What is Religion? How Can We Study Religion?
This lesson will cover the difficulty of defining the term “religion,” the pervasive influence and importance—historically and currently—of religion in our society, and the benefits of studying world religions in an increasingly diverse and global society.
Definitions of Religion
Religion is difficult to define.
Those who have deeply held religious convictions are committed to their beliefs in a personal way that colors how they see the world and interact with others in their community. Religious teachings characteristically include beliefs about things that are unseen, such as deities and the afterlife, but also enjoin religious adherents to behave in certain ways in their everyday lives. It is a deeply personal construct and experience, yet one of its important functions is to bring together people in a community under a common identity. Religion is no doubt a complex and elusive concept. We may be left speaking of religion as Justice Stewart did of pornography when he claimed that although he would not attempt to define it, “I know it when I see it.” (Jacobellis v. Ohio)
The word “religion” comes from the Latin for “tie again” (Fisher 1997, 12). Thus, its significance is found in large part in its function of tying together elements of human meaning into an enduring whole. It can refer to a particular set of doctrines and methods for worship (e.g. Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism) or it can refer generally to the belief in a supreme deity. Religious adherents may define themselves by the beliefs they hold, by the actions they take, or even by physical characteristics. The concept of religion as a target of academic study was developed within the Western world, and many of the definitions that accompany it often have difficulty dealing with the Eastern religious traditions.
Religion provides adherents a broad worldview consisting of an integrated set of beliefs that help to conceptualize the world and one’s place within it. Often this belief system involves a differentiation between special sacred places, objects, and people from ordinary or profane places, objects and people. This worldview belongs to a unique group (community) and differs from that of surrounding cultures or subcultures. Adherents extract this belief system from a set of narratives (central stories) that the community reads or listens to, collectively or individually, along with a set of ceremonies (rituals) performed with regularity by or for the community.
Rituals, Symbols, and Myths
Members of religious communities extract their belief system from a set of Central Stories (often myths) and Rituals. They use objects and images as Symbols that evoke elements of either these myths or rituals. Each of these serve to supplement and complement one another. The myths flesh out the reasons for the rituals and the deeper meaning associated with them. Both the myths and rituals typically stir up emotions in the adherents, upon which the symbols rely for their power. The rituals fill the gap between the past events related in the myths to the present reality of the community. The symbols serve to incorporate the themes found in the myths and rituals into everyday life.
Each of these elements conveys deep meaning to individuals at a very common human level. The stories of the myths pick up on universal themes that resonate with individuals irrespective of intellectual ability or social status. Though they may be performed by professionals within the community, the rituals most often incorporate the members of the community on a broad scale not often present in political or social events that might be parallel. The symbols are often simple in design and construction, which even the poorest members of the community can afford to own.
Symbols are present, tangible links to the myths that lie in the past. The symbols serve as regular reminders of the community myths and give the members a sense of solidarity. Combined with the myths, these symbols can evoke emotions and memories. The lotus flower or pictures of it evoke images of Brahma (the Creator) seated in the midst of this flower in the navel of Vishnu (the Protector) for Hindus. It may also conjure up images of the creation out of a “Golden Lotus.” In a more abstract sense, it symbolizes beauty, prosperity and fertility. For Christians, the cross conjures up images of the crucifixion of Jesus. For Jews, the Star of David evokes the identity and solidarity of the Jewish people.
Many religions draw pictures or fashion other representations of their deities. One can recognize them by particular objects they carry or clothing items they wear or postures they adopt. The trident of Poseidon, the lightning bolt of Zeus, the conch and discus of Vishnu are all minor symbols that make up the larger symbol of the statue or picture of the deity itself. Devotees often use these symbols as they perform ritual acts of worship for the deities. Some religious traditions, such as Judaism and Islam, lack such symbols of the deity directly because of a prohibition against such images.