I recently asked a Facebook friend whether he considered himself a spiritual person. In the inquiring message, I shared a YouTube video[i] where Fr. Robert Barron discusses “Who is Jesus and what makes him unique?” It’s an excellent video that discusses some of the key differences between Jesus and other religious leaders.
My friend replied, “All religion is man-made… a sham.”
The concern that all religion is man-made is very reasonable. If all religions are man-made, how can any of them contain binding truth that one can’t ultimately discover on their own? Why believe the truth presented by one over another? Is the ‘truth’ presented the same? If not, how different?
Just how important is this issue? From a leadership and political influence standpoint, very important. Consider the implications with respect to the current U.S. president, Barrack Obama:
Barack Obama has an unconventional background which includes relatives from three different continents and personal experiences with several different faith traditions. ―He spent his early years under the influence of atheism, folk Islam, and a humanist‘s understanding of the world that sees religion merely as a man-made thing, as a product of psychology,” according to Mansfield (Mansfield, 4). In fact, Obama is the first President to not have been raised in an explicitly Christian home. On the contrary, he was exposed to the teachings of all major religions since his mother thought it was important that he be well versed in the faith traditions of other people. Not only did his mother introduce him to other religious viewpoints, but the faith of his closest relatives was a diverse mix and affected his early thinking about religion. [ii]
In order to adequately address whether religion is man-made, one would first need to address what religion they’re talking about, because many religions are in fact man-made and those who adhere to them wouldn’t attempt to dissuade you otherwise. For example, few would question that Buddhism is a man-made religion established by Siddhartha Gautama, a prince who renounced worldly wealth out of compassion for the poor, embracing and teaching a way of life that could allow one to better connect with a transcendent reality.
Most Hindus would probably not deny that Hinduism is also man-made; Hindus believe that the gods embodied by their religion, and perhaps religions in general, are paths developed to understand ultimate reality, Atman. Similarly, various pagans who “worship” aspects of nature probably wouldn’t deny that the personification or deification of nature is a man-made endeavor. Many educated Greeks and Romans who visited temples or shrines built to honor Zeus, Apollo or Jupiter may have been aware that these gods were man-made, the result of synthesizing imagination, reality and awe into poetry and myth, just as someone educated today would be.
Taoism and Confucianism have well known origins in the teachings of men, as do Jainism, Gnosticism and the Baha’i faith. Notable exceptions are Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Mormonism.
Adherents of Judaism believe that their ancestry can be traced back to the first man and woman, who were made directly by God. Their history involves Adam & Eve, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, who later become Israel, and Joseph, up to the time of Moses, where God, or an angel of God, appeared to him in a burning bush and gave the 10 commandments, followed by instruction on how to govern his people and perform proper worship. As the history of the Jewish people continues, God works with his people through those commonly known as prophets, to teach, correct, prophesize and forewarn.
Adherents of Christianity believe that the work God started in the Jewish people was brought to fulfillment in the birth of God’s son, Jesus, through the Virgin Mary. The prescriptions given to Moses for worship and obedience, and through subsequent prophets, were to prepare His people to receive Him directly, the fruit of the “Tree of Life,” which Catholics now receive as the Eucharist. God no longer needed to communicate through prophets, He came in the flesh, redeeming a fallen nature caused by sin, instructing all mankind on the path to eternal salvation and establishing what is now known as the Catholic Church, the one Church established directly through Jesus by the authority given to Simon, a.k.a. St. Peter. Jesus, in several ways, claimed to be God, to be one with Him, and spoke authoritatively when discussing the 10 commandments, the Beatitudes, and proper worship. This distinction about Jesus, in comparison to other religious leaders, is one that Fr. Barron highlights exceptionally well in the video mentioned earlier.
Adherents of Islam believe that the angel Gabriel appeared to Muhammad and instructed him on the nature of God, or Allah, and how people should behave towards Allah and one another, and what consequences are appropriate if they do not. In regards to Mormonism, adherents believe God the Father and God the Son appeared to Joseph Smith and informed him that all other religions had it wrong and that he had been chosen to correct things and restore true worship. Joseph was then able to recover plates of gold and a seer stone that allowed him to recite the story of early inhabitants of America who were remnants of the lost tribe of Israel, who were at war with Native Americans and eventually killed off by them.
All four of these religions teach that, to a greater or lesser extent, the truths they contain are not man-made but were received from God Himself or through an angel. Each respective claim may be more believable to one person than another, often influenced by the environment in which a person was raised, and likely related to how insular those environments are. Likewise, instructions on how best to live may seem harder to follow for one person than another, if in fact they’re stirred in such a way that they cannot easily dismiss that the faith is completely man-made in the first place.
Perhaps what is most important in addressing whether or not a religion is man-made is whether it contains a universal truth, an absolute truth. In that human beings are capable of reasoning, man-made religions may contain great truths. Some of the claims may be so striking, so profound if true, that they warrant a greater degree of reverence or research.
One might also expect that those religions which contain truth about ultimate reality are marked by either greater adherents or supernatural phenomenon such as miracles, which tend to increase the number of adherents as they stir up our generally perceived notions of reality.
If I could prove beyond a doubt that Christianity is not a manmade religion, “faith” wouldn’t be necessary. If I could prove that there is a Creator and that our solar system and life didn’t happen by chance, faith wouldn’t be necessary, even if these explanations make the most logical sense. Moreover, in spite of scientific evidence that proves our universe has a definite beginning, and that life can’t be recreated in a test tube, let alone reproduce towards the diversity we see around us today, randomly and all by chance, it’s still possible to believe other explanations about the origins of our universe and life.
In this regard, faith entails the transmission of knowledge that can’t be proven. Likewise, if I tell you about something that happened to me yesterday, you would need to ‘have faith’ to believe that it actually happened to me and that I’m not lying to you. That faith would coincide with any trust you have that I’m an honest person. Moreover, I could establish my testimony through several witnesses, but even in that case, you’d have to believe that they’re also telling the truth. Nonetheless, the more witnesses I have, and the further removed from knowing me they are, lest we be conspiring together, the more likely the circumstances I’m relating to you are actual and not made up.
In regards to Christianity, you need to have faith that the stories of Jesus as presented by the eyewitnesses of his life are trustworthy and retold fairly accurately, as recorded in the New Testament. There were no video cameras at that time to make it seem like it actually happened, and even if there were, that they were actual and not created in a computer lab could still be disputed. Do the people who tell the story of his life seem trustworthy? Even if you believe they weren’t, there are many followers of the teachings of Jesus who have become known as saints. Their lives are often filled with miracles, supernatural phenomenon that stirs up our notion of ultimate reality. Two saints who lived and “died” fairly recently are Padre Pio and Pope St. John Paul II. The facts surrounding their lives should inspire us to search more deeply about the authenticity of the life of Jesus and any truths He revealed, truth which may be shared in some ways and degrees in other systems of belief, whether knowingly man-made or claimed of divine origin.
“Work with anxious concern to achieve your salvation. It is God who, in his goodwill toward you, begets in you any measure of desire or achievement. In everything you do, act without grumbling or arguing; prove yourself innocent and straightforward, children of God beyond reproach in the midst of a twisted and depraved generation –among whom you shine like the stars in the sky while holding fast to the word of life. As I look to the Day of Christ, you give me cause to boast that I did not run the race in vain or work to no purpose. [iii]
[ii] Ross, Zachary. The Audacity of Faith: A Study of Barack Obama’s Religious Views and How they could Shape his United States Presidency. Georgia State University, Department of Religious Studies. Online. http://scholarworks.gsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1022&context=rs_theses
[iii] Philippians 2:12b-16. The New American Bible. Confraternity of Christian Doctrine. Washington D.C. 1970.