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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

Religious Study

  • 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, crossculturally 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 (18981955) sociologist of religion who stated that religion expresses itself in human three ways:
    • 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, bornagain 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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