Answer: Those who answer the above question with a resounding “yes” base their answer upon the following suppositions: People who could not explain or control a certain natural phenomenon attributed it to a creator. Or, people gave certain beneficial natural yet unreliable phenomena an aura of sacredness. In some cases, this went as far as deification. Supposedly, this was how the Ganges river became sacred to the Indians, the Nile river to the Egyptians, and cows to both of them. Confronted by insecurity, people sought security by revering and appeasing the supposed source of security or insecurity.
Some cultures split this aura of sacredness between two deities, one good the other evil, which led to attributing love and mercy to one, and terror and punishment to the other. The argument also is used to explain Heaven and Hell, and eventually concludes that religion became a comforting middle-class illusion and tool used by the powerful and the religious establishment to manipulate the masses. In other words, in communist terminology, religion became the opiate of the people.
I reject this argument for the following reason: Religion is not a byproduct of fear or a lack of reason.
The Arabic word for religion is din. Among its many meanings are obedience, recompense, and a path. These meanings are interlinked. The path is the way that leads, through obedience, to God, the All-Mighty. After we die, we will have to give a full account of what we did while on this path. In a more technical sense, din may be defined as “the complete Divine Law that guides a person of sound mind to do good.” Just as the law distinguishes a legally responsible person from one who is not legally responsible, the demands of the religious life are addressed to people who can reason. Religion exists because we can reason and understand.
Furthermore, our free will allows us to obey or disobey God. Obedience is required, but it is not imposed. The idea that religion comes about simply because some benefit is desired in an area beyond human control is untenable. True religion does not negate free will. On the contrary, it points out that nature was created to benefit us and to enlarge our potential. It also emphasizes that we can choose our own way by exercising our God-given freedom to do so.
As for religion being an outgrowth of defective reason, I beg to differ. In truth, religion is primarily grounded in faith. Islam demands rational and spiritual conviction based on thinking, reasoning, searching, and verification. People can base their initial faith on imitation, but they cannot remain at that stage if they want to be serious believers. The Qur’an contains over 700 verses urging people to study natural phenomena, to think, reason, search, observe, take lessons, reflect, and verify. Many verses conclude with such phrases as: Will you not use your reason?; will you not think?; will you not reflect?; will you not take lessons?; and take lessons, O people of insight. The Qur’an describes unbelievers as people without intellect and unable to think, reflect, see, and hear. The very first verse revealed to the Prophet was: Read in the name of Your Lord (96:1), a clear indication that one’s faith and belief cannot be blind.
Although we can deduce the existence of the universe’s Creator through reason, such a deduction is vulnerable and insecure. Sound belief in God is possible only through a true Prophet’s guidance. Every Prophet was endowed with certain signs (e.g., miracles) confirming his appointment by God. The Divine Scripture with which he was sent is the most significant miracle. Regardless of when we are born, we are required to follow the Book and the Prophet’s beliefs and actions.
If the argument that religion grows out of humanity’s need to cope with difficult events or certain natural phenomena had any foundation, we would expect it to be occasional. When the need for it had passed, it should have faded away, only to re-emerge when a similar need arose. But Islam is not concerned merely with birth, death, and marriage ceremonies or with solving a personal or collective crisis. Rather, Islam concerns itself with the entire life of each individual and of each society. It guides and protects all ordinary daily affairs, even those under our control. The call to prayer comes throughout the day, every day, and is directed to everyone, regardless of class or other criteria. It is not an answer to eclipses, thunderbolts, or other natural phenomena, but the divinely revealed way for each individual to become worthy of faith and able to choose goodness.
God created humanity as His vicegerent on Earth. As He is Himself Absolute, Transcendent, and independent of all things, He does not need our worship. Rather, it is we who need to worship Him. We do so by His will, for we cannot manage it ourselves. God wills, as spelled out in the Qur’an, that we lead a balanced life. He has opened a clear, straight path so that we will not go astray. If we follow this straight path (the Qur’an), we can develop our full individual and collective potential and attain true humanity.
We need religion. Indeed, if we understood what we truly need, we would realize, acknowledge, and cultivate our innate disposition toward eternal happiness. We would proclaim our true need and desire: “O God, give us a way of which You approve, so that we may be safe from any deviance.”
Religion is not formulated by some people to manipulate others or to cope with the natural world. God revealed religion out of His Mercy, because we need it and cannot be truly human without it. Only those who have passed through the trials of religious experience are worthy of eternal happiness and will be distinguished in the Hereafter.
In conclusion, true religion is the assemblage of Divine Revelations and Divine Laws by which we can know bliss in this world and the next. Our peace and happiness depend upon leading a religious life, for only through religion can the Law be observed in all the inner and outer spheres of our existence. Only religion makes it possible for us to deserve Paradise and the vision of God. Such achievements are beyond the power of every human-made civilization, regardless of how advanced they are.