BITE-SIZE PHILOSOPHY (76) – Is man religious by nature?

A relief showing Zeus and Leto with their offspring Apollo and Artemis to the right. 420-410 BCE. (Archaeological Museum of Brauron, Greece)

– Rev José Mario O Mandía

Man’s nature makes him a rational and a social being. Does it likewise make him a religious being?

If we were to go around the world and explore its remotest parts, we would probably find that each culture has some form of religious belief. The religious phenomenon is found wherever there are human beings. This is a fact that philosophy also studies. Indeed, man is the only being capable of religion; he is the only being on earth who yearns for something greater and who believes in some deity.

Where does this yearning and belief come from? Man’s will and his intellect. His will, despite attaining certain goods, always longs for more. His intellect makes him capable of reaching beyond the visible world – it makes him open to what is infinite.

Anthropologists  and  ethnologists  acknowledge  the existence of religion.    Likewise,  philosophers  and  theologians. Aristotle (384-322 BC) taught:  “All  men  are  convinced  that  the  gods  exist.” Clement  of  Alexandria (150-211/215 AD) said,  “There  is  no  group  of  farmers,  nomads  or  citizens  who  can  live  without  having  faith  in  a  superior  being.” Henri Bergson (1851-1941) asserted,  “In  the  past,  there  have  existed  human  societies  without  science,  art  or  philosophy. But  there  has  been  no  society  without  religion.”

All religion is the acknowledgement of something or Someone greater than man. English Catholic historian Christopher  Dawson (1889-1970), wrote  in  his  book  on  Religion  and  Culture: “What  then  is  the  specific  nature  of  the  religious  phenomenon?    All  religion  is  based  on  the  recognition  of  a  superhuman  Reality  of  which  man  is  somehow  conscious  and  towards  which  he  must  in  some  way  orientate  his  life.    The  existence  of  the  tremendous  transcendent  reality  that  we  name  GOD  is  the  foundation  of  all  religion  in  all  ages  and  among  all  peoples.”

In 6th century  BC, universal religions start appearing. The religions of the Far East, especially Hinduism and Buddhism, believed that the divine is absolute reality with which man should identify himself and in which he would dissolve himself after a period of purification. The religions of the Near East (which also spread in the  West,  like  Judaism,  Christianity, and Islam) believe in God to whom they can relate through dialogue, covenant, love or obedience.

A careful observation of religions shows us that they have a few basic features. (1) The first is a creed which explains not only what or who the deity is, but the place that man and the world occupy. (2) Then there is a cult or worship which includes prayers and rites. (3) Finally there is a moral code which lays down the norms of behavior.

When we study the influence of religion in society through the centuries, we will discover the many benefits it has brought.

“Religion in its highest forms has exercised a profound influence on the development of human culture. In the recognized sphere of morality, it has offered powerful motives to right conduct; it has been the chief inspiration of music, poetry, architecture, sculpture, and painting; it has been the dominant influence in the formation of a permanent literature. In all the early civilizations, the chief representatives and transmitters of the highest known culture have been the officials in charge of religious rites. Religion has been a mighty force in the life of nations, cultivating in the hearts of men a striving for better things, a healthy tone of cheerfulness, hope, joy, resignation under calamities, perseverance in the face of difficulties, a readiness for generous service, in short a spirit of high-minded optimism, without which no nation can rise to greatness” (Aiken, C.F. “Religion,” in The Catholic Encyclopedia, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12738a.htm)

But hasn’t religion caused many wars?

We will get to that question next time.

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