Religion - An Introduction Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Religion - An Introduction

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A candle, as used in the religious ceremonies of many different faiths.

Religion is one of the most pervasive of all human behaviours, being found across all continents and cultures and throughout the entire span of human history1.

What is Religion?

It is impossible to answer the question 'What is religion?' without resorting to personal opinion. Like 'What is good?', the question is one of values which are perhaps not open to scientific enquiry at all. This is quite an intractable problem. Although most of us have an idea of what religion is, we might struggle to explain it. When asked, many would say that religion is a way of life based on belief in God. However, do we mean the god of classical theism, the god of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, or something more general, more nebulous? And what of those traditions, such as certain branches of Buddhism, that effectively sidestep the god question altogether? All this goes to show how our pre-existing values and perceptions colour our attempts to answer the question of 'What is religion?'

Many scholars, from various disciplines, have attempted to answer the question in as objective a manner as possible. What follows is an introduction to some of those answers. We begin by taking a detailed look at the work of the religious scholar Ninian Smart before going on to explore the views of psychologists, sociologists and evolutionary biologists. We close by comparing cults, sects, superstitions and religions.

Smart's Seven Dimensions of Religion

Ninian Smart (1927 - 2001), Professor of Comparative Religions at the University of California and Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the University of Lancaster, England, suggested that there are certain aspects or dimensions of religion. In 'The World's Religions' (Cambridge 1989), Smart suggested that there were seven dimensions:

  • The Practical and Ritual Dimension
  • The Experiential and Emotional Dimension
  • The Narrative or Mythic Dimension
  • The Doctrinal and Philosophical Dimension
  • The Ethical and Legal Dimension
  • The Social and Institutional Dimension
  • The Material Dimension
Smart pointed out that some religions emphasise certain dimensions more than others and that in some religions one or more dimensions may be almost non-existent.

  • The practical and ritual dimension: This covers acts of worship, both private and corporate, prayer, preaching, sacrifice and meditation. It also includes practices such as yoga. Examples include the celebration of the Eucharist in Christianity, participating in the Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mekkah (Mecca) in Islam, or offering puja in Hinduism.

  • The experiential and emotional dimension: Bringing together a range of religious phenomena ranging from conversion experiences to shamanistic trances. It also includes less dramatic feelings, such as a sense oneness and stillness, which are often reported by believers as occurring during moments of quiet reflection. Such experiences are frequently taken as a private affirmation of the individual's faith.

  • The narrative, or mythic, dimension: This incorporates the stories that form the starting point for a great deal of religious teaching. Creation myths are brought together with devotional material and accounts of the lives of significant individuals. Both printed texts and oral traditions are included. The Christian Bible and the Sikh Guru Granth Sahib are examples of texts that belong to the narrative and mythic dimension.

  • The doctrinal and philosophical dimension: Referring to the official teachings of the world's religions. As religions develop, their narratives and myths both inform and are explained by more complex and intellectually rigorous doctrines or official teachings; within Christianity one could point to the doctrine of the Trinity, in Islam tawhid (the oneness of God).

  • The ethical and legal dimension: This covers religious rules and laws that stem from the narrative and doctrinal aspects of each tradition. By following the various laws or commandments, the believer seeks to lead a virtuous life. In the Jewish Torah there are 613 mitzvah or commandments and in Islam there is the sharia law. In Polynesian traditions there is the concept of tapu (taboo) that limits or forbids a wide range of activities, for example limiting who may, or may not, collect shellfish from a given location or at certain times of year.

  • The social and institutional dimension: This includes the living embodiment of each religion; its followers. The institutional aspect refers to the organised structures and hierarchies often to be found within religious traditions. In Buddhism, the sangha is the name given to both a specific community of monks or nuns and to the wider community of Buddhists. In Roman Catholicism the papacy falls within the social and institutional dimension.

  • The material dimension: The last of Smart's dimensions. Religions of all sorts have created physical expressions of their faith, be it buildings, works of art or dramatic performances. Buddhism has given rise to massive statues, Orthodox Christianity has produced beautiful icons and Hinduism boasts awe inspiring mandirs or temples.

Although Smart does not provide us with a succinct definition of religion, his phenomenological approach does provide us with an insight into the nature of religion. It is a system that can also be applied to secular or humanistic world-views such as nationalism or Marxism. However, Smart himself recognised that, although such systems share many of the characteristics of a religion, they are not religions or even quasi-religions. And it is what Marxism and the like 'lack' that highlights what is special about religion: the transcendent.

All religions, whether theistic or atheistic, seek to transcend the divide between the normal, mundane world of everyday life and another spiritual, eternal and mysterious dimension that is said to lie beyond normal human experience. Christians, Muslims, Jews and other theists believe that we can all experience God. Theravadan Buddhists, who gloss over the question of whether there is a god, seek the transcendent in Nirvana (Nibbana) in which the self ceases to exist and achieves total quiescence. In contrast non-religious world-views, for example Marxism, lack this transcendent element. Although some may contend that followers of Marxism, and even some devoted football fans, may have experiences of bliss or exhilaration that are akin to those described by religious adherents, they would not describe them as transcending the divide between the mundane and the mystical. Therefore, Marxism and similar systems fall outside of what we can usefully consider to be religions.

So in summary: religions are coherent systems of beliefs and practices that arise from particular world-views. Such world-views incorporate a distinction between that which is normal and mundane and that which is spiritual or transcendent.

A Religious Perspective

Smart approached the question as a religious studies specialist. He attempted to stand outside each religious system he was studying in order to provide a dispassionate description of what he observed. This 'religious studies' approach needs to be contrasted with a purely 'religious' one. By this we mean the approach that is adopted by someone coming from within a particular religious tradition.

Each religion will have its own unique history and traditions about its origins. Most will speak of a founder who, inspired by a special revelation (coming generally though not exclusively from a god) sets out to share their understanding of the truth. Theistic (god based) religions will ultimately credit their god(s)/goddess(es) with the creation of their faith and it is this belief that is frequently used as the basis to claims of uniqueness and authority. When asked to explain the existence of other, competing traditions, some will respond by stating that, at best, these traditions are man-made, or at worst the work of some malevolent spiritual being, akin to but not equal to their god. For example, within the Christian tradition there are many who believe that God, and in particular God the Son, is the ultimate founder of their faith and that all other religions are attempts by the Devil to lead people away from the truth and into error.

A Psychological Perspective

Psychologists seek to explain the origins of religion in terms of individual or collective consciousness (and the unconscious). Both Sigmund Freud and Karl Jung sought to explain the origins of religion in terms of human needs and drives. Freud thought religion derived from adults' need for a father figure when they achieved independence from their actual fathers. Jung, who was less dismissive of religion, believed that all conceptions of the divine were related to an ancient archetype that was inherent within all human minds. Religion helped each developing personality assimilate this archetype as the individual mind evolved.

Steven Pinker, author of The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works and The Blank Slate, has suggested that religious belief is a by-product of certain evolutionary adaptations to the human brain. Pinker says we should distinguish between the psychological motives of those who are leaders and those who are followers as they are quite different. He has also suggested that our propensity to believe in god(s) may be related to our intuitive psychology, ie, we have evolved to be able to impute minds to other people, therefore it would not be unreasonable to impute minds to other, invisible beings, given that we cannot see other peoples' minds.

Neuroscience is another area that has begun to shed light on the nature of religion. Andrew Newberg of the Pennsylvania School of Medicine has used scanning techniques to observe what takes place in the brains of subjects while they pray or meditate. He has found that areas associated with concentration and emotion are activated and, at the same time, areas associated with the sense of self are deactivated. This may explain the sense of otherness and oneness often reported by people who have had religious experiences.

In another interesting development, Michael Persinger, professor of behavioural neuroscience at Laurentian University, Ontario, has used powerful electromagnetic fields to stimulate certain areas of the brain. When subjects have had their temporal lobes stimulated they have reported feelings like those described by mystics down the ages.

A Sociological Perspective

Sociologists explain religion in terms of its role within society. Karl Marx's analysis led him to conclude that religion was a powerful agent of social control. He believed that the position of ruling elites both stemmed from and was maintained by religious beliefs; the divine right of kings being a prime example. Marx believed that religion would naturally fade away in a socialist society. It is interesting to note that in both Soviet Russia and China religion did not disappear.

Emile Durkheim took a functionalist approach to the subject of religion and concluded that it was an all important factor in creating and sustaining a harmonious society. Durkheim saw religion as the cement that bound society together. Through shared beliefs and practices religion creates a sense of social identity and reinforces the moral values of the society. Rites of passage are important as a means of initiating individuals into the wider society and embedding a sense of responsibility. Like Marx, Durkheim recognised that religion played a role in social control but he saw this in a positive light, arguing that religion helped to maintain the community's shared values.

Max Weber adopted a social action approach to the study of religion and explored how religion could be an agent of change rather than a conservative agent inhibiting change. Weber examined the relationship between Calvinism, a form of Protestant Christianity, and the development of capitalism. Weber concluded that, although Calvinism was not the only contributing factor, it created a context in which one's position in society was not fixed and in which hard work was actively encouraged. The result, according to Weber, was significant social change.

Feminist sociologists have identified religion as a key factor in the subordination of women. They state that practically all religions stem from and maintain patriarchal societies. The use of masculine language to describe and address the god(s) has helped to reinforce the dominance of men. In the same way the exclusion of women from the leadership of many traditions has compounded women's sense of inferiority. Religion has often denigrated women; at best they are seen as morally weak and at worst they are believed to be inherently evil. Women's ambitions have been constrained by the assertion that it is their religious duty to obey their husbands and to serve them, and their children, in the home. Feminist sociologists have also highlighted the role of religion in the subjugation of female sexuality. Women have been denied a positive view of their own bodies and sexuality and instead have been presented with virginal role models.

An Evolutionary Perspective

Many scientists, from a wide variety of disciplines, influenced by Darwinian evolution have sought to explain religion in evolutionary terms.

Some writers have tried to suggest that the pervasiveness of religious beliefs is due to the existence of a 'god gene'. Supporters of the theory, such as Dean Hamer (The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired into Our Genes), suggest that human religious behaviour is the result of a genetic adaptation. Twin research conducted at the University of Minnesota in the late 1970s and early 1980s seemed to suggest that some people have a genetic predisposition towards spirituality. Religious supporters of the idea argue that, as creatures we are 'hardwired' to reach out to our creator; God made us to want to love him.

Richard Dawkins, the world-famous author, ethologist and evolutionary biologist, has put forward the concept of the 'meme'. Memes mutate and evolve in much the same way as genes, but unlike genes that are bundles of genetic material within the cells of living organisms, memes are bundles of ideas, such as tunes, or jokes, scientific theories or religious beliefs. While genes are passed on through sexual reproduction, memes are passed on in communication, and ultimately, through imitation. Religious beliefs, according to Dawkins, are among some of the most powerful memes ever and, although he rightly offers no explanation of the origins of the god meme, his concept provides a theoretical framework that explains the development and amazing persistence of religious beliefs: religion is highly infectious.

Cults, Sects and Superstitions

Finally it would seem sensible to explore the differences between religions, cults, sects and superstitions. Certainly, if we refer to Smart's dimensions there is little or no difference between a religion and a sect or a cult. All of them have rites and rituals, doctrines and laws, social structures and material artefacts, and their members often describe religious experiences.

One definition of a god is simply 'a cult figure'; by this criterion, Santa Claus and Elvis Presley are gods2. The term cult has been used to describe many smaller, non-traditional religious groups. These groups often have new or innovative beliefs that set them apart from the prevailing religious worldviews. In recent times it has become rather derogatory, being applied to groups that are deemed to be beyond the acceptable bounds of social behaviour. This may be because of devotion to a dominant leader, eg, David Koresh, leader of the ill-fated Branch Dravidians, or deviant sexual practices, such as those performed by 'The Family', also known as 'the Children of God'.

Sects are groups that break away from an existing religion but are not as divergent as a cult. Often such schisms are the result of disputes about beliefs or practices. In many cases, if they do not disappear, sects go on to become recognised denominations within the broader context of the 'parent' religion. The various Protestant Churches are examples of Christian sects that eventually gained mainstream acceptance, and in Hinduism one can cite the example of the Hare Krishna movement (The International Society for Krishna Consciousness).

There are tremendous similarities between cults, sects and religions but the same cannot be said of superstitions. Whereas cults, sects and religions are cohesive systems of beliefs and practices, superstitions are independent, stand alone beliefs, that do not form a coherent whole. However, they reflect rudimentary world-views not too dissimilar to some of those of mainstream religions. There is a common belief that there are unseen powers, acting both for and against us and that it is possible, through the use of certain rituals and invocations, to manipulate these powers.


Perhaps religion, along with sex and politics, should not be discussed in polite company because of the controversy it provokes. Religion addresses the most fundamental questions about what it is to be human. Religion, whether we are believers or not, goes to the very heart of who we believe we are. It is no surprise therefore, that when we encounter views that challenge our self-perception it evokes a strong emotional response within us. Because of this inherent power, religion has brought out both the very best and the very worst in human nature. Great acts of love, service and self-sacrifice have been credited to religious belief. It has been the driving force behind some of the world's most wonderful works of art, music and architecture but, ironically, it has also been the source of much that is evil. In order to truly understand mankind and the history of human thought one must take note of the role played by religion. To disregard religion as unimportant would be to misunderstand the power of its influence over human affairs. Whatever the status of religion in the modern world, it shows little sign of going away.

1Archaeologists have identified many prehistoric sites and objects as religious. Though no one can say for certain when religion first appeared, there is strong evidence that it has been in existence since the Neolithic era if not earlier.2This designation, blasphemous to Islam, Christianity, and Judaism alike, is little or no exaggeration of the attitudes and practices of these figures' most faithful devotees.

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