Varied conceptions of religion

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              By Chris Odinaka Nwedo

In the earliest times religious beliefs determine the nature of life and living across societies. People make decisions and carry on the daily routine in accordance with what they perceived as ‘Divine Will’. There were the notions that gods were the friends of human beings and sought only the best for them by providing them with the most perfect of all lands to live in and an eternal home to enjoy when their lives on earth were done. The dedication to the ‘Divine Will’ is the genesis of many religious events, ritual ceremonies, sacrifices etc. In these periods, sacred squares, temples, shrines adorned with statuses of gods were the centres of activities. There is a prevalent understanding that the gods and humans alike were involved in the perpetual struggle to restrain the powers of chaos, and they each had their own role to play in this dramatic battle. The societies then understood they had responsibilities of providing the gods with everything they needed to run the world.1

 In the ancient societies both the individuals and states’ institutions refer to the gods in major decision events such as love related ventures, marriages, wars, etc. In war situations elaborate ritual ceremonies and consultation were carried to solicit the support and victory from the gods. The Greeks, for instance, “consulted the gods on matters ranging from affairs of state to personal decisions regarding love, marriage, or one’s job. The religion of Rome followed the same paradigm as that of Greece. The Roman religion most likely began as a kind of animism and developed as they came into contact with other cultures.2

In  Igboland, in the South Eastern Nigeria, the beliefs in Gods were so strong and compelling prior to the advent of Christianity. Every house hold has a sacred portion of the house dedicated to the Almighty God, Chi-Ukwu or Chi-neke. Chi-Ukwu is accurately translated as the Great God, while Chi-neke means God the Creator. Within this sacred portion are gods, known as Chi symbolised by wooden sculpture of various shapes and sizes. Every member of the family has one dedicted to his or her name. The head of the family is by implication the ‘High Priest’ who determines the periods and ceremonies for veneration of each of the personal gods, Chi. It is not obvious that Chi-Ukwu has any image symbolising him. The first thing the ‘High Priest’ does everyday, imperatively, is to dedicate every event or activity of the day to the Chi-Ukwu. This is done in a mode of lengthy prayer with cola nuts and alligator pepper. After the prayer the items are sanitized and eaten while some of these are dropped on the ground as homage. The daily ritual is not exclusive, ‘High Priest’ can invite anyone disposed. The objectives of all are solicitations of daily protection and provision of the needs of the family by the gods. The ancestors are also invoked and minded of their obligations of benevolence to the family.

The religions of the ancient world have many things in common, naturally. Consequently, the stories of man’s relationship and interactions with the gods remain significantly similar irrespective of cultures and the societies. Collaboratively, Joshua J. Mark noted that, in every culture, one finds the same or very similar patterns, which the people found resonant and which gave vitality to their beliefs. These patterns include the existence of many gods who take a personal interest in the lives of people. There is the belief in creation by a supernatural entity who commanded everything into existence. There are also other supernatural beings emanating from the first and greatest one, a supernatural explanations for the creation of the earth and human beings; a relationship between the created humans and their creator god requiring worship and sacrifice.3

The reference to religion and attachment to the divine in every issue of life are progressively challenged by some varieties of ‘rebellious’ understanding of the roles of science. In this notion of science, the divine has never existed and there will no longer be need for him to exist because the science is working with man to confront, overcome difficulties of existence and interpret the mysteries.  The use of the word ‘rebellious’ was informed by the fact that from beginning, science has no conflict with and it is indistinguishable with religion. Science evolved from the earliest ideas of things that were predominantly religious. The perceived disparity between religion and science was unknown in the start. “Egyptian religion was a combination of magic, mythology, science, medicine, psychiatry, spiritualism, herbology, as well as the modern understanding of ‘religion’ as belief in a higher power and a life after death.4  Some philosophers particularly Aristotle never recognized the distinctions between religion and science as we are having them today.

The beclouding of religion and religious ways of thinking is an artifice of modern man’s attacks on the norm. There are varied schools of thought actively confrontational to the ideas of religion and what they symbolize.  However, some ancient philosophers were not all subservient to all the prevailing notions of religion of the times. “Plato consistently criticized the Greek concept of the gods and Critias claimed they were simply created by men to control other men. Xenophanes claimed the Greeks’ view of the divine was completely wrong and God was unimaginable.5 These controversies are deepened with the explosion of knowledge, emergence of ideologically disparate theological schools and the increasingly growing radical agnostics who maintained inflexibly that religion began in fear and ignorance and must continue to be laughed at as science advances to invalidate its many earlier assertions. Skeptics customarily argued that religion was cleverly invented to authenticate the concept, ‘God’. And that the astonishing progress of science demonstrated that the world has preference for reason than superstition and that when people are reasonable the world will move forward and not backwards. For me the moving forward of the world is an ambiguity that does not clearly say what it meant. The world can only move forward in clarity of mutual exchange of progress and fraternity, these sum all the tenets of religion.

At the moment of creation God enjoined man to increase, multiply and conquered the earth. This is the most primary command given to man by God and science has taken the responsibility and it is vowing to see that this primordial injunction came true. According to Thomas Jefferson God who gave us life gave us liberty. And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the mind of the people that these liberties are of the Gift of God. Liberty is deemed in other countries incompatible with good government and yet proved by our experience to be its best support.

For James Madison “we have staked the whole future of American civilization, not upon the power of government, far from it, we have staked the future of all of our political institutions upon the capacity of mankind for self-government, upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves, to control ourselves, to sustain ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God. Abraham Lincoln on the other hand said, “we have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of Heaven…but we have forgotten God……and we have vainly imagined in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become… too proud to pray to the God that made us. The only assurance of our national safety is to lay our foundation in morality and religion. To sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards of men.6

These however means that skeptics argument that with science, mankind has moved beyond the preposterous ideas of religion, as enlightened men cannot return to the primitive idea that God created everything in six days is misleading. The simplistic ideas’ of the world and creation are of course not contradicted but reaffirmed by science which is today in frenzied zeal to conquer the earth. Sequel the injunction from God, science has ‘intransigently’ compelled nature to spew many of its secrets. Theodore Roosevelt noted that “every thinking man, when he thinks, realizes that the teachings of the Bible are so interwoven and entwined with our whole civic and social life that it would be literally impossible for us to figure out ourselves what that life would be if these standards were removed…7 Also for Paschal Boyer, it is a very tempting mistake to assume that people are having religious beliefs because they failed to reason properly or that if only they grounded their reasoning in sound logic or rational order, they would not have supernatural beliefs, including superstitions and religion. ‘This view is misguided, for several reasons; because it assumes a dramatic difference between religious and commonsense  thinking, where there is not one because belief is a matter of deliberate weighing of evidence…8 According to Boyer ‘there is a long and respectable tradition of explaining religion as the consequence of a flaw in mental functioning. Because people do not think much or not very well, the argument goes, they let all sorts of unwarranted beliefs clutter their mental furniture.9 In other words, there is religion around because people failed to take prophylactic measures against beliefs, for one of the following reasons:

  • ‘People are superstitious, they will believe anything. People are naturally prepared to believe all sorts of accounts of strange or counter-intuitive phenomena. They have enthusiasm for UFOs as opposed to scientific cosmology. People are disposed for alchemy instead of chemistry, for urban legends instead of hard news. Religious concepts are both cheap and sensational; they are easy to understand and rather exciting to entertain. Or
  • Religious concepts are irrefutable: most incorrect or incoherent claims are easily refuted by experience or logic but religious concepts are different. They invariably describe processes and agents whose existence could never be verified and are consequently never refuted. As there is no evidence against most religious claims, people have no obvious reason to stop believing them. Or
  • Refutation is more difficult than belief: it takes greater effort to challenge and rethink established notions than just accept them. Besides, in most domains of culture we just absorb other people’s notions. Religion is no exception. If everyone round about you says that there are invisible dead people around, and everyone acts accordingly, it would take a much greater effort to try and verify such claims than it takes to accept them, if only provisionally.10

Boyer continued that these arguments are substandard or unsatisfactory ‘not that they are false, religious claims are indeed beyond verification. People do like sensational supernatural tales better than banal stories and they generally spend little time rethinking every bit of cultural information they acquire. But this cannot be a sufficient explanation for why people have the concepts they have, the beliefs they have, the emotions they have. The idea that we are often gullible or superstitious is certainly true; but we are not gullible in just every possible way. According to Boyer, ‘religious claims are irrefutable, but so are all sorts of other far-fetched notions that we never find in religion. Take for instance the claim that my right hand is made of green cheese except when people examine it, that God ceases to exist every Wednesday afternoon, that cars feel thirsty when their tanks run low, or that cats think in German. I could make up hundreds of such interesting and irrefutable beliefs that no one would ever consider as a possible belief.11  Religion is not a domain where anything goes, where any strange belief could appear and get transmitted from generation to generation. On the contrary, there is only a limited catalogue of possible supernatural beliefs. Even without knowing the details of religious systems in other cultures, we all know that some notions are far more widespread than others. The idea that there are invisible souls of dead people lurking around is a very common one; the notion that people’s organs change position during the night is very rare. But both are equally irrefutable.12

It is neither right nor justifiable to postulate that religious belief is a mere leap into irrationality, there are more to belief than the suspension of reason. Arguments that religion was invented to dispel natural fear and anxiety and that it is a creature at a time in human history were however, contradicted by the fact that religion rather generates as much anxiety as it allays: vengeful ghosts, nasty spirits and aggressive gods are as common as protective deities and that there is no reason to think that the various kinds of thoughts we call “religious” all appeared in human cultures at the same time. According to Boyer religion is not about explaining natural phenomena, but that most religious explanations of natural phenomena actually explain little but produce salient mysteries and in places where religion is not invoked to explain them, such phenomena are not seen as intrinsically mystical or supernatural.13

The truth of religion seemed of little value to religious skeptics and atheists who insistently fling it away as the psychological crutch upon which men stand just because they refused to accept the truth and embrace the value. For these schools of thought, we assign all things unknown to us to causes outside our ordinary realm of experience as an explanation. This provides us with a safe and easy answer to questions that we are unsure of. Man is an inquisitive creature and he seeks to find an answer to all things. When something seems devoid of solution we are wrought with frustration and dismay. In order to curb this, we create a being whose infinitude and perfection could only explain the unexplainable. Now with an answer, we are able to continue on.14  It is self-refuting to say that religion is a claim induced by ignorance because many great men of valour and power never did without tenaciously holding their faith in God as sacrosanct. I am reminded of a statement accredited to Justice Josiah Brewer,  a United States Supreme Court Judge, that the  laws and  institutions of America must necessarily be based upon and embody the teachings of the Redeemer of mankind. It is impossible that it should be otherwise; and in this sense and to this extent American civilization and institutions are emphatically Christian.15

 I am unsure of any atheist, a skeptic or agnostic more popular or greater than George Washington who said, he was sure that never was a people, who had more reason to acknowledge a Divine interposition in their affairs, than those of the United States and should be pained to believe that Americans have forgotten the Omnipotence of that God who is alone able to protect them. According to Washington, ‘true religion affords to government its surest support. Religion and morality are the essential pillars of civil society… Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labour to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them.16

Washington in his farewell address in 1796 demonstrated that United States of America necessarily needed to be obedient to God as a condition for good governance, true affection for one another and love to do justice. He asked God to graciously be pleased to dispose all Americans to do justice, to love mercy, and to demean themselves with that charity, humility, and pacific temper of mind which were the characteristics of the Divine Author of the blessed religion of the people. For Washington, without a humble acceptance of Godly principles America can never hope to be a happy nation. Washington clearly understood it was impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible. This predisposition of Washington, however, correlated ironic comment by Charles Dickens that very truly religion is the thing that makes the ordinary man feel extraordinary and it is an equally important truth that religion is the thing that makes the extraordinary man feels ordinary.

If theism is incomprehensible, for agnostics, atheism is undoubtedly illogical, because ‘if there were no God, there would be no atheists.17 It is logically absurd to assume that a person can know for sure that God does not exist.  Atheism is a ‘faith’ position that is on unsecured ground logically, rationally… The position of atheism is that God does not exist, dogmatically.18 To be so closed minded is being intellectually imprudent.  It is easier and credible to affirm the being of God than its negation. The structure of the universe and nature itself undeniably proves God. It will take knowledge and understanding beyond what is available to humans to prove nature wrong and disprove its many proves of God’s existence. Everything in the universe demonstrates the obvious and undeniable signs that it was created by a mind far superior to our own. Anybody who has ever been in the army will tell you that there are no atheists in foxholes. That is, once they are in danger of death, the atheist will strip himself of his irrational disbelief in God, and come to admit he believed in God all along.19 However, it is not only the skeptics and agnostics that militantly push back the idea of religion, some people of faith also advanced the scorn of the concept ‘religion’. It is fashionable for some Christian groups to protest that Christianity is not a religion. Just as a Buddhist sympathizer vehemently denigrated religion, describing it as ‘a jumble of primitive folklore that humankind drags through the ages like a cosmic security blanket. Religion is passionate, irrational and messy. Religion inspires war and atrocity; at worst, it is a superstitious rubbish. Religion still inspires human conflict, and impedes genuine inquiry.20 However, I have reasons to assume that this riveting criticism of religion is quiet exceptional, even as I consider it puzzling that some of those considered deeply religious have tended to loath the word ‘religion’.

Jonathan Z. Smith brushed religion aside for culture. For him, religion does not really exist — there is only culture. According to Smith,‘…while there is a staggering amount of data, phenomena of human experiences and expressions that might be characterized in one culture or another, by one criterion or another, as religion — there is no data for religion. Religion is solely the creation of the scholar’s study. It is created for the scholar’s analytic purposes by his imaginative acts of comparison and generalization. Religion has no existence apart from the academy.21   But Melford Spiro’s propositions that religion can be differentiated from other culturally constituted institutions by virtue of its reference to super human beings conflicts significantly with Smith’s conception. Austin Cline noted that it is true that many societies do not draw a clear line between their culture and what scholars would call “religion.” This does not mean that religion does not exist, but it is worth keeping in mind that even when we think we have a handle on what religion is, we might be fooling ourselves. Definitions of religion tend to suffer from one or two problems. They are either too narrow or excluded many belief systems which most agree are religious, or they are too vague and ambiguous, suggesting that just about any and everything is a religion. For Cline a good example of a narrow definition is the common attempt to define “religion” as “belief in God,” which effectively excluded polytheistic religions and atheistic religions while including theists who have no religious belief system. A good example of a vague definition is the tendencies to define religion as “worldview” — but how can every worldview qualify as a religion? Some have argued that religion is not hard to define and the plethora of conflicting definitions is evidence of how easy it really is. The problem lies in finding a definition that is empirically useful and empirically testable.22  Dio Caro! the fundamental challenge here, therefore, is to find out what indeed is religion and what is about it that some groups of people do not find convenient to appreciate. In the second part of this this reflection, an attempt is made to dispel some confusions in the definition of religion.


  1. See D. Brendan Nagle in Joshua J. Mark in March 23, 2018
  2. See Joshua J. Mark in March 23, 2018)
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. quotation missing
  7. quotation missing
  8. Paschal Boyer (2004) ‘Why Is Religion Natural’? vol. 28.2, March/April 2004 in August 4 2012
  9.  Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Read Judgment rendered by Justice Josiah Brewer Church of the Holy Trinity vs. United States February 29, 1892
  1. Quotation missing
  1. Where All Roads Lead, 1922
  1. Why Atheism is an Illogical and Stupid Position
  1. Timothy Keller ‘Why atheism is wrong – the shocking and unbiased truth
  • Buddhism, religion or philosophy—is Buddhism, religion or philosophy in part of New York Times Company
  • See Jonathan Z. Smith cited by Austin Cline in What is Religion?Defining Religion: The Problem of Definition in atheism Austin-Cline 5577.htm
  • Austin Cline in ‘What is Religion? Defining Religion: The Problem of Definition in atheism Austine-Cline 5577.htm

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