What is religion?
Religion is our relationship to God. Lactantius defined religion as the right way of knowing and worshiping the true God; see p121 here. Buswell writes: “A religion is then any complex of practices, beliefs, and attitudes in which men show that they feel themselves to be bound to any object or ideal which they regard as of supreme worth.” Systematic Theology, 14. Van Oosterzee:
yet we soon discover as well in the most savage Fetich worshipper as in the most philosophic Theist an inward compulsion to rise not merely above themselves and this visible world but to the Endless, to the Godhead whatever their view of the Godhead may be, a longing to give something to God and to receive something in return from Him, a striving in a word to enter into an immediate relation with Him. It is upon this phenomenon that we base our definition. Religion is Life; each revelation of the religious sense is at the same time a manifestation of life. Of man; for to him as distinguished from other creatures must we here exclusively attend. In personal communion with God; for with this communion, whatever may be its nature or fruit, Religion has always to do and without self consciousness and freedom it is utterly impossible.
What are the two major theories as to the origin of religion?
The two theories come from two different worldviews. The revelation theory comes from those who hold a theistic worldview; all other theories arise from a secular worldview which does not believe in a deity and therefore do not believe in a revelation.
What is the difference between these two views?
The revelation theory holds that all religion on earth is a result of God’s general revelation of Himself to mankind. This is what Paul taught when he preached to the Athenians:
God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things; and He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, that they would seek God, if perhaps they might feel for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we also are His children.’ (Acts 17:24-28)
What does Paul teach in these verses?
Paul first teaches that God created the universe: “God who made the world and all things in it…” Paul goes on to teach that God had two purposes in creating humans:
- that they might live κατοικεῖν on all the face of the earth; and
- that they might seek ζητεῖν God if perhaps they might feel for Him and find Him.
What does it mean to “seek God?”
Notice that seeking for God is followed by feeling for Him and finding Him. The word for “feeling” here is ψηλαφάω; see here. The idea is like a person who is trying to find a light switch or a door in a dark room. They feel along and stumble into things until they find it. This is how those find God who do not have special revelation.
What does this teach us about religion?
It teaches us that the all the religion in the world is just so much feeling about in the dark in an attempt to find God. It is people responding to God’s general revelation and trying to read it and to discover who God is. Fairbairn writes:
From this point of view the religions of the world have a most touching and tragic import; they show man belated, bewildered in wandering mazes lost, stumbling darkly on, impelled by his Divine home sickness, in search of his rest in the eternal. When I think of what these religions symbolize, how they speak of brave endeavors of anxious faith and still more anxious doubt of aspirations that rose to God, of blind desires that stretched imploring hands to a heaven that must descend ere earth could be satisfied, then I feel that I dare not speak of them disdainfully; they plead with an eloquence that mocks speech with the men who have a purer faith for a share of it for a knowledge of it.
Is there not something in human persons which seems to naturally reach out for and to inquire after God?
There is, and this is the image of God which God created in every human person from the very beginning.
How does the image of God lead men and women to seek God and to reach out for Him as it were?
Because God created man with a rational soul which is able to ask the kind of existential questions which inevitably arise in our minds. Where did we come from? Why am I here? Where am I going? Animals are not made in the image of God, do not have a rational nature, and therefore do not ask such questions.
What does Calvin teach on this subject?
Calvin says that God has placed within man “seeds of religion.”
While experience testifies that the seeds of religion are sown by God in every heart, we scarcely find one man in a hundred who cherishes what he has received, and not one in whom they grow to maturity, much less bear fruit in due season. Some perhaps grow vain in their own superstitions, while others revolt from God with intentional wickedness, but all degenerate from the true knowledge of him. source
Does every civilization on this earth have a religion?
Yes, as Zwemer says, “The heart of the history of humanity is the history of religion.” see p29. Van Oosterzee writes:
The investigation into the nature of religion leads naturally to the question as to its ground and here it occurs to us at once that we have to do with something more than a mere sporadic phenomenon. “You may see towns without laws or coins or literature but no one has ever yet seen a people without a God or prayer without religious ceremonies or sacrifices.” [Aristotle] This phenomenon has been pointed out by numberless writers of antiquity and their testimony has been contradicted but never confuted by those of later inquirers. Travelers who had asserted that they had met with nations without any religion have not seldom been seen to have been partially or imperfectly informed and even where a belief in a God head was wanting there appeared the fear of a devil. source
Do religions develop from primitive forms of religion to more complex?
Those who study the history of religions answer this question in the negative.
Fourthly the historic which has been here made lends support to the theory that there is uniform growth and progress of from fetishism to polytheism from polytheism to monotheism from monotheism to positivism maintained by the followers of Comte. None of the religions here described shows any signs of having developed out of fetishism unless it be the shamanism of the Etruscans. In most of them, the monotheistic idea is most prominent at the first and becomes obscured and gives way before a polytheistic corruption. source
Muller writes that his research has shown the opposite. Religions inevitably decay as they grow older.