World Religions Report
Some information you may need from me to complete this assignment. I live in Reno, NV and I am Christian. I have attached a copy of the ebook because it is a required reference. The username for the book is amstribalsec and the password is 33RedinS. Let me know if you need anything else.
Select a religion that is not your own and interview a person of that faith. If possible, visit a place of worship and interview a person of that institution. As an alternative, the interview may be conducted by telephone, written communication (e.g., email exchange) or, web/video conference.
Write a 1,050- to 1,400-word informative paper on world religions.
Compare your selected religion with the other religions studied in this class.
- What characteristics does your chosen religions share with the others? What makes it unique?
- How is religion in general, and your chosen religions specifically, responding to challenges of the modern world?
Include a summary of your interview containing the following elements:
- Introduction of the religion, including the history
- Date, time and method of interview
- Name of the person interviewed
- Name, location and review of the site if applicable.
- Interview summary
Cite at least five references in addition to the textbook.
Format your paper consistent with APA guidelines.
For months you have wanted to take a break from work and everyday life, and recently some
friends invited you to vacation with them at their mountain cabin. At first you hesitate. This is
not the kind of trip you had in mind. After reconsidering, you realize that a remote getaway with
friends is just the change of pace you need.
Now, three weeks later, you have been traveling all day and have just arrived at the cabin. It is
late afternoon, and the air is so cold you can see your breath. Your friends welcome you warmly,
and there’s a nice fire in the living room. Your hosts show you to your room and give you a short
tour. Soon you are all fixing supper together—pasta, mushrooms, salad. During the meal you
discuss your work, your zany relatives, and your mutual friends. Everyone is laughing and
having a good time. It’s confirmed: coming here was a great idea.
After supper, your friends won’t let you help with the dishes. “I think I’ll go out for a walk,” you
say, putting on your heavy, hooded jacket. As the front door closes behind you, you step into a
world transformed by twilight.
What strikes you first is the smell in the air. There is nothing quite like the scent of burning
wood—almost like incense. It fits perfectly with the chill. You walk farther, beyond the clearing
that surrounds the house, and suddenly you are on a path beneath tall pine trees. As a strong
breeze rises, the trees make an eerie, whispering sound. It is not exactly a rustle; it is more like a
rush. You recall reading once that the sound of wind in pines is the sound of eternity.
Moving on, you find yourself walking along the mountain’s ridge. To your left, you see the
evening star against the blue-black sky. To your right, it’s still light and you see why you are
cold: you are literally above the clouds. You sit down on a flat rock, pull up your hood, and
watch the pine tree silhouettes disappear as darkness spreads its thickening veil.
It’s difficult to pull yourself away. All around you stars begin to pop out, and soon they are
blooming thick as wildflowers. Overhead, the mass of stars resembles a river—it must be the
Milky Way. You get up and slowly turn full circle to take it all in. You had almost forgotten
about stars. You don’t see them much back home, let alone think of them. Where you live, stars
appear in movies. Here, though, stars are mysterious points of light. You remember what you
once learned: stars are so distant that their light can take millions of years to reach earth. You
realize that some of the stars you see may no longer exist. Only their light remains.
At last you begin to walk back to the cabin. A cluster of clouds emerges on the horizon, lit from
behind by the rising moon. You see your friends’ wooden cabin in the distance. From here it
looks so small. The stars seem like the permanent, real world, while the house appears little and
temporary—more like a question mark in the great book of the universe. Questions flood your
mind. Who are we human beings? Do we make any difference to the universe? Are we part of
any cosmic plan? Is there any point to the universe at all? What is it all about?
What is Religion?
The Starry Night, one of the world’s most loved paintings, depicts a sky full of luminous,
spinning stars. Painted near the end of its creator’s life, the work summarizes the vision of
Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890). Van Gogh was an intensely religious man who had planned to
be an ordained minister in the Dutch Reformed Church, as was his father. But he struggled with
his studies and had a falling-out with Church authorities. For a time, he lived as a lay preacher,
working with poor miners in Belgium. When he was 27, his brother Theo, an art dealer,
encouraged him to take up painting.
Despite his new career, van Gogh continued to think of himself as a minister. If he could not
preach in words, he would preach in pictures. His subjects were the simple things of life: trees,
sunflowers, a wicker chair, a bridge, his postman, a farmer sowing seeds, peasants eating a meal,
workers bringing in the harvest. His paintings express a quiet awe before the wonder that he
sensed in everyday objects and ordinary people. It was his special sense of the sacredness he saw
all around him that he wanted to share. Almost as a reminder, in The Starry Night van Gogh
placed the little church tower below the night sky, pointing like a compass needle upward to the
stars. The heavenly realm with its spinning fires illuminates van Gogh’s vision of the sacred
character of the entire universe.
Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night provides a startling perspective. The familiar world that we
know, with a steeple in the middle, is dwarfed by the vast, mysterious cosmos.
Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY
Key Characteristics of Religion
When people begin their study of religions, they bring ideas from the religion in which they were
raised or from the predominant religion of their society. They may assume, for example, that
every religion has a sacred book or that it worships a divine being or that it has a set of
commandments. Indeed, many religions do share all these characteristics, but some do not.
Shinto, for example, does not have a set of commandments, nor does it preach a moral code; Zen
Buddhism does not worship a divine being; and many tribal religions have no written sacred
scripture. Nevertheless, we call them all religions. What, then—if not a common set of
elements—must be present for something to be called a religion?
An obvious starting point for many scholars is to examine linguistic clues: What are the
linguistic roots of the term religion? Intriguingly, the word’s Latin roots are re-, meaning
“again,” and lig-, meaning “join” or “connect” (as in the word ligament). 1 Thus the common
translation of religion is “to join again,” “to reconnect.” If this derivation is correct, then the
word religion suggests the joining of our natural, human world to the sacred world. In classical
Latin, the term religio meant awe for the gods and concern for proper ritual. 2 We must
recognize, though, that the term religion arose in Western culture and may not be entirely
appropriate when applied across cultures; spiritual path, for example, might be a more fitting
designation to refer to other religious systems. We will keep these things in mind when we use
the long-established term religion.
Religion [is] a way of life founded upon the apprehension of sacredness in existence.
Julian Huxley, biologist 3
People have constantly tried to define religion, and there are thus many notable attempts. These
definitions may emphasize a sense of dependence on a higher power, awareness of the passing
nature of life, the use of symbolism and ritual, the structuring of time, or the acceptance of moral
rules. But reading these definitions makes one aware of their limitations. The definitions often
seem inadequate and time-bound, the product of a particular culture or period or discipline.
Perhaps, for the time being, it is better to simply be open to many possible definitions, without as
yet embracing any single one. After studying the major world religions, we will undoubtedly
come closer to our own definition of religion.
The problem of how to define religion continues to plague scholars, who love definition. A
definition may apply well to some religions, but not to others. A definition may apply to
religions of the past, but may not be suitable for a religion of the future.
Traditional dictionary definitions of religion read something like this: a system of belief that
involves worship of a God or gods, prayer, ritual, and a moral code. But there are so many
exceptions to that definition that it is neither comprehensive nor accurate. So instead of saying
that a religion must have certain characteristics, it is more useful to list a series of characteristics
that are found in what are commonly accepted as religions. Scholars note that what we ordinarily
call religions manifest to some degree the following eight elements: 4
Belief system Several beliefs fit together into a fairly complete and systematic
interpretation of the universe and the human being’s place in it; this is also called a
Community The belief system is shared, and its ideals are practiced by a group.
Central myths Stories that express the religious beliefs of a group are retold and often
reenacted. Examples of central myths include the major events in the life of the Hindu
god Krishna, the enlightenment experience of the Buddha, the exodus of the Israelites
from oppression in Egypt, the death and resurrection of Jesus, or Muhammad’s escape
from Mecca to Medina. Scholars call such central stories myths. We should note that the
term myth, as scholars use it, is a specialized term. It does not in itself mean that the
stories are historically untrue (as in popular usage) but only that the stories are central to
Ritual Beliefs are enacted and made real through ceremonies.
Ethics Rules about human behavior are established. These are often viewed as having
been revealed from a supernatural realm, but they can also be viewed as socially
generated guidelines. Characteristic emotional experiences Among the emotional
experiences typically associated with religions are dread, guilt, awe, mystery, devotion,
conversion, “rebirth,” liberation, ecstasy, bliss, and inner peace.
Material expression Religions make use of an astonishing variety of physical elements—
statues, paintings, musical compositions, musical instruments, ritual objects, flowers,
incense, clothing, architecture, and specific locations.
Sacredness A distinction is made between the sacred and the ordinary; ceremonies often
emphasize this distinction through the deliberate use of different language, clothing, and
architecture. Certain objects, actions, people, and places may share in the sacredness or
Each of the traditions that we will study in the pages ahead will exhibit most of these
characteristics. But the religious traditions, like the people who practice them, will manifest the
characteristics in different ways and at different times.
All religions are concerned with the deepest level of reality, and for most religions the core or
origin of everything is sacred and mysterious. This sense of a mysterious, originating holiness is
called by many names: Brahman, Dao, Great Mother, Divine Parent, Great Spirit, Ground of
Being, Great Mysterious, the Ultimate, the Absolute, the Divine, the Holy. People, however,
experience and explain sacred reality in different ways, as we shall see in the chapters that
Religious rituals are often symbolic reenactments of a religion’s key stories. The presentation of
crowns to the bride and groom reminds them of the crowns that await them in heaven.
© Thomas Hilgers
One familiar term for the sacred reality, particularly in the Western world, is God, and
monotheism * is the term that means a belief in one God. In some systems, the term God often
carries with it the notion of a Cosmic Person—a divine being with will and intelligence who is
just and compassionate and infinite in virtues. God is also called omnipotent (“having total
power over the universe”). Although God may be said to have personal aspects, all monotheistic
religions agree that the reality of God is beyond all categories: God is said to be pure spirit, not
fully definable in words. This notion of a powerful God, distinct from the universe, describes a
sacredness that is active in the world but also distinct from it. That is, God is transcendent—
unlimited by the world and all ordinary reality.
* Note: Words shown in boldface type are listed and defined in the “Key Terms” section at the
end of each chapter.
In some religions, however, the sacred reality is not viewed as having personal attributes but is
more like an energy or mysterious power. Frequently, the sacred is then spoken of as something
immanent within the universe. In some religions, there is a tendency to speak of the universe not
just as having been created but also as a manifestation of the sacred nature itself, in which
nothing is separate from the sacred. This view, called pantheism (Greek: “all divine”), sees the
sacred as being discoverable within the physical world and its processes. In other words, nature
itself is holy.
Some religions worship the sacred reality in the form of many coexisting gods, a view called
polytheism. The multiple gods may be fairly separate entities, each in charge of an aspect of
reality (such as nature gods), or they may be multiple manifestations of the same basic sacred
In recent centuries, we find a tendency to deny the existence of any God or gods (atheism), to
argue that the existence of God cannot be proven (agnosticism), or simply to take no position
(nontheism). (Such tendencies are not strictly modern; they can also be found in some ancient
systems, such as Jainism; see Chapter 5.) However, if one sees religion broadly, as a “spiritual
path,” then even systems based on these three views—particularly if they show other typical
characteristics of a religion—can also be called religions.
Religions present views of reality, and most speak of the sacred. Nevertheless, because religions
are so varied in their teachings and because the teachings of some religions, when taken at face
value, conflict with those of others, it is common to assert that religions express truth
symbolically. A symbol is something fairly concrete, ordinary, and universal that can represent—
and help human beings intensely experience—something of greater complexity. For example,
water can represent spiritual cleansing; the sun, health; a mountain, strength; and a circle,
eternity. We frequently find symbolism, both deliberate and unconscious, in religious art and
Symbols and their interpretation have long played an important part in analyzing dreams. It was
once common to think of dreams as messages from a supernatural realm that provided a key to
the future. Although this type of interpretation is less common nowadays, most people still think
that dreams are significant. Sigmund Freud introduced his view of the dream as a door into
subconscious levels of the mind; he argued that by understanding dreams symbolically we can
understand our hidden needs and fears. For example, a dream of being lost in a forest might be
interpreted as distress over losing one’s sense of direction in life, or a dream of flying could be
interpreted as a need to seek freedom.
The mandala, according to Jung, illustrates “the path to the center, to individuation.”
© Thomas Hilgers
Carl Gustav Jung extended the symbol-focused method of dream interpretation to the
interpretation of religion. Some religious leaders have been cautious about this approach—
popularized by the mythologist Joseph Campbell—lest everything be turned into a symbol and
all literal meaning be lost. And specialists in religion oppose the view that two religions are
basically the same simply because they share similar symbols.
Before entering a mosque, men symbolically purify themselves with water. Ablution and
purification rituals are found in most religions.
Nevertheless, there are many scholars and religious leaders who recognize the importance of
symbolic interpretation, because the use of religious symbols may point to some structure that
underlies all religions. There is no doubt that many of the same symbolic images and actions
appear repeatedly in religions throughout the world. Water, for instance, is used in all sorts of
religious rituals: Hindus bathe in the Ganges River; Christians use water for baptisms; Jews use
water for ritual purification; and Muslims and followers of Shinto wash before prayer. Ashes
also have widespread use among religious traditions to suggest death and the spirit world: ashes
are used by tribal religions in dance ceremonies, by Hindu holy men to represent asceticism and
detachment, and by some Christians, whose foreheads are marked by ashes in observance of Ash
Wednesday. Likewise, religious buildings are placed on hills or are raised on mounds and
reached by stairs—all suggesting the symbol of the holy mountain, where the sacred can be
We also see in various religions the recurrence of a symbolic story of transformation: a state of
original purity degenerates into pollution or disorder, or a battle to fight disorder culminates in a
sacrificial death that results in a renewed sense of purity and order. Scholars point out, too, that
religions frequently use words in a symbolic way; for example, the divine is often described as
existing “up above,” insight can be “awakened,” and a person can feel “reborn.”
When viewed this way, religious symbols, myths, and terminology at times suggest a universal
symbolic “language” that all religions speak. Those interested in religious symbolism hope that
understanding the “language” of symbols will help uncover what is universally important in all
Speculations on the Sources of Religion
Why does religion exist? The most evident answer is that it serves many human needs. One of
our primary needs is having a means to deal with our mortality. Because we and our loved ones
must die, we have to face the pain of death and the inevitable questions it brings about whether
there is any soul, afterlife, or rebirth. People often look to religion for the answers. Religion can
help us cope with death, and religious rituals can offer us comfort. Human beings also desire
good health, a regular supply of food, and the conditions (such as suitable weather) necessary to
ensure these things. Before the development of modern science, human beings looked to religion
to bring about these practical benefits, and they often still do.
Human beings are also social by nature, and religion offers companionship and the fulfillment
that can come from belonging to a group. Moreover, religion often provides a structure for caring
for the needy.
Human beings have a need to seek out and create artistic forms of expression. Religion
stimulates art, music, and dance, and it has been the inspirational source of some of the most
imaginative buildings in the world. Religion not only makes use of multiple arts but also
integrates them into a living, often beautiful whole.
Perhaps the most basic function of religion is to respond to our natural wonder about ourselves
and the cosmos—our musings on a starry night. Religion helps us relate to the unknown universe
around us by answering the basic questions of who we are, where we come from, and where we
Issues relating to the origins of religion have engaged thinkers with new urgency ever since the
dawn of the age of science. Many have suggested that religion is a human attempt to feel more
secure in an unfeeling universe. The English anthropologist E. B. Tylor (1832–1917), for
example, believed religion was rooted in spirit worship. He noted how frequently religions see
“spirits” as having some control over natural forces and how commonly religions see those who
die—the ancestors—as passing into the spirit world. Fear of the power of all these spirits, he
thought, made it necessary for people to find ways to please their ancestors. Religion offered
such ways, thus allowing the living to avoid the spirits’ dangerous power and to convert that
power into a force that worked for the good of human beings. Similarly, the Scottish
anthropologist James Frazer (1854–1941), author of The Golden Bough, saw the origins of
religion in early attempts by human beings to influence nature, and he identified religion as an
intermediate stage between magic and science.
A so-called Chac-Mool figure, used in sacrifice, sits in front of the ruins of the Pyramid of
Kulkulkán in Chichén Itzá, Mexico.
© Royalty-Free/Corbis RF
Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) theorized that belief in a God or gods arises from the long-lasting
impressions made on adults by their childhood experiences, in which their parents play a major
part; these adults then project their sense of their parents into their image of their God or gods.
According to Freud, these experiences—of fear as well as of security—are the basis for adults’
attempts to deal with the anxieties of a complicated present and an unknown future. Freud argued
that since a major function of religion is to help human beings feel secure in an unsafe universe,
religion becomes less necessary as human beings gain greater physical and mental security.
Freud’s major works on religion include Totem and Taboo, The Future of an Illusion, and Moses
Another psychologist, William James (1842–1910), came to his ideas on religion via an unusual
course of study. Although he began his higher education as a student of art, he made a radical
switch to the study of medicine. Finally, when he recognized the influence of the mind on the
body, he was led to the study of psychology and then of religion, which he saw as growing out of
psychological needs. James viewed religion as a positive way of fulfilling these needs and
praised its positive influence on the lives of individuals. He wrote that religion brings “a new
zest” to living, provides “an assurance of safety,” and leads to a “harmonious relation with the
Who are we, where do we come from, and where are we going? Each religion offers answers to
these questions, and graveyards often hint at believers’ visions of what happens after death.
© Thomas Hilgers
The German theologian Rudolf Otto (1869–1937) argued in his book The Idea of the Holy that
religions emerge when people experience that aspect of reality which is essentially mysterious.
He called it the “mystery that causes trembling and fascination” (mysterium tremendum et
fascinans). In general, we take our existence for granted and live with little wonder, but
occasionally something disturbs our ordinary view of reality. For example, a strong
manifestation of nature—such as a violent thunderstorm—may startle us. It is an aspect of reality
that is frightening, forcing us to tremble (tremendum) but also to feel fascination (fascinans). The
emotional result is what Otto called numinous awe. 6 He pointed out how often religious art
depicts that which is terrifying, such as the bloodthirsty Hindu goddess Durga. 7
Carl Gustav Jung (1875–1961), an early disciple of Freud, broke with his mentor because of
fundamental differences of interpretation, particularly about religion. In his books Modern Man
in Search of a Soul, Psychology and Alchemy, and Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Jung
described religion as something that grew out of the individual’s need to arrive at personal
fulfillment, which he called individuation. According to Jung, many religious insignia can be
seen as symbols of personal integration and human wholeness: the circle, the cross (which is
made of lines that join at the center), and the sacred diagram of the mandala (often a circle within
or enclosing a square), which he called “the path to the center, to individuation.” 8 He pointed out
that as people age, they can make a healthy use of religion to understand their place in the
universe and to prepare for death. For Jung, religion was a noble human response to the
complexity and depth of reality.
The view of Karl Marx (1818–1883) about religion is often cited, but it may have been softer
than that of the Russian and Chinese forms of Marxism that emerged from it. While many types
of Marxism have been strongly atheistic, Marx himself was not so militant. He indeed called
religion an opiate of the masses. But for him religion had both a bad and a good side. Religion,
he thought, emerged naturally because people felt poor, powerless, and alienated from their
work. On the other hand, Marx also thought that religion gave great consolation, for it spoke of a
suffering-free life after death. For Marx, religion was a symptom of the sickness of society. The
need for religion, he thought, would dissolve when society improved.
Some recent theories do not look specifically at religion, but their wide-ranging insights are
applied in the study of the origin of religions, as well as in many other fields. Among these
theoretical approaches are structuralism and post-structuralism, along with the technique of
deconstruction. We will look at some of these ideas and applications later.
Various scholars have attempted to identify “stages” in the development of religions. Austrian
ethnographer and philologist Wilhelm Schmidt (1868–1954) argued that all humankind once
believed in a single High God and that to this simple monotheism later beliefs in lesser gods and
spirits were added. The reverse has also been suggested—namely, that polytheism led to
monotheism. Influenced by the notion of evolution, some have speculated that religions “evolve”
naturally from animism (a worldview that sees all elements of nature as being filled with spirit or
spirits) to polytheism and then to monotheism. Critics of this view feel it is biased in favor of
monotheism, in part because it is a view originally suggested by Christian scholars, who
presented their belief system as the most advanced.
Scholars today hesitate to speak of any “evolution” from one form of religion to another. To
apply the biological notion of evolution to human belief systems seems biased, oversimple, and
speculative. Even more important, such a point of view leads to subjective judgments that one
religion is more “highly evolved” than another—a shortsightedness that has kept many people
from appreciating the unique insights and contributions of every religion. Consequently, the
focus of religious studies has moved from the study of religion to the study of religions, a field
that assumes that all religions are equally worthy of study.
Patterns Among Religions
When we study religions in a comparative and historical sense, we are not looking to validate
them or to disprove them or to enhance our own belief or practice—as we might if we were
studying our personal religious tradition. Instead, we want to comprehend the particular religions
as thoroughly as possible and to understand the experience of people within each religion. Part of
that process of understanding leads us to see patterns of similarity and difference among
Religion is the substance of culture, and culture the form of religion.
Paul Tillich, theologian 9
Although we do look for patterns, we must recognize that these patterns are not conceptual
straitjackets. Religions, especially those with long histories and extensive followings, are usually
quite complex. Furthermore, religions are not permanent theoretical constructs but are constantly
in a process of change—influenced by governments, thinkers, historical events, changing
technology, and the shifting values of the cultures in which they exist.
First Pattern: Views of the World and Life
Religions must provide answers to the great questions that people ask. How did the universe
come into existence, does it have a purpose, and will it end? What is time, and how should we
make use of it? What should be our relationship to the world of nature? Why do human beings
exist? How do we reach fulfillment, transformation, or salvation? Why is there suffering in the
world, and how should we deal with it? What happens when we die? What should we hold as
sacred? The questions do not vary, but the answers do.
Given the great variety in their worldviews, religions, not surprisingly, define differently the
nature of sacred reality, the universe, the natural world, time, and human purpose. Religions also
differ in their attitudes toward the role of words in expressing the sacred and in their relations to
other religious traditions. By examining different views on these concepts, we will have further
bases for comparison that will lead us to a more complete understanding of the world’s religions.
The nature of sacred reality Some religions, as we have seen, speak of the sacred as
transcendent, existing primarily in a realm beyond the everyday world. In other religions,
though, sacred reality is spoken of as being immanent; that is, it is within nature and
human beings and can be experienced as energy or holiness. Sometimes the sacred is
viewed as having personal attributes, while elsewhere it is seen as an impersonal entity.
And in certain religious traditions, particularly in some forms of Buddhism, it is hard to
point to a sacred reality at all. Such facts raise the question as to whether “the sacred”
exists outside ourselves or if it is better to speak of the sacred simply as what people
“hold to be sacred.”
The nature of the universe Some religions see the universe as having been begun by an
intelligent, personal Creator who continues to guide the universe according to a cosmic
plan. Other religions view the universe as being eternal; that is, having no beginning or
end. The implications of these two positions are quite important to what is central in a
religion and to how the human being acts in regard to this central belief. If the universe is
created, especially by a transcendent deity, the center of sacredness is the Creator rather
than the universe, but human beings imitate the Creator by changing and perfecting the
world. If, however, the universe is eternal, the material universe itself is sacred and
perfect and requires no change.
The human attitude toward nature At one end of the spectrum, some religions or
religious schools see nature as the realm of evil forces that must be overcome. For them,
nature is gross and contaminating, existing in opposition to the nonmaterial world of the
spirit—a view, known as dualism, held by some forms of Christianity, Jainism, and
Hinduism. At the other end of the spectrum, as in Daoism and Shinto, nature is
considered to be sacred and needs no alteration. Other religions, such as Judaism and
Islam, take a middle ground, holding that the natural world originated from a divine
action but that human beings are called upon to continue to shape it.
Time Religions that emphasize a creation, such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, tend
to see time as being linear, moving in a straight line from the beginning of the universe to
its end. Being limited and unrepeatable, time is important. In some other religions, such
as Buddhism, however, time is cyclical. The universe simply moves through endless
changes, which repeat themselves over grand periods of time. In such a religion, time is
not as crucial or “real” because, ultimately, the universe is not moving to some final
point; consequently, appreciating the present may be more important than being oriented
to the future.
Human purpose In some religions, human beings are part of a great divine plan, and
although each person is unique, individual meaning comes also from the cosmic plan.
The cosmic plan may be viewed as a struggle between forces of good and evil, with
human beings at the center of the stage and the forces of good and evil at work within
them. Because human actions are so important, they must be guided by a prescribed
moral code that is meant to be internalized by the individual. This view is significant in
Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In contrast, other religions do not see human life in
similarly dramatic terms, and the individual is only part of much larger realities. In
Daoism and Shinto, a human being is a small part of the natural universe, and in
Confucianism, an individual is part of the family and of society. Such religions place less
emphasis on individual rights and more emphasis on how the individual can maintain
harmony with the whole. Actions are not guided by an internalized moral system but by
society, tradition, and a sense of mutual obligation.
Words and scriptures In some religions, the sacred is to be found in written and spoken
words, and for those religions that use writing and create scriptures, reading, copying,
and using sacred words in music or art are important. We see the importance of words in
indigenous religions (which primarily pass on their traditions orally), in Judaism, in
Christianity, in Islam, and in Hinduism. Other religions—such as Daoism and Zen
Buddhism, which show a certain mistrust of words—value silence and wordless
meditation. Although Zen and Daoism utilize language in their practices and have
produced significant literature, each of these religions finds language limited in
expressing the richness or totality of reality.
Exclusiveness and inclusiveness Some religions emphasize that the sacred is distinct
from the world and that order must be imposed by separating good from bad, true from
false. In that view, to share in sacredness means separation—for example, withdrawal
from certain foods, places, people, practices, or beliefs. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam
are among the religions that have been generally exclusive, making it impossible to
belong to more than one religion at the same time. In contrast, other religions have
stressed inclusiveness. Frequently, such religions also have emphasized social harmony,
the inadequacy of language, or the relativity of truth, and they have accepted belief in
many deities. Their inclusiveness has led them to admit many types of beliefs and
practices into their religions, to the point that it is possible for an individual to belong to
several religions—such as Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism—simultaneously. Such
inclusiveness has led to misunderstanding at times, as in the case of a Christian
missionary having “converted” a Japanese follower only to find the new convert still
visiting a Shinto shrine.
Vajrayana monks in Bhutan are making electronic copies of Buddhist scriptures to help make
them available to a worldwide audience.
© Thomas Hilgers
Second Pattern: Focus of Beliefs and Practices
Realizing the limitations of all generalizations, we nonetheless might gain some perspective by
examining the orientations exhibited by individual religions. When we look at the world’s
dominant religions, we see three basic orientations in their conception and location of the
Sacramental orientation The sacramental orientation emphasizes carrying out rituals and
ceremonies regularly and correctly as the path to salvation; in some religions, correct
ritual is believed to influence the processes of nature. All religions have some degree of
ritual, but the ceremonial tendency is predominant, for example, in most indigenous
religions, in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christianity, in Vedic Hinduism, and
in Tibetan Buddhism. Making the Catholic sign of the cross, for example, is done in a
certain way: only with the right hand, beginning with a touch on the forehead, then on
one’s chest, and finally on each shoulder, left to right. 11
Prophetic orientation The prophetic orientation stresses that contact with the sacred is
ensured by proper belief and by adherence to moral rules. This orientation also implies
that a human being may be an important intermediary between the believer and the
sacred; for example, a prophet may speak to believers on behalf of the sacred. Prophetic
orientation is a prominent aspect of Judaism, Protestant Christianity, and Islam, which all
see the sacred as being transcendent but personal. The television crusades of evangelistic
ministers are good examples of the prophetic orientation in action.
Mystical orientation The mystical orientation seeks union with a reality greater than
oneself, such as with God, the process of nature, the universe, or reality as a whole. There
are often techniques (such as seated meditation) for lessening the sense of one’s
individual identity to help the individual experience a greater unity. The mystical
orientation is a prominent aspect of Upanishadic Hinduism, Daoism, and some schools of
Buddhism. (Master Kusan [1909–1983], a Korean teacher of Zen Buddhism, described
the disappearance of self in the enlightenment experience of unity with this memorable
question: “Could a snowflake survive inside a burning flame?” 12
) Although the mystical
orientation is more common in religions that stress the immanence of the sacred or that
are nontheistic, it is an important but less prominent tendency in Judaism, Christianity,
and Islam as well.
Any one of these three orientations may be dominant in a religion, yet the other two orientations
might also be found in the same religion to a lesser extent and possibly be subsumed into a
different purpose. For example, ceremony can be utilized to help induce mystical experience, as
in Catholic and Orthodox Christianity, Japanese Shingon Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, Daoism,
and even Zen Buddhism, which has a strongly ritualistic aspect of its own.
Third Pattern: Views of Male and Female
Because gender is such an intrinsic and important part of being human, religions have had much
to say about the roles of men and women, both on earth and in the divine spheres. Because of
differences in how religions view these differences, they may constitute another underlying
pattern that we can investigate when studying religions. Thus, views of what is male and what is
female provide another basis for comparing religions.
In many influential religions today, male imagery and control seem to dominate; the sacred is
considered male, and the full-time religious specialists are frequently male. But this may not
always have been the case. Tantalizing evidence suggests that female divinities once played an
important role in many cultures and religions. The most significant female deity was particularly
associated with fertility and motherhood and has been known by many names, such as Astarte,
Asherah, Aphrodite, and Freia (the origin of the word Friday). Statues of a Mother-Goddess—
sometimes with many breasts to suggest the spiritual power of the nurturing female—have been
found throughout Europe, as well as in Turkey, Israel, and the Middle East.
Deeper Insights: Multiple Images of the Female
Religions frequently have been criticized for the dominance of males, both in their religious
leadership and in their images of the sacred. While there is truth to such criticism, scholarly
attention helps us to note the multitude of female roles and images to be found among religions.
Consider these examples:
Easter, a springtime festival of fertility, is marked by these Easter eggs decorating a European
© Thomas Hilgers
In India, the divine is worshiped in its female aspects as the Great Mother (also known as
Kali and Durga) or as other female deities.
In Catholic and Orthodox Christianity, Mary, the mother of Jesus, receives special
veneration; she is held to possess superhuman powers and is a strong role model for
In the Mahayana Buddhist pantheon, Guanyin (Kannon) is worshiped as a female ideal of
In Japan, the premier Shinto divinity is the goddess Amaterasu, patroness of the imperial
family. In contrast to many other religious systems, the goddess Amaterasu is associated
with the sun, and a male god is associated with the moon.
In Korea and Japan, shamans are frequently female.
In Africa, India, and elsewhere, some tribal cultures remain matriarchal.
In Wicca—a contemporary restoration of ancient, nature-based religion—devotees
worship a female deity they refer to as the Goddess.
Symbolic forms of the female divine are still prominent in the rites of several religions.
Common symbols include the moon, the snake, spirals and labyrinths, the egg, yoni
(symbolic vagina), water, and earth. These symbolic representations of the female
suggest generation, growth, nurturance, intuition, and wisdom.
Is it possible that female images of the divine were once more common and that female religious
leadership once played a more important role? It has been argued that male dominance in
religion became more common as the result of the growth of city-states, which needed organized
defense and so elevated the status of men because of their fighting ability. In Israel, worship of a
female deity was stamped out by prophets who preached exclusive worship of the male god
Yahweh and by kings who wanted loyalty paid to them and their offspring. We read passages
like this in the Hebrew scriptures: “They abandoned the Lord and worshipped Baal and the
Astartes. So the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel” (Judg. 2:13–14). 13
New Testament contains words that sometimes have been interpreted to mean that women
should not play a prominent role in public worship: “I do not allow them to teach or to have
authority over men; they must keep quiet. For Adam was created first, and then Eve. And it was
not Adam who was deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and broke God’s law” (1 Tim.
In Asia, Confucianism has been distrustful of women in general and has ordinarily
refused them leadership roles. In Buddhism, despite recognition in scripture that women can be
enlightened, in practice the great majority of leaders have been men. 15
A century ago, great numbers of people across the world had little experience of the different
beliefs and practices in other regions. But radio, television, the Internet, smartphones, and other
technologies have changed this. Thus it is no surprise that long-established customs regarding
gender should now be challenged and changed.
Such changes may not come easily. In some religious traditions, the possibility of changes can
produce a rift. This is happening today, for example, in the Christian Anglican Communion and
several other Christian denominations. We can expect similar disruptions in other religious
traditions, as technological changes bring knowledge of different cultures.
In many religions, the gender associated with positions of power is no longer exclusively male.
Here, female priests lead a communion service.
© AP/Wide World Photos
Knowledge of other cultures will continue to grow, and the study of other religions will
contribute to this process. Such study will open people’s eyes not only to the gender expectations
in religions of the past, but also to today’s evolving practices. This is nudging several religious
traditions to accept women in areas where in earlier centuries they were not expected to have a
role. Although there are many resultant tensions (those in Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam are
currently receiving publicity), we can expect that women will be widely successful in receiving
full acceptance in roles of leadership.
Multidisciplinary Approaches to the Study of Religion
Religion has influenced so many areas of human life that it is a subject not only of religious
studies but of other disciplines, too. As we have seen, the social sciences, in particular, have long
studied religion. More recently, linguistics, literary theory, and cultural studies have offered us
new ways of seeing and interpreting religion.
There are other approaches, too. We can focus our study on a single religion or look at several
religions at the same time. Believers may opt to explore their own religion “from the inside,”
while nonbelievers may want to concentrate on the answers that several religions have given to a
single question, such as the purpose of human life. Following is a list of some common
approaches to religion.
Psychology Psychology (Greek: “soul study”) deals with human mental states, emotions,
and behaviors. Despite being a fairly young discipline, psychology has taken a close look
at religion because it offers such rich human “material” to explore. A few areas of study
include religious influences on child rearing, human behavior, gender expectations, and
self-identity; group dynamics in religion; trance states; and comparative mystical
Mythology The study of religious tales, texts, and art has uncovered some universal
patterns. Mythology is full of the recurrent images and themes found in religions, such as
the tree of knowledge, the ladder to heaven, the fountain of life, the labyrinth, the secret
garden, the holy mountain, the newborn child, the suffering hero, initiation, rebirth, the
cosmic battle, the female spirit guide, and the aged teacher of wisdom.
Philosophy Philosophy (Greek: “love of wisdom”) in some ways originated from a
struggle with religion; although both arenas pose many of the same questions, philosophy
does not automatically accept the answers given by any religion to the great questions.
Instead, philosophy seeks answers independently, following reason rather than religious
authority, and it tries to fit its answers into a rational, systematic whole. Some questions
philosophy asks are, Does human life have any purpose? Is there an afterlife? How
should we live? Philosophy is essentially the work of individuals, while religion is a
community experience; philosophy tries to avoid emotion, while religion often nurtures
it; and philosophy is carried on without ritual, while religion naturally expresses itself in
Theology Theology (Greek: “study of the divine”) is the study of topics as they relate to
one particular religious tradition. A theologian is an individual who usually studies his or
her own belief system. For example, a person who is in training to become a Christian
minister might study Christian theology.
The arts Comparing patterns in religious art makes an intriguing study. For example,
religious architecture often uses symmetry, height, and archaic styles to suggest the
sacred; religious music frequently employs a slow pace and repeated rhythms to induce
tranquillity; and religious art often incorporates gold, haloes, equilateral designs, and
circles to suggest otherworldliness and perfection.
Anthropology Anthropology (Greek: “study of human beings”) has been interested in
how religions influence the ways different cultures deal with issues such as family
interaction, individual roles, property rights, marriage, child rearing, social hierarchies,
and division of labor.
Volunteers assist with excavations in Caesarea Maritima, exploring the foundations of a
2,000-year-old seaside temple possibly built by King Herod.
© AP Photo/Eyal Warshavsky
Archeology Archeology (Greek: “study of origins”) explores the remains of earlier
civilizations, often uncovering the artifacts and ruins of religious buildings from ancient
cultures. When possible, archeologists translate writings left by these people, much of
which can be religious in origin. Archeology occasionally sheds light on how one religion
has influenced another. For example, the excavation of a cuneiform library at Nineveh
150 years ago revealed a story (in the Epic of Gilgamesh) that is similar to—and may
have influenced—the biblical story of Noah and the flood. Archeology can also reveal
religious material that enables scholars to decipher an entire writing system. For example,
the discovery in the early nineteenth century of the Rosetta Stone (which contained the
same inscription in three different scripts) led researchers to unlock the meaning of
Linguistics and literary theory The study of linguistics has sometimes involved a search
for patterns that may underlie all languages. But linguistics has occasionally also
suggested general patterns and structures that may underlie something broader than
language alone: human consciousness. This interest in underlying patterns has brought
new attention to the possible structures behind religious tales, rituals, and other
expressions of religious beliefs and attitudes. Linguistics has also examined religious
language for its implications and often-hidden values. (Consider, for example, the various
implications of the religious words sin and sacred.) Literary theory, on the other hand,
has studied the written texts of religion as reflections of the cultural assumptions and
values that produced the texts. Literary theory has thus pointed out some of the ways in
which religions have reflected and promoted the treatment of women and minorities, for
example, as different from or inferior to more dominant groups. Literary theory also has
shown that nonwritten material—such as religious statues, paintings, songs, and even
films—can be viewed as forms of discourse and can therefore be studied in the same
ways that written texts are studied.
The use of theory for the study of religion is not limited to the fields of linguistics and
literature. In fact, increasing numbers of academic disciplines are studying religions as
part of the human search for understanding. Thus a scholar in the field of art may see and
interpret religions as forms of art. Specialists in psychology may interpret religions
primarily as expressions of individual human needs. Sociologists may see religions as
ways of shaping groups and of promoting and maintaining group conformity. The
viewpoints of these and other disciplines can also be adopted by scholars of religion as
keys to understanding the complexities of religions.
The Study of Religion
Originally, religions were studied primarily within their own religious traditions. The goal of this
approach was that faith and devotion would be illuminated by intellectual search. Although this
approach continues in denominational schools, the study of religion began to take new form two
There were several causes for the change. First, the early scientific movement accepted belief in
a creator-god, but it rejected belief in miracles and demanded scientific proof for beliefs. The
emerging scientific movement thus forced people to revise some of their traditional religious
beliefs. Second, because of the growth of historical studies, academic experts began to question
the literal truth of some statements and stories presented in the scriptures. (For example, did the
story of Noah and the Ark actually happen, or was it meant mainly to be a teaching parable
whose real purpose was moral?) Third, because of the growth of trade and travel, even faraway
cultures were becoming known. Their religions proved to be not only colorful but also wise. The
morality taught by Buddhism, the sense of duty found in Confucianism, the love of nature taught
in Shinto—all these seemed admirable. But what did this mean for other religions? In the
nineteenth and twentieth centuries this question intensified, as more information became
available through history, anthropology, and sociology. Scriptures and ritual texts were
translated, and anthropologists began to have direct experience of even small and rare religions.
In the university world, the study of religions was at first fragmented. The great questions of
religion were studied in philosophy departments. Other aspects of religion could be found in
departments of history, psychology, anthropology, and art. But there was as yet no department of
religious studies that unified these interests.
The fragmented academic approach changed in the twentieth century, as departments of religious
studies were formed and became a regular part of academic life. At first it was uncertain if these
departments of religion would survive. But the popularity of some courses in religion—
particularly those in world religions, death and dying, and the psychology of religion—
demonstrated the worth of having separate, permanent departments of religious studies.
The study of religion has further expanded, and in the twenty-first century we are able to
examine religions from additional and sometimes unexpected points of view. For example, one
of the most provocative new perspectives is neurology. Are religious beliefs and practices a part
of our genetic makeup, or are they merely manufactured by cultures and learned by people? Is a
religious experience the intrusion of a sacred being on individual consciousness, or is it the
activity of a particular chemical in the brain? Similar questions may be asked about morality. Are
moral demands a part of our physical constitution, or are they simply rules taught by society? As
academic disciplines expand and additional disciplines emerge, new aspects of religion will be
Recent thinking about religion has been influenced by the field studies of anthropologists and
other behavioral scientists. Archeology has also contributed much to newer thinking.
At one time it was thought that religions were best traced to a “great founder,” such as Moses,
the Buddha, Jesus, or Muhammad. This is no longer the common approach. Rather, sociologists
have pointed out how religions seem to emerge from whole tribes and peoples. One of the first
thinkers to speak of this was the French sociologist Émile Durkheim (1858–1917). 16
how religions reinforce the values of groups, and his approach was empirical, based on research.
His approach has been continued by later French thinkers, such as Claude Levi-Strauss.
Claude Levi-Strauss (1908–2009) did fieldwork in Brazil, where he studied the mythology of
tribal groups. There he began to see great similarities in the myths of indigenous peoples. This
led him to see large structural similarities between kinship patterns, languages, and social
relations. He theorized that structures in the human mind formed these similarities. His thought,
called structuralism, has influenced the study of religion, particularly regarding taboos, marriage,
and laws about food purity.
A countermovement, called post-structuralism, soon emerged. It emphasized the individuality of
each experience and argued that belief in grand structures may keep investigators from
appreciating that individuality. Michel Foucault (1926–1984) is thought of as its primary
exponent. His work especially focused on those marginalized by society—prisoners, medical
patients, and the insane.
Jacques Derrida (1930–2004) began with a structuralist approach, but he moved away from
grand theories in order to focus on language, meaning, and interpretation. He is known for going
behind the ordinary interpretation of texts to discover new cultural meanings. This method is
known as deconstruction. In the area of religion, it can be quite effective. For example,
traditional religious texts can be looked at from many new points of view; one can look at
scriptural passages to investigate, say, underlying attitudes toward the treatment of women,
slaves, indigenous people, children, and the old. Deconstructive principles can also be used to
investigate religious art, architecture, and music.
Increasingly, religious investigation relies on anthropologists who have lived with native peoples
and learned their languages. One researcher of this type was E. E. Evans-Pritchard (1902–1973),
who lived among the Azande and Nuer people in Africa. Another esteemed anthropologist was
Clifford Geertz (1926–2006), who lived in Indonesia and Morocco and wrote about practices
there. Geertz championed what he called thick description—a description not only of rituals and
religious objects, but also of their meaning for the practitioners.
The so-called phenomenological approach to religious studies has been very popular. This
approach emphasizes direct experiential research to gather data. It seeks to understand religious
acts and objects from the consciousness of the believers, and it tries to avoid projecting the
researcher’s beliefs and expectations into the data. Specialists of this type have sometimes
focused on one religion. Contemporary examples are Wendy Doniger (O’Flaherty, b. 1940) and
Diana Eck (b. 1945). Both of them have specialized in Hinduism, but their writings and other
work have incorporated other world religions.
Key Critical Issues
The research-based approach to the study of religions, though valuable, brings problems and
questions. Are we genuinely listening to the voices of the practitioners, or are we only paying
attention to the experiences of the observer? Can an outsider be truly objective, or is the outsider
merely imposing the theories of other cultures? Doesn’t scientific observation contaminate the
people and culture being observed? Could informants give deliberately false answers to
questions that they think are inappropriate? (They do.)
Conflict in Religion: Religious Blends
A book like this has to treat religions as somewhat separate. While there is truth to that
separateness, it is also true that religions are constantly borrowing from each other. One example
that we know of occurs in the Catholic practice of Mexico. Our Lady of Guadalupe is not only
one form of the Virgin Mary; she is also a continuation of the pre-Christian deity Tonantzin, who
was once worshiped at the modern-day site of the main church of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Other
native beliefs and practices continue in the Christianity of South America; for example, the
veneration of earlier nature deities has influenced the current veneration of saints. In Zen
Buddhism, there is influence from Daoism and Confucianism; the Daoist love of nature appears
in Zen flower arrangement and garden design, and the Confucian respect for a teacher appears in
the obedience given to a Zen master. The Shiite Islam of Iraq contains practices that can be
traced back to Zoroastrianism. In recent times, Scientology seems to have elements very similar
to those found in Hinduism and Buddhism, and the Vietnamese religion of Cao Dai unites beliefs
of Asian religions with elements of Christianity and spiritism. As we study the religions of the
world, we must remember this tendency to borrow and blend, which enriches them all.
Whatever their religion, people tend to turn to it with hope. Here a supplicant in Romania crawls
under an icon to secure greater attention from the Virgin Mary, who is portrayed.
© Thomas Hilgers
Moral questions also arise. Does the research arise from respect for a different culture and
religion, or is it just a more modern form of domination and colonialism? And doesn’t research
introduce new ideas and new objects, such as cell phones, cameras, and different clothing? Don’t
these objects alter cultures that have been unchanged for centuries?
In addition, research has revealed to investigators the enormous variety within major religions.
Because some major religions have blended with earlier religions to produce unique hybrids, can
we really speak of single great religions, such as “Buddhism” or “Christianity”? Do they really
exist, or are they just useful fictions?
Some scholars also have pointed out that the religious experience of women within a religious
tradition may be quite different from that of men. In Islam, for example, women’s religious
experience may be centered primarily in the home, while men’s may be centered more on the
mosque. And the religious experience will be quite different for a child, a teenager, or an adult.
In addition, the varying meaning of being a Buddhist or a Christian or a Hindu will depend
considerably on the culture and the period. Think, for example, of the difference of being a
Christian in first-century Rome and twenty-first-century North America, or of being a Hindu in
medieval India and modern-day New York City.
Although this book obviously has not abandoned the category of religions, it tries to show that
religions are not separate and unchanging. It sees world religions as grand patterns, but it
recognizes that we are true to these religions only when we see the great diversity within them.
Why Study the Major Religions of the World?
Because religions are so wide-ranging and influential, their study helps round out a person’s
education, as well as enriches one’s experience of many other related subjects. Let’s now
consider some additional pleasures and rewards of studying religions.
Science investigates; religion interprets. Science gives man knowledge which is power; religion
gives man wisdom which is control.
Martin Luther King Jr. 17
Insight into religious traditions Each religion is interesting in its own right as a complex
system of values, relationships, personalities, and human creativity.
Insight into what religions share The study of religions requires sympathy and
objectivity. While it is true that being a believer of a particular religion brings a special
insight that an outsider cannot have, it is also true that an outsider can appreciate things
that are not always obvious to the insider. This is particularly true of shared patterns of
imagery, belief, and practice.
Insight into people Understanding a person’s religious background tells us more about
that person’s attitudes and values. Such understanding is valuable for successful human
relations—in both public life and private life.
Tolerance and appreciation of differences Because human beings are emotional
creatures, their religions can sometimes allow inflamed feelings to override common
decency. As we see daily, religions can be employed to justify immense cruelty.
Examining the major religions of the world helps us develop tolerance toward people of
varying religious traditions. In a multicultural world, tolerance of differences is valuable,
but enjoyment of differences is even better. Variety is a fact of nature, and the person
who can enjoy variety—in religion and elsewhere—is a person who will never be tired of
Intellectual questioning Religions make claims about truth, yet some of their views are
not easy to reconcile. For example, doesn’t the theory of reincarnation of the soul, as
found in Hinduism, conflict with the teaching of several other religions that a soul has
only one lifetime on earth? And how can the notion of an immortal soul be reconciled
with the Buddhist teaching that nothing has a permanent soul or essence? We must also
ask questions about tolerance itself. Must we be tolerant of intolerance, even if it is
preached by a religion? Questions such as these arise naturally when we study religions
side by side. Such study sharpens our perception of the claims of religions and invites us
to examine important intellectual questions more closely.
Rituals and Celebrations: Travel and Pilgrimage
One of the most universal religious practices is pilgrimage—travel undertaken by
believers to important religious sites. But you do not have to belong to a specific religion
to benefit from this ancient practice. Travel to religious sites is a wonderful way to
experience the varieties of human belief firsthand, particularly at times of religious
celebration. Travel that is not specifically religious can also offer similar benefits,
because it allows us to experience religious art and architecture in the places and contexts
for which they were created.
Travel programs for young and old abound. Many colleges offer study-abroad programs,
including summer courses that incorporate travel, as well as semester-and year-long study
programs. Scholarships and other financial aid may be available for these programs.
Large travel companies also offer summer tours for students, particularly to Europe and
Asia; these companies are able to offer affordable tours by scheduling charter flights and
inexpensive hotel accommodations. Programs such as these often make an excellent first
trip abroad for students. Young travelers touring on their own can also join a youth hostel
association, such as Hostelling International, and make use of a worldwide network of
inexpensive youth hostels. Older adults can take advantage of programs in Road Scholar
(formerly called Elderhostel). These programs encompass a wide variety of activities—
educational courses, excursions, and service projects—all around the world.
Information on travel, youth hostels, and home exchanges can be found online and in the
travel sections of libraries and bookstores. The Internet is also a good source for the dates
of religious festivals in other countries.
Insight into everyday life Religious influences can be found everywhere in modern
culture, not just within religious buildings. Politicians make use of religious images, for
example, when they speak of a “new covenant” with voters. Specific religions and
religious denominations take public positions on moral issues, such as abortion and war.
Our weekly routines are regulated by the originally Jewish practice of a six-day work
week followed by a day of rest, and the European- American school calendar is divided
in two by the originally Christian Christmas holidays. Even comic strips use religious
imagery: animals crowded onto a wooden boat, a man holding two tablets, angels on
clouds, a person meditating on a mountaintop. The study of religions is valuable for
helping us recognize and appreciate the religious influences that are everywhere.
Appreciation for the arts Anyone attracted to painting, sculpture, music, or architecture
will be drawn to the study of religions. Because numerous religious traditions have been
among the most significant patrons of art, their study provides a gateway to discovering
and appreciating these rich works.
Enriched experience of travel Study of religion allows us to see cultural forms in new
ways. One of the great pleasures of our age is travel. Visiting the temple of Angkor Wat
in Cambodia or a Mayan pyramid in Mexico is quite different from just reading about
them. The study of world religions gives travelers the background necessary to fully
enjoy the many wonderful places they can now experience directly.
Insight into family traditions Religions have influenced most earlier cultures so strongly
that their effects are readily identifiable in the values of our parents and grandparents—
even if they are not actively religious individuals. These values include attitudes toward
education, individual rights, gender roles, sex, time, money, food, and leisure.
Help in one’s own religious quest Not everyone is destined to become an artist or a
musician or a poet, yet each one of us has some ability to appreciate visual arts, music,
and poetry. In the same way, although some people may not be explicitly religious, they
may have a sense of the sacred and a desire to seek ways to feel at home in the universe.
Those who belong to a religion will have their beliefs and practices enriched by the study
of the world’s religions, because they will learn about their religion’s history, major
figures, scriptures, and influences from different points of view. Others who have little
interest in traditional religions yet nonetheless have a strong interest in spirituality may
view their lives as a spiritual quest. For any person involved in a spiritual search, it is
extremely helpful to study a variety of religions. Stories of others’ spiritual quests
provide insights that we may draw on for our own spiritual journey.
The journey begins.
© Thomas Hilgers
With open minds, eager for the many benefits of studying religions, we now begin an intellectual
pilgrimage to many of the world’s important living religions. We will first look at a sample of
religions often associated with native peoples across the globe. We will then go on to study
religions that emerged on the Indian subcontinent and then to the religions that arose in China
and Japan. Next we will travel to the area east of the Mediterranean Sea—a generally arid region
that nonetheless has been fertile ground for new religious ideas. Finally, we will encounter some
of the newest religious movements and will consider the modern religious search.
Our journey, though academic and intellectual, may prompt strong emotions in some readers. For
some it will be a prelude to an actual physical pilgrimage. For others it will be an intellectual
pilgrimage that will provoke both doubt and insight.
We begin with the knowledge that at the end of every journey we are not quite the same as we
were when we started. Ours is a journey of discovery, and through discovery, we hope to become
more appreciative of the experience of being human in the universe.
Reading: Finding What Brings Joy *
* From THE POWER OF MYTH by Joseph Campbell, & Bill Moyers, copyright © 1988 by
Apostrophe S Productions, Inc. and Bill Moyers and Alfred Van der Marck Editions, Inc. for
itself and the estate of Joseph Campbell. Used by permission of Doubleday, a division of
Random House, Inc.
The mythologist Joseph Campbell helped people become sensitive to symbol and myth, which he
loved deeply. He followed his path only because it gave him so much joy. The study of mythology
became his life’s work. Here he describes why.
If you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while,
waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. Wherever you
are—if you are following your bliss, you are enjoying that refreshment, that life within you, all
Now, I came to this idea of bliss because in Sanskrit, which is the great spiritual language of the
world, there are three terms that represent the brink, the jumping-off place to the ocean of
transcendence: sat-chit-ananda. The word “Sat” means being. “Chit” means consciousness.
“Ananda” means bliss or rapture. I thought, “I don’t know whether my consciousness is proper
consciousness or not; I don’t know whether what I know of my being is my proper being or not;
but I do know where my rapture is. So let me hang on to rapture, and that will bring me both my
consciousness and my being.” I think it worked. 18
1. Religions manifest eight possible elements: belief system, community, central myths, ritual,
ethics, characteristic emotional experiences, material expression, and ___________
1. science 2. sacredness 3. dualism 4. deconstruction
2. The belief that all is divine is called _____________
1. atheism 2. monotheism 3. pantheism 4. agnosticism
3. ____________ argues that the existence of God cannot be proven.
1. Agnosticism 2. Pantheism 3. Monotheism 4. Nontheism
4. Anthropologist _______________ believed that religion was rooted in spirit worship.
1. James Frazer 2. E. B. Tylor 3. Sigmund Freud 4. Carl Gustav Jung
5. ____________ theorized that belief in a God or gods arises from the long-lasting
impressions made on adults by their childhood experiences.
1. James Frazer 2. E. B. Tylor 3. Sigmund Freud 4. Carl Gustav Jung
6. Rudolf Otto argued that religions emerge when people experience that aspect of reality
which is essentially mysterious; while ____________ believed that religion was a noble
human response to the complexity and depth of reality.
1. James Frazer
2. E. B. Tylor 3. Sigmund Freud 4. Carl Gustav Jung
7. Religions express truth ________________ For example, water can represent spiritual
cleansing; the sun, health; a mountain, strength; and a circle, eternity.
1. symbolically 2. prophetically 3. mystically 4. structurally
8. In early religions, the most significant female deity was particularly associated with
_____________ and motherhood and has been known by many names, such as Asherah,
Aphrodite, and Freia.
1. strength 2. wisdom 3. the arts 4. fertility
9. When we look at the world’s dominant religions, we see three basic orientations in their
conceptions and location of the sacred: sacramental, prophetic, and _____________
1. mystical 2. spiritual 3. immanent 4. animistic
10. As an academic discipline, the field of religious studies is now more than _____________
1. 10 2. 25 3. 200 4. 2,000
11. Based on what you have read in this chapter, what are some benefits of finding patterns
among different religions? What are some possible risks?
12. In this chapter we see attempts by numerous thinkers to answer the question, Why does
religion exist? Whose idea do you think presents the most interesting insight into religious
Armstrong, Karen. The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions. New
York: Knopf, 2006. An exploration of the evolution of the world’s major religious traditions,
written by a popular historian of comparative religion.
Campbell, Joseph, and Bill Moyers. The Power of Myth. New York: Doubleday, 1991. An
investigation of myths, fairy tales, and religious symbols in readable style.
Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. A book by an
evolutionary biologist and atheist that argues the case against belief in God.
Feierman, Jay, ed. The Biology of Religious Behavior. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO/Praeger,
2009. Explanations of religion that attempt to bridge the gap between religion and science.
Foucault, Michel. Religion and Culture. Ed. Jeremy Carette. New York: Routledge, 1999.
Writings of Foucault that show his lifelong interest in religious topics.
Haught, John, ed. Science and Religion in Search of Cosmic Purpose. Washington, DC:
Georgetown University Press, 2001. A search of major religions to see if they can concur with
Juschka, Darlene, ed. Feminism in the Study of Religion: A Reader. New York: Continuum,
2001. A discussion by feminist scholars of religion from a multicultural perspective.
Lewis-Williams, David. Conceiving God. London: Thames & Hudson, 2010. A study of the
psychological origin of belief in God.
Pals, Daniel L. Eight Theories of Religion. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. A very
readable survey of major theories of the origin and purpose of religion, including theories of
Freud, Marx, Eliade, and Evans-Pritchard, with good biographical sketches of the thinkers.
Wright, Robert. The Evolution of God. Boston: Little, Brown, 2009. A tracing of the evolution of
the concept of gods and God.
Bill Moyers on Faith and Reason. (PBS.) A seven-part miniseries, first broadcast in 2006, that
explores the tension between belief and disbelief in religion.
Freud. (Director John Huston; Universal International.) A classic film that sees the young Freud
as a hero in a painful search for new understanding of unconscious motivations.
In Search of the Soul. (BBC.) An examination of Jung’s vision of reality.
Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth. (PBS.) A six-part presentation on mythology.
The Question of God: Sigmund Freud and C. S. Lewis. (PBS.) A four-part miniseries that
examines belief in God through the context of the lives of Sigmund Freud and C. S. Lewis, two
noted intellectuals with sharply divergent views on religious faith.
American Academy of Religion: http://www.aarweb.org/. Information about conferences, grants,
and scholarships, presented by the primary organization of professors of religion in North
Internet Sacred Text Archive: http://www.sacred-texts.com/index.htm. An electronic archive of
texts about religion, mythology, and folklore.
The Pluralism Project: http://www.pluralism.org/. An excellent resource for studying the many
religions now present in the United States.
“Not know” (Greek); a position asserting that the existence of God cannot be proven.
From the Latin anima, meaning “spirit,” “soul,” “life force”; a worldview common
among oral religions (religions with no written scriptures) that sees all elements of nature
as being filled with spirit or spirits.
“Not God” (Greek); a position asserting that there is no God or gods.
A technique, pioneered by Jacques Derrida, that sets aside ordinary categories of analysis
and makes use, instead, of unexpected perspectives on cultural elements; it can be used
for finding underlying values in a text, film, artwork, cultural practice, or religious
The belief that reality is made of two different principles (spirit and matter); the belief in
two gods (good and evil) in conflict.
Existing and operating within nature.
The belief in one God.
A position that is unconcerned with the supernatural, not asserting or denying the
existence of any deity.
The belief that everything in the universe is divine.
The belief in many gods.
An analytical approach that does not seek to find universal structures that might underlie
language, religion, art, or other such significant areas, but focuses instead on observing
carefully the individual elements in cultural phenomena.
An analytical approach that looks for universal structures that underlie language, mental
processes, mythology, kinship, and religions; this approach sees human activity as largely
determined by such underlying structures.
“Climbing beyond” (Latin); beyond time and space.
Religion Beyond the Classroom
Visit the Online Learning Center at www.mhhe.com/molloy6e for additional exercises and
features, including “Religion beyond the Classroom” and “For Fuller Understanding.”
Experiencing the Worlds Religions. Tradition, Challenge, and Change, Sixth Edition
Chapter 1: Understanding Religion
ISBN: 9780078038273 Author: Michael Molloy
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