Why Are There Other Religions by The Rev. Jacob Bottom
A music that resembled
Some earlier music
That men are born remembering.
-C.S. Lewis, “Vowels and Sirens”, Poems
Religion, the expression of devotion to transcendent beings, is ancient; perhaps too ancient to know its actual origin. Anthropologists and historians disagree not only in their varied conclusions about why religion exists but also in their varied methods of achieving said conclusions. Furthermore, the term “religion” encapsulates different things to different scholars, especially when compared to more ancient authors. One thing is for sure, human devotion to the transcendent has been around for a long time and will be around for a long time to come. In light of this, I want to suggest that other religions exist because the created world is not a mechanism ticking away like some forgotten antique toy. Rather, it is an interwoven reality of spiritual and physical forces (or beings) that humans are able to perceive, sometimes manipulate, and directly experience.
Religion resides in the deepest parts of human history, society and culture. Even in those places where it seems to have the lost its strength, the witness of its former hold on everyday life is irrefutable. The witness of totem poles and zoomorphic cave paintings, while possibly derived from someone’s “cleverly devised tales”, may actually attest to a true encounter with the supernatural. Whether that encounter is with the LORD or with another lesser spirit remains for another discussion. However, what seems evident is that the result of one such perceived encounter with the supernatural (e.g. Tribal shamans interacting with spirits, Muhammad receiving revelations in the cave, or Buddha achieving nirvana) tends to generate some type of ritual; a repeated action or series of actions to both remember and discern significance from the supernatural encounter.
Perhaps other religions exist because humanity, at certain points in history, has come into contact with the supernatural, and subsequently created the means (religion/ritual) to both remember the encounter and discern the significance of it. Indeed, there is something that strikes a chord in our souls when we experience an ancient ceremony devoted to the transcendent. Like “some earlier music that men are born remembering”, there is within us, as humans, a lingering connection to the divine. This is, I think, what makes other religions so compelling to people. Regardless of the full truth of the religion, the devotion itself speaks to something deeply woven into the foundation of humanity. For Christians, that something is the image of the living God.
From a Christian perspective, we believe that the supernatural exists and interacts directly in our everyday lives. As an example, we believe that we who have been baptized receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, who guides and governs us every day. We also believe that a system or network of fallen angels, under the leadership of Lucifer, upholds “this world” and works tirelessly to mislead the ignorant and derail the faithful. If these things are true, it means that the physical and spiritual realms of creation interact with each other so integrally it often happens without much notice. My suggestion is that other religions developed out of instances when humans did notice that interaction between the spiritual and physical world. In this understanding one could affirm that supernatural beings have manifested themselves in the natural plane, have had interactions with people at a point in time, and as a consequence caused new religions to sprout.
The C.S. Lewis quote comes from his book Poems from a work titled “Vowels and Sirens.” The Sirens were three mythological creatures at sea, whose angelic voices lured sailors to their deaths. Lewis describes the affect of the Sirens, saying, “Nothing of solace [for our Hero], for lovers’ longings they breathed. Of vanished knowledge was their intemperate song.” Lewis writes that the song of the Sirens sang the sweet melody “of a vanished knowledge…a music resembling some earlier music that men are born remembering.” Men followed the song of the Sirens because it spoke so deeply to something inside of them they rushed to their deaths with passion and zeal. The sound of lovers’ longing and vanished knowledge compelled them and they willed to give up everything to find the source of it. Religion, based on actual encounters with the transcendent, sings that same sweet melody that compels people to give themselves to it.
Other religions exist because there is a supernatural element to creation and sometimes humans encounter that element. The encounter transcends normal human experience and leaves a sense of awe and wonder, which can generate devotion. Devotion to the transcendent is not wrong in and of itself as long as it is directed towards the one true God, who Himself has interacted with humanity. The experience touches something deeply woven into the human soul, a muddled memory perhaps, of a time when humanity was once in an unbroken relationship with God. Rituals grow from these experiences and religions come into existence. The image of God within humanity is still so powerfully felt that encounters with lesser spirits, who still transcend our day-to-day experience, promises to take people back to that song we were born remembering.
The Rev. Jacob Bottom is a Curate at St. David of Wales in Denton