Sunday, May 8, 2016

Some thoughts about religion, religions and the religious


Wherever we have found evidence of human activity on earth, we have found religion. For instance, even in the dimmest moments of recorded history, there is evidence of people burying their dead, which many assume indicates a belief in what happens to a person once they died [1].

The oldest world religion still practiced by large numbers of people today is Hinduism. This began around 5,000 years ago in India. Sikhism is the youngest major world religion, having also begun in India less than 500 years old. 

Although all religions are centered on the belief that each of them contains the truth about life, many of them are also directly related to each other. For example, although Jesus is said to be the founder of Christianity he was also a Jew and a follower of Judaism. For example, Jesus never attended church, but visited the temple in Jerusalem or taught at a synagogue. Siddhartha Gautama, who became known as the Buddha (also the founder of Buddhism), and Guru Nanak (the founder of Sikhism) were both born and raised Hindus. Finally, in the Qur'an (Islamic Scriptures), Islam is said to be a direct descendent of both Judaism and Christianity as these three faiths can be traced back to Abraham (the father of Isaac (Jews) and Ishmael (Arabs)). The Qur’an also talks of Jesus as a great prophet and a respected teacher of Islam. 

Some of the similarities and differences between religions can also be explained by geographical location. For example, religions which have their origins in the Middle Eastern countries (such as Israel, Saudi Arabia), tend to view God as a personal deity and each person as distinct from God and each other. On the other hand, religions which originated in the Indian continent have tended to arrange their beliefs around the idea that each person has a divine soul is directly related to God (or a part of God) [2].

What religion is (or types of religion) 

For all the conflict religion has created in the world, it is also something which draws people together and gives many people a sense of purpose and meaning in their life. One problem Sociologists face with regard to the study of religion is defining exactly what a religion is. In other words, what makes a 'religion', a religion?

Consider the following example. Theistic faith traditions such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam and even Sikhism, are grounded in the notion that there is one God. So we might say that a 'religion' is that which has as its central belief, the idea that there is one God (monotheism). The problem with this definition is that Hinduism is also considered to be a religion, but it promotes the belief that there are many gods (polytheism). The common factor here is the suggestion that a religion promotes belief in a Deity of sorts. However, many consider Buddhism to also be a religion but this does not promote any belief in God. So we see here how we need to broaden our definition of “religion” to accommodate the variety of beliefs in, or non-beliefs in, God/Deity.

Despite the problems associated with defining what religion is, common features of 'religions' are said to be: 

  • Belief that there is something greater than humanity
  • A distinction between the sacred (pure/good) and the profane (impure/evil)
  • Rituals
  • A moral code
  • Feelings of awe, guilt, or mystery
  • A relationship and response to that which is believed to be higher than humanity
  • A social group/community based on these shared beliefs
Why people are religious 

Many people who are religious are born into a family where religion plays an important part in the life of their parents or other family members. In this case people are often religious because they have been taught that this is the right way to think about the world.

Others are religious because at some stage they have begun to consider what the Buddha called Ultimate Questions (E.g. ‘Where did the world come from?’, ‘Why am I here?’ and ‘Where am I going?’), and find satisfactory answers to these in a particular faith tradition (or religion). For these people, religion gives them a sense of purpose to life, a and answers questions the non-religious life does not. Of course, if a person believes their religion gives them satisfactory answers to these “ultimate questions”, then they will naturally believe it to be true. Problems arise when people of different faiths claim their beliefs (or religion) is true to the exclusion of others [3].

Of course, the religious point-of-view is only one amongst many other ways of understanding the world and the same event can be interpreted both as an act-of-God, or as a coincidence, or a natural outcome of events. For instance, is someone being healed an answer to prayers, or the result of medicine doing its job ob (or maybe both)? Before science became a significant force in the world for explaining the way things are, people had a more superstitious view of the world. Heaven was believed to literally exist above the clouds, with earth in the middle and hell beneath the crust of the earth. Spirits (angels and demons) were also believed to live in the world, and people relied on the gods for food (i.e. sun and rain). Also, because people believed life in all its fullness was dependent on the gods, people were concerned to keep them happy through sacrifices or living a certain way. Thus as our knowledge of the world and universe grows, so it seems our need for gods (or God) to help us make sense of them becomes less and less necessary.

Yet we need to keep in mind that often 'science' and 'religion' are asking and answering two very different sets of questions about the nature of the world we live in. Science tends to ask and answers how? questions whilst religions tend to ask and answer why? questions. So science might tell us how the world was made, but religion might tell us why it was. Clashes between these two worldviews tend to occur when they try to do what they other does (E.g. If the world is here simply as a natural occurrence, that our purpose in life is solely for genetic reproduction).

The Alistair Hardy Research Centre has recorded over 6,000 personal testimonies of religious experience. In answer to the question, 'How religious are British people in the latter half of the twentieth century?', the centre found that nearly half the adult population of Britain would respond positively to the question by claiming they have had a religious experience or 'other-worldly' (transcendental) experience of some kind. Out of these, some do not want to call this an experience of God, whilst others do. Half of the positive respondents had never attended a place of worship, and many had never told anyone about their experience. One interesting find was that people reporting these experiences are better educated, happier and better balanced mentally than those who did not report them. This, therefore, challenges the generally accepted notion that people claiming to have had a religious experience are odd and mentally unbalanced.

Many may hold this view of the religious mindset because modern science has generally discarded and tabooed the spiritual dimension of human experience. However, if a spiritual experience is not due to error or sickness, and has a positive function for individuals and society, then these taboos will ultimately be challenged.

Some of the positive aspects of religion: 

  • Gives people self-esteem and a sense of purpose
  • Helps people through difficult times
  • Inspires creative activity (E.g. Churches, sculptures, paintings, music)
  • Unites people into a community
  • Inspires positive political action (E.g. William Wilberforce and the abolition of the slave trade) 
Some of the negative aspects of religion:

  • People think that their religion is the only one that is right, which can (and does) breed intolerance amongst people
  • Most wars are fought in the name of religion
  • Being in a religion can create an unhelpful distinction between those who believe, and those who do not
  • Believing that one’s religion holds all the answers can limit the scientific enterprise (NB. Copernicus and the Catholic Church) 


[1] In some religions the dead are not buried. For instance, Zoroastrians have traditionally left the bodies of their dead to be consumed by vultures in special places called Towers of Silence. This is because they believe burying or cremating dead bodies will defile the earth (and the elements).

[2] As you are reading this article you will notice that God is never referred to as a 'He' or a 'She'. Rather, the view is taken by the author of this website that God is neither he or she. As such, the terms 'God' and 'Godself' are preferred so as to avoid using any gender-biased language.

[3] It might be tempting to conclude that fighting between people of different faiths is proof that religion is a bad thing, or even that these particular religions are not true. However, the problem might not be with these religions per se, but with the way people understand and practice their faith.

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