Religion? You Just Made That Up!

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

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  • michael

    why do you feel the need to antagonize protestants. that never seems to work out well.

  • johnny

    So we are to refrain from proclaiming the Truth for fear of antagonizing protestants? Speaking the Truth always works out just fine. A protestant would do well to listen.

  • David Thompson

    Because YOU obviously have the one and ONLY TRUTH, right?

  • michael

    My friend, you can speak the truth without the bite. There is a wide gap between saying something smart and saying something smarta$$. We’re not in grade school, there is no need to say my “dad can beat your dad”. and no, speaking the truth does not always work out fine, it needs to be accompanied with respect.

  • johnny

    You seem antagonized. It’s understandable because the Truth itself can be polarizing. The Catholic Church has the fullness of Truth. By the Grace of God I am a member of the Church that Jesus founded…the Catholic Church.

    Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life.
    Jesus founded the Catholic Church.
    The Church is the pillar and foundation of Truth.

  • michael

    Let me try again. Never said we should not proclaim the
    truth, but there a wide gap between saying something smart and saying something smart alec. I’ve been guilty of it myself, trying to be clever and just coming across as disrespectful. Plenty of people have left or not come closer to the Church for far less, and No the truth does not always work out fine, it needs to be accompanied by a dose of respect.

  • johnny

    My friend…how can you tell there is a ‘bite’ to my comment? What did I say except what the Church teaches as Truth? Truth is Truth and it is polarizing. As Catholics we can be calm, have a smile on our face even put our arms around the person and we should dialogue like that but we will still be called bigoted, arrogant by non Catholics and the world in general anyway.

  • mdozer

    This convert will not say, “I have the fullness of the truth.” I say, the Truth has gotten me. I assented to the Truth, because He sought me, and I yielded to Him. I found that He is inseparable from His Body, the Church. Was Christ decapitated? No. So then, the Church and Christ are one. “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all.” Ephesians 4:4-6

  • Miriam

    “Can a person be thirsty if there is no such thing as water?”

    What a great line.

  • OneTimothyThreeFifteen

    Wow! You’re guns blazin’ this past week or so!

    A whole crop of brilliant critiques and distillations of key ideas in your inimitably uncompromising, yet winsome, manner.

    If there are two priests I wish we had, here in England, it’s you and Robert Barron, but that’s because I’m selfish and greedy.

  • michael

    Was not commenting on your comment, but the tweet and others like it on the blog post.

  • Craig

    Philosophy uses natural reason, eg, there is a God, and theology shows us it is Christ. (Aquinas; thanks to Dr. Taylor Marshall and new, free ebook!)

  • Jambe d’Argent

    An excellent reflection, Father. Unfortunately, in post-Vatican II Catholicism this all-important “sense of awe and wonder” has been by and large replaced by bland church art, cheap church music, homilies with jokes, social pleasantries and an overemphasis on corporeal charity/social justice. Sometimes I wonder if Catholicism is still a religion…

  • David

    Remember that only one religion was founded by God … Jesus, God and perfect man, founded his Catholic Church. It is not a man made religion. It’s of divine origin.

  • Howard
  • Proteios

    Bear in mind atheists ARE recreating god in their own image. It may have started with purging the public square of Christianity. But it didn’t stop there, or with renaming A.D. As C.E., whatever that means. They now have saints and anointed ones, Dwkins comes to mind, but any celebrity who whines about religion is adequate. I even read that they have ‘ervices’ in an old church somewhere in England? Or Europe? So they are experts in boxing Christians into the fundamentalist Protestant dogma, then reproducing those behaviors beautifully. While remaining in denial and blissful ignorance all the while.

  • profglenn

    St Augustine understood that we are hardwired to seek God. In 397 AD, he wrote: Thou madest us for Thyself, and our heart is restless, until it repose in Thee.

    (Confessions, Book 1)

  • DKeane123

    Because we guess (or desire) that something is there, therefore it is? Wow, I am converting now.

  • Russell

    “I contend that the claim is too audacious to have been made up. ”

    Ah, yes, the no-one-would-be-that-stupid defense. The last resort of defense attorneys. Judges laugh at it. Juries laugh at it.

    So why am I not surprised that it counts as good theology?

  • Michael

    Catholicism is man-made too. We claim that Christ founded the Church. Wasn’t Christ truly a man?

    Sorry. Just having fun with your American style.

  • John9099

    No. A person cannot be thirsty if there is no such thing as water. The body would never have craved it. But the analogy is not accurate. Just because we look for something does not mean it is there. Not a great line at all. Man is afraid, so he creates deities and religion. Nothing more.

  • enoch

    Can I get an AMEN!?