World Religions Report 1

Table of Contents

World Religions Report
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. 

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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: 

World Religions Report
  • 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
  • References

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.

World Religions Report

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

the religion.

World Religions Report

 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

express it.

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.

The Sacred

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.

Religious Symbolism

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

are going.

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

and Monotheism.

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

universe.” 5

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

sacred. 10

 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

shop window.

© 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

women’s behavior.

 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

The Christian

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.

2:12–14). 14

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

Egyptian hieroglyphics.

 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

centuries ago.

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 Theories

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

He noted

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

The Journey

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

the time….

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

Test Yourself

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 _____________

years old.

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

experience? Why?



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: Information about conferences, grants,

and scholarships, presented by the primary organization of professors of religion in North


Internet Sacred Text Archive: An electronic archive of

texts about religion, mythology, and folklore.

The Pluralism Project: An excellent resource for studying the many

religions now present in the United States.

Key Terms


“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 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

Copyright © McGraw-Hill Company (6)

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