So-called Urge for Religion
Religion is as old as the rise of
self-consciousness in man, but its origin, as that of man, is shrouded in
obscurity. Man has, probably, lived on earth for about a million years. During
the greater part of this period, he had no civilization and has not left his
impress on any durable material. All we know about him is based on his
fossilized remains, and while they tell us a good deal about his physical shape
and structure, they tell us little about the man in him. Man
acquired some rudiments of civilization when he began to work on stone and metal
and to shape for himself tools, which hitherto he had taken ready-made from
nature. The remains of his artifacts, however, shed valuable light on his
developing needs and beliefs.
Religion can be traced back to the dawn of human
civilization. The caverns of primitive men, wherein dead bodies were laid with a
provision of food and weapons, suggest beliefs and practices which are
unmistakably religious in character. It would seem that no sooner had man
attained the stage of mental development, represented by self-consciousness, and
started on the road to civilization, than his breathless wonder at the world
around him gave way to speculation on his origin and destiny and on the power
which created the world and sustains it. His thinking took the form of
myth-making and his tools of thought were not concepts but symbols. He felt
vaguely but intensely an infinite power at work in the world around him. This
dimly-sensed power evoked in him the responses of fear and reverence, or
worship. The urge to worship appears to have always been there, but man can
worship only that which he believes to be both good and powerful, because of his
own helplessness. Primitive man was slowly and painfully groping his way to the
idea of religion. He was seeking, with his scanty resources, for an object which
he could appease or revere and worship. No doubt, he worshipped crude objects or
simple natural phenomena, but we must not forget that for him they only
symbolized the supreme power at work in the universe. Worship is a
characteristic religious activity and the anthropologists have amassed ample
evidence to prove that primitive man did worship something or other. It has also
been proved that primitive tribes, even now living, cherish beliefs and engage
in practices which are undeniably religious in character inasmuch as they refer
to some deity or deities and to life after death.
In the light of these findings one can safely
affirm that religion is a universal phenomenon (for the simple reason that, as
explained in the Introduction, the instinct of self-preservation is inherent in
man). Plutarch, who flourished in the first century of the Christian era with
extensive knowledge of the world of his time, affirms:
In wandering over the earth, you can find cities
without walls, without science, without rulers, without palaces, without
treasures, without money, without gymnasium or theatre, but a city without
temples to gods, without prayer, oaths and prophecy, such a city no mortal has
yet seen and will never see.1
In the modern age, religion is visible in many
different aspects–sometimes it is looked upon as a natural phenomenon and as
such it falls within the sphere of science. But, as the experience of individual
man, it falls within the purview of psychology, while, as a social fact, it is
the concern of the sociologist. The sociologist is, however, interested only in
the function of religion as a cohesive force in society. The role of religion in
human history has also not been overlooked: it has been studied. In our attempt
to understand the nature of religion, therefore, we will first consider the
definitions which have been offered by the various scientists and thinkers who
have made a special study of the subject.
Definition of Religion
The student of religion is as much bewildered by
the diversity and variety of religions as be is baffled by the complexity of
each single religion. He finds it well-nigh impossible to extract the essential
element from the complex and heterogeneous mass of beliefs and practices in
which it is embedded. In these circumstances, it is natural for him to select
some aspect which he happens to regard as an important characteristic and try to
define religion within this particular framework. This, among others, is the
main reason why there are so many definitions of religion; but none of them
encompasses the entire phenomenon or commands universal acceptance. In fact,
every investigator in this field has given his own definition and some have
offered more than one. Surprisingly enough, some of them are even
self-contradictory. Some scholars hold that a set of doctrines is essential to
religion; while others believe that religion may exist as a purely emotional
attitude without any beliefs. Again, for some, belief in God is the life-blood
of religion—but others reject this view and cite as instances Buddhism and other
atheistic religions. However, let us examine a few representative definitions of
religion, hoping to find some element common to them all which serves as the
clue to a comprehensive definition:
Religion is (subjectively regarded) the
recognition of all duties as divine commands (Kant).
Religion is to take everything individual as a
part of the whole, everything limited as a representation of the infinite
That which expresses the innermost tendency of all
religions is the axiom of the conservation of values (Hoffding).
William James holds religion to be "the feelings,
acts and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they
apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the
divine". Calverton takes a different view of religion, "Magic and religion" he
affirms, "evolved as (a) means whereby (man) believed he was able to acquire
power (over his environment) and make the universe bend to his wishes".
Professor Whitehead speaks of religion as "what the individual does with his own
solitariness,"2 and in another place defines it as a "force of belief
cleansing the inward parts".3 Whitehead's considered opinion on
the nature of religion is stated more fully and clearly in the following
passage which occurs in his Science and the Modern World:
Religion is the vision of something which stands
beyond, behind, and within, the passing flux of immediate things; something
which is real, and yet waiting to be realized; something which is a remote
possibility, and yet the greatest of present facts; something that gives meaning
to all that passes, and yet eludes apprehension; something whose possession is
the final good, and yet is beyond all reach; something which is the ultimate
ideal and the hopeless quest.4
Commenting on various definitions of religion,
Professor G. Galloway says, "When we keep in mind the psychological factors of
the religious consciousness and the way in which they work, some definitions of
religion strike us by their inadequacy and one-sidedness. We find, perhaps, that
they are applicable to certain stages of religion but not to others, or that
they leave out what is important." However, undeterred by the lack of success
which had attended the efforts of so many great scholars, Galloway has advanced
his own definition. He defines religion as "Man's faith in a power beyond
himself whereby he seeks to satisfy emotional needs and gain stability of life,
and which he expresses in acts of worship and service."5
A.C. Campbell, in his illuminating work On
Selfhood and Godhood, has devoted a chapter to the discussion of the problem
of a definition for religion. He too has put forward a definition of his own
which deserves consideration :
Religion may be defined as a state of mind
comprising belief in the reality of a supernatural being or beings endowed with
transcendent power and worth, together with the complex emotive attitude of
worship intrinsically appropriate thereto.6.
Leuba, in his book, A Psychological Study of
Religion, has listed no less than forty-eight different definitions
of religion, each offered by a scholar of repute. Even this is far from being an
exhaustive list as Ducasse in his book, A Philosophical Scrutiny of Religion,
has quoted twenty- seven other definitions.7 To add to the
confusion, as has been observed before, many definitions contradict one another.
As Professor H.J. Paton has pointed out, "For any serious view of religion, it
is always possible to find another, equally serious, which seems to be its
Ouspensky, looking at the formidable array of
conflicting definitions, was led to accept the relativistic theory of religion.
According to him, "Religion corresponds to the level of a man's being; and one
man's religion might not be at all suitable for another man."9 His
definition is clearly inadequate and unsatisfactory inasmuch as it completely
ignores the Reality to which religion refers and denies it any form of
We have been trying to seek an element which is
common to all the important definitions. That element, if found, would
constitute the core of religion and as such can be expected to occupy the
central place in every religion. The element, which we find common to most of
the definitions, though not to all, is the belief in the existence of a
transcendent cosmic power to which the term "Divine" is usually applied.
Divinity too has been represented as one single entity and also as many; but the
monistic conception has been more widely accepted than the pluralistic. While
the existence of the supreme power is seldom questioned by religious people,
their ideas regarding its nature are as vague, as indefinite and as varied as
are the definitions of religion itself, and each great writer on religion seems
to have conceived God in his own way. Only a few instances can be cited here.
Kant speaks of God as "the moral Law-giver," and William James describes Him as
"the Higher part of the universe." Matthew Arnold believes God to be "the power
that makes for righteousness."10 For Sir James Jeans, He is "the
greatest of mathematicians." Bergson, in one of his earlier works, identified
Him with the creative energy. Later on, when his thought had taken a mystical
turn, he spoke of God as "Love and the Beloved".11 Thus we see that
there are as many definitions of God as there are of religion. The point to be
emphasized, however, is that God is infinite and, therefore, our finite
understanding can never encompass His nature. Some of those who attempt to
define God give free rein to their imagination and indulge in wild speculation
quite out of touch with Reality. Others, seeking something of which their mind
can take a firm hold, identify God with nature. But they forget that God is
transcendent. He may be sensed but cannot be comprehended. Apprehension of God
is supposed to occur in the mystical experience, *but this apprehension, as the
great mystics themselves testify, is only fragmentary, elusive and tantalizing.
A comprehensive definition of God, therefore, is not possible. None-the-less, it
may be possible to formulate some idea of God. But religion is not satisfied
with that. It requires a more adequate idea of God. We should, therefore, take
up the question whether and how such an idea of God may be formulated.
Idea of God
Belief in God is the life-blood of religion.
Questions relating to God have naturally engaged the attention of the advocates
and opponents of religion. What is God, and how do we know Him, are questions
which no serious student of religion can brush aside. Adequate and satisfactory
answers to these basic questions will enable us to understand the nature of God
and assess the value of religion. In fact, we find that these questions too have
received different and conflicting answers. It may be of interest to note that
even the questions themselves have been phrased according to the point of view
of each writer. Those who employ the positivist
*The nature of this so-called "experience" will be
discussed in a subsequent chapter.
approach have put the question in the form of "How
did the idea of God take its rise in the human mind?" Grant Allen and I. G.
Frazer are fair representatives of this group of writers. Their answer may be
Primitive man lived in constant dread of
the violent forces of nature which threatened him with physical injury and even
death. Storms, thunderbolts, earthquakes and other cataclysms of nature
frightened and overawed him, and as animistic tendencies dominated his mind, he
personified the forces of nature and sought to placate them by offering them
worship and sacrifice. He thus peopled the world with gods. Later on, as man's
mind developed, he found it necessary to rationalize his old attachment to them.
The urge for unification led him to reduce the multiplicity of gods to one
supreme deity. He formed an abstract idea of the Absolute and then, driven by
unconscious emotional urges, objectified that idea. The God thus evolved is a
subjective God. In the words of Sheen, "the only God attained by a purely
affective approach is a subjective God born of one's own feelings."12
This, in brief, is the evolutionary theory,
which purports to give an account of the origin and development of the idea of
one God. It is presumed that the idea of God is found only in the higher
religions of modern man and that it was alien to the mind of primitive people.
Recently, however, factual evidence has been brought to light which proves that
this presumption is erroneous. On the basis of these facts, some scholars have
advocated the view that primitive man's mind too was gifted with the awareness
of God. According to Professor Toynbee, this view is put forward by Father
Schmidt, who based his theory on observations made by him of "common elements in
the religions of the most primitive surviving peoples, now scattered in holes
and corners at opposite extremities of the inhabited surface of the Earth."13.
The present writer cannot say how the scholars who are working in this field
have reacted to this theory. If they regard it as, at least, worthy of serious
consideration, it would mean that a different approach to the question "What is
God ?" is possible. If God's existence was recognized even by the most primitive
people, it may be safely argued that the idea of God has a genuine reference to
the Real, however imperfectly and inadequately it may represent the Real.
Religion too, as a means of contacting the Real, therefore, becomes validated.
Instead of being the expression of subjective wishes, religion is seen to be a
transaction with the objective Reality. The goal of religion, from this
standpoint, is not a phantom of imagination but Reality itself. The point being
important, we should bear in mind its implications which we have to consider
later on. For the moment, it should suffice to remark that in this context the
idea of objective. Reality and belief in a being who exists independently of
us—a being who is both immanent and transcendent—is a dim reminiscence of
the original din.*
We can now take up the question, "What is
IV. What Is
Two different views of God were considered in the
preceding section. According to the first view, God is the Ultimate Reality,
and, according to the second, God exists only as an idea in the human mind.
Corresponding to these two views of God, there emerge two views of religion.
According to one, religion deals with the Absolute. Its business is to interpret
the Absolute to us and to tell us how we can get close to it. According to the
second view, religion is a superstition born of human wishes and fantasies. Its
function is to provide illusory gratification to human wishes which are denied
satisfaction in the physical world. From this point of view, religion originates
in the primitive mentality of man in his ignorance, his fears and hopes. Jung,
for instance, explains religion as a biological device for safeguarding the
human self and his social fabric against the forces of disintegration. It is
* Din to be explained later.
that such a view relegates religion to the
position of a private affair of the individual, something which has only a
fictitious value to him, and assumes a role hardly distinguishable from the
fantasies of self-willed individuals. Religious activity will thus appear only
to be primitive, irrational or illogical, and completely out of touch with the
The scientist's approach to religion, on the other
hand, is empirical and historical. He treats religion as a natural phenomenon
and hopes to understand it by tracing it back to its origin in primitive society
and taking note of the changes it underwent in the course of history. His stress
is chiefly on the social function of religion. He thinks that religion comes
into being and survives because it promotes social cohesion and group
solidarity: but he fails to grasp the essence of religion as practiced in
primitive society, because there it is enveloped in bizarre notions and
grotesque superstitions. Lacking the (so-called) spiritual insight, he is led to
regard the whole mass as religion, and takes its superficial aspects as
constituting the core of religion itself. Auguste Comte was the pioneer in this
type of investigation. He believed that human thought, in the course of its
development, has passed through three well-defined stages—theological,
metaphysical and, finally, scientific. Religion thus represents the earliest
phase of mental evolution. In this stage, man's approach to Reality was
emotional and irrational—in short, only mystical, while in the metaphysical
stage, he relied more upon reason to lead him to the heart of Reality. In the
last stage, that is, the scientific, he realized the importance of the
observational data for gaining some knowledge of the world itself in which he
lived. If we accept Comte's view, it will mean that religion has no relevance to
the modern world, and its image will thus have to be regarded as a mere relic of
the past, with no place in the scheme of modern knowledge and no bearing on
the present-day life, deserving to be consigned to the limbo of obsolete ideas.
Another empirically oriented theory gives a better
reasoned account of the origin and development of religion. It points out that
primitive man lived in constant fear of the forces of nature. Confronted with
them, he suffered from an intense feeling of helplessness. He personified and
deified these forces and offered sacrifices and worship to placate them. This
was the first stage of religion, in which man humbly prostrated himself before
these gods in the hope of pacifying them and inducing them to spare him. Later,
he grew somewhat confident and thought that he could actively interfere in, the
course of natural events and could devise methods to bend these forces to his
will. The attitude developed a new phase of religion which was that of magic.
Then man tried to influence the deities by charms, spells, incantations and
occult practices, and thus probably the institution of priesthood arose to cope
with the problem, and the magicians became the first priests.
As human groups increased in size and their
structure became complex, tribal customs could no longer regulate the behavior
of their members. The need was felt for a central organization, and the
institution of Kingship thus made its first appearance. A single man was
invested with absolute power and the entire administration was placed in his
hands. He occupied a position high above the common people and exercised
absolute control over their lives and property. His word was law submission to
which was considered essential. He would brook no opposition. The desire for
power is insatiable. However powerful the monarch might be, he wanted still
greater power. With the passage of time, this turned him into an object of fear,
hatred or love according to his treatment of his subjects. The theory that
absolute monarchy was an indispensable condition for peace and order in society
was universally accepted. So, it was bound to influence religion also. The idea
of God was fashioned on the model of the absolute monarch, and He was conceived
as the Being who ruled over heaven and earth as an arbitrary despot. He was the
King of kings, the Lord of the universe, whose will was unquestionable and whose
ways were mysterious. Man stood before Him quaking with fear–an abject and
helpless creature. Religion, according to this theory, had now entered the third
and the final stage. God was conceived as a tyrant, and religion became an
instrument of oppression. It served the ruling class by representing it as
appointed by the Divine Master to exercise power in the land and control over
the masses. By means of "spiritual sanctions" it protected the ruling class
against the fury of the oppressed people. With religion to defend them, the
rulers could, with impunity, trample upon the rights of the common man which
still remained undefined. This, in brief, is the Marxist theory of religion. The
Marxists view religion as a cunning device employed by the bourgeoisie to
safeguard their vested interests against the proletariat. Religion, they aver,
is an opiate which makes the people insensible to their sufferings and persuades
them to resign to their unhappy lot. This view of religion needs serious
consideration. We may be permitted to say that the world of religion has not
been able to meet this challenge so far. Only din can meet it, as we
shall discuss later on.
In so far as the view of the scientists is
concerned, it may be pointed out that religion to them represents a distinctive
approach to Reality quite different from the scientific approach. While science
has been developing a truer and clearer view of one aspect of Reality, religion
has been striving to achieve a clearer perception and a more and more adequate
apprehension of Reality as a whole and its relation to and meaning for man in a
realm beyond the reach of natural science. Professor Heisenberg, the famous
physicist, in one of his recent writings, has observed that as science becomes
more and more perfect, it gets farther and farther away from concrete reality
and enters into the realm of abstraction. As scientific concepts tend to become
more and more abstract, they get more and more remote from the real world of our
daily experience. Each step that takes science nearer to perfection takes it
farther away from the realities of life. Religion, on the other hand, strives to
keep close to the living reality, and its concepts too, though they may not take
the form of scientific expression, yet are more meaningful and in closer touch
with human life.
The philosophical approach to religion is
certainly more appropriate than that of the scientist. The philosopher's quest
is for the meaning and he strives to achieve a comprehensive view of religion
and its value to human life. Unfortunately, many philosophers have been hampered
by their preconceptions and have, therefore, failed in their search. Human
reason, moreover, has serious limitations and it may be doubted if it can lead
us by itself to the core of Reality. Some philosophers, as a result of deep and
intensive reflection, have, no doubt, arrived at a conception of God, but this
God turns out to be a mere abstraction, far different from the living God which
religion tries to comprehend. Reason, by itself, in short, has not enabled us so
far to answer the question: "What is religion ? ".
Let us now turn to the mystic's approach. He
appeals to his subjective experience which he finds to be absolutely convincing
and supremely satisfying, at least to himself. He claims that in this experience
he feels himself to be close and living contact with the Absolute.
Unfortunately, this experience, as the mystic himself admits, is ineffable and
incommunicable. He can neither convey his knowledge to others nor can he
convince others that his experience was not purely subjective and illusory.
Further, the mystic’s Absolute is static and unchanging. Time is reduced to a
mere illusion. But the world of our experience is continuously in a flux. What
is then the source of change if God is outside the stream of time ? The mystic
has no plausible answer to such a question.
Perhaps a survey of the higher religions of the
world (which originally were the same din received by the various
Anbiya from time to time) might enable us to get an answer to the question
of the nature and validity of religion. Unfortunately, this is not an easy task.
Formidable obstacles will have to be surmounted before we can form a just
estimate of the value of each of the adyan. The lives of most of the
Rasul and the history of adyan are shrouded in obscurity, and even
the keen eye of the historian can hardly penetrate the mist that envelops their
lives. Authentic facts about their lives are hard to obtain and the problem is
more complicated by the tangle of myths that has been woven around them in the
course of centuries. Even patient historical research has, very often, failed to
separate fact from fiction. The result is that the accounts of their lives are
mostly hearsay or conjectural. What is worse, even their teaching has not come
down to us in its original form. We do not know, for certain, when their
so-called sayings were committed to writing, and there is good reason to believe
that the sacred books, generally supposed to embody their teaching, have been
tampered with from time to time. It would seem that in the course of successive
editions many passages were excised and many were interpolated. The teaching of
the Rusul has certainly been preserved in the scriptures but only in a
distorted form. It is, therefore, well-nigh impossible to recover the original
form and substance of these adyan.
The only exception is the Din of Islam. Its
Nabi and his companions lived in the limelight of history. His teaching
and actions were extensively recorded by his followers and they can be checked
by the accounts given by contemporary historians of neighbouring lands.
Authentic facts about his life and doings are numerous and easily accessible in
contemporary records. Moreover, the Qur'an, on which Islam is firmly based, has
come down to us exactly as it was delivered through the Rasul. It has
always been transcribed with scrupulous care. No Muslim scribe has ever dared to
omit or insert a single letter. The source of Islam has thus remained untouched
and unadulterated. We can reasonably hope, therefore, that a close study of
Islam will give us the clue to the real nature and function of din.
1. W.M. Urban, Humanity and
2. E.S, Brightman, A
Philosophy of Religion p.18.
3. J.Huxley, Religion without
4. A.N. Whitehead, Science
and the Modern World, p. 222.
5. George Galloway, The
Philosophy of Religion, pp. 181, 184.
6. A.C. Campbell, On Selfhood
and Godhood, p.248.
7. Cf. Ibid., p. 234.
8. H.J. Paton, The Modern
Predicament, p. 59.
9. P.D. Ouspensky, In
Search of the Miraculous, p. 299.
10. Brightman, op. cit., p. 81.
11. Henry Bergson, The Two
Sources of Religion and Morality, pp. 245-6.
12. Fulton J. Sheen,
Philosophy of Religion, p. 238.
13. Arnold Toynbee, An
Historian’s Approach to Religion, p. 18.