#84: Man-Made Religion

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #84, on the subject of Man-Made Religion

A significant (at least to me) discussion was budding on a thread about something else on Facebook with Nikolaj Bourguignon and William Bing Ingram, and Facebook is already not a very good place for such deep discussions and the less so when they are buried in a thread about something else. So I am addressing it here, and if they’re interested perhaps we can discuss it on a new thread there or here.  (I know Nikolaj has a lot on his plate at the moment, so I’ll understand if he’s unavailable.  Everyone is welcome to join.  Initial comments here are moderated, so don’t expect that they’ll post immediately if you aren’t already an approved commenter on this web log, but I usually get to them pretty quickly.)

William suggested:

…one of the things about religion is that nobody ever discovers religion on their own; they always have to be told about it before they “suddenly” find religion.

This is unlike subjects such as math….

Religion is a completely man-made idea. I mean, consider early civilizations. They developed independent of each other and each one developed widely different religions. If there really was one true religion, each culture would have discovered the same one independently.

I take exception to that idea, and hope he will afford me the opportunity to explain why.


It is certainly reasonable to reject religion for rational reasons.  It is entirely different to do so based on errors of fact, and that appears to be what we have here.

Certainly it is true that there are many religions all over the world, and they have often been at odds with each other concerning which is the truth.  However, it is important that we grasp those arguments.  When Missouri Synod Lutherans argue with Wisconsin Synod Lutherans, the points at issue are generally about what is appropriate in church services; they agree on much much more than that on which they disagree.  When Missouri Synod Lutherans argue with atheists about the existence of God, the Lutherans are much closer to the Baptists, the Catholics, even the Muslims, than any of these are to the atheists.  Theologians often talk about the case of the single iota of difference–from a church split that happened largely over whether the right word was homoousios (“same substance”, used in the Nicene Creed and adopted by the western Christian church) or homoiousios (“similar substance”, used by Eusebius of Caesarea and considered the better choice by the eastern Christian church).  After all, if I say that the paint color we chose was lavender and my wife says it was lilac, apart from the fact that I suspect she would be right it doesn’t really prove that we didn’t choose a paint color.  It only means that we disagree in the minutiae.

It will also certainly help if we recognize that nearly all religions can be divided into the ethical portion, the spiritual portion, and the ritual portion.  Certainly they are all different in all three portions–but it must be noted that they are not really so different as we might expect.

Looking first at the ethical portion, we find that there are universal principles underlying all religions from all over the world.  I recommend the appendix in C. S. Lewis’ wonderful book The Abolition of Man, in which he details many of these principles and demonstrates their presence in religions from every continent over many centuries.  We might suppose that the sanctity of life and the protection of property were obvious, but loyalty to family over strangers, obligation of hospitality to strangers, sanctity of marriage, protection of the weak and particularly of children, deference to elders, sacrifice of self, and quite a few other less obvious principles are well represented universally.  The specifics of how these are applied from one culture to another certainly varies, but the ethic itself seems to be universally understood, and discovered by peoples throughout the world.

The ritual aspect is certainly far more varied, but even here we have some haunting similarities.  Nearly all religions recognize some significance in sacrifice.  Nearly all include feasts but also fasts, self-deprivations of some sort and celebrations of some sort.  The rest is generally application of culture and human abilities–the inclusion of music, chanting, speech, body positions indicating deference, and many other aspects which develop.  Modern sociologists are intrigued by the concept of the creation of a “sacred space”, a collection of ritual which humans use to divide part of life from everything else, which is found universally and involves ritual.  It seems that we have all discovered the same thing, and applied it in different ways.

The spiritual portion is the most difficult, but to some degree it also has shared elements.  As noted, Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Polytheists, Jews, and many, many others all agree that there is some kind of spirit world, a God or gods; we are all much closer to each other than any of us are to atheism, despite how very different we are from each other.  The atheist would claim that our diversity comes from the fact that we are all inventing ideas to explain realities that we did not understand, but fails to account for the similarities between those ideas.  Certainly in some theologies the gods are like super-people, and in others they are so far beyond our reality as to be unlike people at all.  Some see the afterlife as a lot of individual people continuing an earth-like existence, others see it as everyone losing his selfhood and becoming part of one selfless unity, and others–religious people who believe in a spirit world–see no afterlife at all.  Yet this is the area in which we have the least information, because any of us who might have gone and returned have failed to bring back anything all of us accept as proof.

Except that this is where the Judeo-Christian concept of revealed religion becomes involved.  Unlike so many others, the scriptures of the Jews and the Christians present themselves as historic documents recounting events in the lives of real people, who reportedly interacted with representatives of God.  All those efforts to figure out what the spirit world is like were doomed to failure without information from the spirit world, but Christianity claims that it was provided.  If so, then the Christian faith has an advantage:  first-hand information.

What is the more interesting about this, to me at least, is that what the Christian faith claims as revealed religion seems to be saying that everyone had it partly right.  God is not a monolithic being, but He is a single being with a complex existence best described as three people perpetually interacting with each other.  (There are spirits who are not God nor gods, but in some sense greater than humans, who interact with God and possibly on occasion with humans, and not all of them are friendly.)  The reality of the polytheists contains some truth but not all the truth.  The opposite reality, that God is vastly incomprehensible and beyond anything we would understand as a person also contains some truth but not all the truth.  The image of the afterlife as many individuals living together is affirmed, but so is the image of everyone joined in one entity (the body of Christ).  It tells us that so much that we guessed about the spirit world is true, but not exclusively true, and gives us an image that is barely comprehensible of a place that by definition ought to be completely outside our experience or understanding.

C. S. Lewis seems to have become a Christian (he was an atheist) in large part because he saw that the Christian message provided the critical piece of reality that united everything.  I see some of that sometimes, and I see it here:  if the Christian concept of the spirit world is correct, all the other attempts to understand it are partly correct, capturing some aspects and missing some.  It also suggests that none of these religions are “made up”; they are, in fact, all glimpses of a reality–something akin to the poem about the blind men and the elephant, written to express a similar idea, but when the poem says that the blind men are describing something they have never seen, it fails to recognize that they have experienced something, and so are accurately describing part of something.  That seems to be what is happening in the diversity of religions:  We have all (generally if not individually) experienced something and attempted to understand it.  The fact that we understand it differently does not mean we did not experience the same thing–any more than the fact that Aristotle’s physics is significantly different from that of Galileo and Newton, and Einstein’s different again, does not mean they all lived in different universes.  They simply did not notice the points that others did.

I have other reasons for preferring Christianity, but they are beyond the scope of the present discussion, which is really about whether the diversity of religions proves they are all “made up”.  I think that you can’t support that conclusion on the evidence.

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7 thoughts on “#84: Man-Made Religion”

  1. When you compare Missouri Synod Lutherans and Wisconsin Synod Lutherans, you are comparing slight differences in the branches from the same tree. When I said “different religions,” I was referring to religions that started up without knowledge of other religions or such a radical departure from existing religions that they can be considered independent. Hindus and Christians, for example.

    You have a good point about the blind men and the elephant. If some kind of super-natural life exists, it would be so foreign to our way of life that no one person or group of people could adequately understand it or describe it. Everyone would have small and different pieces of the puzzle.

    But, to extend that parable, the observations of the blind men would be exactly the same whether they were all feeling one single elephant or if they were, indeed, feeling four different creatures. By just listening to their descriptions, no one can tell if they were feeling one elephant or four different critters. Ditto for religion; with everyone describing their own religion differently, we can never know whether all religions are describing the same concept or different, unrelated ones.

    One point which you did not seem to address is that maybe humans (or maybe all life) are just predisposed to assume that something bigger than them is controlling the world. People invent gods to represent the idea that most things are out of their control and they hope that there is some divine rhyme and reason behind the world’s seemingly random events (such as crop failure, infant deaths, meeting certain people, and so on).

    So, it is not at all surprising that independent religions all have some common elements, just like agriculture from all over the world has common elements (dig a hole, drop in a seed, add water, and then harvest the crops) but different specifics. That’s just a natural extension of human needs and desires.

    My dogs don’t understand the way the world works. They have no idea where dog food comes from. They don’t know how I can opens doors and they can’t. They don’t understand why the postman walks by the front window every day. To them, all of these things are mysterious events that they have no control over. As far as they are concerned, I am a god and I do have control over this stuff and they have no choice but to trust that I know what I am doing.

    Dogs all over the world develop similar philosophies, regardless of their specific owners or circumstances.

    There is a good reason that god and dog are spelled with the same letters.

  2. Thanks for your response, William.

    To begin at the bottom, that bit about “god and dog are spelled with the same letters” is very poetic but not terribly useful. My first thought was that my theology is based largely on documents written in New Testament Greek, in which theos and kune share no letters in common (even the “e” is an epsilon in theos and an eta in kune).

    I intentionally started with two “religions” whose differences were so minor as to be insignificant to anyone not well-versed in the details of their theologies. I assure you that to them, the differences are significant. The point was (supposed to be) that religions which are nearly the same can be at odds with each other over very minor differences, and that in much the same way religions whose differences seem much greater–such as Hindus and Christians–actually share much more in common than that about which they disagree. They agree, in the metaphor, that there is an elephant. You are certainly correct that our information is weak enough that one group might be examining a rhinoceros and the other a hippopotamus, but if so they prove the existence of large creatures–thus, if in coming into contact with something in the spirit world they are describing entirely different entities, the contacts still demonstrate that there is a spirit world.

    You suggest that perhaps humans are predisposed to the idea that something greater than themselves is in control. Certainly that’s possible, and if indeed there is a god and humans were designed it would be a sensible inclusion in the design (perhaps akin to Asimov’s Laws of Robotics). On the other hand, if it is not a divine design, the best available explanation is that it is an evolved trait having survival benefit, and it is not at all clear how such a predisposition toward a belief in a divine being has such a survival benefit. Why would humans who inherently (as a genetic trait) believed that something greater was in control, bringing benefit and bane upon them, be more likely to survive and reproduce than otherwise identical humans who inherently believed that life events came randomly and the only control for which they could hope is that they could provide themselves? It seems counter-intuitive to me.

  3. It’s rather easy to see why believing in a higher power would make it easier for a population to survive and reproduce. Most every religion teaches pacifism and conformity — submit to authority, be kind to your neighbors, do what you are told, and don’t rock the boat.

    If the population follows those simple guidelines, people can live in close quarters without killing each other and taking all of their stuff. People can trust each other. Living in close-knit groups provides great benefits such mutual defense against outside threats, job specialization (i.e., one farmer can feed many and one blacksmith can provide metal for all), and public works (like roads and schools and water and theaters). Without the ability for many people to live close together in a community, every person would have to learn every skill they might ever need.

    But, most religions also offer intangible benefits. Most describe an afterlife full of milk and honey or eternal damnation. And where you go is a direct result of how well you conform to the society you live in. Many people don’t commit murder or steal because they are afraid of going to hell.

    And, on the other side, most people will gladly suffer through terrible hardships and unfair treatment if they believe that they will get a big reward in the end. Look at TV shows like Survivor; sixteen ill-prepared regular people willingly suffer through starvation and other indignities because they think they can win a million bucks. Religion is the same way; tithe away your money, don’t give in to your wants, suffer your tragedies quietly, praise your god, and you hopefully you will receive an eternal afterlife with 72 virgins and all the mana you can eat.

    An infinite life of pleasure is a very tempting offer, even if there is only a 1 in a million chance of it coming true.

    “Religion is the opiate of the people,” said Karl Marx. Without religion, a population cannot be controlled. And, Voltaire said that, if religion didn’t exist, man would have to invent it, meaning that religion is needed to keep society functioning.

    And, I agree wholeheartedly with these insightful philosophers.

  4. Your position is certainly in the main defensible, although 1) it has a few flaws and 2) it is mostly based on opinion, not evidence.

    In particular, you say of religions, “Most describe an afterlife full of milk and honey or eternal damnation. And where you go is a direct result of how well you conform to the society you live in. Many people don’t commit murder or steal because they are afraid of going to hell.”

    This catches my attention because as C. S. Lewis somewhere observed, the religion that has the most to say about conformity to a system of rules–Judaism–says virtually nothing about any possible afterlife (although it does have references to a spirit world, this is populated by other beings); and the religion that has the most to say about eternal life–Hinduism–is mostly focused on how you manage to escape it. The view that religion is a means of using promises of an afterlife as a means of controlling conduct now is ultimately a very narrow view of religion.

    In my (hopefully) forthcoming book “Why I Believe” I make the point that the only reason for anyone to embrace Christianity–or any other religion–is because one is persuaded that it is true. An honest man persuaded of the truth of the Christian faith (as I am) would embrace it even if it promised only hardship and pain; indeed, that is one of the arguments made for atheism, that it might not be attractive but its adherents believe it to be true. The fact that Christianity happens to promise a better afterlife is in that sense incidental, but it is logical given its core premise of a loving creator.

    Voltaire’s comment might be true, but then, if gravity didn’t exist we would have to devise a means of staying on the ground and retaining the atmosphere. Voltaire cannot point to a time when religion did not exist. The fact that it might be regarded necessary to the preservation of society does not mean it is not more than that.

    Besides, many atheists hold the opinion that religion is divisive and society would function better without it. I can’t see how that can be true now and not have been true in the past. Either it is possible for humans to get along with each other without religion to coerce us, and thus religion was always unnecessary and of limited or non-existent benefit, or it is not possible for us to get along without it, and the possibility that it might be true must be considered.

  5. And that pretty much brings us back to one of my earlier comments that no one ever discovers religion on their own; they always need to be told about it and then, as you say, persuaded that this particular religion is true.

    To me, that rings a bell loudly that religion is just an artificial construct. I mean, has there ever been a person that believed that Christ died for our sins that ever came to this conclusion without the concept first being explained to them dozens or thousands of times? I don’t think there is.

    And yes, many Atheists do believe that religion is the root of almost all conflict in the world. And that’s because it is true. More evil has been performed in the name of religion than in the name of Atheism or for any other reason.

    Personally, I think that stems from people’s basic insecurities about their religion. I mean, most people are normal, rational people that are familiar with the way the world works. They know that supernatural being like dragons and Superman and zombies don’t really exist and they would laugh at anyone who serious says that they do. So, they are uncomfortable and conflicted when they profess to the world that they, themselves, do believe in a different supernatural being, God. That bit of insecurity leads them to defend their belief in the supernatural even more vigorously, either by killing anyone who disagrees with them or, in your case, writing a book to convince the world that you are right.

    I mean, if you were comfortable and completely secure with your belief, you would not need to defend yourself to others by writing a book and you wouldn’t need to attend church to be with others that reinforce your belief. You’d be perfectly content to live out your life quietly, knowing that you were heading down the one and true path.

    As to my comments on the afterlife, I notice that you mostly focused on the milk and honey aspect. Many people will willingly suffer through hardships for the promise of a big payoff in the afterlife. But, just as many people will suffer through those hardships to avoid a really big punishment in the end. When facing a cop, for example, people will embarrass themselves by groveling and begging for forgiveness in order to avoid the cop arresting them or shooting them or both.

    This the old carrot-or-stick theory. You can get some people to follow the rules by offering them a carrot, but others need the threat of a stick to keep them in line. The beauty of Christianity is that they use both methods to keep their flock in line. You avoid eternal damnation and you get to go to Heaven forever.

  6. “And that pretty much brings us back to one of my earlier comments that no one ever discovers religion on their own; they always need to be told about it and then, as you say, persuaded that this particular religion is true.”

    I think it could be said, at least today, that no one ever discovers the heliocentric conception of the solar system on their own; they are always told about it. The same can be said of the laws of motion, the structure of the atom, and quite a few other bits of science. The fact is, some people discovered religion on their own at some point in time, and just like all other knowledge it was passed from person to person over time. I would bet that you know very little that you discovered entirely on your own without first having been told.

    My motivation for writing the book was that several people asked why someone as intelligent as I apparently am believes in God, and it struck me that a lot of people who think there is no evidence for the existence of God don’t know what evidence there actually is. I’m not threatened. As to going to church to be with others who reinforce my belief, well, that’s actually a bit comical in my situation, but that’s not something I’ll discuss here. Suffice it that I’m not a joiner and not a follower.

    I am, however, a teacher, constantly explaining things to others. It doesn’t in that sense matter whether I’m writing about time travel theory or role playing game theory or law and politics or logic or theology–I write because I am compelled to explain what I know. This is something I know. I can’t publish the entire book here on the blog, and I certainly don’t ask you to take my word for it, but there’s enough evidence that at least a few very intelligent people have been persuaded, even in the present.

    I don’t personally know anyone who became a Christian without any contact with Christianity. I do know someone who became a Christian solely from reading the Bible, and I have heard of someone who traveled a long distance to find a missionary because they had seen a dream or vision of some sort telling them that the missionary had the truth they wanted. You didn’t have that experience; that does not invalidate it for him, it only means you are within your right to doubt it. Ultimately, there are many people who claim to have met God. If many people claimed to have met Barrack Obama, you would be considered foolish to doubt his existence. You think we’re all deluded on this point, which again is your right, but you could be wrong.

    1. “I think it could be said, at least today, that no one ever discovers the heliocentric conception of the solar system on their own; they are always told about it.”

      That’s a good point and that’s why scientists and scholars call things like that a theory. They will easily admit that they could be wrong and they welcome opposing views. I can’t say that I’ve ever heard a religious man call the existance of God or Christ a theory. Most believe it to be the absolute truth, end of story. No more research is needed and no opposing viewpoints will be entertained.

      My point still remains that every single person who has followed Christ in the last 2000 years has been told about it by others; not one person has discovered the story independently. At least some people have discovered physics, math, and science on their own. Plus, if someone tells me that 2 + 2 = 4 and I have doubts, I can grab a bag of rocks and easily verify it for myself. When someone tells me that Jesus died for my sins, that he is still alive up in heaven, and that he loves me, I have absolutely no way of determining for myself whether this is true or not.

      “I am, however, a teacher, constantly explaining things to others.”

      I consider myself to be a teacher as well. But, I consider myself to be more of a philosopher and scientist first. I go out with a ruler and a scale and measure things and touch things and lick things. Then, I bring back all my data and try to figure out why things are as I measured them. I usually look for scientific and physical reason why things are the way they are. Only if I can find no physical reasons will I begin to consider a supernatural explanation.

      “Ultimately, there are many people who claim to have met God. If many people claimed to have met Barrack Obama, you would be considered foolish to doubt his existence.”

      There is a very big difference between the two. If I put all of my resources together, I’m sure that I could somehow meet and shake hands with President Obama. Or, with minimal effort, I could find a place to watch his motorcade go by and perhaps see him wave out the window. Plus, I can go online and see thousands of real photos of real people shaking hands with the man. None of that is the case for meeting God. Short of a bullet to the head, I see no way to gain an audience with God — other than in a dream.

      “You think we’re all deluded on this point, which again is your right, but you could be wrong.”

      Sure, I could be wrong. I’ve been wrong in a lot of cases. And, when I am, I change my conclusions and readily admit that I had previously been mistaken.

      But, I don’t think you are deluded, at least not in the insane way. I think you are deluded in the same way that many people fanatically support their favorite football team or their college or their family members. It’s just something that feels good to do and you don’t care that others scoff at it.

      Go Patriots!

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