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Introduction to World Religion
Introduction to World Religion
- Worldwide more than 8-in-10 people identify with a religious group
- As of 2015/2020 there are:
- 2.3 billion Christians (31%)
- 1.8 billion Muslims (24%) – fastest growing
- 1 billion Hindus (15%)
- Nearly 500 million Buddhists (7%)
- Over 400 million people (6%) practice various folk/traditional religions, including African, Chinese, Native American and Australian Aboriginal traditional religions
- 14 million Jews (0.2%)
- An estimated 58 million people (1%) belong to “Other” religions, including the Baha’i faith, Jainism, Sikhism, Shintoism, Taoism, Wicca and Zoroastrianism, to mention just a few.
- Roughly 1 in 6 people around the globe (1.2 billion, or 16%) have NO religious affiliation. This makes the “unaffiliated” the third-largest group worldwide.
- Note: Many of the “unaffiliated” hold some religious/spiritual beliefs (such as belief in God or a universal spirit) even though they do not identify with a particular faith
The study of religion is not “religious” per se – we don’t study religion from any particular religiousperspective.
Rather, RS is about the academic study of religion- exploring and interpreting various religious beliefs, ideas, texts, practices and institutions from a variety of scholarly perspectives —comparative, historical, anthropological, literary, psychological, cognitive, philosophical, scientific, etc.
- The academic discipline of Religious Studies is relatively new – originating in Europe towards the end of the 19th century and officially established in the U.S. since the 1960’s
- The formation of the discipline occurred in an atmosphere which was partial to current/living and textual-based religions – preferring religions most like Christianity – thus elevating religions they deemed “global” from their own Eurocentric perspective.
- Throughout most of recent European history, the European religious universe consisted of basically two religions: Christianity and Paganism (i.e. every other
religion of the world)
- However, the growing interest and respect for traditions like Hinduism and Judaism in the early 1800’s challenged the primacy of Christianity – and soon there were
deemed to be 5 Great Religions – Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism
- 1893 Parliament of World Religions: first worldwide formal interreligious dialogue held at a World’s Fair in Chicago
- Zen Buddhism and Jainism became included at the fair and subsequent conferences began to include other religions. Absent, however, were most indigenous traditions (e.g. African, Native American etc.), among others.
- In short, it was Europe that defined what a “world religion” was and what was not – Western-style universities live with this legacy to this day, one we are trying to correct
- In teaching with this schema, huge portions of the globe are omitted from religious history, oral cultures are ignored in favor of literate/textual ones, and religious borrowings and processes of syncretism are largely disregarded (e.g. Santeria or Bahai)
The Problem with Religion
- We now understand that the category “religion” has developed out of a Christian, largely Protestant, understanding, which generally defines religion in terms of belief.
- This is indicated by the frequent use of the term “faith” as a synonym for “religion”
- However, when looking at most traditions, belief alone is clearly inadequate and should be modified to include practices (praxis)
- Also implicit in this Western understanding was that “religion” was a completely separate sphere from culture, society, politics, etc.
- However “religion” does not designate a specific, cross–culturally stable thing that we can reliably look for on the ground.
- Any specification of “religious” excludes phenomena that some people sometimes deem religious and includes other things that most would
not consider religious
- Definitions of religion tend to suffer from one of two problems.
- 1. Too narrow and exclude many belief systems which most agree are religious (e.g. belief in God), or
- 2. Too vague and ambiguous, suggesting that just about anything and everything is a religion.
Definition of Religion According to Scholars
- Sigmund Freud – “Religion is comparable to childhood neurosis.”
- Karl Marx – ”Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature… a protest against real suffering… it is the opium of the people….”
- Rudolph Otto – “Religion is that which grows out of, and gives expression to, experience of the holy in its various aspects.”
- James G. Frazer: Religion is “a propitiation or conciliation of powers superior to man which are believed to direct and control the course of
Nature and of human life.”
- Emile Durkheim – “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden — beliefs and
practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church all those who adhere to them.”
- Ellwood & McGraw – “All religions believe that certain teachings, practices, and modes of ethical behavior best express or fit in with the nature of ultimate reality.”
- Patrick H. McNamara – “Try to define religion and you invite an argument.”
Why Is There Religion
- Serves many human psychological needs (e.g. how to deal with our mortality and cope with death).
- Helps us to respond to our natural wonder about ourselves, the cosmos, and our place within it
- An attempt to feel more secure in a seemingly insecure universe.
- A way of life founded upon the apprehension of sacredness in existence
- Asks the “big” questions, science may not have answers for (at this time)
Conditioned vs. Unconditioned Reality
- In most religions, a delineation is made between the ordinary and the extraordinary, or between the sacred and the profane.
- Much of religious ritual, practice, art, etc. tries to portray or connect us with this “extraordinary” (or “religious” or “spiritual”, etc.) dimension of reality.
- Conditioned (or Relative) Reality: limited, restricted or filtered reality – limited by time, space, habitual mind, our senses, etc.
- Unconditioned (or Absolute/Ultimate) Reality: the world as it actually is – unfiltered and unlimited.
- When speaking of the Divine, for example, we use terms like omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent, etc. to define God or other supernatural beings
The Porous Border
- This porous borderline between these two realms is sometimes said to be the sphere of religion.
- Through religious practice, ritual, ethics, knowledge, texts, charismatic leaders, art, music, etc. religious traditions
often believe they can pass through or access these realms
- In some traditions this “border” is ultimately illusory and can be transcended
Forms of Religious Expression
- Joachim Wach (1898–1955) – sociologist of religion who stated that religion expresses itself in human three
- The Theoretical: “what is said” (e.g. beliefs, myth, doctrine, values, etc.)
- The Practical: “what is done” (e.g. worship, prayer, meditation, pilgrimage, ritual, asceticism, yoga, etc.)
- The Sociological: the kinds of groups and how they organize (e.g. social institutions, leadership, sects, cults, etc.)
Other Forms of Religious Expression
- Ethics: How do you Respond? –religion often provides ethical guidance and answers to moral questions
- Religion has often been the impetus for global ethical movements (e.g. Civil Rights movement)
- Religious Experience: mystical experiences and its ability to fundamentally transform people
- Eg. Shamanism, divine possession or mediumship, born–again conversion, prayer/meditation
- Art: as an expression of the Divine or Unconditioned Reality
- Art makes the invisible visible, and shows a religion’s view of human nature and society
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