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. 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 were born, we are required to follow the Book and the Prophet's beliefs and actions.
A Prophet does not exercise ordinary worldly power over his followers. Rather, all Prophets endured extraordinary hardship and suffering. They demanded and expected nothing from the world, although they could have acquired whatever they desired if they agreed to abandon their missions. Prophet Muhammad experienced Heaven's beauties and spiritual delights during his miraculous ascent to the Divine Presence. Yet he chose to return to his people and endure their torment, contempt, and ridicule. He was not a man of physical or spiritual pleasure, but one who had dedicated his life to serving humanity for the sake of God.
Some might ask if anyone can have direct access to God and so receive a Revelation directly from Him. Such a thing is impossible, for only a person with a perfectly purified soul can receive Revelation. And, one can have a perfectly purified soul only because God chooses and then purifies him so that he can be endowed with Prophethood: God chooses Messengers from the angels and from humanity (22:75). Just as God chose Gabriel to convey His message to His Messenger, so He chose the Prophets to teach the true religion. They were men of pure character, and their companions were distinguished souls entrusted with transmitting the religion to future generations.
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 criterion. 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.
The vigor and stability of our faith depends upon worship and good deeds. Muslims who neglect the religious obligations may end up doing little more than speaking well of certain ancestors who lived a disciplined, religious life. Faith not nourished by worship and good deeds eventually withers away. Praying five times a day strengthens our faith and renews our covenant with God. As long as we worship with an alert and conscious intent, we receive assurance from God and thereby strengthen our will and ability to fulfill all our obligations.
Islam contains certain rules and norms to order our everyday life. For example, Muslims are required to seek God's approval through their dealings with others as well as through formal or informal prayer. Commercial transactions must adhere to the Divine Law, which is another element that reinforces faith. By doing so, Muslims submit to the God's decree in that particular matter and so transcend their own worldly preferences. For example, Muslim merchants must inform their customers of any defect in the items offered for sale. While this will lower or even cancel the resulting profit, Muslim merchants who do so will have the satisfaction of obeying God and not serving their own desires. When they pray, this satisfaction will return to strengthen their faith and commitment.
Such observance gives us a practical means to reach the Divine Presence. The Messenger told us to aspire to this end. He once related a story of three men who, trapped in a cave by a boulder, promised God that they would do a good deed if He allowed them to get out of the cave alive. While we cannot resemble the Messenger physically, we can—and should—try to resemble him in our behavior and actions. Doing so is our way of promising God that we will do good deeds if He will protect us from Hell.
Islam teaches that virtue also consists of avoiding sins. This pursuit of virtue, whether by observance or avoidance, prayer and remembrance, or establishing the Revealed Law and justice, are essential elements of Islam's unity. Such unity is integral, for one part cannot be separated from another. Faith, worship, remembrance of God, the Prophet's example, and the Divine law are all vital and integral elements of the din.
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 to 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."
While even the wisest philosophers have gone astray, the most ordinary Muslims have been able to lead upright lives because they followed the clear way of Prophet Muhammad. Indeed, Muslims who seek God's approval and take the Prophet as their guide can lead a most fruitful life, one in harmony with their deepest nature as responsive and responsible creatures of God.
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. The Messenger said: "As you distinguish your horse in a herd by the blaze on its head, so will I distinguish my community in the Hereafter by the brightness of the parts of the body washed in wudu'."
The clear way of religion, as revealed by God through His Prophets, consists of fundamentals and branches. The fundamentals always have been the same for all Divinely revealed religions, although the branches (the manner of worship and observances) have differed. God placed certain methods of worship upon a people according to their prevailing social conditions and capacities.
For example, belief in the Resurrection has been central to every religion, and every Prophet preached it. If this belief had not been so emphasized, religion would have been reduced to a socioeconomic or psychological system of rules and norms, and thus powerless to inspire good and prevent evil. If this belief had not existed, sincere worship of God and sincere sacrifice for His sake would not have been performed. We acquire many virtues by believing that whoever has done an atom's weight of good shall see it, and whoever has done an atom's weight of evil shall see it (99:7–8). In trying to follow His way as closely as we can, we look forward to that moment when we shall see Him without any veil.
Alongside such constant fundamentals, God has revealed changes in His Law by abrogating what went before. This does not mean that He changed His mind. Rather, it represents His Mercy in response to our moving through a stage of infancy (the time of Prophet Adam) to one of maturity (the time of Prophet Muhammad). As the last and most perfect Divine religion, Islam will prevail until the Day of Judgment. Even if the earlier Scriptures and Laws had retained their original purity, they could not have retained their legitimacy, since their authority from God was abrogated by the advent of Islam.
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.