What is religion? What is the source of religion?

Posted: 24 Juni 2010 in Islamic Lecture

As we are living in a country that has Christian roots, it may be appropriate to look at Christianity as an illustrative example of just what makes up a religion. My only qualification for this task is that, before I became a Muslim, I was a Christian. In Christianity, as with any other system of belief or ideology, I believe, each of us should at some point, take at least some level of “ownership” or responsibility in his or her beliefs. What do I mean by ownership? What I mean is that each one of us, at some point in our life, should examine the source, validity, and appropriateness of what we were taught about religion. Perhaps each of us should start by asking ourselves the basic question, what is religion?

Is religion an experience or a doctrine? Or is religion so defined that it can be referred to as both experience and doctrine. In other words, as a commitment to a belief, as well as the belief itself (whether personal or institutionalized). Both of these definitions, in fact, are very close to those found in “Webster’s 9th Collegiate Dictionary.” Now, concerning the experience of religion, each person must speak to his own personal experience. Concerning religious doctrine, however, we can and should make some examination into the source of these doctrines.

Over the centuries, the sources of doctrinal Christianity have been put to task by numerous thinkers and Biblical scholars, from Thomas Jefferson to Albert Schweitzer. The doctrines of Christianity have outlived them all so far. Unfortunately, according to the 1993 book, “The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus,” “The level of public knowledge of the Bible [today] borders on the illiterate. ..church and synagogue have failed in their historic mission to educate the public in the fourth “R”, religion.” The authors continue, “Many English-speaking people are not even cognizant that the original languages of the Bible were Hebrew (Old Testament) and Greek (New Testament). As a consequence [of the version authorized by King James in 1611], the English Bible has rapidly become the only version of the Bible known to most English-speaking people, including many clergy. Many Americans do not know there are four canonical gospels, and many who do, can’t name them. The public is poorly informed of the assured results of critical scholarship, although those results are commonly taught in colleges, universities, and seminaries.”

If these assertions are true, for such a group of people there is little likelihood they will be able to ask the tough questions needed to critically examine the source of their religious doctrine. In all likelihood, many may well be ignorant of what Christian doctrine proposes to teach them. Aside from those individuals who have made their faith an integral and dynamic part of their lives, I believe religious ignorance and apathy have become the tragedy of Christianity in the West, at least as I have observed it.

Muhammad Asad, formerly Leopold Weiss, an Austrian statesman, journalist and author, writes (in his book “Islam at the Crossroads”, 1947) about the loss of the religious orientation in the West, an outcome that has its roots in the so-called Middle Ages:
“The liberation of the European mind from the intellectual bondage to which the Christian Church had subjugated it took place in the time of the Renaissance and was to a very large extent due to the new cultural impulses and ideas which the Arabs had been transmitting to the West for several centuries.”

“The Middle Ages had laid waste Europe’s productive forces. Sciences were stagnant, superstition reigned supreme, the social life was primitive and crude to an extent hardly conceivable today. At that point the cultural influence of the Islamic world – at first through the adventure of the Crusades in the East and the brilliant universities of Muslim Spain in the West, and later through the growing commercial relations established by the republics of Genoa and Venice – began to hammer at the bolted doors of European civilization. Before the dazzled eyes of the European scholars and thinkers another civilization appeared – refined, progressive, full of passionate life and in possession of cultural treasures which Europe had long ago lost and forgotten. What the Arabs had done was far more than a mere revival of old Greece. They had created an entirely new scientific world of their own and developed until then unknown avenues of research and philosophy. All this they communicated through different channels to the Western world; and it is not too much to say that the modern scientific age in which we are living at present was not inaugurated in the cities of Christian Europe, but in Islamic centres as Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo, Cordova, Nishapur, Samarqand.”

“The effect of these influences on Europe was tremendous. With the approach of Islamic civilization, a new intellectual light dawned on the skies of the West and infused it with fresh life and thirst for progress. It is no more than a just appreciation of its value that European historians term that period of regeneration the Renaissance – that is, “re-birth.” It was, in fact, a re-birth of Europe.”

“These movements were sound in their way, and, if they had met with real spiritual success, they might have produced a certain reconciliation between science and religious thought in Europe. But, as it happened, the wrong caused by the Church of the Middle Ages was already too far-reaching to be repaired by mere reformation, which, moreover, quickly degenerated into political struggles between interested groups. Instead of being truly reformed, Christianity was merely driven into defence and gradually forced to adapt an apologetic attitude. The Church – whether Catholic or Protestant – did not really give up any of its mental acrobatics, it incomprehensible dogmas, its world-contempt, its unscrupulous support of the powers-that-be at the expense of the oppressed masses of humanity: it merely tried to gloss over these grave failings and to “explain them away” by means of hollow assertions. No wonder, therefore, that, as the decades and the centuries advanced, the hold of religious thought grew weaker and weaker in Europe, until in the 18th century the predominance of the Church was definitely swept overboard by the French Revolution and its cultural consequences in other countries.”

“At that time again it appeared as if a new spiritual civilization, freed from the tyrannical gloom of the scholastic theology of the Middle Ages, had a chance of growth in Europe. In fact, at the end of the 18th and the early 19th century we encounter some of the best and spiritually most powerful European personalities in the domain of philosophy, art, literature and science. But this spiritual, religious conception of life was and remained restricted to a few individuals. The great European masses, after having been for so long a time imprisoned in religious dogmas which had no connection with the natural endeavors of man, could not, and would not, once those chains were broken, find their way back to a religious orientation.”

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