Is religion simply a man-made construct? It appears so if we take into consideration the sheer number of religions that exist and have existed, all with varying claims to divinity. It is estimated that over three thousand religions have passed through the ages, all playing a key role towards the development of civilisation and society. Many of them have captivated followers on magnitudinal scales, but all have eventually faded due to social, political, and cultural evolvements. Examples of these include the ancient religions of the Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians, all of which have become obsolete. Does this mean they were all fictitious?
In ancient Egyptian religion, Ra (god of the sun) was responsible for creation, whilst Osiris (god of the dead) oversaw the afterlife. In ancient Greek religion, Zeus (god of the sky) was responsible for thunder and lightning, whilst Poseidon (god of the sea) was responsible for storms and earthquakes. It is now evident that these deities were most certainly fictional. They existed in relation to the time that they occurred because they prima facie could explain why things were the way they were via alluring stories and picturesque fantasies.
Yet many of us fail to recognise that the prolific number of diverse and colourful religions could validate that they are all a human construct, including the ones that exist today. What is it that gives one precedence over the other? The idea was comically expressed in a short essay entitled Memorial Service (1922) by H. L. Mecken who listed dozens of gods and declared “all are dead”. New wave atheists are also reiterating the point, such as Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion (2006): “I have found it an amusing strategy, when asked whether I am an atheist, to point out that the questioner is also an atheist when considering Zeus, Apollo, Amon, Ra, Mithras, Baal, Thor, Wotan, the Golden Calf and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I just go one god further”.
It is true we have stripped the need for deities to explain various natural phenomena such as rainbows and earthquakes, and the most populous religions today are no longer polytheistic. But the underlying foundations of religion continue to prevail and exist in similar frameworks – cultural practices, prayer, and worship of a supernatural entity who can explain the world and our purpose in it. Messiahs, angels, demons, and the afterlife are also common traits that have remained staple throughout history.
One could argue that the persistence of these traits validates some truth to the central claim of all religions. This common ground is used to argue for religious ‘pluralism’ - the notion that all religions can co-exist as they all equally lead to God. The theologian John Hick was a prominent advocate of this view, and as a Christian he was certainly aware of the inconsistency between a universal loving god and salvation only through Christ. The problem is strikingly evident - are the members of religions other than their own condemned for an eternity of punishment? Hick argues no, and contends that God is at the centre of all religions. In The Second Christianity (1983) he argues for all of “the great world religions as revolving around the same divine reality”. This approach maintains a fair God, accessible through all religions to those who have acted devoutly.
But the problem with pluralism is that each religion is meticulously specific in its claim to divinity, and each often warns us that worship of any other deity is fallacious and punishable. For example, Christianity posits one God in which Jesus Christ, as God incarnate, acts as a messiah providing salvation to those who follow only his teachings and moral guidance. Alongside this, we must acknowledge the Bible, the church, the holy sacraments, the holy trinity, heaven, hell, and other religious dogma. In comparison, Hinduism is much older than Christianity and posits belief in an ultimate God (Brahma) who is represented through several deities, including Lakshmi, Krishna, and Ganesha. Hindus believe in reincarnation, which is governed by karma. Alongside this, we must acknowledge the vedas, brahman, moksha, and other yogas.
Both religions have millions of devoted followers, yet they are clearly incompatible. And it can easily be accepted that for one to be a true tenant of either religion, one must whole heartedly accept such typical features. Therefore it is not surprising that many religious followers concur they are ‘exclusivist’ rather than pluralist. (Religious exclusivism is a position in which one feels their religion is true, and all others are wrong. Many religious leaders and leading influential theologians, such as Karl Barth and William Lane Craig, adopt this view).
Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, and the many other religions of today have all emerged from various parts of the world and contain a unique set of beliefs, customs, traditions, rituals, symbols, and cosmogonies. Are all correct? No, it seems evident that the inconsistency between them is too great to ignore, and religious followers are happy to concede this. But do any have a unique claim to legitimacy? Is one religion any more verifiable than the other? I leave this for the reader to ponder; the debate certainly isn’t going away anytime soon.