Final Assignment: What is a religion?

This is my final essay for my Oxford course, Philosophy of Religion (limit 1,000 words). I thought I would share it with you to give you a better idea into why I am so unpredictable and unconventional. I know many religionists, never mind what religion you may believe in, will disagree with my views. Well, that is your problem, not mine.


Raja Petra Kamarudin

Since time immemorial, humankind has mulled over three basic questions – why are we here, who created us, and where will we go after we leave this world? We are guided by the belief that nothing happens without a reason. For us to be here there must have been a cause for it to happen. Something or someone must have triggered creations. Creations can’t self-create or just happen by itself for no rhyme or reason. So we work on the premise that there has to be a supreme being – the Creator called God.

More crucial to this question of who created us is the need to believe that there is a very important reason for our creation. We are not here for nothing. We are here for a reason. Hence, to make this theory plausible, we must go somewhere after we die. If not, we will exist for nothing and after we die, we just die. That would be a total waste of life. We need to be motivated and this motivation would be that something better awaits us after we die.

For these reasons, humankind needed to invent the concept of religion, basically a set of rituals and a belief system. Religion helps explain everything and answers all these questions. Religion reveals the secrets of our existence and the secrets of the Afterlife. It gives us the comfort of knowing that our life is not in vain and, more importantly, neither will our deaths if we have lived the life of a decent human being.

Religion works on the basis of rewards and punishment, that we will be rewarded for the good deeds and punished for the bad, and which is supposed to turn us into decent human beings. However, good and bad are subjective and different religions have different value systems (e.g., the concept of Jihad, suicide squads, and the killing of apostates in Islam).

Religion also makes it easier for us to accept death, especially the loss of our loved ones. We would like to believe that those who have died are ‘at peace’ and are ‘resting’. The concept of religion and the belief in the Afterlife has helped humankind reject the finality of death and regard it as merely the process of ‘moving on’ to a better resting place while awaiting resurrection.

Contrary to what many religionists believe, religion did not come about suddenly – such as, one fine day, God spoke to the Prophet (there are 124,000 Prophets in Islam although only 25 are mentioned by name in the Quran) and religion came into being. Actually, religion evolved over thousands of years and the many religions in existence today evolved and transformed (even mutated) from earlier religions, some now extinct.

If you were to study the history of religions, a few facts are very apparent. First would be that later religions borrowed from earlier religions. Hence there are no original religions. Take the Abrahamic faiths as one example. The ‘operating system’ for the Abrahamic faiths is, naturally, the teachings of Abraham, the Father or Patriarch of the Abrahamic faiths. I would call this Version 1.0.

Then along came Moses and Abraham’s teachings evolved into Judaism, what I would call Version 1.1. Jesus then emerged to introduce Version 1.2 (at least the Christians would have us believe, although I would dispute this and argue that Jesus was a Jew and not a Christian). Finally, we have Muhammad who ‘improved’ it further and introduced Version 1.3, what we know as Islam.

Religionists believe that these are all different religions. Actually, they are all the same religion and merely mutations of earlier religions. And even these are mutations of yet earlier religions such as the old Pagan, Greek, Egyptian, Roman, etc., beliefs. It is no coincidence that stories such as the virgin birth were also believed by pre-Abrahamic faiths.

Some religions survived, mutated and grew while others died off and became extinct. This is because religion was tied to the state. And those religions that were endorsed by the state survived and grew while those that the state did not endorse died off – mainly because the state murdered all those considered deviants, heretics, etc.

Today, the three Abrahamic faiths dominate the world, only because other religions were not allowed to exist. Non-Christians and non-Muslims were forced to either convert or die. Those who refused were killed. Eventually, most converted to either Christianity or Islam and their descendants automatically embraced (or inherited) the religion of their forefathers out of tradition and through indoctrination.

Had freedom of choice been allowed and had no one been forced to adopt the religion of his/her political masters, there is no guarantee that, say, Islam would be the dominant religion of the Middle East. Most likely the majority in the Middle East today would be Zoroastrians. The Nestorian/Coptic Christians plus the Jews of the Middle and Near East also faced persecution and were forced to embrace either Islam or the Roman version of Christianity.

The survival and growth of religions has been tied to political and economic considerations. The Byzantine and Sasanian Empires became Christian and Muslim respectively for political and economic expediency. Thereafter, once the rulers made the decision to embrace a certain religion, the population followed suit to avoid the risk of persecution and/or death – such as during the Tudor reign in England when Protestant Christianity replaced Catholicism.

Rulers have always used religion as a form of control over the population. Prophets never preached religious structures or a system of priesthood. It was only about the acceptance of God. When the Prophets exited, the priests stepped in to create a religious ‘system’, which was used to dominate and control the masses. Hence, while we may argue that God created humankind, humankind, in turn, created religion. And that is why, while we may argue that there is only one God, there is not one religion but many religions. In conclusion, I would argue that religion did not come from God but is a creation of humankind.