What is religion? 300 to 400 words 

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What is religion

Topic: What is religion?

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300 to 400 words 


C H A P T E R 1


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What is religion

“By calling myself spiritual but not religious,

I can still acknowledge my belief that there may

be higher powers of a divine nature without

necessarily accepting just one belief system of an

organized religious institution.” Ivy DeWitt1

1.1 Explain what is meant by spirituality

1.2 Identify three perspectives used to explain the existence of religion

1.3 Differentiate between monotheistic, polytheistic, and nontheistic

1.4 Explain the significance of rituals, symbols, and myths in religions

1.5 Contrast absolutist with liberal interpretations of a religious tradition

1.6 Discuss the major positions that have emerged in the dialogue between science and religion since the nineteenth century

1.7 Describe how women are challenging the patriarchal nature of many institutionalized religions

1.8 Identify the factors that contribute to the negative aspects of organized religions

1.9 Summarize the different “lenses” used by scholars to study religion

Before sunrise, members of a Muslim family rise in Malaysia, perform their purifying ablutions, spread their prayer rugs facing Mecca, and begin their pros- trations and prayers to Allah. In a French cathedral, worshipers line up for their turn to have a priest place a wafer on their tongue, murmuring, “This is the body of Christ, given for you.” In a South Indian village, a group of women reverently anoint a cylindrical stone with milk and fragrant sandalwood paste and place

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around it offerings of flowers. The monks of a Japanese Zen Buddhist monastery sit cross-legged and upright in utter silence, which is broken occasionally by the noise of the kyosaku bat falling on their shoulders. On a mountain in Mexico, men, women, and children who have been dancing without food or water for days greet an eagle flying overhead with a burst of whistling from the small wooden flutes they wear around their necks. In Jerusalem, Jews tuck scraps of paper containing their personal prayers between the stones of the ancient Western Wall, which once supported their sacred Temple, while above that wall only Muslims are allowed to enter the Dome of the Rock to pray.

These and countless other moments in the lives of people around the world are threads of the tapestry we call religion. The word is probably derived from the Latin, meaning “to tie back,” “to tie again.” All of religion shares the goal of tying people back to something behind the surface of life—a greater reality, which lies beyond, or invisibly infuses, the world that we can perceive with our five senses.

Attempts to connect with or comprehend this greater reality have taken many forms. Many of them are organized institutions, such as Buddhism or Christianity. These institutions are complexes of such elements as leaders, beliefs, rituals, symbols, myths, scriptures, ethics, spiritual practices, cultural components, historical traditions, and management structures. Moreover, they are not fixed and distinct categories, as simple labels such as “Buddhism” and “Christianity” suggest. Each of these labels is an abstraction that is used in the attempt to bring some kind of order to the study of religious patterns that are in fact complex, diverse, ever-changing, and overlapping.

Attempts to define religion What are the inner dimensions of religion?

What is religion

The labels “Buddhism,” “Hinduism,” “Daoism,” “Zoroastrianism,” and “Confucianism” did not exist until the nineteenth century, though the many patterns to which they refer had existed for thousands of years. Professor Willard G. Oxtoby (1933–2003), founding director of the Centre for Religious Studies at the University of Toronto, observed that when Western Christian scholars began studying other religions, they applied assumptions based on the Christian model

Jewish women praying at the Western Wall. Many scraps of paper with personal prayers are tucked into the cracks between the ancient stones.

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to other paths, looking for specific creedal statements of belief (a rarity in indigenous lifeways), a dichotomy between what is secular and what is sacred (not helpful in looking at the teachings of Confucius and his fol- lowers), and the idea that a person belongs to only one religion at a time (which does not apply in Japan, where people freely follow various religious traditions).

Not all religious behavior occurs within institution- al confines. The inner dimensions of religion—such as experiences, beliefs, and values—can be referred to as spirituality. This is part of what is called religion, but it may occur in personal, noninstitutional ways, without the ritual and social dimensions of organized religions. Indeed there are growing numbers of people in the world today who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious” (see box, p. 4). Personal spirituality without reference to a particular religious tradition permeates much contemporary artistic creation. Without theology, without historical references, such direct experiences are difficult to express, whether in words, images, or music. Contemporary artist Lisa Bradley says of her luminous paintings:

In them you can see movement and stillness at the same time, things coming in and out of focus. The light seems to be from behind. There is a sense of something like a permeable membrane, of things coming from one dimension to another. But even that doesn’t describe it well. How do you describe truth in words?2

Religions can be dynamic in their effects, bringing deep changes in individuals and societies, for good or ill. As Professor Christopher Queen, world religions scholar from Harvard University, observes:

The interpersonal and political realms may be transformed by powerful religious forces. Devotion linking human and divine beings, belief in holy people or sacred space, and ethical teachings that shape behaviors and attitudes may combine to transform individual identities and the social order itself.3

Frederick Streng (1933–1993), an influential scholar of comparative religion, suggested in his book Understanding Religious Life that the central definition of religion is that it is a “means to ultimate transformation.” A complete definition of religion would include its relational aspect (“tying back”), its transformational potential, and also its political dimensions.

Current attempts to define religions may thus refer more to processes than to fixed independent entities. Professor of Religious Studies Thomas A. Tweed, for instance, proposes this definition in his book Crossing and Dwelling: A Theory of Religion:

Religions are confluences of organic-cultural flows that intensify joy and confront suffering by drawing on human and suprahuman forces to make homes and cross boundaries—terrestrial, corporeal, and cosmic. …This theory is, above all, about movement and relation, and it is an attempt to correct theories [of religion] that have presupposed stasis and minimized interdependence.4

Religion is such a complex and elusive topic that some contemporary schol- ars of religion are seriously questioning whether “religion” or “religions” can be studied at all, or whether the concept of religion itself is useful. They have deter- mined that no matter where and at what point they try to define the concept, other parts will get away. Nonetheless, this difficult-to-grasp subject is central to many people’s lives and has assumed great political significance in today’s world,

Lisa Bradley, Passing Shadow, 2002.

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An Interview with Ivy DeWitt

Ivy DeWitt is a recent college graduate who majored in both economics and religious studies. Raised in a traditional Baptist Church, she found that as she learned more about different religions, and asked questions

about issues such as women’s roles within religions, she no longer felt comfortable identifying herself as a member of one specific religious group. Now, like about eighteen percent of Americans, she describes herself as “spiritual but not religious,”5 exploring her beliefs in an individualistic way rather than through set teachings and practices of a single religious organization. Ivy explains:

Being spiritual but not religious allows for a more individualized experience and expression of religion. Spirituality feels like an entirely personal experience in many ways to me, and being spiritual but not religious allows me to question and explore a variety of religious identities without feeling as though I’m constrained by a single religious institution. By calling myself spiritual but not religious, I can still acknowledge my belief that there may be higher powers of a divine nature without necessarily accepting just one belief system of an organized religious institution.

Ivy acknowledges the important role that religious organizations play in building a strong community, but found that her personal exploration of spirituality was more important to her:

I think of “religion” as having more to do with communities and institutions. Growing up as a Baptist Protestant Christian, I felt that the most important part of the religious experience was having strong ties to your group. I also believe another important aspect of religion is doctrines. While I acknowledge that people can have a variety of opinions within a single religion, and that views can also vary throughout branches of a religion, doctrines help to unify people under a central belief system, which can also be very important in holding a community together. In contrast, I think of spirituality as a more individualized experience, something that isn’t defined by the specific teachings or practices of a particular religion. While many people associate spirituality with a greater sense of feeling or emotion than anything that comes about through being part of an organized religion, I don’t necessarily agree. Religion and spirituality can overlap to create a wide sense of emotional experiences, but I like to associate spirituality with individual discovery. To me, spirituality is not just about emotional experience, but also about finding what your values are, and aligning them either with a religious identity or a personalized belief system.

Ivy first began to question whether her own evolving beliefs were compatible with what she was taught in school and church during high school:

I attended a non-denominational Protestant high school. I had questions about women’s roles in church, and I wondered if my personal beliefs aligned with Protestant teachings on contemporary social issues. There were discussions within my communities about whether women could be pastors. I struggled to understand whether this implied that women and men had different spiritual capabilities, and if I agreed with that sentiment. I started to distance myself from the church as a way to decide what my own viewpoints were concerning women’s rights and other social issues—and whether they aligned with the religious perspectives I had been raised with. I decided to identify as spiritual but not religious roughly about partway through my junior year of college. I began to realize that I didn’t hold any set beliefs that I felt aligned with my religious tradition. Ultimately I decided that it didn’t make sense for me to continue identifying as a Protestant, and the spiritual but not religious label seemed to capture how I felt at the time. I continue to use it now because I believe it is the most accurate description of my belief system. I care more about holding to my personal beliefs in relation to women’s rights and social justice than the community or doctrinal aspects of religion. It’s not that I believe the religious beliefs I grew up with are completely incongruent with my own, but at the moment identifying with a single religious community isn’t reconcilable with other principles that I value.

For Ivy, spiritual experience does not follow from accepting a particular set of beliefs, but more from exploring many different religious traditions to see what inspires her.

Being spiritual but not religious allows me to navigate religious history while also navigating my own identity. I don’t believe I’ll ever finish navigating either one, which is why I enjoy how being spiritual has allowed me to do that free of any particular religious labels. Some people disagree with certain key tenets of their religion, but still remain a part of it. I think that they choose to focus on what they see as core principles of the tradition, in spite of whatever disagreements they have, and they may find it hard to give up being part of a religious community. I do think that spiritual but not religious people are to some extent missing out on some of the community-related parts of religion. But I believe that most people who identify as spiritual but not religious probably aren’t looking for a community religious experience. Having participated in a religious community myself, I sincerely enjoy my current ability to explore different religious traditions and identities on my own without feeling tied to a specific institution.6

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so it is important to try sincerely to understand it. In this introductory chapter, we will try to develop some understanding of religion in a generic sense—why it exists, its various patterns and modes of interpretation, its encounters with modern science, its inclusion or exclusion of women, and its potentially nega- tive aspects—before trying in the subsequent chapters to understand the major traditions known as “religions” practiced around the world today.

Why are there religions? What major theories have evolved to explain the existence of religion? In many cultures and times, religion has been the basic foundation of life, per- meating all aspects of human existence. In fact, in some cultures what we may now identify as “religion” has so permeated everything that it was not even identified as a particular category of human experience. But from the time of the European Enlightenment, religion has become in the West an object to be studied, rather than a basic fact of life. Cultural anthropologists, sociologists, philosophers, psychologists, and even biologists and neuroscientists have peered at religion through their own particular lenses, trying to explain what religion is, its function and purpose, and developing a wide range of methods for study- ing religion. In the following pages we will briefly examine some of the major theories that have evolved. They are not mutually exclusive.

Materialist perspective: humans invented religion

During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, scientific materialism gained considerable prominence as a theory to explain the fact that religion can be found in some form in every culture around the world. The materialistic point of view is that the supernatural is invented by humans; only the material world exists.

An influential example of this perspective can be found in the work of the nineteenth-century philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach (1804–1872). He reasoned that deities are simply projections, objectifications of human qualities such as power, wisdom, and love onto an imagined cosmic deity outside ourselves. Then we worship it as Supreme and do not recognize that those same qualities lie within ourselves; instead, we see ourselves as weak and sinful. Feuerbach developed this theory with particular reference to Christianity as he had seen it.

Other scientific materialists believe that religions have been created or at least used to manipulate people. Historically, religions have often supported and served secular power. The nineteenth-century socialist philosopher Karl Marx (1818–1883), author of The Communist Manifesto, argued that a culture’s religion—as well as all other aspects of its social structure—springs from its eco- nomic framework. In Marx’s view, religion’s origins lie in the longings of the oppressed. It may have developed from the desire to revolutionize society and combat exploitation, but in failing to do so it became otherworldly, an expres- sion of unfulfilled desires for a better, more satisfying life:

Man makes religion: religion does not make man. … The religious world is but the reflex of the real world. … Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the sentiment of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.7

According to Marx, not only do religions pacify people falsely, they may themselves become tools of oppression. For instance, he charged Christian authorities of his times with supporting “vile acts of the oppressors” by explain- ing them as due punishment of sinners by God. Other critics have made simi- lar complaints against Asian religions that blame the sufferings of the poor on their own misdeeds in previous lives. Such interpretations and uses of religious

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teachings lessen the perceived need for society to help those who are oppressed and suffering. Marx’s ideas thus led toward twentieth-century atheistic com- munism, for he had asserted, “The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness.”8

Many contemporary atheist thinkers have also adopted a materialist approach to religion, arguing that religious assertions about the supernatural, such as the existence of God, are testable hypotheses that cannot be proven.

Functional perspective: religion is useful

Another line of reasoning has emerged in the search for a theory explaining the universal existence of religions: They are found everywhere because they are useful, both for society and for individuals. Religions “do things” for us, such as helping us to define ourselves and making the world and life comprehensible to us. Functional explanations have come from many disciplines.

One version of the functional explanation is based on sociology. Pioneering work in this area was done by French sociologist Emile Durkheim (1858–1917). He proposed that humans cannot live without organized social structures, and that religion is a glue that holds a society together. Surely religions have the potential for creating harmony in society, for they all teach social virtues such as love, compassion, altruism, justice, and discipline over our desires and emotions. Political scientists Robert Putnam and David Campbell concluded from a survey of religiosity in the United States that people who are involved in organized religions are generally more generous toward their neighbors and more con- scientious as citizens than those who do not participate in religions,9 although critics have noted that it may be that the group affiliation that is part of religion is a better predictor of generosity than religious belief itself. The role of religion in the social process of identity formation at individual, family, community, and national levels is now being carefully examined, for people’s identification with a particular religion can be manipulated to influence social change—either to thwart, moderate, or encourage it.

Biology also offers some functional reasons for the existence of religion. For instance, John Bowker, author of Is God a Virus?, asserts that religions are organized systems that serve the essential biological purpose of bringing people together for their common survival. To Bowker, religion is found universally because it protects gene replication and the nurturing of children. He proposes that because of its survival value, the potential for religiosity may even be genet- ically inherent in human brains.

Some medical professionals have found that religious faith may be good for our health. Research conducted by the Center for the Study of Religion/ Spirituality and Health at Duke University found that those who attend religious services or read scriptures frequently are significantly longer lived, less likely to be depressed, less likely to have high blood pressure, and nearly ninety percent less likely to smoke. Many other studies have indicated that patients with strong faith recover faster from illness and operations. In contrast, however, some scholars have pointed out that some of the most religious regions of the world also have very high rates of disease, suggesting that it is not just religion but broader societal factors such as community support as well as access to health care that factor into overall wellbeing.

Many medical studies have also been done on the potential of prayer to heal illness, but results have been mixed. However, meditation has been proved to reduce mental stress and also to help develop positive emotions, even in the face of great difficulties. Citing laboratory tests of the mental calmness of Buddhists who practice “mindfulness” meditation, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama points out that:

Over the millenniums, many practitioners have carried out what we might call “experiments” in how to overcome our tendencies toward destructive emotions. The

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world today needs citizens and leaders who can work toward ensuring stability and engage in dialogue with the “enemy”—no matter what kind of aggression or assault they may have endured. If humanity is to survive, happiness and inner balance are crucial. We would do well to remember that the war against hatred and terror can be waged on this, the internal front, too.10

From the point of view of individual psychology, there are many explanations of the usefulness of religion. Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (1856–1938) sug- gested that religion fulfills neurotic needs. He described religion as a collective fantasy, a “universal obsessional neurosis”—a replaying of our loving and fearful relationships with our parents. Religious belief gives us a God powerful enough to protect us from the terrors of life, and will reward or punish us for obedience or nonobedience to social norms. From Freud’s extremely sceptical point of view, religious belief is an illusion springing from people’s infantile insecurity and neurotic guilt; as such it closely resembles mental illness.

On a more positive note, the twentieth-century psychoanalyst Erich Fromm (1900–1980) concluded that humans have a need for a stable frame of reference, and that religion fulfills this need. As Mata Amritanandamayi, a contemporary Indian spiritual teacher, explains:

Faith in God gives one the mental strength needed to confront the problems of life. Faith in the existence of God makes one feel safe and protected from all the evil influences of the world. To have faith in the existence of a Supreme Power and to live accordingly is a religion. When we become religious, morality arises, which, in turn, will help to keep us away from malevolent influences. We won’t drink, we won’t smoke, and we will stop wasting our energy through unnecessary gossip and talk. … We will also develop qualities like love, compassion, patience, mental equipoise, and other positive traits. These will help us to love and serve everyone equally. … Where there is faith, there is harmony, unity and love. A nonbeliever always doubts. … He cannot be at peace; he’s restless. … The foundation of his entire life is unstable and scattered due to his lack of faith in a higher principle.11

For many, the desire for material achievement offers a temporary sense of purposefulness. But once achieved, material goals may seem hollow. Guru Tegh Bahadur, the Ninth Sikh Guru, said:

The whole world is just like a dream; It will pass away in an instant, Like a wall of sand, [Though] built up and plastered with great care, Which does not last even four days. Likewise are the pleasures of mammon.12

Once this realization comes, a search for something more lasting and deeply meaningful may then arise.

Religions propose ideals that can radically transform people. Mahatma Gandhi (1869–1948) was an extremely shy, fearful child. His transformation into one of the great political figures of the twentieth century occurred as he meditated single-mindedly on the great Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita, par- ticularly the second chapter, which he says was “inscribed on the tablet of my heart.”13 It reads, in part:

He is forever free who has broken Out of the ego-cage of I and mine To be united with the Lord of Love. This is the supreme state. Attain thou this And pass from death to immortality.14

People need inner strength for dealing with personal problems. Those who are suffering severe physical illness, privation, terror, or grief often turn to the divine for help. Conviction that Someone or Something that cannot be seen exists may be an antidote to the discomforting sense of being alone in the

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universe. This isolation can be painful, even terrifying. The divine may be sought as a loving father or mother, or as a friend. Alternatively, some paths offer the way of self-transcendence. Through them, the sense of iso- lation is lost in mystical merger with the One Being, with the Ultimate Reality.

According to some Asian religions, the concept that we are distinct, autonomous individuals is an illusion; what we think of as “our” consciousnesses and “our” bodies is in perpetual flux. Thus, freedom from prob- lems lies in accepting temporal change and devaluing the “small self” in favor of the eternal self. The ancient sages of India, whose teachings are preserved in the Upanishads, called this eternal self “the breathing behind breathing, the sight behind sight, the hearing behind hearing, the thinking behind thinking… ”15

Buddhists see the problem of human existence dif- ferently. What humans have in common, they feel, is the suffering that comes from life’s impermanence and our craving for it to remain the same. For Buddhists, reliance on an Absolute or God and the belief in a per- sonal self or an Eternal Self only makes the suffering more intense. The solution is to let go of these ideas, to accept the groundlessness and openness of life, and to grow in clear awareness and humanistic values.

We may look to religions for understanding, for answers to our many questions about life. Is life just a series of random and chaotic incidents, or is there some meaning and order behind what is happening? Who are we? Why are we here? What happens after we die? Why is there suffering? Why is there evil? Is anybody

up there listening? We have difficulty accepting the commonsense notion that this life is all there is. We are born, we struggle to support ourselves, we age, and we die. If we believe that there is nothing more, fear of death may inhibit enjoy- ment of life and make all human actions seem pointless. Confronting mortality is so basic to the spiritual life that, as the Christian monk Brother David Steindl- Rast observes, whenever monks from any spiritual tradition meet, within five minutes they are talking about death.

It appears that throughout the world man [sic] has always been seeking something beyond his own death, beyond his own problems, something that will be enduring, true and timeless. He has called it God, he has given it many names; and most of us believe in something of that kind, without ever actually experiencing it.

Jiddu Krishnamurti16

For those who find security in specific answers, some religions offer dogma— systems of doctrines proclaimed as absolutely true and accepted as such, even if they lie beyond the domain of one’s personal experiences. Absolute faith pro- vides some people with a secure feeling of rootedness, meaning, and orderliness in the midst of rapid social change. Religions may also provide rules for living, governing everything from diet to personal relationships. Such prescriptions may be seen as earthly reflections of the order that prevails in the cosmos. Some religions, however, encourage people to explore the perennial questions by themselves, and to live in the uncertainties of not knowing intellectually, breaking through old concepts until nothing remains but truth itself.

Even in the midst of busy modern life, many people turn to Something they cannot see for spiritual help. These people are making food offerings in the popular Sik Sik Yuen Wong Tai Sin Daoist temple in Hong Kong in hope of spiritual healing for themselves or their loved ones.

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Faith perspective: Ultimate Reality exists

From the point of view of religious faith, there truly is an underlying reality that cannot readily be perceived. Human responses to this Ultimate Reality have been expressed and institutionalized as the structures of some religions.

How have people concluded that there is some supreme, Ultimate Reality, even though they may be unable to perceive it with their ordinary senses? Some simply accept what has been told to them or what is written in their holy books. Others have come to their own conclusions.

One path to faith is through deep questioning. Martin Luther (1483–1546), father of the Protestant branches of Christianity, recounted how he searched for faith in God through storms of doubt, “raged with a fierce and agitated conscience.”17 Jnana yoga practitioners probe the question “Who am I?” Gradually they strip away all of what they are not—for instance, “I am not the body, I am not the thinking”—and dig even into the roots of “I,” until only pure Awareness remains.

The human mind does not function in the rational mode alone; there are other modes of consciousness. In his classic study The Varieties of Religious Experience, the philosopher William James (1842– 1910) concluded:

Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the flimsiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. … No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded.18

To perceive truth directly, beyond the senses, beyond the limits of human reason, beyond blind belief, is often called mysticism. George William Russell (1867–1935), an Irish writer who described his mystical experiences under the pen name “AE,” was lying on a hillside:

not then thinking of anything but the sunlight, and how sweet it was to drowse there, when, suddenly, I felt a fiery heart throb, and knew it was personal and intimate, and started with every sense dilated and intent, and turned inwards, and I heard first a music as of bells going away … and then the heart of the hills was opened to me, and I knew there was no hill for those who were there, and they were unconscious of the ponderous mountain piled above the palaces of light, and the winds were sparkling and diamond clear, yet full of colour as an opal, as they glittered through the valley, and I knew the Golden Age was all about me, and it was we who had been blind to it but that it had never passed away from the world.19

Encounters with this ordinarily unseen, Ultimate Reality are given various names in spiritual traditions: enlightenment, realization, illumination, satori, awakening, self-knowledge, gnosis, ecstatic communion, “coming home.” Such a state may arise spontaneously, as in near-death experiences in which people seem to find themselves in a world of unearthly radiance, or may be induced by meditation, fasting, prayer, chanting, drugs, or dancing.

Many religions have developed meditation techniques that encourage intui- tive wisdom to come forth. Whether this wisdom is perceived as a natural faculty within or an external voice, the process is similar. The consciousness is initially turned away from the world and even from one’s own feelings and thoughts, letting them all go. Often a concentration practice, such as watching the breath or staring at a candle flame, is used to collect the awareness into a single, unfrag- mented focus. Once the mind is quiet, distinctions between inside and outside drop away. The seer becomes one with the seen, in a fusion of subject and object

Sufi dervishes in Sudan chant names of God’s qualities as a way to God-realization.

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through which the inner nature of things often seems to reveal itself. Kabir, a fifteenth-century Indian weaver who was inspired alike by Islam and

Hinduism and whose words are included in Sikh scripture, described the cosmic dimensions of this inner awakening:

The flute of the Infinite is played without ceasing, and its sound is love: When love renounces all limits, it reaches truth. How widely the fragrance spreads! It has no end, nothing stands in its way. The form of this melody is bright like a million suns: Incomparably sounds the

vina, the vina of the notes of truth.20

[The “flash of illumination” brings] a state of glorious inspiration, exaltation, intense joy, a piercingly sweet realization that the whole of life is fundamentally right and that it knows what it’s doing.

Nona Coxhead21

Our ordinary experience of the world is that our self is separate from the world of objects that we perceive. But this dualistic understanding may be tran- scended in a moment of enlightenment in which the Real and our awareness of it become one. The Mundaka Upanishad says, “Lose thyself in the Eternal, even as the arrow is lost in the target.” For the Hindu, this is the prized attainment of liberation, in which one enters into awareness of the eternal reality. This reality is then known with the same direct apprehension with which one knows one-

A sense of the presence of the Great Unnamable may burst through the seeming ordinariness of life. (Samuel Palmer, The Rising of the Skylark, 1839, National Museum of Wales.)

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self. The Sufi Muslim mystic Abu Yazid in the ninth century CE said, “I sloughed off my self as a snake sloughs off its skin, and I looked into my essence and saw that ‘I am He.’”22

An alternative kind of spiritual experience brings one into contact with what the German professor of theology Rudolf Otto (1869–1937) called the “Wholly Other.” Otto referred to this as numinous—a nonrational, nonsensory expe- rience of that which is totally outside the self and cannot be described. In his landmark book The Idea of the Holy, Otto wrote of this mysterious experience as the heart of religion. It brings forth two general responses in a person: a feeling of great awe or even dread and, at the same time, a feeling of great attraction. These responses, in turn, have given rise to the whole gamut of religious beliefs and behaviors.

Though ineffable, the nature of religious experience that leads to faith is not unpredictable, according to the research of Joachim Wach (1898–1955), a German scholar of comparative religion. In every religion, it seems to follow a certain pattern: (1) It is an experience of what is considered Ultimate Reality; (2) It involves the person’s whole being; (3) It is the most shattering and intense of all human experiences; and (4) It motivates the person to action, through wor- ship, ethical behavior, service, and sharing with others in a religious grouping.

Understandings of Ultimate Reality What are the different ways in which the nature of Ultimate Reality has been understood? In the struggle to understand what the mind cannot readily grasp, individ- uals and cultures have come to rather different conclusions. Mircea Eliade (1907–1986) was a very influential scholar who helped to develop the field of comparative religion. This discipline attempts to understand and compare religious patterns found around the world. He used the terms “sacred” and “profane”: The profane is the everyday world of seem- ingly random, ordinary, and unimportant occurrences. The sacred is the realm of extraordinary, apparently purposeful, but generally imperceptible forces. In the realm of the sacred lies the source of the universe and its values. However relevant this dichotomy may be in describing some religions, there are some cultures that do not make a clear distinction between the sacred and the profane. Many indigenous peoples who have an intimate connection with their local landscape feel that spiritual power is everywhere; there is nothing that is not sacred. Trees, mountains, animals—everything is perceived as being alive with sacred presence.

Another distinction made in the study of com- parative religion is that between “immanent” and “transcendent” views of sacred reality. To understand that reality as immanent is to experience it as present in the world. To understand it as transcendent is to believe that it exists outside of the material universe (e.g., “God is out there”).

The nature of Ultimate Reality is another area in which we find great differences among religious tra- ditions. Many people perceive the sacred as a personal being, as Father, Mother, Teacher, Friend, Beloved, or as a specific deity. Religions based on one’s relationship to a Divine Being are called theistic. If the being is wor- shiped as a singular form, the religion is called mono- theistic. If many attributes and forms of the divine are

The concept of God as an old man with a beard who rules the world from the sky has been supported by the art of patriarchal monotheistic traditions, such as William Blake’s frontispiece to “Europe,” The Act of Creation, 1794.

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emphasized, the religion may be labeled polytheistic. Religions that hold that beneath the multiplicity of apparent forms there is one underlying principle or substance are called monistic.

Ultimate Reality may also be conceived in nontheistic terms, as a “change- less Unity,” as “Suchness,” or simply as “the Way.” There may be no sense of a personal Creator God in such understandings; in nontheistic traditions, Ultimate Reality may instead be perceived as impersonal.

Some people believe that the Ultimate Reality is usually invisible but occa- sionally appears visibly in human incarnations, such as Christ or Krishna, or in special manifestations, such as the flame Moses reportedly saw coming from the center of a bush but not consuming it. Or the deity that cannot be seen may be described in human terms. Christian theologian Sallie McFague thus writes of God as “lover” by imputing human feelings to God:

God as lover is the one who loves the world not with the fingertips but totally and passionately, taking pleasure in its variety and richness, finding it attractive and valuable, delighting in its fulfilment. God as lover is the moving power of love in the universe, the desire for unity with all the beloved.24

Throughout history, there have been exclusivist religious authorities—in other words, those who claim that they worship the only true deity and label all others as “pagans” or “nonbelievers.” For their part, the others apply similar


A Letter from I. H. Azad Faruqi

In this letter, the highly respected Muslim scholar Dr. I. H. Azad Faruqi, Professor of Islamic Studies and Honorary Director of the Centre for the Study of Comparative Religions and Civilizations, Jamia Milia Islamia, New Delhi, gives his views on exclusivist and universalist standpoints.

Despite the attitude of the majority of the followers of world religions justifying the claims of exclusive nature found in almost all world religions, there are sufficient grounds in the scriptures of these traditions which allow a universalistic interpretation of the phenomenon of the multiplicity of religions. That is, the scriptures of the various world religions within themselves contain the elements which can be interpreted to claim a viewpoint looking at various religious traditions as so many paths leading to the same Goal. Secondly, almost all world religions contain a vision of a Supreme Reality, which ultimately is considered beyond the categories of the rational thought, Incomprehensible and Unlimited. Thus, by their own admission these traditions appear to claim their vision of, and approach to, the Supreme Reality as short of exhausting It, and limited to a particular view of It. Otherwise also, although almost all the basic truths and aspects of religious life are represented in each of the religious traditions, each of these traditions tends to emphasize certain dimensions of the religious experience more than others. And these particular accentuations, at the core of the spiritual experience of these traditions,

are the factors which appear to determine the special hue or distinctiveness of these traditions. Thus, each of the different religious traditions can be claimed to express some particular aspects of the Ultimate Reality which, in spite of its myriad manifestations, remains unfathomable and far beyond the sum of all Its expressions. Seen from this perspective, the uniqueness of each religious tradition, and Its particular experience of the Supreme Reality, should no more remain as a hindrance in the cordial relations amongst them, as the usual case has been hitherto. Rather, these very particularities and distinctions would turn into the grounds for mutual attraction between them. Thirdly, the individualistic claims of various religions can be taken as true only in a relative sense. Each of the religious traditions being a close and complete world in itself, these are bound to claim their particular standpoints as absolute. Perhaps these could not develop into self-sufficient traditions in their own right without their exclusivist claims of being the only truly guided ones. But today, in the pluralistic societies of modern times, the claims of these traditions having the monopoly of the Supreme Truth can be considered as relatively absolute only, if the term of a relative absolute can be permitted. That is, we can attempt to approach and study these traditions on their own grounds, with a more humble attitude, and let them speak from within their own world, while being aware that this is only one world out of many such worlds.23

Buddhism is sometimes referred to as a nontheistic religion, for its beliefs do not refer to a personal deity. Practitioners try to perceive the impermanence and interdependence of all things.

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negative epithets to them. When these rigid positions are taken, often to the point of vio- lent conflicts or forced conversions, there is no room to consider the possibility that all may be talking about the same indescribable thing in different languages or referring to different aspects of the same unknowable Whole—a position which may be called universalism.

Atheism is the belief that there is no deity. Atheists may reject theistic beliefs because they seem to be incompatible with the exist- ence of evil in the world, or because there is little or no concrete proof that God exists, or because they reject the concept of God as an old man in the sky, or because theistic beliefs seem unscientific, or because they inhibit human independence. In 2009, atheists in Britain mounted a major campaign to put up billboards and signs on buses proclaiming, “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” A movement called “New Atheism” is attacking religious faith as being not only wrong, but actually evil because it can be used to support violence. As we will see throughout this book, extremist religious views have indeed been used throughout history to justify political violence and oppression. One of the leading figures in the New Atheism movement is Richard Dawkins, Oxford Professor of the Public Understanding of Science and author of The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion. Around him a debate is raging about whether science itself is fully “scientific,” in the sense of being totally objective, or whether it is a culturally shaped enterprise based on unproven assumptions— the same criticism that its atheistic proponents make about religious faith.

Agnosticism is not the denial of the divine but the feeling “I don’t know whether it exists or not,” or the belief that if it exists it is impossible for humans to know it. Religious scepticism has been a current in Western thought since classical times; it was given the name “agnosticism” in the nineteenth centu- ry by T. H. Huxley, who stated its basic principles as a denial of metaphysical beliefs and of most (in his case) Christian beliefs since they are unproven or unprovable, and their replacement with scientific method for examining facts and experiences.

Humanism is an approach to life that focuses on humans’ responsibility to lead ethical lives and work for the good of all humanity without any belief in the supernatural.25 There is also secularism, in which people go about their daily lives without any reference to religion: All focus is on material life. This trend is particularly pronounced in contemporary Europe.

These categories are not mutually exclusive, so attempts to apply the labels can sometimes confuse us rather than help us understand religions. In some polytheistic traditions there is a hierarchy of gods and goddesses with one highest being at the top. In Hinduism, each individual deity is understood as an embodiment of all aspects of the divine. In the paradoxes that occur when we try to apply human logic and language to that which transcends rational thought, a person may believe that God is both a highly personal being and also present in all things. Or mystics may have personal encounters with the divine and yet find it so unspeakable that they say it is beyond human knowing. The Jewish scholar Maimonides (1135–1204) asserted that:

the human mind cannot comprehend God. Only God can know Himself. The only form of comprehension of God we can have is to realize how futile it is to try to comprehend Him.26

Jaap Sahib, the great hymn of praises of God by the Tenth Sikh Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, consists largely of the negative attributes of God, such as these:

Atheists in Britain ran a large- scale campaign to advertise their point of view, posting large signs proclaiming “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life” on buses and in public places.

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Salutations to the One without colour or hue, Salutations to the One who hath no beginning. Salutations to the Impenetrable, Salutations to the Unfathomable … O Lord, Thou art Formless and Peerless Beyond birth and physical elements. … Salutations to the One beyond confines of religion. … Beyond description and Garbless Thou art Nameless and Desireless. Thou art beyond thought and ever Mysterious.27

Some people believe that the aspect of the divine that they perceive is the only one. Others feel that there is one being with many faces, that all religions come from one source. Bede Griffiths (1906–1993), a Catholic monk who lived in a community in India attempting to unite Asian and Western traditions, was one who thought that if we engage in a deep study of all religions we will find their common ground:

In each tradition the one divine Reality, the one eternal Truth, is present, but it is hidden under symbols. … Always the divine Mystery is hidden under a veil, but each revelation (or “unveiling”) unveils some aspect of the one Truth, or, if you like, the veil becomes thinner at a certain point. The Semitic religions, Judaism and Islam, reveal the transcendent aspect of the divine Mystery with incomparable power. The oriental religions reveal the divine Immanence with immeasurable depth. Yet in each the opposite aspect is contained, though in a more hidden way.28

Ritual, symbol, and myth Why are rituals, symbols, and myths important in religions?

Many of the phenomena of religion are ways of worship, symbols, and myths. Worship consists in large part of attempts to express reverence and perhaps to enter into communion with that which is worshiped or to request help with problems such as ill health, disharmony, or poverty. Around the world, rituals, sacraments, prayers, and spiritual practices are used to create a sacred atmos- phere or state of consciousness necessary to convey the requests for help, to bring some human control over things that are not ordinarily controllable (such as rainfall), to sanctify and explain the meaning of major life stages such as birth, puberty, marriage, and death, or to provide spiritual instruction.


When such actions are predictable and repeated rather than spontaneous, they are known as rituals. Group rituals may be conducted by priests or other ritual specialists or by the people themselves. There may be actions such as recita- tion of prayers, chants, scriptures or stories, singing, dancing, sharing of food, spiritual purification by water, lighting of candles or oil lamps, and offerings of flowers, fragrances, and food to the divine. Professor Antony Fernando of Sri Lanka explains that when food offerings are made to the deities:

Even the most illiterate person knows that in actual fact no god really picks up those offerings or is actually in need of them. What people offer is what they own. Whatever is owned becomes so close to the heart of the owner as to become an almost integral part of his or her life. Therefore, when people offer something, it is, as it were, themselves they offer. … Sacrifices and offerings are a dramatic way of proclaiming that they are not the ultimate possessors of their life and also of articulating their determination to live duty-oriented lives and not desire-oriented lives.29

Music, chants, and other kinds of sound play very significant roles in religious

Father Bede Griffiths emphasized the common elements found in all religions.

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rituals, whether it is the noisy bursting of firecrackers to scare away unwanted spirits at Chinese graves or choral singing of Kyrie Eleison (Lord have mercy) in a sublime composition by the eighteenth-century composer Johann Sebastian Bach. Ethnomusicologist Guy Beck identifies many purposes for which sacred sounds may be used in religions: to ask for favors or blessings, to ask forgiveness for sins, to praise and thank the Creator, to chase away demons, to invoke the presence and blessings of deities, to make prayerful requests, to develop a mood of inner quietude or repentance, to purify the worshiper, to paint pictures of a future state of being, to create communion between the human and divine worlds, to teach doctrines, to create states of ecstasy and bliss, to empty and then fulfill, to invigorate, and to express jubilation.30 The effects of sounds on mind and heart are so touching that sacred texts or messages are often chanted or sung rather than simply read or recited. Speaking from a theistic point of view, nineteenth-century musicologist Edmund Gurney reflected:

The link between sound and the supernatural is profound and widespread. … If we are believers, then we can believe that the spirit is moving us in our ritual music. Ritual sound makes the transcendent immanent. It is at the same time ours, our own sounds pressing in around us and running through us like a vital current of belief, molding us into a living interior that is proof against the unbelieving emptiness that lies around.31

Paintings and other forms of art have also inspired religious experience. John Damascus of Byzantium (c. 675–749 CE) proclaimed:

Paintings are the books of the illiterate. They distract those who look at them with a silent voice and sanctify life. … If I have no books I go to church, pricked as by spines by my thoughts; the flower of painting makes me look, charms my eyes as does a flowering meadow and softly distils the glory of God in my soul.32


What religions attempt to approach may be considered beyond human utter- ance. Believers build statues and buildings through which to worship the divine, but these forms are not the divine itself. Because people are addressing the invisible, it can be suggested only through metaphor. Deepest consciousness cannot speak the language of everyday life; what it knows can be suggested

Places of worship are often designed as visual symbols of religious ideals. The Baha’i Temple in New Delhi was crafted in the shape of a lotus, symbol of beauty and purity rising divinely above stagnant water, and its nine-sided structure symbolizes the unity of all world religions.

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only in symbols—images borrowed from the material world that are similar to ineffable spiritual experiences. For example, attempts to allude to spiritual merging with Ultimate Reality may borrow the language of human love. The great thirteenth-century Hindu saint Akka Mahadevi sang of her longing for union with the Beloved by using powerful symbolic language of self-surrender:

Like a silkworm weaving her house with love From her marrow and dying in her body’s threads Winding tight, round and round, I burn Desiring what the heart desires.33

Tracing symbols throughout the world, researchers find many similarities in their use in different cultures. Ultimate Reality is often symbolized as a Father or Mother, because it is thought to be the source of life, sustenance, and protec- tion. It is frequently associated with heights, with its invisible power perceived as coming from a “place” that is spiritually “higher” than the material world. The sky thus becomes heaven, the abode of the god or gods and perhaps also the pleasant realm to which good people go when they die. A vertical symbol—such as a tree, a pillar, or a mountain—is understood as the center of the world in many cultures, for it gives physical imagery to a connection between earth and the unseen “heavenly” plane. The area beneath the surface of the earth is often perceived as an “underworld,” a rather dangerous place where life goes on in a different way than on the surface.

Some theorists assert that in some cases these common symbols are not just logical associations with the natural world. Most notably, the psychologist Carl Jung (1875–1961) proposed that humanity as a whole has a collective uncon-

scious, a global psychic inheritance of archetypal symbols from which geographically separate cul- tures have drawn. These archetypes include such symbolic characters as the wise old man, the great mother, the original man and woman, the hero, the shadow, and the trickster.

Extended metaphors may be understood as allegories—narratives that use concrete symbols to convey abstract ideas. The biblical book attrib- uted to the Hebrew prophet Ezekiel, for instance, is full of such allegorical passages. In one he says that God’s spirit led him to a valley full of dry bones. As he watched and spoke as God told him, the bones developed flesh and muscles, became joined together into bodies, and rose to their feet. The voice of God in the scripture explains the allegorical meaning: the bones represent the people of Israel, who have been abandoned by their self-serving leaders and become scattered and preyed upon by wild beasts, like the sheep of uncaring shepherds. God promises to dismiss the shepherds, raise the fallen people and restore them to the land of Israel, where they will live peacefully under God’s protection (Ezekiel 34–37). Such allegories may assume great significance in a people’s self-understanding.


Symbols are also woven together into myths—the symbolic stories that communities use to explain the universe and their place within it. Like many cultures, Polynesians tell a myth of the world’s

{Teaching Story box deleted}

This symbolic representation of a World Tree comes from 18th-century Iran. It is conceived as a tree in Paradise, about which the Prophet Muhammad reportedly said, “God planted it with His own hand and breathed His spirit into it.”

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creation in which the world was initially covered with water and shrouded in darkness. When the Supreme Being, Io, wanted to rise from rest, he uttered words that immediately brought light into the darkness. Then at his word the waters and the heavens were separated, the land was shaped, and all beings were created. Myths may purport to explain how things came to be as they are, perhaps incorporating elements of historical truth, and in any case are treated as sacred history.

Joseph Campbell (1904–1987), who carried out extensive analysis of myths around the world, found that myths have four primary functions: mystical (evoking our awe, love, wonder, gratitude); cosmological (presenting expla- nations of the universe based on the existence and actions of spiritual powers or beings); sociological (adapting people to orderly social life, teaching ethical codes); and psychological (opening doors to inner exploration, development of one’s full potential, and adjustment to life cycle changes). Understood in these senses, myths are not falsehoods or the works of primitive imaginations; they can be deeply meaningful and transformational, forming a sacred belief structure that supports the laws and institutions of the religion and the ways of the community, as well as explaining the people’s place within the cosmos. Campbell paid particular attention to myths of the hero’s journey, in which the main character is separated from the group, undergoes hardships and initiation, and returns bearing truth to the people. Such stories, he felt, prepare and inspire the listener for the difficult inward journey that leads to spiritual transformation:

It is the business of mythology to reveal the specific dangers and techniques of the dark interior way from tragedy to comedy. Hence the incidents are fantastic and “unreal”: they represent psychological, not physical, triumphs. The passage of the mythological hero may be overground, [but] fundamentally it is inward—into depths where obscure resistances are overcome, and long lost, forgotten powers are revivified, to be made available for the transfiguration of the world.34

Absolutist and liberal responses to modernity How do absolutist and liberal interpretations of a tradition differ? Traditional religious understandings are under increasing pressure from the rap- idly growing phenomenon of globalization. Complex in its dynamics and mani- festations, globalization has been defined by Global Studies Professor Manfred Steger as “the expansion and intensification of social relations and conscious- ness across world-time and world-space.”35 Local cultures and community ties have rapidly given way to hybrid homogenized patterns that have evolved in countries such as the United States. “McDonaldization” of the world, fueled by ever faster and more accessible means of communication and transportation, transnational corporations, free trade, urbanization, and unrestrained capital- ism, has made deep inroads into traditional local cultural ways. As a result, there is increasing tension between those who want to preserve their traditional ways and values and those who open doors to change.

Within each faith people may thus have different ways of interpreting their traditions. The orthodox stand by an historical form of their religion, strictly following its established practices, laws, and creeds. Those who resist contem- porary influences and affirm what they perceive as the historical core of their religion could be called absolutists. In our times, many people feel that their identity as individuals or as members of an established group is threatened by the sweeping changes brought by modern global industrial culture. The breakup of family relationships, loss of geographic rootedness, decay of clear behavioral codes, and loss of local control may be very unsettling. To find a stable footing, to attempt to preserve their distinctive identity as a people in the face of modernity and secularization, some people may try to stand on selected religious doctrines

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or practices from the past. Religious leaders may encourage this trend toward rigidity by declaring themselves absolute authorities or by telling the people that their scriptures are literally and exclusively true. They may encourage antipathy or even violence against people of other religious traditions.

The term fundamentalism is often applied to this selective insistence on parts of a religious tradition and to highly negative views of people of other religions. This use of the term is misleading, for no religion is based on hatred of other peo- ple and because those who are labeled “fundamentalists” may not be engaged in a return to the true basics of their religion. A Muslim “fundamentalist” who insists on the veiling of women, for instance, does not draw this doctrine from the foundation of Islam, the Holy Qur’an, but rather from historical cultural practice in some Muslim countries. A Sikh “fundamentalist” who concentrates on externals, such as wearing a turban, sword, and steel bracelet, overlooks the central insistence of the Sikh Gurus on the inner rather than outer practice of religion.

A further problem with the use of the term “fundamentalism” is that it has a specifically Protestant Christian connotation. The Christian fundamentalist movement originated in the late nineteenth century as a reaction to liberal trends, such as historical-critical study of the Bible, which will be explained below. Other labels may, therefore, be more cross-culturally appropriate, such as “absolutist,” “extremist,” or “reactionary,” depending on the particular situation.

Those who are called religious liberals, also sometimes called progressives, take a more flexible approach to religious tradition. They may see scriptures as products of a specific culture and time rather than the eternal voice of truth, and may interpret passages metaphorically rather than literally. If activists, they may advocate reforms in the ways their religion is officially understood and practiced.

While absolutists tend to take their scriptures and received religious traditions as literally true, liberals have for several centuries been engaged in a different approach to understanding their own religions and those of others: historical- critical studies. These are academic attempts to reconstruct the historical life stories of prophets and their cultures as opposed to legends about them, and to subject their scriptures to objective analysis. Such academic study of religion neither accepts nor rejects the particular truth-claims of any religion.

Non-faith-based methods of exegesis (critical explanation or interpretation of texts) reveal that “sacred” scriptures may include polemics against opponents of the religion, myths, cultural influences, ethical instruction, later interpola- tions, mistakes by copyists, literary devices, factual history, and genuine spiritual

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