God would not have been performed, nor sacrifices undertaken sincerely and for the sake of God. Man acquires many virtues by believing that whoever has done an atom’s weight of good shall see it, and whoever has done an atom’s weight of evil shall see it. In trying to follow His way without deviation, we look forward to that moment-to which the whole span of eternal life in heaven cannot be compared-when we shall see our Lord without any veil.
Alongside such constant fundamentals, God has revealed changes in His Law. In the course of man’s long history, the new Laws has abrogated what went before an aspect of the Mercy of God in response to the travail of man from humanity’s infancy in the time of the Messenger Adam to its maturity in the time of the Messenger Muhammad.
Let us here conclude by repeating that religion is not a system of belief which man felt compelled to contrive out of fear of such phenomena as floods and thunderbolts and the like. Nor is it a human artifice of rules and norms set up by a few to regulate man’s social and economic affairs. True religion is far indeed from anything that could be originated by a human mind. Rather, it is the assemblage of Divine revelations and Divine laws which enable man to know bliss in this world and the next.
Man’s peace and happiness depend upon the religious life.
Man’s peace and happiness depend upon the religious life. Only by means of religion can the Law be observed in the inward and outward of man’s existence, enabling him to attain a state deserving of paradise and the vision of God. As for merely human civilization however far it advances, it will never be able to secure even man’s earthly good or happiness, let alone to replace religion.
By M. Fethullah Gulen