The other day I tweeted a wisecrack: “If a Protestant says religion is just a man made institution, agree with him. His religion is a man made institution. The tweet elicited a reply from an atheist saying, “All religions are man made. Otherwise, why are there so many of them?”
It raises a good question. To answer it we first have to distinguish between the phenomenon of religion as it exists across the span of human history–and particular religions and then individual denominations. Are they all man made?
To deal with the religious phenomenon first: we can see that there is a religious instinct in humanity. Religion is everywhere. The first cave paintings were probably religious images of the animals sacred to primitive man. Everywhere you go humans have built temples, made sacrifices, worshipped their gods in some way or another. Even today religion is far more prevalent and universal within the human experience than secular atheists would like to admit. The simple fact is that man is a religious creature. Should he be called homo sapiens or homo orans?
Indisputably, there is something religious about human beings. However, what does this mean and from where does this religious instinct originate? The skeptic says it is simply a result of man’s awareness of his own mortality. He knows he is going to die so he comes up with the idea of an afterlife to console himself in the face of eventual obliteration. Sounds okay, but we then have to ask why the some primitive religions don’t tinker about with afterlife ideas. They’re just superstitious sacrificial systems or myths about gods and goddesses. The afterlife–when it occurs–is often no more than an afterthought.
The more reasonable suggestion by the skeptic is that man looks at the world around him and finds it to be an awesome, dangerous and mysterious place. He sees the sun, moon and stars and feels small. He experiences the thunder and lightning and he is afraid. He senses the surging life around him and is awestruck at the mystery he does not understand. From this sense of awe and wonder he develops the idea of other beings like himself–but bigger and more powerful–who control this mysterious and wonderful natural world. These other beings are invisible spirits–gods and goddesses. Thus animism is first, followed by polytheism.
So did humans therefore simply make up religion? Is all religion a figment of the human imagination? The skeptic says, “All that rot about gods and goddesses and the spirits of trees and water sprites and so forth. We now have science and we can explain all these wonders.” The theist comes back and says, “Ahh, but perhaps those primitive humans knew something that we don’t know and which science can never test–that above and beyond it all there is a greater force and power. Their guesses were just the steps they were making toward the knowledge and experience of that ultimate power and source of all being we call God. Why would they imagine that there were other beings out there to start with? Why would they make that jump if there were not something greater–something beyond? They were attempting to understand a mystery that really exists. Otherwise how could they have sensed that there was such a mystery? Can a person be thirsty if there is no such thing as water?
Even so, we are still dealing with what Catholic theology calls “Natural Revelation”–the idea that humans can, through their own intellect and observation, draw certain limited conclusions about the nature of the universe and the existence of God. Most religions, therefore, are developments from natural revelation. They are the religions people have figured out and composed over centuries by observing their world and recording their experiences and drawing conclusions. These experiences involve not only the natural human observations of the world around them, but also involve spiritual encounters with real spiritual intelligences. Thus the encounters with “gods and goddesses” are a mish mash of myths and stories, legends, dream experiences and both real and imagined encounters with demi-gods. We admit that these religions of natural revelation have elements of truth, beauty and goodness within them. Read More