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Encyclopedia > Religious concepts

Religion, sometimes used interchangeably with faith, is commonly defined as belief concerning the supernatural, sacred, or divine, and the 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. Religion takes an almost infinite number of forms in various cultures and individuals, but 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.

Fishers of men; Oil on panel by Adriaen van de Venne (1614)

The nature and content of religion

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, 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.
  • 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. By analogy, "religion" is the coal, wood, or gasoline, while "spirituality" is the fire.

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

Questions that religions address

Jesus Christ, oil painting by Roland Walleij.

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

  • the existence (or non-existence) and nature of Deity (or Deities) (cf God), the divine, the sacred and the supernatural;
  • the appropriate means and methods for relating to the divine, the sacred, other people, and the natural world around us;
  • the personal experience to identify and celebrate as the experience of supreme value;
  • a sense of self that achieves completeness in relation to all wants and desires;
  • our purpose in life, and appropriate goals in this life;
  • how we got here, the origin of life or of the universe via creation story;
  • an ethical framework, including a definition of activities which are "good" and "bad";
  • possible other states of being like heaven, nirvana, purgatory or hell, and how to prepare for them;
  • the existence of evil and suffering and the articulation of a theodicy;
  • how different religions address the human dominion over animals, eg Hare Krishnas and vegetarianism

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

The syllable or ॐ is the primordial mantra in tradition.
The syllable Aum or ॐ is the primordial mantra in Vedic tradition.
  • Monotheistic religions assert that there is one God, distinct and separate from Nature as we understand it. Examples include Judaism, Sikhism, Christianity, Islam, the Bahá'í Faith, and the dualistic schools of Hinduism, including the Dvaita school of Vaishnavism, and the dualist Saiva Siddhanta school of Shaivism. The more prevalent form of monotheism present in Hinduism which differs from the monotheism prevalent in Semitic religions is monistic theism .
    • Trinitarian religions assert that there is one God with three persons. Examples include the majority of Christian denominations, with the exceptions of Oneness Pentecostals;
    • Henotheistic religions assert that there are many gods and/or deities of varying attributes, but One God is ultimately supreme. Examples include the strains of Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism (especially Shaivism and Vaishnavism), that acknowledge angels, demons, devas, asuras, or other gods of whom the One God is greatest, as well as many animistic traditions, particularly in Africa;
  • Polytheistic religions such as Greco-Roman religion assert that there are many Gods;
  • Pantheistic and Panentheistic, or "natural" religions believe that God and everything in nature are aspects of a continuous spiritual plane, and are thus essentially inseparable. Examples include (to various degrees): the pantheistic and panentheistic schools of Shaivism and Vaishnavism in Hinduism, Shintoism, and some animistic traditions.
  • Non-theistic religions (such as Buddhism) make no claim as to the existence or non-existence of God;
  • Atheistic religions (such as Jainism and Secular Humanism) do not believe in a god, gods or goddesses.;
  • Out of point of interest agnostics will often talk in terms of not knowing the number of gods, whether it be thousands, one, or zero.

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 Asatru (see also Neopaganism).

Ethical focus

  • Behavior-based religions emphasize the importance of a believer participating in certain customs, rituals, and behaviors. Examples include Hassidic 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.

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.
  • Jews believe 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);
Lord Krishna
    • 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] (http://www.bic-un.bahai.org/47-0701.htm)


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 distiction 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. Religious methods are generally subjective, appealing to personal intuition or experience, or the authority of a perceived prophet or sacred text. Scientific methods are generally objective, appealing only to observable and verifiable phenomena.

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 moral codes), 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, Theravaada Buddhists assert from the authority of the Buddha that the universe and the self are illusions and non-existent, despite scientific evidence to the contrary.
  • 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.

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, because religion 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. Some, for instance, note the empirical phenomena of entropy and the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which indicate that over time, the universe passes from greater to lesser levels of organization. They further note that the only observable instances of increased organization are caused by life (in the context of evolution) or by persons (in the context of human creative efforts to alter and organize our universe). They then assert that naturalistic explanations alone are insufficient to explain Order in the universe, because they provide no mechanism by which order may arise from disorder, other than Persons. They conclude that the most reasonable explanation for the origin of Order in the universe is a Person of one form or another, who provided the creative impetus that brought about the remarkable order and structure evident in the universe.

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 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.
  • 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] (http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/sbe01/sbe01002.htm)
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.
  • Anthropological approaches include attempts to lay out the principles of native tribes that have had little contact with modern technology as in John Lubbock's The Origin of Civilization and the Primitive Condition of Man. [3] (http://darwin.lib.cam.ac.uk/perl/nav?pclass=calent&pkey=7286) The anthropological approach to religion asserts that people want an explanation of the fundamental questions of life and ethics. It is believed within an anthropological approach that religion is an early and immature stage in the development of man's tools of "explanation," which is ultimately replaced by science as a more mature and verifiable means of explanation. [4] (http://www.scicom.lth.se/fmet/myths.html).
Critics note that the anthropological approach is scientific insofar as it observes that people naturally want explanations, and observes that people ascribe to a variety of explanations, including science and religion. Critics assert that it is unscientific, however, insofar as it makes the value judgment that science is the natural and more mature "successor" to religion, because value judgments are beyond the realm of the verifiable phenomena of science.
  • 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.
  Results from FactBites:
Malinowski Lecture (10069 words)
Concepts that are stable in one group and recurrent between groups are concepts that were selected in the transmission process, against a whole variety of variants that were forgotten, discarded and modified.
Religious concepts, it is argued, came from a need to understand various natural phenomena, from an urge to comprehend puzzling mental events like dreams, from the need to keep society cohesive, from a desire to make the world more human-like, from anxiety triggered by our mortality, from childhood concepts or from people’s superstitious proclivities.
Religious concepts are not around because they are good for people or for society or because of an inherent need or desire to have them.
  More results at FactBites »



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