THE HISTORY OF RELIGION

Scholars, who study religion in the context of history or the social sciences suffer from the fundamental drawback of not looking at religion in the correct perspective. In doing so, their views become thoroughly distorted. They are like people, who stand in a crooked position in order to look at a square, and, viewing it from an acute angle, decide it is rectangular. The square is still a square, it is just that the viewers’ standpoint is wrong, or merely irrelevant.

It was from just such a skewed angle that T.R. Miles asserted that ‘the religion is the product of a certain type of interaction between man and his environment.’ The basic mistake these scholars make is to study religion as an objective issue (Julian Huxley, Man in the Modern World, p. 129).

That is, they collect indiscriminately all the historical material that goes under the name of religion, and then form an opinion about religion in the light of whatever material has come their way. Thus they take up a wrong position at the very outset.

Miles’ summing up is that ‘religion’ like any other subject, can be treated as an objective problem, and studied by the method of science. The first step is to make a list of the ideas and practices associated with different religions—gods and demons, sacrifice, prayer, belief in a future life, taboos and moral rules in life. It is like making a collection of animals and plants. Science always begins in this way, but it cannot stop at this level; it inevitably seeks to penetrate deeper to make an analysis.

This analysis may take two directions. It may seek a further understanding of religion as it now exists, or it may adopt the historical method and search for an explanation of the present in the past. With regard to the historical approach, it is clear that religion like other social activities evolves.

Further, its evolution is determined by momentum, its inner logic and the influence of the material and social conditions of the period. As an example of the first, take the tendency from polytheism towards monotheism: granted the theistic premise, this tendency seems almost inevitably to declare itself in the course of time.

Religion, consequently, comes to be regarded as a mere social process, rather than as a revelation of reality. That which is a revelation of reality is an ideal in itself, and its history with all its manifestations has to be studied in this light. On the other hand, that which is only a social process has no inherent ideal. The response of society alone determines its position. Anything which enjoys the status of a social norm or social tradition can retain its position so long as society gives it a de facto status. If society discards it and adopts any other practice in its place, then its historical interest only can survive and its importance as a social tradition falls into oblivion.

But the case of religion is vastly different from this.

As the eminent physician, Fred Hoyle puts it, “This moral or religious impulse, whatever we choose to call it, is extraordinarily strong. When faced by opposition, and even by powerful political attempts at suppression, it obstinately refuses to lie down and die. One often comes on statements that religion is a primitive superstition that modern man can well do without. Yet if the impulse were truly primitive in a biological sense (as for instance patriotic loyalty to the group in which one happens to live is primitive), we would surely expect to see it in other animals. As far as I know, no one has advanced any evidence for this idea. The religious impulse appears to be unique to man, and indeed to have become stronger in pre-history the more advanced man became in his intellectual attainments. Admittedly the trend has reversed over the recent past, but the change over the past two centuries may well prove to be impermanent…

Stripped of the many fanciful adornments with which religion has become surrounded, does it not amount to an instruction within us that expressed rather simply might read as follows: You are derived from something “out there” in the sky. Seek it and you will find much more than you expect.”

We cannot, therefore, study religion in the same fashion as we take stock of our household goods, modes of conveyance, clothing, housing, etc. This is because religion is an entity in itself, which is either accepted, rejected or accepted in a partial or distorted form by society of its own free will. As a result, religion remains the same in its essence while assuming a diversity of forms which evolve according to the practices of particular societies. It is wrong, therefore, to classify all the different forms of religion prevalent in different societies under the common heading of “religion”. We shall illustrate this with reference of democracy in the next note.

To be continued, Insha Allah…

Previous notes:

UNDERSTANDING ATHEISM
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MODERN SCIENCE
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THE LIMIT OF SCIENCE
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THE PSYCHOLOGICAL ARGUMENT
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AGE OF IGNORANCE
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