What Is Religion

What Is Religion




At the beginning of every semester, you follow a pattern of behaviors to arrive at the proper class at the proper time. On your schedule, there is information (class, time, place). To get to that class (let’s say U.S. History, for example), you park your car in a parking lot, locate the correct building, enter through the appropriate door, look for signs, maybe ask directions, locate the correct classroom number, and enter. There you are, ready for class. Theroom that you entered is not U.S. History. The hallway you took to get there is not U.S. History, nor are the signs on the walls that led you there. Your professor is not U.S. History. But by following the directions, coming to this room, listening to the lectures, reading the textbook, etc., you will be able to have a particular experience of U.S. History. So what does this have to do with defining religion?

Religion is like this ritual process that you followed at the beginning of the school term; it is a pattern of behaviors, signs, persons, places, that lead us to a particular kind of experience. Religion is not that experience, but a means to attaining the experience. Just as thestairs, hallways, and classrooms are the means we use to arrive at our History class, so is religion a means to an end; it is not an end in itself. It leads us to avery particular kind of experience with Sacred Reality.

So . . . how do you define religion? Your second orientation assignment (which should have been completed by now) was to dialogue with classmates about this term. Take a look at what you wrote once again. Does this definition characterize all religions of the world? Here’s an experiment…. Let’s go on a little field trip:

You are in New Delhi, India, outside the memorial to Mahatma Gandhi. There you see three young boys, squatting on the broken sidewalk, each with a wooden flute. They are piping tunes toward round wicker baskets. When they lift the baskets’ covers, three silver cobras slowly weave their way out. You watch for several minutes, fearful but entranced. Then the boys shove the cobras back into their baskets and approach you for their fee—a few rupees, which you hesitantly supply.DID YOU JUST WITNESS (AND MAYBE EVEN PARTICIPATE IN) SOMETHING RELIGIOUS? Does your definition of religion help you with this one?

Let’s try another: You are in Canton, China, at the home of a local official who has welcomed you to his home for an evening meal. As you arrive, there is much bowing and smiling. You remove your shoes at the door and are welcomed into a large dining room. “You must sit here,” says the host, who points to a chair on the far side of the table. Course by course you are feasted (first melon soup, then noodles and mushrooms, then duck, then fruit, and finally a bowl of rice). IS THIS RELIGION? … Yes! And whether or not you touched the door as you entered, sat at the honored set, or declined the final bowl of rice may have brought honor or dishonor to you and to the home. Did your definition of religion help you with this one? Probably not. But don’t feel bad. This just illustrates how our own presuppositions and learned judgments can prevent us from “seeing” what other peoples and cultures understand and experience.

There’s a great Jewish proverb (from the Talmud) that says:“We don’t see things as they are. We see them as we are.” In other words, we tend to view the world and everything in it though a kind of mental filter. This filter helps us understand reality (in ways that we have been TAUGHT to understand it); but the filter also blocks out alternative views. Accordingly, we tend to “see” only what we have been taught to see. For this reason, education should first make us aware of ourselves and our own biases so that we can learn to see otherwise. Keep that in mind as you work through this course . . . which is VERY “other-focused.” [TR]


  1. Introduction: Why Study Religion?
  1. World Religions are Intrinsically Interesting
  2. Understanding Religion is Simply Necessary for Understanding the Contemporary World
  3. Understanding Literature and Art
  4. Understanding History
  5. Understanding Politics and Conflicts
  1. Peace Among Nations, Cultures, Religions Requires Knowing and Respecting Religious Differences
  2. The Globalization of the World Economy, Media, and Culture Confronts People with Different Religions
  3. Formerly Exotic Religions Have Become Present in Everyday Life
  4. September 11, 2001 Illustrates that Ignorance of the World’s Religions is No Longer an Option
  1. Peace is Possible Only if We First Possess an Understanding of How Religion Can Exacerbate and Ameliorate Global and Regional Conflicts
  1. A Definition of Religion
  1. Many Problems with Defining a Complex Subject
  2. Religion (Latin: religio): “the fear and awe one feels in the presence of a spirit or a god.”

[TR]: the actual Latin term is best translated (literally) as “to bind (ligare) together again (re).” You can see the root for our word ligaments, which bind muscle to bone. So the term religion describes a kind of “binding” to the Sacred. It also implies that this connection is often broken and needs to be re-established (re-ligare).]

  1. Many Religions Do Not Believe in gods or spirits
  2. Many Religions Emphasis Ethics, not Fear and Awe
  1. Religion as “Ultimate Concern”: Useful but Too Broad
  2. Is "Religion" a Concept Too Large for Any One Definition?
  3. The Necessity of Selectivity and Generalization

[TR] I’d like for you to SKIP the next two (2) sections on “The Six Bases of Selection used for Religions of the World” and “The Four Major Points Considered for Each Religion.” Instead, I’ll offer a broader structure for addressing religions in this course. Here it is:

Religion is a culturally patterned institution that nurtures its adherents’ interactions with what is believed to be an all-pervasive, superhuman, and/or supernatural reality.

Culturally patterned: Religion emerges and develops within a particular culture at a particular time. If we are to understand religion, we must examine each culture of which it is a part. Even for those religions that worship God/gods that are said to be timeless, the religions that worship the timeless are not, themselves, timeless. Their ideas, beliefs, and practices are thoroughly washed in a particular language with particular social customs. Also important to this understanding is the reality of historical development. Many people like to believe that their religion has AWAYS been as it is today (in both belief and practice). That is simply not the case. Religion is a feature of culture. As such, it is changed by economics, social structures, the education/knowledge base, national events and alliances, art, literature, etc. In the same way religion exerts a powerful influence on economics, social structures, education, etc. From my experience, this feature of religion (that it changes) is the most difficult for students to accept. Why? The Western religions, like Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, tend to view religion as the worship of one supreme God who does not change. In the same way, each of these religions tends to believe that its understanding of this one God is likewise pure and unchanging. When change does happen, these religions tend to see the change not as something new, but as something eternal that has just now been uncovered. “Everyone else has been wrong for a thousand years, but now we know the truth….” This is particularly true of Christianity in America. There are almost 40,000 different Christian groups (denominations, sects, cults, etc.) . . . and most of them tend to feel that their group is the one true form of Christianity. How you choose to interpret your own and other peoples’ religion is your business. I can only ask that you try to lay aside those judgments as you examine the FACTS of each religion and their historical and cultural developments.

Institution: Religion is a social institution; its practices and beliefs are established and maintained by a living community. Even those who emphasize individual experience have learned this kind of individualism from a living community, an institution. There is no escaping the social/political aspect of religion.

Belief in an all-pervasive, superhuman, and/or supernatural reality: Not all religions focus on the worship of God. In fact, MOST RELIGIONS IN THE WORLD (and most people in the world) do not place the worship of a deity at the center of their religious faith!! Here as some of the many ways that people describe ultimate reality, or The Sacred:

All-pervasive reality: the everywhere being of that which under girds all existent beings. (examples: Being itself, Brahman, Tao) This is the most prevalent view of the Sacred. It is not a personal being or force. Sometimes, it is described simply as a “depth.”

Superhuman reality: beings more powerful than humans but not necessarily divine. (examples: superheroes, saints, prophets, saviors)

Supernatural reality: a reality that stands apart from and is other than the physical universe. (examples: God)

Nurturing an interaction: While religions serves many personal and social needs, the principal function of religious institutions is to nurture our interaction with the Sacred. The word religion (if we look at its Latin root) expresses this beautifully. As noted above in my notes, the actual Latin term is best translated (literally) as “to bind (ligare) together again (re).” It describes a kind of reconnection to the Sacred. The function of religion is to make us aware of that state of being and to facilitate, or nurture our reconnection. So how do religions accomplish this task? This semester, we’ll look at the following methods:

  • Nurturing involves ritual facilitation of this type of interaction.
  • Nurturing involves the telling of the community’s narratives, myths, and epics.
  • Nurturing involves the explanation of the community’s narratives in terms of other beliefs (philosophies, or world views). We call these explanations doctrines.
  • Nurturing involves moral codes of behavior, or ethics.

Some Definitions of Terms We Will Use Often in this Course and Textbook:

RITUAL: Rituals are prescribed, formalized actions that dramatize religious symbols and myths. They are repeated in order to attain, or sustain, the community’s contact with ultimate reality and to promote the cohesion of the community. There are two major functions of ritual:

  • to dramatize religious symbols and myths
  • to effect a change in reality.

[Think of a Native American rain dance, a gesture used in prayer, a wedding, or an Easter Passion Play. All of these events are rituals that nurture our faith by dramatizing an ancient story and/or effecting a change in reality. ]

MYTH: A myth is a sacred story that is told and retold in order to express certain fundamental values—values that connect with deep psychological and social needs, hopes, and fears. Myths may or may not include historical events. In religion, the truth of mythology is not limited by literal meanings and archeological evidences, but rather is determined by the story’s perpetual meaningfulness. In other words, when a community tells one of these stories over and over again, the story continues to inspire us and facilitates our connection with the Sacred. NOTE: in this academic sense, the word myth does not mean fake or untrue. The literal meaning of the word (from the Greek mythos ] simply meaning “the telling” and refers to any story that is held sacred by religious believers. So, for example, a creation story or the Christian resurrection story, for example, are characterized as “mythos” because of their great significance, not because of their historical or non-historical validity.

DOCTRINE: Doctrines are statements of faith that explain religious symbols and values. NOTE: Doctrines cannot be proven true or false in the same way that empirical statements (in science and history) can. One cannot do experiments to prove or disprove the existence of God, reincarnation, nirvana, forgiveness of sin, etc. The truth of these doctrines is not in their verifiability, but rather in the vindication of their core values in the commitments of the believing community—that is, in whether or not the doctrine (1) expresses a core value and (2) aids the community in living in accordance with the value thus expressed.


ANIMISM: belief in the widespread presence of spirits, or souls

THEISM:belief in a personal deity (deities) who interacts with humans.

POLYTHEISM: belief in more than one god (may or may not exist in a hierarchy).

HENOTHEISM: belief in one supreme deity that manifests itself in/through other lesser deities.

MONOTHEISM: belief in one supreme god.

DEISM: belief in an impersonal deity (creator) who exists outside of nature and does not interact with humanity on an individualistic basis.

PANTHEISM: belief that everything is God—the sum of all Being.

PANENTHEISM: belief that all (pan-) reality exists within(-en-) the being of God (-theism) and contributes to the full “becoming” of God. God becomes God in and through the world (which is still separate from God).

ATHEISM: belief that no personalistic deity exists.

Ok….now back to the textbook:

III. The Universality of Religion

  1. Wherever There are People, There Too is Religion
  2. Religion is the Most Pervasive Phenomenon in All Societies Across Time and Geography.

IV. Theories of the Origin of Religions

A. Animistic Theories

  1. Primary Advocate: Edward Burnett Tylor (1832-1917)
  2. So-called “Primitive” People Develop Sense of Other-World and Souls (Latin: anima) from Experiences of Death and Dreams
  3. All Things Contained Souls, and Some Could be Helpful or Harmful to People
  4. Souls Generally Required Some Kind of Appeasement
  5. Origins of Ancestor Worship and Polytheism from Animism
  6. Theory of Mana: Supernatural Power Belonging to the Region of the Unseen Experienced Emotionally

B. The Nature-Worship Theory

  1. Primary Advocate: Max Müller (1823-1900)
  2. Humans Develop Religions from Observing the Forces of Nature in General, not Simply Death and Dreams
  3. Religion is the Personification of Natural Forces
  4. Names of gods / goddesses in Mythology Tend to Correspond with Names of Objects in Nature
  5. All Indo-European Religions Originate in Myths about the Sun
  1. The Theory of Original Monotheism
  1. Primary Advocate: Wilhelm Schmidt (1868-1954)
  2. Earliest Religions Not Animistic or Naturalistic, but Based on One Distant High God
  1. Primitive Religions Generally Presupposed Monotheism, i.e., the Existence of a Great Creator / Parent God Above all Others
  2. High God Transcends Finite / Temporal World
  3. High God Gives Moral Laws but Generally is Uninvolved in Affairs of Humans Until End of Time When Returns as Judge
  4. Original Monotheistic Worship was Too Difficult to Sustain for Primitive Peoples and Polytheistic Religion Eventually Corrupted It
  5. Advanced Religions Recovered True Monotheism
  1. The Magic Theory
  1. Primary Advocate: James George Frazer (1854-1941)
  2. Evolutionary Interpretation of the Development of Religion
  1. Phase One: People Attempt to Control Nature With Magic, but Consistently Fail
  2. Phase Two: People Use Religion to Implore Nature to Cooperate with Them, but Consistently Fail
  3. Phase Three: People Use Science to Control Nature and Generally Succeed
  1. Theories of Religion as Projections of Human Needs
  1. Primary Advocates: Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872), Karl Marx (1818-1883), and Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)
  2. Religions Essentially Express Humanity’s Dreams and Fantasies about an Ideal Life
  1. Religions Express Humanity’s Sense of Powerlessness and Failure
  2. Maturity, Mental Health, and Political / Economic Justice Requires Facing and Changing Reality and Abandoning the Wishful Thinking of Religion
  3. Feuerbach: Religion is Projection of Human Ideals onto it's no–thiswDistant Heaven, and Therefore Source of Humanity’s Disrespect for Itself
  4. Marx on Religion: an “opium of the people” Religion is Perpetuated by the Wealthy Few to Prevent Impoverished Many from Facing and Changing the Reality of their Exploitation
  5. Freud: Oedipus Myth as the Base of all Human Religion; Mature People Do Not Need Illusions of Religion to Cope with Guilt and Problems of Life
  1. Types of Religions

A. Basic Religions

  1. Religions of Contemporary People Whose Religious Ideas are not Preserved in Written Form
  2. Religions of Prehistoric Peoples, Of Whom We Know Little
  3. Animism is Most Common Form of Basic Religion

B. Religions Originating in India

  1. Hinduism
  2. Jainism
  3. Buddhism
  4. Sikhism
  5. Unifying Ultimate Concern: Release from Cycle of Life, Death, Rebirth

C. Religions Originating in China and Japan

  1. Taoism
  2. Confucianism
  3. Shinto
  4. Commonalities: Belief in many gods, Worship of Nature, Veneration of Ancestors

D. Religions Originating in the Middle East

  1. Zoroastrianism
  2. Judaism
  3. Christianity
  4. Islam
  5. Commonalities: Believe in Supreme Creator God, Each Person Lives Only One Earthly Life, Linear View of Time, Eventual Divine Judgment of World