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Religion, a term sometimes used interchangeably with faith, is commonly defined as belief concerning the supernatural, sacred, or divine, and the moral codes, practices and institutions associated with such belief. In its broadest sense some have defined it as the sum total of answers given to explain humankind's relationship with the universe. In the course of the development of religion, it has taken an almost infinite number of forms in various cultures and individuals. However, religion today is dominated by a number of major world religions.

Occasionally, the word "religion" is used to designate what should be more properly described as a "religious organization" – that is, an organization of people that supports the exercise of some religion, often taking the form of a legal entity. See religion-supporting organization.


The nature and content of religion


The word religion is thought to derive from one of two combinations of latin roots. The first is re + legio or "re-reading," a meaning attributed by Cicero to describe the repetition of scripture. The second interpretation, favoured by more modern scholars, such as Tom Harpur is re + ligio or "reconnection." However, some take the latin term "ligio" (as in ligament) in the sense of "bind" rather than "connect," hence interpreting "religion" as "returning to bondage."

Defining "religion"

Beyond the above, very broad definition of religion, there are a variety of uses and meanings for the word "religion." Some of the approaches are as follows:

  • One definition, sometimes called the "function-based approach," defines religion as any set of beliefs and practices that have the function of addressing the fundamental questions of human identity, ethics, death and the existence of the Divine (if any). This broad definition encompasses all systems of belief, including those that deny the existence of any god, those that affirm the existence of one God, those that affirm the existence of many gods, and those that pass on the question for lack of proof.
  • A second definition, sometimes called the "form-based approach," defines religion as any set of beliefs which makes claims that lie beyond the realm of scientific observation, according to some authority or personal experience with the Divine. This narrower definition places "religion" in contradistinction with rationalism, secular humanism, atheism, objectivist philosophy, and agnosticism, which do not appeal to authority or personal experience in coming to their beliefs, but instead appeal to their interpretation of science.
  • A third definition, sometimes called the "physical evidence approach," defines religion as the beliefs about cause and effect that Occam's Razor would remove as recognizing causes that are more than what is both true and sufficient to explain the physical evidence. By this definition then, non-religion is any set of beliefs that admits no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearance. This view is typically held by those who describe themselves as "non-religious," but also by religious people who see "faith" and "science" and totally separate means of attaining knowledge. It is typically rejected by those people, religious and non-religious, who see metaphysical claims as necessary to explain natural phenomena at a fundamental level.
  • A fourth definition, sometimes called the "organizational approach," defines religion as the formal institutions, creeds, organizations, practices, and rules of conduct, of all major, institutionalized religions. This definition places "religion" in contradistinction to "spirituality," and therefore does not include the claims "spirituality" makes to actual contact, service, or worship of the Divine. In this definition, however, religion and spirituality are not mutually exclusive: a religious person may be spiritual or unspiritual, and a spiritual person may be religious or non-religious.

For a more complete discussion, see approaches to distinguishing religion from non-religion.

Questions that religions address

Jesus Christ, oil painting by Roland Walleij.
Jesus Christ, oil painting by Roland Walleij.

Religions are systems of belief which typically seek to answer questions about the following issues:

  • Creation beliefs, which seek to explain the origin of the universe, the Earth, life, and humanity;
  • Beliefs regarding the existence (or non-existence) and nature of Deity (or Deities) (cf God), the divine, the sacred and the supernatural;
  • Beliefs regarding the appropriate means and methods for relating to the divine, the sacred, other people, animals, the natural world around us, and ourselves
  • Beliefs regarding the nature of morality and ethics, including moral objectivism and moral relativism;
  • Means to identify and celebrate the experience of supreme value;
  • A sense of identity seeking to achieve completeness in relation to all wants and desires;
  • Development of a purpose in life, and the identification of appropriate goals for life;
  • An ethical framework, including a definition of activities which are "good" and "bad";
  • Beliefs regarding other possible states of being like heaven, nirvana, purgatory or hell, and how to prepare for them;
  • Explanations for and understandings of the existence of evil and suffering, and the articulation of a theodicy;

Generally, the different religions and the non-religious all have different answers for the above concerns, and many religions provide a range of answers to each question.

Religious practices

Practices based upon religious beliefs typically include:

  • Prayer
  • Worship
  • Regular assembly with other believers
  • A priesthood or clergy or some other religious functionary to lead and/or help the adherents of the religion
  • Ceremonies and/or traditions unique to the set of beliefs
  • A means of preserving adherence to the canonical beliefs and practice of that religion
  • Codes for behaviour in other aspects of life to ensure consistency with the set of beliefs, i.e., a moral code, like the ten yamas (restraints) of Hinduism or the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament, flowing from the beliefs rather than being defined by the beliefs, with the moral code often being elevated to the status of a legal code that is enforced by followers of that religion
  • Maintenance and study of scripture, or texts they hold as sacred uniquely different from other writings, and which records or is the basis of the fundamental beliefs of that religion

Adherents of a particular religion typically gather together to celebrate holy days, to recite or chant scripture, to pray, to worship, and provide spiritual assistance to each other. However, solitary practice of prayer and meditation is often seen to be just as important, as is living out religious convictions in secular activities when in the company of people who are not necessarily adherents to that religion. This is often a function of the religion in question.

Contrasts among religions

Religions diverge widely with regard in the answers they provide to the questions listed above, and the practices of the religious faithful. For example:

Number of gods

Gender of gods

Main article: God and gender.

  • Some religious individuals describe their gods as being without gender, and embodying both traditionally masculine and traditionally feminine attributes;
  • Some religious individuals describe their gods as being without gender, but having many traditionally masculine characteristics.
  • Other religious individuals describe their gods as being without gender, but having many traditionally feminine characteristics.
  • Other religions describe gods as being tangibly masculine or feminine. Examples include traditional mythological religions.

Sources of authority

  • Sacred Texts provide authority to believers who regard the text as authoritative, divinely dictated, divinely inspired, and/or inerrant. Examples include the Qur'an, the Vedas, the Kitáb-i-Aqdas and the Bible;
  • Prophets provide authority to believers who regard the prophet as having either spectacular personal insight, or direct personal communication with the Divine. Examples include Jesus, Buddha, Moses, Bahá'u'lláh, and Muhammad;
  • Science and Reason provide authority to believers who regard science and reason as providing answers to many of the fundamental questions asked and answered by religion. Examples include Secular Humanism, and Atheism;
  • Tradition provides authority to believers who regard the customs of their ancestors to be particularly important and a source of Divine Truth; examples include Shamanism and some aspects of Shintoism;
  • Personal Experience provides authority to believers who believe they have had personal contact with Deity or Deities, or some other event of particular religious significance to them.

Organizational structure

  • Centralized religions develop a highly structured organization intended to develop and assure doctrinal purity, and aid believers in their efforts to life by that faith. Examples include Roman Catholicism, early Islam, and Hassidic Judaism;
  • Decentralized religions develop independent of any centralizing force, and therefore demonstrate a great deal of variety with regard to belief and practice. Examples include Hinduism, the mythologies of ancient Greece and Egypt, and modern Pagan revivals such as Wicca or Ásatrú (see also Neopaganism).

Ethical focus

  • Behavior-based religions emphasize the importance of a believer participating in certain customs, rituals, and behaviors. Examples include Hasidic Judaism, and many animistic traditions;
  • Spiritual Philosophy religions emphasize extensive practical teachings for achieving human happiness or equanimity in the natural world with a lesser focus on the supernatural. Examples: Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. Others like Hinduism emphasize such beliefs but still do believe in a personal, supreme God which can be expressed in a variety of ways.
  • Relationship-based religions emphasize the maintenance of a proper relationship with the Divine, either by Personal Relationship (in the case of Evangelical Christianity), by obedience and submission to God's Will (in the case of Islam), or repentance and forgiveness for sin (in the case of traditional Christianity).
  • Ideologically-based religions emphasize the achievement of some earthly ideological goal. Some, such as Communism, developed the traditionally "religious" attributes of "sacred" texts, rituals, and the near-deification of certain leaders.

(It should be noted that, to one degree or another, most religions draw from all types of ethics; however, most traditionally emphasize one over the others)


  • Hinduism asserts that humans are continually reborn, until they reach Moksha, a state of union with God or Saguna Brahman expressed as Vishnu or Shiva or as what followers of the Advaita school believe, union with the Impersonal Absolute and that one's good or evil behavior in this life determines the course of one's next life; accordingly, Hinduism does not believe in eternal damnation as God gives us many chances through subsequent reincarnations until we reach moksha. However, many Hindus believe there is a purgatory-like state analogous to Christianity where Yama, the Hindu deva, or Lord of Death, punishes humans before they reincarnate again.
  • Theravada Buddhism asserts that a person's Kamma is continually reborn until they attain Nirvana, and that rebirth is undesirable; Mahayana Buddhism is more in line with Hinduism with regard to certain beliefs on reincarnation. However, Buddhism's state of nirvana is not analogous to the Hindu concept of Moksha as Nirvana is a state of non-being or voidness and does not focus on the concept of a personal, Supreme Being that is allowed in Advaita and is mandated in the strict theistic schools such as that of Ramanuja and Madhva.
  • Christianity and Islam posit a Heaven and Hell, and God as judge to decide our eternal fate. Beyond that common ground, however, belief varies widely within the religions.
    • Catholicism asserts that individuals are saved by declaring faith in God, but are still subject to punishment for unrepented sin at death, which is purified in purgatory;
    • Traditional Protestantism asserts that individuals are saved purely by declaring their belief in the saving power of Jesus's death and resurrection;
    • Some other Christians believe that individuals choose their own heaven or hell: if a person chooses to live in a self-created "Hell on Earth," they continue to choose that after death, and God ultimately gives them what they wish: distance from God and Joy. On the other hand, people that seek "Heaven on Earth" continue to seek Heaven after death, and God gives them what they desire: nearness of God, and Joy. See, for example, "The Great Divorce," by C.S. Lewis.
    • Under most traditional Islamic belief, God judges us on the basis of our adherence to the five pillars of Islam, including acknowledgement of God, Muhammad, and living according to God's laws of Justice, Faith, and Mercy, and rewards us according to our acts on Earth.
  • Judaism makes no particular claims regarding the afterlife.
  • The Bahá'í Faith asserts that a person's soul continues to progress in the spiritual worlds of God after death until it reaches God. The purpose of this world is for the soul to acquire spiritual qualities (or virtues) so that it is closer to God once physical death occurs.
  • Rastafarians believe in Physical Immortality. Once their God Haile Selassie calls the Day of Judgement and takes them home to Africa and Zion they will live with him forever in their current physical bodies and on this current physical plane.
  • Jehovah's_Witnesses believe that until Armageddon, the dead are in a sleeping state, unable to hear prayers or intervene in the physical world. 144,000 "anointed" ones ascend to Heaven to rule beside Jesus Christ after Satan is sealed in Armageddon. Everyone is resurrected and granted immortality on a paradise Earth. After 1000 years, Satan is unsealed and allowed to tempt mankind once more. Those who sin then die forever with Satan, and Jehovah takes over rulership from Jesus.

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Approaches to relating to the beliefs of others

Adherents of particular religions deal with the differing doctrines and practices espoused by other religions in a variety ways. All strains of thought appear in different segments of all major world religions.


People with exclusivist beliefs typically explain other religions as either in error, or as corruptions or counterfeits of the true faith. Examples include:

  • Christians believe Jesus said: "I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but through me." John 14:6.
  • The Qur'an states: "O you who believe! Do not take the Jews and the Christians for friends; they are friends of each other; and whoever amongst you takes them for a friend, then surely he is one of them; surely Allah does not guide the unjust people." Qur'an 5:51.
  • Judaism maintains that God said to Israel through Moses: "You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles? wings and brought you to myself. Now, therefore, if you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my own possession among all peoples; for all the earth is mine, and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation."

Exclusivist views are more completely explored in chosen people.


People with inclusivist beliefs recognize some truth in all faith systems, highlighting agreements and minimizing differences, but see their own faith as in some way ultimate. Examples include:

  • From Hinduism:
    • A well-known Rig Vedic hymn stemming from Hinduism claims that "Truth is One, though the sages know it variously."
    • Krishna, incarnation or avatar of Vishnu, the supreme God in Hinduism, said in the Gita: In whatever way men identify with Me, in the same way do I carry out their desires; men pursue My path, O Arjuna, in all ways. (Gita:4:11);
    • Krishna said: "Whatever deity or form a devotee worships, I make his faith steady. However, their wishes are only granted by Me." (Gita: 7:21-22)
    • Another quote in the Gita states: "O Arjuna, even those devotees who worship other lesser deities (e.g., Devas, for example) with faith, they also worship Me, but in an improper way because I am the Supreme Being. I alone am the enjoyer of all sacrificial services (Seva, Yajna) and Lord of the universe." (Gita: 9:23)
  • From Christianity:
    • Jesus said, "He who is not against me is for me." Mark 9:40.
    • Jesus said, "Everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but those who blaspheme against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven." Luke 12:10.
    • The Apostle Peter wrote of God: "He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance." 2 Peter 3:9 (NIV)
    • An aphorism common in some Christian circles: "All Truth is God's Truth."
  • From Islam:
    • The Qur'an states: "Only argue with the People of the Book in the kindest way - except in the case of those of them who do wrong - saying, 'We have faith in what has been sent down to us and what was sent down to you. Our God and your God are one and we submit to Him.'" (Holy Qur'an, Surat al-'Ankabut; 29:46)
    • "Among the people of the Book there are some who have iman in Allah and in what has been sent down to you and what was sent down to them, and who are humble before Allah. They do not sell Allah's Signs for a paltry price. Such people will have their reward with their Lord. And Allah is swift at reckoning." (Holy Qur'an, Surat Al 'Imran; 3:199)
    • "...You will find the people most affectionate to those who have iman are those who say, 'We are Christians.' That is because some of them are priests and monks and because they are not arrogant." (Holy Qur'an, Surat al-Ma'ida; 5:82)
  • From Judaism:
    • The Talmud states: "The righteous of all peoples have a place in the World-To-Come" (Tos. to Sanhedrin 13:2, Sifra to Leviticus 19:18), and affirms that the great majority of non-Jewish humanity will be saved, due to God's overwhelming mercy (BT Sanhedrin 105a).
    • The Torah mentions a number of righteous gentiles, including Melchizedek who presided at offerings to God that Abraham made (Gen. 14:18), Job, a pagan Arab of the land of Uz who had a whole book of the Hebrew Bible devoted to him as a paragon of righteousness beloved of God (see the book of Job), and the Ninevites, the people given to cruelty and idolatry could be accepted by God when they repented (see the Book of Jonah).
    • Rabbinic tradition asserts that the basic standard of righteousness was established in a covenant with Noah: anyone who keeps the seven commandments of this covenant is assured of salvation, no matter what their religion. This is standard Jewish teaching for the past two thousand years.
  • From the Bahá'í Faith:
    • Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Bahá'í Faith states: "The fundamental principle enunciated by Bahá'u'lláh, the followers of His Faith firmly believe, is that religious truth is not absolute but relative, that Divine Revelation is a continuous and progressive process, that all the great religions of the world are divine in origin, that their basic principles are in complete harmony, that their aims and purposes are one and the same, that their teachings are but facets of one truth, that their functions are complementary, that they differ only in the nonessential aspects of their doctrines, and that their missions represent successive stages in the spiritual evolution of human society." (The Faith of Bahá'u'lláh" in World Order, Vol. 7, No. 2 (1972-73)) [1]


Main article: Religious pluralism

People with pluralist beliefs make no distinction between faith systems, viewing each one as valid within a particular culture. Examples include:

  • The Qur'an, revealed through Muhammad, states, "Those with Faith, those who are Jews, and the Christians and Sabaeans, all who have Faith in Allah and the Last Day and act rightly will have their reward with their Lord. They will feel no fear and will know no sorrow." (Qur'an, Surat al-Baqara; 2:62)
  • The Christian writer Paul wrote, "God "will give to each person according to what he has done." To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For God does not show favouritism. All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God's sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themseleves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.)" Romans 2:6-15.


Main article: Syncretism

People with syncretistic views blend the views of a variety of different religions or traditional beliefs into a unique fusion which suits their particular experience and context.

Religion in relation to other closely related topics

Religion and spirituality

It is common to distinguish the concept of "religion" from the concept of "spirituality."

Individuals who ascribe to this distinction see spirituality as a belief in ideas of religious significance (such as God, the Soul, or Heaven) without being bound to the bureaucratic structure and creeds of a particular organized religion. They choose the term spirituality rather than religion to describe their form of belief, perhaps reflecting a large-scale disillusionment with organized religion that is occurring in much of the Western world (see Religion in modernity), and a movement towards a more "modern" — more tolerant, and more intuitive — form of religion.

Many members of organized religion, of course, see no significant difference between the two terms, because they see spirituality at the heart of their religion, and see the church organization as a means of preserving that spirituality. Many of them associate themselves with an organized religion because they see the religious community as a means of maintaining and strengthening their Faith in fellowship with other believers. They see amorphous "spirituality" movements as "religions of convenience," in which individuals can choose whatever beliefs make them feel comfortable at the time, without being bound to any external standard of accountability.

Finally, it should be noted that many individuals, while still associating themselves with an organized religion, see a distinction between the mundane, earthly aspects of their religion and the spiritual dimension. They note that people may take part in organized religion purely for mundane reasons, for example, gaining security from such things as regular attendance at churches or temples, or the social comfort of fervently agreeing with other believers; they note that this sometimes is done without a corresponding spiritual dimension. They then conclude that such behavior is "religious" without being "spiritual." Further, some aspects of religion (for example, the Catholic Inquisition or Islamic Terrorism), are seen as completely contrary to the teachings of the religions' founders, who many believe taught tolerance and love. In support of this belief that religions may "lose their way," many cite things such as Jesus' criticism of the Pharisees, who represented organized religion in his context.

As a result, many who consider themselves deeply involved with the Divine may have come to reject much of the recognised aspects of established religion, in an effort to free themselves of the mundane trappings or perceived corruption of "religion."

Religion and science

Generally speaking, religion and science use different methods in their effort to ascertain Truth and knowledge. Religion utilises methods that are based upon subjective interpretation of personal intuition or experience, and/or on the authority of a perceived prophet or a sacred text. Science, on the other hand, uses the scientific method; an objective process of investigation based upon physical evidence, subject only to observable and verifiable phenomena. Secularists see religion as a form of Superstition.

Similarly, there are two types of questions which religion and science attempt to answer: questions of observable and verifiable phenomena (such as the laws of physics, or human behaviour), and questions of unobservable phenomena and value judgments (such as how the laws of physics came to be, and what is "good" and "bad").

People apply the two methods to the two categories of questions in a variety of ways.

  • Some apply religious methods to all questions, both observable and unobservable. For example, based on observations made through meditation, Theravada Buddhists claim that despite appearances, nothing (even the human ego) exists in and of itself, but only as a conceptual reference point in an otherwise fluid universe. Many see this as a contradiction of the scientific worldview, which is predicated on the objective and separate existence of material phenomena. Many Buddhists do not see this as a contradiction.
  • Some apply religious methods to most questions, and apply scientific methods to a few; for example, up to the mid-16th Century most clergy and natural philosophers asserted, from purported Biblical authority, that the Earth was the center of the universe and subject to certain natural laws, despite physical evidence that the Earth was not the center of the universe, and subject to radically different laws.
  • Some apply religious methods only to questions of the unobservable and values, and apply scientific methods only to questions of the observable and verifiable; for instance, those that note the empirical evidence of evolution today, but assert from a religious basis that a supernatural God created the Universe and all the laws and phenomena therein.
  • Some apply scientific methods to most questions, and apply religious methods to a few; for example, many atheists assert that there is no God for lack of empirical evidence, but still assert that there are fundamental moral laws and values that man ought to follow, a priori.
  • Some apply scientific methods to all questions, both observable and unobservable; for example, Nazis, Communists, Nihilists, and Materialists, who assert that Science necessitates certain philosophical, unobservable, unverifiable, and value-laden conclusions of a strongly religious nature, such as the superiority of certain races, the inevitability of proletarian rule, or the meaninglessness of life. Others assert that moral behavior and altruism emerge naturally from biological evolution (c.f. Sociobiology)

Religion and myth

Shrine of the Bab in
Shrine of the Bab in Haifa, Israel

The word "myth" has two meanings, according to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary:

  1. a person or thing having only an imaginary or unverifiable existence
  2. a usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon

Myth as "mere story"

Ancient polytheistic religions, such as those of ancient Greece, ancient Rome, the Vikings, etc., are often studied under the heading of mythology. Religions of pre-industrial peoples, or cultures in development to industrial conditions, are similarly observed by the anthropology of religion. Mythology can be a term used pejoratively by religious and non-religious people both, by defining another person's religious stories and beliefs as mythology. Here myths are treated as fantasies, or "mere" stories.

Myth as defining and explaining belief

The term myth in sociology, however has a non-pejorative meaning, defined as stories that are important for the group and not necessarily untrue. Examples include the death and resurrection of Jesus (which, to Christians, explains the means by which they are freed from sin, as well as being ostensibly historical), or the theory of evolution (which, to Secular Humanists, illustrates the course of history, and inspires them to strive to further the evolution of Mankind, as well as being ostensibly scientific). Joseph Campbell, in The Power of Myth, held that myth was a universal human trait, and necessary to well-being. By this definition, therefore, there is no essential difference between the myths of extinct religions, those of extant religions, and those of ostensibly "non-religious" people.

Religion and Occam's Razor

In its simplest form, Occam's Razor states that one should not take more assumptions than needed. When multiple explanations are available for a phenomenon, the simplest version is preferred.

Some, such as atheists, secular humanists, and agnostics assert that Occam's Razor makes religious belief unreasonable. This is because religion seemingly requires an individual to make many more assumptions regarding causes in the natural world than Atheistic and Naturalistic explanations require. For instance, some religious beliefs require the believer to assume that an invisible God created the universe, is concerned with our moral behavior for some reason, yet does not reveal himself, and will judge us after death for decisions we made in relative ignorance, sending us to either an assumed Heaven or an assumed Hell. Atheists conclude that such belief requires a myriad of assumptions, that naturalistic explanations require significantly fewer assumptions, and that the religious beliefs are therefore less reasonable than naturalistic ones.

Others (such as William of Occam himself, who was a Christian and Franciscan friar), assert that Occam's Razor makes religious belief reasonable. Creationism and intelligent design encompass a number of ideas and arguments which purport to show that a divine being may be reasonably inferred from the natural universe, because (they claim) the natural universe is fundamentally incapable of explaining itself. Concepts like irreducible complexity and specified complexity are modern forms of the teleological argument and are used to support a rational basis for belief in God. There are a number of other arguments for the existence of God which purport to make belief in God reasonable or even necessary. Entropy, flood geology, and creation biology are used to support belief in the account of Creation according to Genesis.

Others assert that Occam's Razor is not a fair test for reasonable belief in all cases, because it is dependent on the available amount of evidence. They note that the history of science is the history of simple and intuitive explanations giving way to more complex and less intuitive ones. They note that belief in a flat Earth gave way to belief in a round Earth; that belief in strict Newtonian physics gave way to the much more complex Einsteinian relativity; and that belief in the doctrine of humors gave way to modern medicine. They note that Occam's razor was the means by which many nay-sayers of these scientific revolutions held back scientific discovery, because new theories required significantly more evidence and assumptions than traditional theory, and were therefore discouraged by many. They conclude that since the universe is often much more complex than our evidence allows for at any one time, one ought not rule out significantly more complex interpretations, simply because they require more assumptions than current theory. One ought instead to devote oneself to the investigation of all hypotheses, both religious and non-religious, allowing one's beliefs to change naturally with one's experience.

Approaches to the study of individual religions

Methods of studying religion subjectively (in relation to one's own beliefs)

These include efforts to determine the meaning and application of "sacred" texts and beliefs in the context of the student's personal worldview. This generally takes one of three forms:

  • one's own — efforts by believers to ascertain the meaning of their own sacred text, and to conform their thoughts and actions to the principles enunciated in the text. For most believers, this involves a lifetime process of study, analysis, and practice. Some faiths, such as Hassidic Judaism, emphasize adherence to a set of rules and rituals. Other faiths, such as Christianity, emphasize the internalization and application of a set of abstract principles, such as Love, Justice, or Faith. Some believers interpret their scriptures literally, and apply the text exactly as it is written. Other believers try to interpret scripture through its context, to derive abstract principles which they may apply more directly to their lives and contexts.
    Mosque; Aswan, Egypt.
    Mosque; Aswan, Egypt.
  • another's compared to one's own — efforts by believers of one belief system attempt to describe a different belief system in terms of their own beliefs. One example of this method is in David Strauss's 1835 The Life of Jesus. Strauss's theological approach strikes from the Biblical text the descriptions of angels and miracles which, due to his presupposition that supernatural events do not occur, he does not believe could have occurred. He then concludes that the stories must have been inserted by a "supernaturalist" merely trying to make an important story more convincing. In this course of his argument, Strauss argues that the supernaturalist who inserted the angels into the story of the birth of Christ borrowed the heathen doctrine of angels from the Babylonians who had held the Jews in captivity. That is, the New Testament's fabulous role for angels "is evidently a product of the influence of the Zend religion of the Persians on the Jewish mind." Due to his presumption that supernatural events do not occur, he dismisses the possibility that both cultures came to believe in angels independently, as a result of their own experiences and context.
  • another's as defined by itself — efforts by believers of one belief system to understand the heart and meaning of another faith on its own terms. This very challenging approach to understanding religion presumes that each religion is a self-consistent system whereby a set of beliefs and actions depend upon each other for coherence, and can only be understood in relation to each other. This method requires the student to investigate the philosophical, emotional, religious, and social presuppositions that adherents of another religion develop and apply in their religious life, before applying their own biases, and evaluating the other faith. For instance, an individual who personally does not believe in miracles may attempt to understand why adherents of another religion believe in miracles, and then attempt to understand how the individual's belief in miracles affects their daily life. While the individual may still himself not believe in miracles, he may begin to develop an understanding of why people of other faiths choose to believe in them.

Methods of studying religion objectively (in a scientific and religiously neutral fashion)

There are a variety of methods employed to study religion which seek to be scientifically neutral. One's interpretation of these methods depends on one's approach to the relationship between religion and science, as discussed above.

  • Historical, archeological, and literary approaches to religion include attempts to discover the sacred writings at the "dawn of humanity." For example, Max Müller in 1879 launched a project to translate the earliest sacred texts of Hinduism into English in the Sacred Books of the East. Müller's intent was to translate for the first time the "bright" as well as the "dark sides" of non-Christian religions into English. [2]
Critics note that historical, archeological, and literary approaches are scientific insofar as they uncover the facts of ancient religions, and seek to understand and interpret those facts within their context. They assert that the approaches are unscientific, however, insofar as they make value judgments as to which parts of ancient religions are "bright" and which are "dark," because value judgments are beyond the realm of the verifiable phenomena of science.
The term "religion" is extremely problematic for anthropologists, and approaches to the subject are quite varied within the discipline. Some anthropologists (along with many other academics) take the view that religion, particularly in less technically complex cultures, is a form of proto-science--a primitive attempt to explain & predict phenomena in the natural world, similar to modern science but less advanced.
However, many (if not most) modern anthropologists reject this view (a form of social evolutionism) as antiquated, over-simplified, ethnically and intellectually chauvanistic, and unsupported by cross-cultural evidence. Science has very specific methods and aims, while the term "religion" encompasses a huge spectrum of practices, goals, and social functions. In addition to explaining the world (natural or otherwise), religions may also provide mechanisms for maintaining social & psychological well-being, and the foundations of moral/ethical, economic, and political reasoning.
While many early anthropologists attempted to catalogue and universalize these functions and their origins, modern researchers have tended to back away from such speculation, preferring a more holistic approach: The object of study is the meaning of religious traditions & practices for the practitioners themselves--religion in context--rather than formalized theories about religion in general.
Critics note that this approach is relativistic, informal, and primarily descriptive--possibly putting it outside the realm of science. Anthropologists themselves remain divided on the issue.
  • Sociological approaches include attempts to explain the development of the ideas of morality and law, as in for example, Auguste Comte's Cours de philosophie positive hypothesizing in 1842 that people go through stages of evolution 1) obeying supernatural beings, then 2) manipulating abstract unseen forces, and finally 3) exploring more or less scientifically the social laws and practical governmental structures that work in practice. Within a sociological approach, religion is but the earliest primitive stage of discovering what is morally right and wrong in a civilized society. It is the duty of intelligent men and women everywhere to take responsibility for shaping the society without appealing to a non-existent Divinity to discover empirically what moral concepts actually work in practice, and in the process, the shapers of society must take into account that there is no Divine authority to adjudicate between what are only the opinions of men and women. Comte wrote, in translation, "It can not be necessary to prove to anybody who reads this work that Ideas govern the world, or throw it into chaos; in other words, that all social mechanism rests upon Opinions. The great political and moral crisis that societies are now undergoing is shown by a rigid analysis to arise out of intellectual anarchy." The intellectual anarchy includes the warring oppositions among the world's religions. [4]
Critics note that the sociological approaches are scientific insofar as they note that the three "stages" are empirically observable, but unscientific insofar as it makes the value judgment that any one is superior to another, because value judgments are beyond the realm of the verifiable phenomena of science.
  • Psychological approaches include attempts to explain religious urges as invasions from the unconscious, as in William James's 1902 The Varieties of Religious Experience. The experience of God becomes the object of study even though other aspects of God are unknowable. And life after death can be approached empirically through case studies. James cumulates case studies of the experience of "religion" and categorizes the experiences, including Encounter with the divine, Healthy-mindedness, Sick soul, Divided-self and reunification, Conversion, Saintliness, Mysticism, Practice, Philosophy, Sacrifice, and Confession. [5]
Critics note that the psychological approaches are scientific insofar as they document and describe experiences of the divine, but are unscientific insofar as they attempt to refute the proposition that the phenomena also contain a supernatural component, which is, by its very nature, beyond the realm of science.
  • Philosophical approaches include attempts to derive rational classifications of the views of the world that religions preach as in Immanuel Kant's 1788 Critique of Practical Reason. Within a philosophical approach, the reason for a religious belief should be more important than the emotional attachment to the belief. [6] And in attempting to provide a reasonable basis for morality, Kant proposed the categorical imperative: "Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law." [7]
Critics assert that while philosophical approaches are competent insofar as they logically systematize and compare sets of a priori fundamental values, they are incompetent insofar as they attempt to assert those a priori fundamental values.
  • Neuroscientific approaches seek to explore the apparent similarities among religious views dominate in diverse cultures that have had little or no contact, why religion is found in almost every human group, and why humans accept counterintuitive statements in the name of religion. In neuroscience, work by scientists such as Ramachandran and his colleagues from the University of California, San Diego [8] suggests evidence of brain circuitry in the temporal lobe associated with intense religious experiences. See also neurotheology, the scientific study of the biological basis of spiritual experience.
In sociology, Rodney Stark has looked at the social forces that have caused religions to grow and the features of religions that have been most successful. For example, Stark, who claims to be an agnostic, hypothesizes that, before Christianity became established as the state religion of Constantinople, Christianity grew rapidly because it provided a practical framework within which non-family members would provide help to other people in the community in a barter system of mutual assistance. Similarly, evolutionary psychology approaches consider the survival advantages that religion might have given to a community of hunter-gatherers, such as unifying them within a coherent social group.
Critics assert that while neuroscientific and evolutionary approaches are scientific insofar as they note the practical advantages religions provide their adherents, it is unscientific insofar as it asserts that people subscribe to religions merely in order to take advantage of those advantages, and exclude the religion's purported attraction: closer experience with Truth and God.
  • Cognitive psychological approaches take a completely different approach to explaining religion. Foremost among them is Pascal Boyer, whose book, Religion Explained, lays out the basics of his theory, and attempts to refute several previous and more direct explanations for the phenomenon of religion. Religion is taken in its widest sense (from holy mountains over ancestral spirits to monotheistic deities). An explanation is offered for human religious behaviour without making a presumption, to the positive or the negative, about the actual subject matter of the religious beliefs. Essentially, the reasoning goes that religion is a side effect to the normal functioning of certain subconscious intuitive mental faculties which normally apply to physics (enabling prediction of the arc a football will take only seconds after its release, for example), and social networks (to keep track of other people's identity, history, loyalty, etc.), and a variety of others. For instance, the same mechanism that serves to link, without explaining, an event (e.g. rustling of tall grass) with a cause (the possible presence of a predator) will help to form or sustain a belief that two random events are linked, or that an unexplained event is linked to supernatural causes. The reasoning would imply that there is no direct causal link between the subject matter of a belief (e.g. whether the ancestors watch over us) and the fact that there is such a belief.
Critics assert that cognitive psychological approaches are unfalsifiable pseudoscience, because they assert that religious experience is a "side-effect" of another cognitive faculty without showing any actual connection between the two, and without providing any way to falsify the cognitive psychological explanation by showing the religious experience to be genuine.

For a discussion of the struggle to attain objectivity in the scientific study of religion, see Total Truth by Nancy Pearcey (ISBN 1581344589), who argues that some studies performed pursuant to these methods make claims beyond the realm of observable and verifiable phenomena, and are therefore neither scientific nor religiously neutral.

Development of religion

Main Article: Development of religion

There are several models for understanding how religions develop.

  • Models which view religion as untrue include:
    • The "Dogma Selection Model," which holds that religions, although untrue in themselves, encode instructions useful for survival, that these ideas "mutate" periodically as they are passed on, and they spread or die out in accord with their effectiveness at improving chances for survival.
    • The "Opium of the Masses Model," in which "Religion in any shape or form is regarded as pernicious and deliberate falsehood, spread and encouraged by rulers and clerics in their own interests, since it is easier to control over the ignorant." -- Bertrand Russell Wisdom of the West (ISBN 0517690411)
    • The "Theory of Religion Model," in which religion is viewed as arising from some psychological or moral pathology in religious leaders and believers.
  • Models which view religion as progressively true include:
    • The "Baha'i Prophecy Model," which holds that God has sent a series of prophets to Earth, each of which brought teachings appropriate for his culture and context, but all originating from the same God, and therefore teachings the same essential message.
    • The "Great Awakening Model," which holds that religion proceeds along a Hegelian dialectic of thesis, antithesis, synthesis, in cycles of approximately 80 years as a result of the interaction between four archetypal generations, by which old religious beliefs (the thesis) face new challenges for which they are unprepared (the antithesis) and adapt to create new and more sophisticated beliefs (the synthesis).
    • The "A Study of History Model," which holds that prophets are given to extraordinary spiritual insight during periods of social decay and act as "surveyors of the course of secular civilization who report breaks in the road and breakdowns in the traffic, and plot a new spiritual course which will avoid those pitfalls."
  • Models which view a particular religion as absolutely true include:
    • The "Jewish Model", which holds that God relates to humanity through covenents; that he established a covenant with all humanity at the time of Noah called the Noahide Laws, and that he established a covenant with Israel through the Ten Commandments.
    • The "Exclusivist Models," which hold that one particular is the "One True Religion," and all others are false, so that the development of the True Religion is tied inexorably to one prophet or holy book, and all other religions are seen as originating either in human ignorance or imagination, or a more devious influence, such as false prophets or Satan himself.

Religion in modernity

In the late 19th century and throughout most of the 20th century, the demographics of religion has changed a great deal.

Some historically Christian countries, particularly those in Europe, have experienced a significant decline in Christian religion, shown by declining recruitment for priesthoods and monasteries, fast-diminishing attendance at churches, synagogues, etc. Explanations for this effect include disillusionment with ideology following the ravages of World War II, the materialistic philosophical influence of science, Marxism and Humanism, and a reaction against the exclusivist claims and religious wars waged by many religious groups. This decline is apparently in parallel with increased prosperity and social well-being. It appears increasingly common for people to engage in far-ranging explorations, with many finding spiritual satisfaction outside of organized churches. This is a demographic group whose numbers are growing and whose future impact cannot be predicted.

In the United States, Latin America, and Sub-Saharan Africa, by contrast, studies show that Christianity is strong and growing stronger, and many believe those areas to have become the new "heart" of Christianity. Islam is currently the fastest growing religion, and is nearly universal in many states stretching from West Africa to Indonesia, and has grown in world influence in the West. Hinduism, Buddhism, and Shintoism remain nearly universal in the Far East, and have greatly influenced spirituality, particularly in the United States. Explanations for the growth of religion in these areas include disillusionment with the perceived failures of secular western ideologies to provide an ethical and moral framework. Believers point to perceived terrors such as Naziism, Communism, Colonialism, Secular Humanism, and Materialism, and the havoc wreaked by such movements around the world. Particularly vehement in this regard are Islamic fundamentalists, who view Western secularism as a serious threat to morality itself. They point to perceived decadence, high rates of divorce, crime, depression, and suicide as evidence of Western social decline, which they believe is caused by the abandonment of Faith by the West.

Modern reasons for adherence to religion

Typical reasons for adherence to religion include the following:

  • "Experience or emotion": For many, the practice of a religion causes an emotional high that gives pleasure to them. Such emotional highs can come from the singing of traditional hymns to the trance-like states found in the practices of the Whirling Dervishes and Yoga, among others. People continue to associate with those practices that give pleasure and, in so far as it is connected with religion, join in religious organizations that provide those practices. Also, some people simply feel that their faith is true, and may not be able to explain their feelings.
  • "Supernatural connection": Most religions postulate a reality which include both the natural and the supernatural. Most adherents of religion consider this to be of critical importance, since it permits belief in unseen and otherwise potentially unknowable aspects of life, including hope of eternal life.
  • "Rational analysis": For some, adherence is based on intellectual evaluation that has led them to the conclusion that the teachings of that religion most closely describe reality. Among Christians this basis for belief is often given by those influenced by C.S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer, as well as some who teach young earth Creationism.
  • "Moderation": Many religions have approaches that produce practices that place limitations on the behaviour of their adherents. This is seen by many as a positive influence, potentially protecting adherents from the destructive or even fatal excesses to which they might otherwise be susceptible. Many people from many faiths contend that their faith brings them fulfillment, peace, and joy, apart from worldly interests.
  • "Authority": Most religions are authoritarian in nature, and thus provide their adherents with spiritual and moral role models, who they believe can bring highly positive influences both to adherents and society in general.
  • "Moral framework": Most religions see early childhood education in religion and spirituality as essential moral and spiritual formation, whereby individuals are given a proper grounding in ethics, instilling and internalizing moral discipline.
  • "Majesty and tradition": People can form positive views of religion based on the visible manifestations of religion, e.g., ceremonies which appear majestic and reassuringly constant, and ornate cloth.
  • "Community and culture": Organized religions promote a sense of community. The combination of moral and cultural common ground often results in a variety of social and support networks. Some ostensibly "religious" individuals may even have a substantially secular viewpoint, but retain adherence to religious customs and viewpoints for cultural reasons, such as continuation of traditions and family unity. Judaism, for example, has a particularly strong tradition of "secular" adherents.
  • "Fulfillment": Most traditional religions require sacrifice of their followers, but, in turn, the followers may gain much from their membership therein. Thus, they come away from experiences with these religions with the feeling that their needs have been filled. In fact, studies have shown that religious adherents tend to be happier and less prone to stress than non-religious people.
  • "Spiritual and psychological benefits": Each religion asserts that it is a means by which its adherents may come into closer contact with God, Truth, and Spiritual Power. They all promise to free adherents from spiritual bondage, and bring them into spiritual freedom. It naturally follows that a religion which frees its adherents from deception, sin, and spiritual death will have significant mental health benefits. Abraham Maslow's research after World War II showed that Holocaust survivors tended to be those who held strong religious beliefs (not necessarily temple attendance, etc), suggesting it helped people cope in extreme circumstances. Humanistic psychology went on to investigate how religious or spiritual identity may have correlations with longer lifespan and better health. The study found that humans may particularly need religious ideas to serve various emotional needs such as the need to feel loved, the need to belong to homogenous groups, the need for understandable explanations and the need for a guarantee of ultimate justice. Other factors may involve sense of purpose, sense of identity, sense of contact with the divine. See also Man's Search for Meaning, by Victor Frankl, detailing his experience with the importance of religion in surviving the Holocaust. Critics assert that the very fact that religion was the primary selector for research subjects may have introduced a bias, and that the fact that all subjects were holocaust survivors may also have had an effect. A study of adolescents found that frequent church-goers with high spiritual support had the lowest scores on the Beck depression inventory (Wright et al., 1993).[9]
  • "Practical benefits": Religions may sometimes provide breadth and scale for visionary inspirations in compassion, practical charity, and moral restraint. Christianity is noted for the founding of many major universities, the creation of early hospitals, the provision of food and medical supplies to the needy, and the creation of orphanages and schools, amongst other charitable acts. Many other religions (and non-religious organisations and individuals, eg: humanistic Oxfam) have also performed equivalent or similar work.

Modern reasons for rejecting religion

Typical reasons for rejection of religion include the following:

  • "Irrational and unbelievable creeds": Some religions postulate a reality which may be seen as stretching credulity and logic, and even some believers may have difficulty accepting particular religious assertions about nature, the supernatural and the afterlife. Some people believe the body of evidence available to humans to be insufficent to justify certain religious beliefs. They may thus disagree with religious interpretations of ethics and human purpose, and theistic views of creation. This reason has been abetted by an anti-intellectual reaction to "modernism" among many fundamentalist Christians.
  • "Restrictiveness": Many religions have (or have had in the past) an approach that produces, or produced, practices that are considered by some people to be too restrictive, e.g., regulation of dress, and proscriptions on diet and activities on certain days of the week. Some feel that religion is the antithesis of prosperity, fun, enjoyment and pleasure. This causes them to reject it entirely, or to see it as only to be turned to in times of trouble.
  • "Self-promotion": Some individuals place themselves in positions of power and privilege through promotion of specific religious views, e.g., the Bhagwan/Osho interlude, Reverend Moon of the Unification Church (sometimes called Moonie movement), and other controversial new religious movements pejoratively called cults. Such self-promotion has tended to reduce public confidence in many things that are called "religion." Similarly, highly publicized cases of abuse by the clergy of several religions have tended to reduce public confidence in the underlying message.
  • "Promotion of ignorance": Many atheists and agnostics see early childhood education in religion and spirituality as a form of brainwashing or social conditioning, essentially concurring with the Marxian view that "religion is the opiate of the masses", with addiction to it fostered when people are too young to choose.
  • "Dulling of the mind against reality": Hegel, Feuerbach, and Marx developed atheist views that reality is sometimes painful, there is no God to assist people in dealing with it, and people must learn to deal with problems themselves in order to survive. Per this view, religion in modern times, while it may decrease pain in the short run by providing hope and optimism, in the long run hinders the ability of people to deal with their problems by providing false hope. Hence in 1844, in Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's 'Philosophy of Right', Marx said of religion, "It is the opiate [most likely in the traditional sense of an opium-like drug] of the masses." [10]
  • "Unsuitable moral systems in mainstream religions": Some argue that simplistic absolutism taught by some religions impairs a child's moral capacity to deal with a world of complex and varied temptations in which, in reality, there is no God to inform or assist.
  • "Unappealing forms of practice": People can form a negative view, based upon the manifestations of religion, e.g., ceremonies which appear pointless and repetitive, arcane clothing, and exclusiveness in membership requirements.
  • "Detrimental effect on government": Many atheists and agnostics believe that religion, because it insists that people believe certain claims "on faith" without sufficient evidence, hinders the rational/logical thought processes necessary for effective government. For example, a leader who believes that God will intervene to save humans from environmental disasters may be less likely to attempt to reduce the risk of such disasters through human action. Also, in many countries, religious organizations have tremendous political power, and in some countries can even control government almost completely. Disillusionment with forms of theocratic government, such as practiced in Iran, can lead people to question the legitimacy of any religious beliefs used to justify non-secular government.
  • "Detrimental effect on personal responsibility": Many atheists and agnostics believe that many religions, because they state that God will intervene to help individuals who are in trouble, cause people to be less responsible for themselves. For example, a person who believes that God will intervene to save him if he gets into financial difficulties may conclude that it is unnecessary to be financially responsible himself (Some believers, however, would consider this a misrepresentation of religion: they would say that God only helps people who take initiative themselves first.) This attitude can be taken to extremes: there are instances of believers refusing life-saving medical treatment (or even denying it to their children) because they believe that God will cure them.
  • "Forsaking of traditional practices and beliefs": Some modern religions have replaced traditional dogma with teachings, moral positions and practices perceived as so "modern" and liberal that followers may not be greatly distinguished from "non-religious" individuals. People with traditional views may lose confidence in the judgement of religious leaders who support such positions, leading them to lose confidence in their beliefs, seek alternative religions or look for organizations still teaching traditional dogma.
  • "Tensions between proselytizing and secularizing": Increasingly secular beliefs have been steadily on the rise in many nations. An increasing acceptance of a secular worldview, combined with efforts to prevent "religious" beliefs from influencing society and government policy, may have led to a corresponding decline in religious belief, especially of more traditional forms.
  • "Cause of conflict and hatred": Many religions, or at least some interpretations of certain religions, state that certain groups (particularly those that do not belong to the religion in question) are "inferior" and deserve contempt. For example, Christianity states that non-Christians will go to hell, and many fundamentalist Christians believe that God disapproves of homosexuality, and by implication homosexuals 1. According to some critics of religion, these beliefs can encourage completely unnecessary conflicts and in some cases even wars. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is often cited as an example of a religion-induced conflict.

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See also

Comparing Eastern and Western religious traditions

Related philosophical stances

  • Dualism (Philosophy of mind) - the view that the mental and the physical have a fundamentally different nature as an answer to the mind-body problem.
  • Idealism (Philosophy) - any theory positing the primacy of spirit, mind, or language over matter. It includes claiming that thought has some crucial role in making the world the way it is.
  • Vitalism - the doctrine that life cannot be explained solely by mechanism. Often, the non-material element is referred to as the soul, the "vital spark," or a kind of energy.

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