C H A P T E R 1


“By calling myself spiritual but not religious,

I can still acknowledge my belief that there may

be higher powers of a divine nature without

necessarily accepting just one belief system of an

organized religious institution.” Ivy DeWitt1

1.1 Explain what is meant by spirituality

1.2 Identify three perspectives used to explain the existence of religion

1.3 Differentiate between monotheistic, polytheistic, and nontheistic

1.4 Explain the significance of rituals, symbols, and myths in religions

1.5 Contrast absolutist with liberal interpretations of a religious tradition

1.6 Discuss the major positions that have emerged in the dialogue between science and religion since the nineteenth century

1.7 Describe how women are challenging the patriarchal nature of many institutionalized religions

1.8 Identify the factors that contribute to the negative aspects of organized religions

1.9 Summarize the different “lenses” used by scholars to study religion

Before sunrise, members of a Muslim family rise in Malaysia, perform their purifying ablutions, spread their prayer rugs facing Mecca, and begin their pros- trations and prayers to Allah. In a French cathedral, worshipers line up for their turn to have a priest place a wafer on their tongue, murmuring, “This is the body of Christ, given for you.” In a South Indian village, a group of women reverently anoint a cylindrical stone with milk and fragrant sandalwood paste and place

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around it offerings of flowers. The monks of a Japanese Zen Buddhist monastery sit cross-legged and upright in utter silence, which is broken occasionally by the noise of the kyosaku bat falling on their shoulders. On a mountain in Mexico, men, women, and children who have been dancing without food or water for days greet an eagle flying overhead with a burst of whistling from the small wooden flutes they wear around their necks. In Jerusalem, Jews tuck scraps of paper containing their personal prayers between the stones of the ancient Western Wall, which once supported their sacred Temple, while above that wall only Muslims are allowed to enter the Dome of the Rock to pray.

These and countless other moments in the lives of people around the world are threads of the tapestry we call religion. The word is probably derived from the Latin, meaning “to tie back,” “to tie again.” All of religion shares the goal of tying people back to something behind the surface of life—a greater reality, which lies beyond, or invisibly infuses, the world that we can perceive with our five senses.

Attempts to connect with or comprehend this greater reality have taken many forms. Many of them are organized institutions, such as Buddhism or Christianity. These institutions are complexes of such elements as leaders, beliefs, rituals, symbols, myths, scriptures, ethics, spiritual practices, cultural components, historical traditions, and management structures. Moreover, they are not fixed and distinct categories, as simple labels such as “Buddhism” and “Christianity” suggest. Each of these labels is an abstraction that is used in the attempt to bring some kind of order to the study of religious patterns that are in fact complex, diverse, ever-changing, and overlapping.

Attempts to define religion What are the inner dimensions of religion?

The labels “Buddhism,” “Hinduism,” “Daoism,” “Zoroastrianism,” and “Confucianism” did not exist until the nineteenth century, though the many patterns to which they refer had existed for thousands of years. Professor Willard G. Oxtoby (1933–2003), founding director of the Centre for Religious Studies at the University of Toronto, observed that when Western Christian scholars began studying other religions, they applied assumptions based on the Christian model

Jewish women praying at the Western Wall. Many scraps of paper with personal prayers are tucked into the cracks between the ancient stones.

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to other paths, looking for specific creedal statements of belief (a rarity in indigenous lifeways), a dichotomy between what is secular and what is sacred (not helpful in looking at the teachings of Confucius and his fol- lowers), and the idea that a person belongs to only one religion at a time (which does not apply in Japan, where people freely follow various religious traditions).

Not all religious behavior occurs within institution- al confines. The inner dimensions of religion—such as experiences, beliefs, and values—can be referred to as spirituality. This is part of what is called religion, but it may occur in personal, noninstitutional ways, without the ritual and social dimensions of organized religions. Indeed there are growing numbers of people in the world today who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious” (see box, p. 4). Personal spirituality without reference to a particular religious tradition permeates much contemporary artistic creation. Without theology, without historical references, such direct experiences are difficult to express, whether in words, images, or music. Contemporary artist Lisa Bradley says of her luminous paintings:

In them you can see movement and stillness at the same time, things coming in and out of focus. The light seems to be from behind. There is a sense of something like a permeable membrane, of things coming from one dimension to another. But even that doesn’t describe it well. How do you describe truth in words?2

Religions can be dynamic in their effects, bringing deep changes in individuals and societies, for good or ill. As Professor Christopher Queen, world religions scholar from Harvard University, observes:

The interpersonal and political realms may be transformed by powerful religious forces. Devotion linking human and divine beings, belief in holy people or sacred space, and ethical teachings that shape behaviors and attitudes may combine to transform individual identities and the social order itself.3

Frederick Streng (1933–1993), an influential scholar of comparative religion, suggested in his book Understanding Religious Life that the central definition of religion is that it is a “means to ultimate transformation.” A complete definition of religion would include its relational aspect (“tying back”), its transformational potential, and also its political dimensions.

Current attempts to define religions may thus refer more to processes than to fixed independent entities. Professor of Religious Studies Thomas A. Tweed, for instance, proposes this definition in his book Crossing and Dwelling: A Theory of Religion:

Religions are confluences of organic-cultural flows that intensify joy and confront suffering by drawing on human and suprahuman forces to make homes and cross boundaries—terrestrial, corporeal, and cosmic. …This theory is, above all, about movement and relation, and it is an attempt to correct theories [of religion] that have presupposed stasis and minimized interdependence.4

Religion is such a complex and elusive topic that some contemporary schol- ars of religion are seriously questioning whether “religion” or “religions” can be studied at all, or whether the concept of religion itself is useful. They have deter- mined that no matter where and at what point they try to define the concept, other parts will get away. Nonetheless, this difficult-to-grasp subject is central to many people’s lives and has assumed great political significance in today’s world,

Lisa Bradley, Passing Shadow, 2002.

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An Interview with Ivy DeWitt

Ivy DeWitt is a recent college graduate who majored in both economics and religious studies. Raised in a traditional Baptist Church, she found that as she learned more about different religions, and asked questions

about issues such as women’s roles within religions, she no longer felt comfortable identifying herself as a member of one specific religious group. Now, like about eighteen percent of Americans, she describes herself as “spiritual but not religious,”5 exploring her beliefs in an individualistic way rather than through set teachings and practices of a single religious organization. Ivy explains:

Being spiritual but not religious allows for a more individualized experience and expression of religion. Spirituality feels like an entirely personal experience in many ways to me, and being spiritual but not religious allows me to question and explore a variety of religious identities without feeling as though I’m constrained by a single religious institution. By calling myself spiritual but not religious, I can still acknowledge my belief that there may be higher powers of a divine nature without necessarily accepting just one belief system of an organized religious institution.

Ivy acknowledges the important role that religious organizations play in building a strong community, but found that her personal exploration of spirituality was more important to her:

I think of “religion” as having more to do with communities and institutions. Growing up as a Baptist Protestant Christian, I felt that the most important part of the religious experience was having strong ties to your group. I also believe another important aspect of religion is doctrines. While I acknowledge that people can have a variety of opinions within a single religion, and that views can also vary throughout branches of a religion, doctrines help to unify people under a central belief system, which can also be very important in holding a community together. In contrast, I think of spirituality as a more individualized experience, something that isn’t defined by the specific teachings or practices of a particular religion. While many people associate spirituality with a greater sense of feeling or emotion than anything that comes about through being part of an organized religion, I don’t necessarily agree. Religion and spirituality can overlap to create a wide sense of emotional experiences, but I like to associate spirituality with individual discovery. To me, spirituality is not just about emotional experience, but also about finding what your values are, and aligning them either with a religious identity or a personalized belief system.

Ivy first began to question whether her own evolving beliefs were compatible with what she was taught in school and church during high school:

I attended a non-denominational Protestant high school. I had questions about women’s roles in church, and I wondered if my personal beliefs aligned with Protestant teachings on contemporary social issues. There were discussions within my communities about whether women could be pastors. I struggled to understand whether this implied that women and men had different spiritual capabilities, and if I agreed with that sentiment. I started to distance myself from the church as a way to decide what my own viewpoints were concerning women’s rights and other social issues—and whether they aligned with the religious perspectives I had been raised with. I decided to identify as spiritual but not religious roughly about partway through my junior year of college. I began to realize that I didn’t hold any set beliefs that I felt aligned with my religious tradition. Ultimately I decided that it didn’t make sense for me to continue identifying as a Protestant, and the spiritual but not religious label seemed to capture how I felt at the time. I continue to use it now because I believe it is the most accurate description of my belief system. I care more about holding to my personal beliefs in relation to women’s rights and social justice than the community or doctrinal aspects of religion. It’s not that I believe the religious beliefs I grew up with are completely incongruent with my own, but at the moment identifying with a single religious community isn’t reconcilable with other principles that I value.

For Ivy, spiritual experience does not follow from accepting a particular set of beliefs, but more from exploring many different religious traditions to see what inspires her.

Being spiritual but not religious allows me to navigate religious history while also navigating my own identity. I don’t believe I’ll ever finish navigating either one, which is why I enjoy how being spiritual has allowed me to do that free of any particular religious labels. Some people disagree with certain key tenets of their religion, but still remain a part of it. I think that they choose to focus on what they see as core principles of the tradition, in spite of whatever disagreements they have, and they may find it hard to give up being part of a religious community. I do think that spiritual but not religious people are to some extent missing out on some of the community-related parts of religion. But I believe that most people who identify as spiritual but not religious probably aren’t looking for a community religious experience. Having participated in a religious community myself, I sincerely enjoy my current ability to explore different religious traditions and identities on my own without feeling tied to a specific institution.6

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so it is important to try sincerely to understand it. In this introductory chapter, we will try to develop some understanding of religion in a generic sense—why it exists, its various patterns and modes of interpretation, its encounters with modern science, its inclusion or exclusion of women, and its potentially nega- tive aspects—before trying in the subsequent chapters to understand the major traditions known as “religions” practiced around the world today.

Why are there religions? What major theories have evolved to explain the existence of religion? In many cultures and times, religion has been the basic foundation of life, per- meating all aspects of human existence. In fact, in some cultures what we may now identify as “religion” has so permeated everything that it was not even identified as a particular category of human experience. But from the time of the European Enlightenment, religion has become in the West an object to be studied, rather than a basic fact of life. Cultural anthropologists, sociologists, philosophers, psychologists, and even biologists and neuroscientists have peered at religion through their own particular lenses, trying to explain what religion is, its function and purpose, and developing a wide range of methods for study- ing religion. In the following pages we will briefly examine some of the major theories that have evolved. They are not mutually exclusive.

Materialist perspective: humans invented religion

During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, scientific materialism gained considerable prominence as a theory to explain the fact that religion can be found in some form in every culture around the world. The materialistic point of view is that the supernatural is invented by humans; only the material world exists.

An influential example of this perspective can be found in the work of the nineteenth-century philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach (1804–1872). He reasoned that deities are simply projections, objectifications of human qualities such as power, wisdom, and love onto an imagined cosmic deity outside ourselves. Then we worship it as Supreme and do not recognize that those same qualities lie within ourselves; instead, we see ourselves as weak and sinful. Feuerbach developed this theory with particular reference to Christianity as he had seen it.

Other scientific materialists believe that religions have been created or at least used to manipulate people. Historically, religions have often supported and served secular power. The nineteenth-century socialist philosopher Karl Marx (1818–1883), author of The Communist Manifesto, argued that a culture’s religion—as well as all other aspects of its social structure—springs from its eco- nomic framework. In Marx’s view, religion’s origins lie in the longings of the oppressed. It may have developed from the desire to revolutionize society and combat exploitation, but in failing to do so it became otherworldly, an expres- sion of unfulfilled desires for a better, more satisfying life:

Man makes religion: religion does not make man. … The religious world is but the reflex of the real world. … Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the sentiment of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.7

According to Marx, not only do religions pacify people falsely, they may themselves become tools of oppression. For instance, he charged Christian authorities of his times with supporting “vile acts of the oppressors” by explain- ing them as due punishment of sinners by God. Other critics have made simi- lar complaints against Asian religions that blame the sufferings of the poor on their own misdeeds in previous lives. Such interpretations and uses of religious

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teachings lessen the perceived need for society to help those who are oppressed and suffering. Marx’s ideas thus led toward twentieth-century atheistic com- munism, for he had asserted, “The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness.”8

Many contemporary atheist thinkers have also adopted a materialist approach to religion, arguing that religious assertions about the supernatural, such as the existence of God, are testable hypotheses that cannot be proven.

Functional perspective: religion is useful

Another line of reasoning has emerged in the search for a theory explaining the universal existence of religions: They are found everywhere because they are useful, both for society and for individuals. Religions “do things” for us, such as helping us to define ourselves and making the world and life comprehensible to us. Functional explanations have come from many disciplines.

One version of the functional explanation is based on sociology. Pioneering work in this area was done by French sociologist Emile Durkheim (1858–1917). He proposed that humans cannot live without organized social structures, and that religion is a glue that holds a society together. Surely religions have the potential for creating harmony in society, for they all teach social virtues such as love, compassion, altruism, justice, and discipline over our desires and emotions. Political scientists Robert Putnam and David Campbell concluded from a survey of religiosity in the United States that people who are involved in organized religions are generally more generous toward their neighbors and more con- scientious as citizens than those who do not participate in religions,9 although critics have noted that it may be that the group affiliation that is part of religion is a better predictor of generosity than religious belief itself. The role of religion in the social process of identity formation at individual, family, community, and national levels is now being carefully examined, for people’s identification with a particular religion can be manipulated to influence social change—either to thwart, moderate, or encourage it.

Biology also offers some functional reasons for the existence of religion. For instance, John Bowker, author of Is God a Virus?, asserts that religions are organized systems that serve the essential biological purpose of bringing people together for their common survival. To Bowker, religion is found universally because it protects gene replication and the nurturing of children. He proposes that because of its survival value, the potential for religiosity may even be genet- ically inherent in human brains.

Some medical professionals have found that religious faith may be good for our health. Research conducted by the Center for the Study of Religion/ Spirituality and Health at Duke University found that those who attend religious services or read scriptures frequently are significantly longer lived, less likely to be depressed, less likely to have high blood pressure, and nearly ninety percent less likely to smoke. Many other studies have indicated that patients with strong faith recover faster from illness and operations. In contrast, however, some scholars have pointed out that some of the most religious regions of the world also have very high rates of disease, suggesting that it is not just religion but broader societal factors such as community support as well as access to health care that factor into overall wellbeing.

Many medical studies have also been done on the potential of prayer to heal illness, but results have been mixed. However, meditation has been proved to reduce mental stress and also to help develop positive emotions, even in the face of great difficulties. Citing laboratory tests of the mental calmness of Buddhists who practice “mindfulness” meditation, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama points out that:

Over the millenniums, many practitioners have carried out what we might call “experiments” in how to overcome our tendencies toward destructive emotions. The

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world today needs citizens and leaders who can work toward ensuring stability and engage in dialogue with the “enemy”—no matter what kind of aggression or assault they may have endured. If humanity is to survive, happiness and inner balance are crucial. We would do well to remember that the war against hatred and terror can be waged on this, the internal front, too.10

From the point of view of individual psychology, there are many explanations of the usefulness of religion. Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (1856–1938) sug- gested that religion fulfills neurotic needs. He described religion as a collective fantasy, a “universal obsessional neurosis”—a replaying of our loving and fearful relationships with our parents. Religious belief gives us a God powerful enough to protect us from the terrors of life, and will reward or punish us for obedience or nonobedience to social norms. From Freud’s extremely sceptical point of view, religious belief is an illusion springing from people’s infantile insecurity and neurotic guilt; as such it closely resembles mental illness.

On a more positive note, the twentieth-century psychoanalyst Erich Fromm (1900–1980) concluded that humans have a need for a stable frame of reference, and that religion fulfills this need. As Mata Amritanandamayi, a contemporary Indian spiritual teacher, explains:

Faith in God gives one the mental strength needed to confront the problems of life. Faith in the existence of God makes one feel safe and protected from all the evil influences of the world. To have faith in the existence of a Supreme Power and to live accordingly is a religion. When we become religious, morality arises, which, in turn, will help to keep us away from malevolent influences. We won’t drink, we won’t smoke, and we will stop wasting our energy through unnecessary gossip and talk. … We will also develop qualities like love, compassion, patience, mental equipoise, and other positive traits. These will help us to love and serve everyone equally. … Where there is faith, there is harmony, unity and love. A nonbeliever always doubts. … He cannot be at peace; he’s restless. … The foundation of his entire life is unstable and scattered due to his lack of faith in a higher principle.11

For many, the desire for material achievement offers a temporary sense of purposefulness. But once achieved, material goals may seem hollow. Guru Tegh Bahadur, the Ninth Sikh Guru, said:

The whole world is just like a dream; It will pass away in an instant, Like a wall of sand, [Though] built up and plastered with great care, Which does not last even four days. Likewise are the pleasures of mammon.12

Once this realization comes, a search for something more lasting and deeply meaningful may then arise.

Religions propose ideals that can radically transform people. Mahatma Gandhi (1869–1948) was an extremely shy, fearful child. His transformation into one of the great political figures of the twentieth century occurred as he meditated single-mindedly on the great Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita, par- ticularly the second chapter, which he says was “inscribed on the tablet of my heart.”13 It reads, in part:

He is forever free who has broken Out of the ego-cage of I and mine To be united with the Lord of Love. This is the supreme state. Attain thou this And pass from death to immortality.14

People need inner strength for dealing with personal problems. Those who are suffering severe physical illness, privation, terror, or grief often turn to the divine for help. Conviction that Someone or Something that cannot be seen exists may be an antidote to the discomforting sense of being alone in the

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universe. This isolation can be painful, even terrifying. The divine may be sought as a loving father or mother, or as a friend. Alternatively, some paths offer the way of self-transcendence. Through them, the sense of iso- lation is lost in mystical merger with the One Being, with the Ultimate Reality.

According to some Asian religions, the concept that we are distinct, autonomous individuals is an illusion; what we think of as “our” consciousnesses and “our” bodies is in perpetual flux. Thus, freedom from prob- lems lies in accepting temporal change and devaluing the “small self” in favor of the eternal self. The ancient sages of India, whose teachings are preserved in the Upanishads, called this eternal self “the breathing behind breathing, the sight behind sight, the hearing behind hearing, the thinking behind thinking… ”15

Buddhists see the problem of human existence dif- ferently. What humans have in common, they feel, is the suffering that comes from life’s impermanence and our craving for it to remain the same. For Buddhists, reliance on an Absolute or God and the belief in a per- sonal self or an Eternal Self only makes the suffering more intense. The solution is to let go of these ideas, to accept the groundlessness and openness of life, and to grow in clear awareness and humanistic values.

We may look to religions for understanding, for answers to our many questions about life. Is life just a series of random and chaotic incidents, or is there some meaning and order behind what is happening? Who are we? Why are we here? What happens after we die? Why is there suffering? Why is there evil? Is anybody

up there listening? We have difficulty accepting the commonsense notion that this life is all there is. We are born, we struggle to support ourselves, we age, and we die. If we believe that there is nothing more, fear of death may inhibit enjoy- ment of life and make all human actions seem pointless. Confronting mortality is so basic to the spiritual life that, as the Christian monk Brother David Steindl- Rast observes, whenever monks from any spiritual tradition meet, within five minutes they are talking about death.

It appears that throughout the world man [sic] has always been seeking something beyond his own death, beyond his own problems, something that will be enduring, true and timeless. He has called it God, he has given it many names; and most of us believe in something of that kind, without ever actually experiencing it.

Jiddu Krishnamurti16

For those who find security in specific answers, some religions offer dogma— systems of doctrines proclaimed as absolutely true and accepted as such, even if they lie beyond the domain of one’s personal experiences. Absolute faith pro- vides some people with a secure feeling of rootedness, meaning, and orderliness in the midst of rapid social change. Religions may also provide rules for living, governing everything from diet to personal relationships. Such prescriptions may be seen as earthly reflections of the order that prevails in the cosmos. Some religions, however, encourage people to explore the perennial questions by themselves, and to live in the uncertainties of not knowing intellectually, breaking through old concepts until nothing remains but truth itself.

Even in the midst of busy modern life, many people turn to Something they cannot see for spiritual help. These people are making food offerings in the popular Sik Sik Yuen Wong Tai Sin Daoist temple in Hong Kong in hope of spiritual healing for themselves or their loved ones.

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Faith perspective: Ultimate Reality exists

From the point of view of religious faith, there truly is an underlying reality that cannot readily be perceived. Human responses to this Ultimate Reality have been expressed and institutionalized as the structures of some religions.

How have people concluded that there is some supreme, Ultimate Reality, even though they may be unable to perceive it with their ordinary senses? Some simply accept what has been told to them or what is written in their holy books. Others have come to their own conclusions.

One path to faith is through deep questioning. Martin Luther (1483–1546), father of the Protestant branches of Christianity, recounted how he searched for faith in God through storms of doubt, “raged with a fierce and agitated conscience.”17 Jnana yoga practitioners probe the question “Who am I?” Gradually they strip away all of what they are not—for instance, “I am not the body, I am not the thinking”—and dig even into the roots of “I,” until only pure Awareness remains.

The human mind does not function in the rational mode alone; there are other modes of consciousness. In his classic study The Varieties of Religious Experience, the philosopher William James (1842– 1910) concluded:

Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the flimsiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. … No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded.18

To perceive truth directly, beyond the senses, beyond the limits of human reason, beyond blind belief, is often called mysticism. George William Russell (1867–1935), an Irish writer who described his mystical experiences under the pen name “AE,” was lying on a hillside:

not then thinking of anything but the sunlight, and how sweet it was to drowse there, when, suddenly, I felt a fiery heart throb, and knew it was personal and intimate, and started with every sense dilated and intent, and turned inwards, and I heard first a music as of bells going away … and then the heart of the hills was opened to me, and I knew there was no hill for those who were there, and they were unconscious of the ponderous mountain piled above the palaces of light, and the winds were sparkling and diamond clear, yet full of colour as an opal, as they glittered through the valley, and I knew the Golden Age was all about me, and it was we who had been blind to it but that it had never passed away from the world.19

Encounters with this ordinarily unseen, Ultimate Reality are given various names in spiritual traditions: enlightenment, realization, illumination, satori, awakening, self-knowledge, gnosis, ecstatic communion, “coming home.” Such a state may arise spontaneously, as in near-death experiences in which people seem to find themselves in a world of unearthly radiance, or may be induced by meditation, fasting, prayer, chanting, drugs, or dancing.

Many religions have developed meditation techniques that encourage intui- tive wisdom to come forth. Whether this wisdom is perceived as a natural faculty within or an external voice, the process is similar. The consciousness is initially turned away from the world and even from one’s own feelings and thoughts, letting them all go. Often a concentration practice, such as watching the breath or staring at a candle flame, is used to collect the awareness into a single, unfrag- mented focus. Once the mind is quiet, distinctions between inside and outside drop away. The seer becomes one with the seen, in a fusion of subject and object

Sufi dervishes in Sudan chant names of God’s qualities as a way to God-realization.

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through which the inner nature of things often seems to reveal itself. Kabir, a fifteenth-century Indian weaver who was inspired alike by Islam and

Hinduism and whose words are included in Sikh scripture, described the cosmic dimensions of this inner awakening:

The flute of the Infinite is played without ceasing, and its sound is love: When love renounces all limits, it reaches truth. How widely the fragrance spreads! It has no end, nothing stands in its way. The form of this melody is bright like a million suns: Incomparably sounds the

vina, the vina of the notes of truth.20

[The “flash of illumination” brings] a state of glorious inspiration, exaltation, intense joy, a piercingly sweet realization that the whole of life is fundamentally right and that it knows what it’s doing.

Nona Coxhead21

Our ordinary experience of the world is that our self is separate from the world of objects that we perceive. But this dualistic understanding may be tran- scended in a moment of enlightenment in which the Real and our awareness of it become one. The Mundaka Upanishad says, “Lose thyself in the Eternal, even as the arrow is lost in the target.” For the Hindu, this is the prized attainment of liberation, in which one enters into awareness of the eternal reality. This reality is then known with the same direct apprehension with which one knows one-

A sense of the presence of the Great Unnamable may burst through the seeming ordinariness of life. (Samuel Palmer, The Rising of the Skylark, 1839, National Museum of Wales.)

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self. The Sufi Muslim mystic Abu Yazid in the ninth century CE said, “I sloughed off my self as a snake sloughs off its skin, and I looked into my essence and saw that ‘I am He.’”22

An alternative kind of spiritual experience brings one into contact with what the German professor of theology Rudolf Otto (1869–1937) called the “Wholly Other.” Otto referred to this as numinous—a nonrational, nonsensory expe- rience of that which is totally outside the self and cannot be described. In his landmark book The Idea of the Holy, Otto wrote of this mysterious experience as the heart of religion. It brings forth two general responses in a person: a feeling of great awe or even dread and, at the same time, a feeling of great attraction. These responses, in turn, have given rise to the whole gamut of religious beliefs and behaviors.

Though ineffable, the nature of religious experience that leads to faith is not unpredictable, according to the research of Joachim Wach (1898–1955), a German scholar of comparative religion. In every religion, it seems to follow a certain pattern: (1) It is an experience of what is considered Ultimate Reality; (2) It involves the person’s whole being; (3) It is the most shattering and intense of all human experiences; and (4) It motivates the person to action, through wor- ship, ethical behavior, service, and sharing with others in a religious grouping.

Understandings of Ultimate Reality What are the different ways in which the nature of Ultimate Reality has been understood? In the struggle to understand what the mind cannot readily grasp, individ- uals and cultures have come to rather different conclusions. Mircea Eliade (1907–1986) was a very influential scholar who helped to develop the field of comparative religion. This discipline attempts to understand and compare religious patterns found around the world. He used the terms “sacred” and “profane”: The profane is the everyday world of seem- ingly random, ordinary, and unimportant occurrences. The sacred is the realm of extraordinary, apparently purposeful, but generally imperceptible forces. In the realm of the sacred lies the source of the universe and its values. However relevant this dichotomy may be in describing some religions, there are some cultures that do not make a clear distinction between the sacred and the profane. Many indigenous peoples who have an intimate connection with their local landscape feel that spiritual power is everywhere; there is nothing that is not sacred. Trees, mountains, animals—everything is perceived as being alive with sacred presence.

Another distinction made in the study of com- parative religion is that between “immanent” and “transcendent” views of sacred reality. To understand that reality as immanent is to experience it as present in the world. To understand it as transcendent is to believe that it exists outside of the material universe (e.g., “God is out there”).

The nature of Ultimate Reality is another area in which we find great differences among religious tra- ditions. Many people perceive the sacred as a personal being, as Father, Mother, Teacher, Friend, Beloved, or as a specific deity. Religions based on one’s relationship to a Divine Being are called theistic. If the being is wor- shiped as a singular form, the religion is called mono- theistic. If many attributes and forms of the divine are

The concept of God as an old man with a beard who rules the world from the sky has been supported by the art of patriarchal monotheistic traditions, such as William Blake’s frontispiece to “Europe,” The Act of Creation, 1794.

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emphasized, the religion may be labeled polytheistic. Religions that hold that beneath the multiplicity of apparent forms there is one underlying principle or substance are called monistic.

Ultimate Reality may also be conceived in nontheistic terms, as a “change- less Unity,” as “Suchness,” or simply as “the Way.” There may be no sense of a personal Creator God in such understandings; in nontheistic traditions, Ultimate Reality may instead be perceived as impersonal.

Some people believe that the Ultimate Reality is usually invisible but occa- sionally appears visibly in human incarnations, such as Christ or Krishna, or in special manifestations, such as the flame Moses reportedly saw coming from the center of a bush but not consuming it. Or the deity that cannot be seen may be described in human terms. Christian theologian Sallie McFague thus writes of God as “lover” by imputing human feelings to God:

God as lover is the one who loves the world not with the fingertips but totally and passionately, taking pleasure in its variety and richness, finding it attractive and valuable, delighting in its fulfilment. God as lover is the moving power of love in the universe, the desire for unity with all the beloved.24

Throughout history, there have been exclusivist religious authorities—in other words, those who claim that they worship the only true deity and label all others as “pagans” or “nonbelievers.” For their part, the others apply similar


A Letter from I. H. Azad Faruqi

In this letter, the highly respected Muslim scholar Dr. I. H. Azad Faruqi, Professor of Islamic Studies and Honorary Director of the Centre for the Study of Comparative Religions and Civilizations, Jamia Milia Islamia, New Delhi, gives his views on exclusivist and universalist standpoints.

Despite the attitude of the majority of the followers of world religions justifying the claims of exclusive nature found in almost all world religions, there are sufficient grounds in the scriptures of these traditions which allow a universalistic interpretation of the phenomenon of the multiplicity of religions. That is, the scriptures of the various world religions within themselves contain the elements which can be interpreted to claim a viewpoint looking at various religious traditions as so many paths leading to the same Goal. Secondly, almost all world religions contain a vision of a Supreme Reality, which ultimately is considered beyond the categories of the rational thought, Incomprehensible and Unlimited. Thus, by their own admission these traditions appear to claim their vision of, and approach to, the Supreme Reality as short of exhausting It, and limited to a particular view of It. Otherwise also, although almost all the basic truths and aspects of religious life are represented in each of the religious traditions, each of these traditions tends to emphasize certain dimensions of the religious experience more than others. And these particular accentuations, at the core of the spiritual experience of these traditions,

are the factors which appear to determine the special hue or distinctiveness of these traditions. Thus, each of the different religious traditions can be claimed to express some particular aspects of the Ultimate Reality which, in spite of its myriad manifestations, remains unfathomable and far beyond the sum of all Its expressions. Seen from this perspective, the uniqueness of each religious tradition, and Its particular experience of the Supreme Reality, should no more remain as a hindrance in the cordial relations amongst them, as the usual case has been hitherto. Rather, these very particularities and distinctions would turn into the grounds for mutual attraction between them. Thirdly, the individualistic claims of various religions can be taken as true only in a relative sense. Each of the religious traditions being a close and complete world in itself, these are bound to claim their particular standpoints as absolute. Perhaps these could not develop into self-sufficient traditions in their own right without their exclusivist claims of being the only truly guided ones. But today, in the pluralistic societies of modern times, the claims of these traditions having the monopoly of the Supreme Truth can be considered as relatively absolute only, if the term of a relative absolute can be permitted. That is, we can attempt to approach and study these traditions on their own grounds, with a more humble attitude, and let them speak from within their own world, while being aware that this is only one world out of many such worlds.23

Buddhism is sometimes referred to as a nontheistic religion, for its beliefs do not refer to a personal deity. Practitioners try to perceive the impermanence and interdependence of all things.

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negative epithets to them. When these rigid positions are taken, often to the point of vio- lent conflicts or forced conversions, there is no room to consider the possibility that all may be talking about the same indescribable thing in different languages or referring to different aspects of the same unknowable Whole—a position which may be called universalism.

Atheism is the belief that there is no deity. Atheists may reject theistic beliefs because they seem to be incompatible with the exist- ence of evil in the world, or because there is little or no concrete proof that God exists, or because they reject the concept of God as an old man in the sky, or because theistic beliefs seem unscientific, or because they inhibit human independence. In 2009, atheists in Britain mounted a major campaign to put up billboards and signs on buses proclaiming, “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” A movement called “New Atheism” is attacking religious faith as being not only wrong, but actually evil because it can be used to support violence. As we will see throughout this book, extremist religious views have indeed been used throughout history to justify political violence and oppression. One of the leading figures in the New Atheism movement is Richard Dawkins, Oxford Professor of the Public Understanding of Science and author of The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion. Around him a debate is raging about whether science itself is fully “scientific,” in the sense of being totally objective, or whether it is a culturally shaped enterprise based on unproven assumptions— the same criticism that its atheistic proponents make about religious faith.

Agnosticism is not the denial of the divine but the feeling “I don’t know whether it exists or not,” or the belief that if it exists it is impossible for humans to know it. Religious scepticism has been a current in Western thought since classical times; it was given the name “agnosticism” in the nineteenth centu- ry by T. H. Huxley, who stated its basic principles as a denial of metaphysical beliefs and of most (in his case) Christian beliefs since they are unproven or unprovable, and their replacement with scientific method for examining facts and experiences.

Humanism is an approach to life that focuses on humans’ responsibility to lead ethical lives and work for the good of all humanity without any belief in the supernatural.25 There is also secularism, in which people go about their daily lives without any reference to religion: All focus is on material life. This trend is particularly pronounced in contemporary Europe.

These categories are not mutually exclusive, so attempts to apply the labels can sometimes confuse us rather than help us understand religions. In some polytheistic traditions there is a hierarchy of gods and goddesses with one highest being at the top. In Hinduism, each individual deity is understood as an embodiment of all aspects of the divine. In the paradoxes that occur when we try to apply human logic and language to that which transcends rational thought, a person may believe that God is both a highly personal being and also present in all things. Or mystics may have personal encounters with the divine and yet find it so unspeakable that they say it is beyond human knowing. The Jewish scholar Maimonides (1135–1204) asserted that:

the human mind cannot comprehend God. Only God can know Himself. The only form of comprehension of God we can have is to realize how futile it is to try to comprehend Him.26

Jaap Sahib, the great hymn of praises of God by the Tenth Sikh Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, consists largely of the negative attributes of God, such as these:

Atheists in Britain ran a large- scale campaign to advertise their point of view, posting large signs proclaiming “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life” on buses and in public places.

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Salutations to the One without colour or hue, Salutations to the One who hath no beginning. Salutations to the Impenetrable, Salutations to the Unfathomable … O Lord, Thou art Formless and Peerless Beyond birth and physical elements. … Salutations to the One beyond confines of religion. … Beyond description and Garbless Thou art Nameless and Desireless. Thou art beyond thought and ever Mysterious.27

Some people believe that the aspect of the divine that they perceive is the only one. Others feel that there is one being with many faces, that all religions come from one source. Bede Griffiths (1906–1993), a Catholic monk who lived in a community in India attempting to unite Asian and Western traditions, was one who thought that if we engage in a deep study of all religions we will find their common ground:

In each tradition the one divine Reality, the one eternal Truth, is present, but it is hidden under symbols. … Always the divine Mystery is hidden under a veil, but each revelation (or “unveiling”) unveils some aspect of the one Truth, or, if you like, the veil becomes thinner at a certain point. The Semitic religions, Judaism and Islam, reveal the transcendent aspect of the divine Mystery with incomparable power. The oriental religions reveal the divine Immanence with immeasurable depth. Yet in each the opposite aspect is contained, though in a more hidden way.28

Ritual, symbol, and myth Why are rituals, symbols, and myths important in religions?

Many of the phenomena of religion are ways of worship, symbols, and myths. Worship consists in large part of attempts to express reverence and perhaps to enter into communion with that which is worshiped or to request help with problems such as ill health, disharmony, or poverty. Around the world, rituals, sacraments, prayers, and spiritual practices are used to create a sacred atmos- phere or state of consciousness necessary to convey the requests for help, to bring some human control over things that are not ordinarily controllable (such as rainfall), to sanctify and explain the meaning of major life stages such as birth, puberty, marriage, and death, or to provide spiritual instruction.


When such actions are predictable and repeated rather than spontaneous, they are known as rituals. Group rituals may be conducted by priests or other ritual specialists or by the people themselves. There may be actions such as recita- tion of prayers, chants, scriptures or stories, singing, dancing, sharing of food, spiritual purification by water, lighting of candles or oil lamps, and offerings of flowers, fragrances, and food to the divine. Professor Antony Fernando of Sri Lanka explains that when food offerings are made to the deities:

Even the most illiterate person knows that in actual fact no god really picks up those offerings or is actually in need of them. What people offer is what they own. Whatever is owned becomes so close to the heart of the owner as to become an almost integral part of his or her life. Therefore, when people offer something, it is, as it were, themselves they offer. … Sacrifices and offerings are a dramatic way of proclaiming that they are not the ultimate possessors of their life and also of articulating their determination to live duty-oriented lives and not desire-oriented lives.29

Music, chants, and other kinds of sound play very significant roles in religious

Father Bede Griffiths emphasized the common elements found in all religions.

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rituals, whether it is the noisy bursting of firecrackers to scare away unwanted spirits at Chinese graves or choral singing of Kyrie Eleison (Lord have mercy) in a sublime composition by the eighteenth-century composer Johann Sebastian Bach. Ethnomusicologist Guy Beck identifies many purposes for which sacred sounds may be used in religions: to ask for favors or blessings, to ask forgiveness for sins, to praise and thank the Creator, to chase away demons, to invoke the presence and blessings of deities, to make prayerful requests, to develop a mood of inner quietude or repentance, to purify the worshiper, to paint pictures of a future state of being, to create communion between the human and divine worlds, to teach doctrines, to create states of ecstasy and bliss, to empty and then fulfill, to invigorate, and to express jubilation.30 The effects of sounds on mind and heart are so touching that sacred texts or messages are often chanted or sung rather than simply read or recited. Speaking from a theistic point of view, nineteenth-century musicologist Edmund Gurney reflected:

The link between sound and the supernatural is profound and widespread. … If we are believers, then we can believe that the spirit is moving us in our ritual music. Ritual sound makes the transcendent immanent. It is at the same time ours, our own sounds pressing in around us and running through us like a vital current of belief, molding us into a living interior that is proof against the unbelieving emptiness that lies around.31

Paintings and other forms of art have also inspired religious experience. John Damascus of Byzantium (c. 675–749 CE) proclaimed:

Paintings are the books of the illiterate. They distract those who look at them with a silent voice and sanctify life. … If I have no books I go to church, pricked as by spines by my thoughts; the flower of painting makes me look, charms my eyes as does a flowering meadow and softly distils the glory of God in my soul.32


What religions attempt to approach may be considered beyond human utter- ance. Believers build statues and buildings through which to worship the divine, but these forms are not the divine itself. Because people are addressing the invisible, it can be suggested only through metaphor. Deepest consciousness cannot speak the language of everyday life; what it knows can be suggested

Places of worship are often designed as visual symbols of religious ideals. The Baha’i Temple in New Delhi was crafted in the shape of a lotus, symbol of beauty and purity rising divinely above stagnant water, and its nine-sided structure symbolizes the unity of all world religions.

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only in symbols—images borrowed from the material world that are similar to ineffable spiritual experiences. For example, attempts to allude to spiritual merging with Ultimate Reality may borrow the language of human love. The great thirteenth-century Hindu saint Akka Mahadevi sang of her longing for union with the Beloved by using powerful symbolic language of self-surrender:

Like a silkworm weaving her house with love From her marrow and dying in her body’s threads Winding tight, round and round, I burn Desiring what the heart desires.33

Tracing symbols throughout the world, researchers find many similarities in their use in different cultures. Ultimate Reality is often symbolized as a Father or Mother, because it is thought to be the source of life, sustenance, and protec- tion. It is frequently associated with heights, with its invisible power perceived as coming from a “place” that is spiritually “higher” than the material world. The sky thus becomes heaven, the abode of the god or gods and perhaps also the pleasant realm to which good people go when they die. A vertical symbol—such as a tree, a pillar, or a mountain—is understood as the center of the world in many cultures, for it gives physical imagery to a connection between earth and the unseen “heavenly” plane. The area beneath the surface of the earth is often perceived as an “underworld,” a rather dangerous place where life goes on in a different way than on the surface.

Some theorists assert that in some cases these common symbols are not just logical associations with the natural world. Most notably, the psychologist Carl Jung (1875–1961) proposed that humanity as a whole has a collective uncon-

scious, a global psychic inheritance of archetypal symbols from which geographically separate cul- tures have drawn. These archetypes include such symbolic characters as the wise old man, the great mother, the original man and woman, the hero, the shadow, and the trickster.

Extended metaphors may be understood as allegories—narratives that use concrete symbols to convey abstract ideas. The biblical book attrib- uted to the Hebrew prophet Ezekiel, for instance, is full of such allegorical passages. In one he says that God’s spirit led him to a valley full of dry bones. As he watched and spoke as God told him, the bones developed flesh and muscles, became joined together into bodies, and rose to their feet. The voice of God in the scripture explains the allegorical meaning: the bones represent the people of Israel, who have been abandoned by their self-serving leaders and become scattered and preyed upon by wild beasts, like the sheep of uncaring shepherds. God promises to dismiss the shepherds, raise the fallen people and restore them to the land of Israel, where they will live peacefully under God’s protection (Ezekiel 34–37). Such allegories may assume great significance in a people’s self-understanding.


Symbols are also woven together into myths—the symbolic stories that communities use to explain the universe and their place within it. Like many cultures, Polynesians tell a myth of the world’s

{Teaching Story box deleted}

This symbolic representation of a World Tree comes from 18th-century Iran. It is conceived as a tree in Paradise, about which the Prophet Muhammad reportedly said, “God planted it with His own hand and breathed His spirit into it.”

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creation in which the world was initially covered with water and shrouded in darkness. When the Supreme Being, Io, wanted to rise from rest, he uttered words that immediately brought light into the darkness. Then at his word the waters and the heavens were separated, the land was shaped, and all beings were created. Myths may purport to explain how things came to be as they are, perhaps incorporating elements of historical truth, and in any case are treated as sacred history.

Joseph Campbell (1904–1987), who carried out extensive analysis of myths around the world, found that myths have four primary functions: mystical (evoking our awe, love, wonder, gratitude); cosmological (presenting expla- nations of the universe based on the existence and actions of spiritual powers or beings); sociological (adapting people to orderly social life, teaching ethical codes); and psychological (opening doors to inner exploration, development of one’s full potential, and adjustment to life cycle changes). Understood in these senses, myths are not falsehoods or the works of primitive imaginations; they can be deeply meaningful and transformational, forming a sacred belief structure that supports the laws and institutions of the religion and the ways of the community, as well as explaining the people’s place within the cosmos. Campbell paid particular attention to myths of the hero’s journey, in which the main character is separated from the group, undergoes hardships and initiation, and returns bearing truth to the people. Such stories, he felt, prepare and inspire the listener for the difficult inward journey that leads to spiritual transformation:

It is the business of mythology to reveal the specific dangers and techniques of the dark interior way from tragedy to comedy. Hence the incidents are fantastic and “unreal”: they represent psychological, not physical, triumphs. The passage of the mythological hero may be overground, [but] fundamentally it is inward—into depths where obscure resistances are overcome, and long lost, forgotten powers are revivified, to be made available for the transfiguration of the world.34

Absolutist and liberal responses to modernity How do absolutist and liberal interpretations of a tradition differ? Traditional religious understandings are under increasing pressure from the rap- idly growing phenomenon of globalization. Complex in its dynamics and mani- festations, globalization has been defined by Global Studies Professor Manfred Steger as “the expansion and intensification of social relations and conscious- ness across world-time and world-space.”35 Local cultures and community ties have rapidly given way to hybrid homogenized patterns that have evolved in countries such as the United States. “McDonaldization” of the world, fueled by ever faster and more accessible means of communication and transportation, transnational corporations, free trade, urbanization, and unrestrained capital- ism, has made deep inroads into traditional local cultural ways. As a result, there is increasing tension between those who want to preserve their traditional ways and values and those who open doors to change.

Within each faith people may thus have different ways of interpreting their traditions. The orthodox stand by an historical form of their religion, strictly following its established practices, laws, and creeds. Those who resist contem- porary influences and affirm what they perceive as the historical core of their religion could be called absolutists. In our times, many people feel that their identity as individuals or as members of an established group is threatened by the sweeping changes brought by modern global industrial culture. The breakup of family relationships, loss of geographic rootedness, decay of clear behavioral codes, and loss of local control may be very unsettling. To find a stable footing, to attempt to preserve their distinctive identity as a people in the face of modernity and secularization, some people may try to stand on selected religious doctrines

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or practices from the past. Religious leaders may encourage this trend toward rigidity by declaring themselves absolute authorities or by telling the people that their scriptures are literally and exclusively true. They may encourage antipathy or even violence against people of other religious traditions.

The term fundamentalism is often applied to this selective insistence on parts of a religious tradition and to highly negative views of people of other religions. This use of the term is misleading, for no religion is based on hatred of other peo- ple and because those who are labeled “fundamentalists” may not be engaged in a return to the true basics of their religion. A Muslim “fundamentalist” who insists on the veiling of women, for instance, does not draw this doctrine from the foundation of Islam, the Holy Qur’an, but rather from historical cultural practice in some Muslim countries. A Sikh “fundamentalist” who concentrates on externals, such as wearing a turban, sword, and steel bracelet, overlooks the central insistence of the Sikh Gurus on the inner rather than outer practice of religion.

A further problem with the use of the term “fundamentalism” is that it has a specifically Protestant Christian connotation. The Christian fundamentalist movement originated in the late nineteenth century as a reaction to liberal trends, such as historical-critical study of the Bible, which will be explained below. Other labels may, therefore, be more cross-culturally appropriate, such as “absolutist,” “extremist,” or “reactionary,” depending on the particular situation.

Those who are called religious liberals, also sometimes called progressives, take a more flexible approach to religious tradition. They may see scriptures as products of a specific culture and time rather than the eternal voice of truth, and may interpret passages metaphorically rather than literally. If activists, they may advocate reforms in the ways their religion is officially understood and practiced.

While absolutists tend to take their scriptures and received religious traditions as literally true, liberals have for several centuries been engaged in a different approach to understanding their own religions and those of others: historical- critical studies. These are academic attempts to reconstruct the historical life stories of prophets and their cultures as opposed to legends about them, and to subject their scriptures to objective analysis. Such academic study of religion neither accepts nor rejects the particular truth-claims of any religion.

Non-faith-based methods of exegesis (critical explanation or interpretation of texts) reveal that “sacred” scriptures may include polemics against opponents of the religion, myths, cultural influences, ethical instruction, later interpola- tions, mistakes by copyists, literary devices, factual history, and genuine spiritual

Angels Weep

Wherever there is slaughter of innocent men, women, and children for the mere reason that they belong to another race, color, or nationality, or were born into a faith which the majority of them could never quite comprehend and hardly ever practice in its true spirit; wherever the fair name of religion is used as a veneer to hide overweening political ambition and bottomless greed, wherever the glory of Allah is sought to be proclaimed through the barrel of a gun; wherever piety becomes synonymous with rapacity, and morality cowers under the blight of expediency and compromise, wherever it be—in Yugoslavia or Algeria,

in Liberia, Chad, or the beautiful land of the Sudan, in Los Angeles or Abuja, in Kashmir or Conakry, in Colombo or Cotabato—there God is banished and Satan is triumphant, there the angels weep and the soul of man cringes; there in the name of God humans are dehumanized; and there the grace and beauty of life lie ravished and undone.

Dr. Syed Z. Abedin, Director of the Institute for Muslim Minority Affairs,

Jeddah, Saudi Arabia36

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inspiration. This process began with historical-critical study of the Bible at the end of the eighteenth century and has expanded to include scriptures of other traditions, such as the Holy Qur’an of Islam, the Dao de jing of Daoism, and Buddhist and Hindu texts.

One area of research is to try to determine the original or most reliable form of a particular text. Another focus is ferreting out the historical aspects of the text, with help from external sources such as archaeological findings, to determine the historical setting in which it was probably composed, its actual author or authors, and possible sources of its material, such as oral or written traditions. Such research may conclude that material about a certain period may have been written later and include perspectives from that later period, or that a text with one person’s name as author may actually be a collection of writings by differ- ent people. A third area of research asks, “What was the intended audience?” A fourth examines the language and meanings of the words. A fifth looks at whether a scripture or passage follows a particular literary form, such as poetry, legal code, miracle story, allegory, parable, hymn, narrative, or sayings. A sixth focuses on the redaction, or editing and organizing, of the scripture and the development of an authorized canon designed to speak not only to the local community but also to a wider audience. Yet another approach is to look at the scripture in terms of its universal and contemporary relevance, rather than its historicity.

Although such research attempts to be objective, it is not necessarily undertak- en with sceptical intentions. To the contrary, these forms of research are taught in many seminaries as ways of reconciling faith with reason. Nevertheless, such analyses may be seen as offensive and/or false by orthodox believers. In any case, they are not perfect, for there are gaps in the available data and they can be interpreted in various ways. Scriptures also serve different purposes in different traditions, and these differences must be understood.

The encounter between science and religion What major positions have emerged in the dialogue between science and religion? Like religion, science is also engaged in searching for universal principles that explain the facts of nature. The two approaches have influenced each other since ancient times, when they were not seen as separate endeavors. In both Asia and the West, there were continual attempts to understand reality as a whole.

Historical background

In ancient Greece, source of many “Western” ideas, a group of thinkers who are sometimes called “nature philosophers” tried to understand the world through their own perceptions of it. By contrast, Plato (c. 427–347 BCE) distrusted the testimony of the human senses. He thus made a series of distinctions: between what is perceived by the senses and what is accessible through reason, between body and soul, appearance and reality, objects and ideas. In Plato’s thought, the soul was superior to the body, and the activity of reason preferable to the dis- traction of the senses. This value judgment dominated Western thought through the Middle Ages, with its underlying belief that all of nature had been created by God for the sake of humanity.

In the seventeenth century, knowledge of nature became more secularized (that is, divorced from the sacred) as scientists developed models of the uni- verse as a giant machine. Its ways could be discovered by human reason, by studying its component parts and mathematically quantifying its characteristics. However, even in discovering such features, many scientists regarded them as the work of a divine Creator or Ruler. Isaac Newton (1642–1727), whose gravi- tational theory shaped modern physics, speculated that space is eternal because

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it is the emanation of “eternal and immutable being.” Drawing on biblical quo- tations, Newton argued that God exists everywhere, containing, discerning, and ruling all things.

During the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, rational ways of knowing were increasingly respected, with a concurrent growing scepticism toward claims of knowledge derived from such sources as divine revelation or illumi- nated inner wisdom. The sciences were viewed as progressive; some thinkers attacked institutionalized religions and dogma as superstitions. According to scientific materialism, which developed during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the supernatural is imaginary; only the material world is real.

The old unitary concepts of science and religion received another serious chal- lenge in 1859, when the naturalist Charles Darwin (1809–1882) published On the Origin of Species, a work that propounded the theory of evolution by natural selection. Darwin demonstrated that certain genetic mutations give an organism a competitive advantage over others of its species. As evolutionary biology has continued to develop since Darwin through genetic research, it shows that those carrying advantageous genes statistically produce more offspring that survive to breed themselves, so the percentage of the new gene gradually increases in the gene pool. Evolutionary studies are revealing more and more evidence of what appear to be gradual changes in organisms, as recorded in fossil records, foot- prints, and genetic records encoded in DNA. According to evolutionary biology theory, over great lengths of time such gradual changes have brought the devel- opment of all forms of life. The theory of natural selection directly contradicted a literal understanding of the biblical Book of Genesis, in which God is said to have created all life in only six days. By the end of the nineteenth century, all such beliefs of the Judeo-Christian tradition were being questioned.

Science and religion: recent developments

However, as science has progressed during the twentieth and twenty-first cen- turies, it has in some senses moved back toward a more nuanced understand- ing of religious belief. Science has always questioned its own assumptions and theories, and scientists have given up trying to find absolute certainties. From

Mapping of human DNA reveals that its six-and-a-half-foot- (two- meter-) long chain, carrying trillions of times more data than a computer chip, is super-dense, folding without tangles into the nucleus of a cell that is only one- fifth the width of a human hair.

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contemporary scientific research, it is clear that the cosmos is mind-boggling in its complexity and that what we perceive with our five senses is not ultimately real. For instance, the inertness and solidity of matter are only illusions. Each atom consists mostly of empty space with tiny particles whirling around in it. These subatomic particles—such as neutrons, protons, and electrons—cannot even be described as “things.” Theories of quantum mechanics, in trying to account for the tiniest particles of matter, uncovered the Uncertainty Principle: that the position and velocity of a subatomic particle cannot be simultaneously determined. These particles behave like energy as well as like matter, like waves as well as like particles. Their behaviors can best be described in terms of a dynamic, interdependent system that includes the observer. As physicist David Bohm (1917–1994) put it, “Everything interpenetrates everything.”37

Our own bodies appear relatively solid, but they are in a constant state of flux and interchange with the environment. Our eyes, ears, noses, tongues, and skin do not reveal absolute truths. Rather, our sensory organs may operate as filters, selecting from a multidimensional universe only those characteristics that we need to perceive in order to survive. Imagine how difficult it would be simply to walk across a street if we could see all the electromagnetic energy in the atmos- phere, such as X-rays, radio waves, gamma rays, and infrared and ultraviolet light, rather than only the small band of colors we see as the visible spectrum. Though the sky of a starry night appears vast to the naked eye, the giant Hubble telescope placed in space has revealed an incomprehensibly immense cosmos whose limits have not been found. It contains matter-gobbling black holes, vast starmaking clusters, intergalactic collisions, and cosmic events that happened billions of years ago, so far away that their light is only now being captured by

The Hubble space telescope reveals an unimaginably vast cosmos, with billions of galaxies in continual flux. The Eagle nebula shown here is giving birth to new stars in “pillars of creation” which are six trillion miles (ten trillion kilometers) high.

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the most powerful instruments we have for examining what lies far beyond our small place in this galaxy. We know that more lies beyond what we have yet been able to measure. And even our ability to conceive of what we cannot sense may perhaps be limited by the way the human brain is organized.

As science continues to question its own assumptions, various new hypoth- eses are being suggested about the nature of the universe. “Superstring theory” proposes that the universe may not be made of particles at all, but rather of tiny vibrating strings and loops of strings. According to superstring theory, whereas we think we are living in four dimensions of space and time, there may be at least ten dimensions, with the unperceived dimensions “curled up” or “compact- ified” within the four dimensions that we can perceive. According to another current theory, the cosmos is like a soccer ball, a finite closed system with many facets.

New branches of science are finding that the universe is not always pre- dictable, nor does it always operate according to human notions of cause and effect. Physicist Murray Gell-Mann says that we are “a small speck of creation believing it is capable of comprehending the whole.”38 And whereas scientific models of the universe were until recently based on the assumption of stability and equilibrium, physicist Ilya Prigogine observes that “today we see instability, fluctuations, irreversibility at every level.”39

Physicist Hans-Peter Dürr, winner of the Right Livelihood Award (often described as the “Alternative Nobel Prize”), describes the dilemma that these discoveries pose to human understanding:

We found out that matter is not existent. At the beginning, there is only something which changes. How can something which is in-between create something which can be grasped? … We are part of the same organism which we cannot talk about. If I explain it, try to catch it with language, I destroy it. The Creation and the Creator cannot be seen as separate. There is only oneness.40

The most beautiful and profound emotion that we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms—this knowledge, this feeling is at the center of true religiousness. … A human being is part of the whole. … He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. … Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures, and the whole [of] nature in its beauty.

Albert Einstein41

In the work of physicists such as David Bohm, physics approaches metaphysics—philosophy based on theories of subtle realities that transcend the physical world. Bohm described the dimensions we see and think of as “real” as the explicate order. Behind it lies the implicate order, in which separateness resolves into unbroken wholeness. Beyond may lie other subtle dimensions, all merging into an infinite ground that unfolds itself as light. This scientific theory is very similar to descriptions by mystics from all cultures about their intuitive experiences of the cosmos. They speak of realities beyond normal human perceptions of space and time. The Hindu term “Brahma,” for instance, means “vast”—a vastness perceived by sages as infinite dimensions of a Supreme Consciousness that started without any material and then Itself became the Creation. In the realization of Guru Nanak, first of the Sikh Gurus, God is “Akal Murat”—Reality that transcends time.

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When Science Approaches Religion

Theoretical physicist Paul Davies (b. 1946) has won the Templeton Prize, a prestigious international award for contribution to thinking about religion. He suggests that science approaches religion when it asks fundamental questions:

If you are a biologist and you get stuck, you might go to a chemist to help you out. If a chemist gets stuck, you might get a physicist. If you’re a physicist and you get stuck, there’s nowhere to go except theology, because physics is the most basic science. It’s at the base of the explanatory pyramid upon which everything else is built. It deals with the fundamental laws of nature. And that inevitably prompts us to ask questions like, “Why those laws? Where have they come from? Why are they mathematical? What does it mean? Could they be different?” Clearly these are questions on the borderline between science and philosophy, or science and theology. The early scientists perceived this natural order and its hidden mathematical content, and they thought it derived from a creator-being. What happened in the centuries that followed was that science accepted the existence of a real order in nature. You can’t be a scientist if you don’t believe that there is some sort of order that is at least in part comprehensible to us. So you have to make two enormous assumptions—which don’t have to be right. But to be a scientist, you’ve got to believe they’re true. First, that there is a rational order in nature. Second, that we can come to understand nature, at least in part. What an extraordinary thing this is to believe in! There is a rational, comprehensible order in nature. Science asserts that the world isn’t arbitrary or absurd. If I use the word “God,” it is not in the sense of a super-being who has existed for all eternity and, like a cosmic magician, brings the universe into being at some moment in time on a whimsical basis. When I

refer to “God,” it is in the sense of the rational ground in which the whole scientific enterprise is rooted. The God I’m referring to is not really a person or a being in the usual sense. In particular, it is something that is outside of time. That is a very significant issue, and one on which there can be a very fruitful exchange, in my opinion, between physics and philosophy. Almost all of my physics colleagues, and scientists from other disciplines, even if they would cast themselves as militant atheists, are deeply inspired by the wonder, the beauty, the ingenuity of nature, and the underlying, law-like mathematical order. It could be that there are some things that are simply going to be forever beyond scientific enquiry—not because we’re lacking the money or the expertise or something of that sort, but because there are inherent limits to how far rational enquiry can take us. If science leaves us with mystery, is there a way that we can come to know about the world, about existence, not through scientific enquiry but through some other method? I’m open-minded as to whether that is the case. I’m talking here about revelatory or mystical experiences, where somehow the answer is grasped—not through rational enquiry, nor through experimentation, but by “knowing” in some internal sense. Nothing I have said deals with the sort of issues we struggle with in daily life, which are ethical and moral issues. The weakness of restricting to a God who’s just some sort of abstract, mathematical, rational ground for the world is that it doesn’t provide us with any sort of moral guidance. Most people turn to religion not because they want to understand how the universe is put together, but because they want to understand how their own lives are put together, and what they should do next. You don’t go to a physicist to ask about right and wrong.42


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Science is moving beyond its earlier mechanical models toward more dynam- ic biological models. For instance, James Lovelock has proposed the Gaia Theory of the earth as a complex, self-regulating organism of sorts, but he does not see it as the work of any Grand Planner. He explains:

Gaia theory sees the earth as a complete system made up of all the living things. … The whole of that constitutes a single system that regulates itself, keeps the climate constant and comfortable for life, keeps the chemical composition of the atmosphere so that it’s always breathable. [The earth] is not alive like an animal. What I am implying is alive in the sense of being able to regulate itself. It’s a system that evolved automatically, without any purpose, foresight, or anything. It just happened and has been in existence now for about three and a half to four billion years.43

In the United States, the conservative Christian community has objected to mechanistic scientific theories of biological evolution, preferring Creationism, the concept of intentional divine creation of all life forms. Intelligent design theory has been cited to support the religious concept of Creationism. According to intelligent design theorists, scientific discoveries of the complexities and per- fections of life can be said to prove the existence of an Intelligent Designer. For instance, if the weak force in the nucleus of an atom were a small fraction weak- er, there would be no hydrogen in the universe—and thus no water. Biologists find that the natural world is an intricate harmony of beautifully elaborated, interrelated parts. Even to produce the miniature propeller that allows a tiny bacterium to swim, some forty different proteins are required.

The intelligent design movement concludes that there must be a Creator. However, science is a method of proposing testable hypotheses and testing them, whereas the intelligent-design hypothesis is not testable. In 2005, the judge in a landmark case in Dover, Pennsylvania, ruled that intelligent design could not be recommended to ninth-grade biology students because intelligent design does not qualify as science—unless the definition of science is changed to include supernatural explanations—and because the First Amendment of the Constitution prevents government officials from imposing any particular religion or religious belief.

In the current dialogue between science and religion, four general positions have emerged. One is a conflict model, which is most apparent in issues such as creation, with some scientists rejecting any form of supernatural agency and some religionists holding onto faith in a Creator God whose existence cannot be proved by scientific method. A second position is that science and religion deal with separate realms. That is, religions deal with matters such as morality, hope, answers to philosophical questions (“Why are we here?”), and ideas about life after death, whereas science deals with quantifiable physical reality. In this posi- tion, a person can live with “two truths,” and neither side is required to venture into the other’s domain. A third position is that of dialogue, in which scientists and religious believers can find common ground in interpreting religious propo- sitions as metaphors and bases for the moral use of scientific research. Claims to absolute truth are softened on each side. A fourth position is that of integration, in which science and religion overlap. One example is illustrated by the boxed excerpt from physicist Paul Davies; another is what is sometimes called “creation theology,” referring to scientific enquiries by people who believe in a creative deity or deities. Environmentalist Ellen Bernstein explains this exploration from a Jewish perspective:

Creation theology refers to any kind of reflection on God and the world as a whole, or the elements of the world. It is interested in the nature of nature, and the nature of humanity, and the interplay of the two. It understands God as the continual, creative Presence in the world. … Jews who accept the logic of evolution theory should be relieved to learn that embracing a theology of creation in no way requires a suspension of rational thought or scientific integrity.44

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At the cutting edge of research, scientists themselves find they have no ultimate answers that can be expressed in scientific terms.

Women in religions How are women today challenging the patriarchal nature of many institutionalized religions? Another long-standing issue in the sphere of religion is the exclusion of women in male-dominated systems. Most institutionalized religions are patriarchal, meaning that men lead like father figures. Women are often relegated to the fringes of religious organizations, given only supporting roles, thus reflecting existing social distinctions between men and women. In some cases, women are even considered incapable of spiritual realization or dangerous to men’s spiritual lives. Founders of religion have in many cases attempted to temper cultural restraints on women. Jesus, for example, apparently included women among his close disciples, and the Prophet Muhammad gave much more respect to women than had been customary in the surrounding culture. However, after the found- ers, the institutions that developed often reverted to exclusion and oppression of women, sometimes giving a religious stamp of approval to gender imbalances.

Although women are still barred from equal spiritual footing with men in many religions, this situation is now being widely challenged. The contemporary feminist movement includes strong efforts to make women’s voices heard in the sphere of religion. Women are trying to discover their own identity, rather than having their identities defined by others, and to develop full, purposeful lives for themselves and their families. Scholars are bringing to light the histories of many women who have been religious leaders. Feminists are challenging patriarchal religious institutions that have excluded women from active participation. They are also challenging gender-exclusive language in holy texts and authoritarian masculine images of the divine. Their protests also go beyond gender issues to question the narrow and confining ways in which religious inspiration has been institutionalized. Many Buddhist centers in the West and some in Asia are run by women, and female scholars are having a major impact on the ways that

Even when denied access to public leadership roles in religions, women have been spiritually influential as mothers, nurses, Sunday-school teachers, and the like.

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Buddhist teachings are being understood. At prestigious Christian seminaries in the United States, women preparing for the ministry now outnumber men and are radically transforming views of religion and religious practice. Many women are deeply concerned about social ills of our times—violence, poverty, ecological disaster—and are insisting that religions be actively engaged in ensuring human survival, and that they be life-affirming rather than punitive in approach.

Even in traditional roles, women are redefining themselves as important spiritual actors. Buddhist practitioner Jacqueline Kramer observes:

The life occupation of mothering and homemaking has been both glorified and demeaned, but seldom has it been seen as the valid spiritual path it can be. Yet, the practices the mothers engage in, day in and day out—selfless service, generosity, letting go, developing a deep love for all beings, patience, faith, and mindfulness—are the way of practice for monks and nuns of all the world’s wisdom traditions.45

Negative aspects of organized religions What factors contribute to the negative aspects of organized religions? Tragically, religions have often split rather than unified humanity, have oppressed rather than freed, have terrified rather than inspired. Institutionalization of reli- gion is part of the problem. As institutionalized religions spread the teachings of their founders, there is the danger that more energy will go into preserving the outer form of the tradition than into maintaining its inner spirit. Max Weber (1864–1920), an influential early twentieth-century scholar of the sociology of religion, referred to this process as the “routinization of charisma.” Charisma is the rare quality of personal magnetism often ascribed to founders of religion. When the founder dies, the center of the movement may shift to those who turn the original inspirations into routine rituals, dogma, and organizational structures.

Since the human needs that religions answer are so strong, those who hold religious power are in a position to dominate and control their followers. In fact, in many religions leaders are given this authority to guide people’s spiritual lives, for their perceived wisdom and special access to the sacred are valued. Because religions involve the unseen, the mysterious, these leaders’ teachings are not verifiable by everyday physical experience. They must more often be accepted on faith and it is possible to surrender to leaders who are misguided or unethi- cal. Some religious leaders have used the power of their positions to exploit their followers financially, physically, or emotionally. Religious leaders, like sec- ular leaders, may not be honest with themselves and others about their inner motives. They may mistake their own thoughts and desires for divine guidance.

Another potential problem is exaggeration of guilt. Religions try to help us make ethical choices in our lives, to develop a moral conscience. But in people who already have perfectionist or paranoid tendencies, the fear of sinning and being punished can be exaggerated to the point of neurosis or even psychosis by blaming, punishment-oriented religious teachings. If people try to leave their religion for the sake of their mental health, they may be haunted with guilt that they have done a terribly wrong thing. Religions thus have the potential for wreaking psychological havoc on their followers.

Still another potentially negative use of religion is escapism. Because some religions, particularly those that developed in Asia, offer a state of blissful con- templation as the reward for spiritual practice, the faithful may use religion to escape from their everyday problems. Psychologist John Welwood observes that Westerners sometimes embrace Asian religions with the unconscious motive of avoiding their unsatisfactory lives. He calls this attempt “spiritual bypassing.”

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Because religions can exert such a strong hold on their followers—by their fears, their desires, their deep beliefs—they are potential centers for political power. When Church and state are one, the belief that the dominant national religion is the only true religion may be used to oppress those of other beliefs within the country. Religion may also be used as a rallying point for wars against other nations, casting the desire for control as a holy motive. Throughout histo- ry, huge numbers of people have been killed in the name of eradicating “false” religions and replacing them with the “true” religion. Rather than uniting us all in bonds of love, harmony, and mutual respect, this approach has often divided us with barriers of hatred and intolerance.

In our times, dangerous politicized polarizations between religions are increasing in some areas, albeit cooling off in others. Some of the most worri- some conflicts are pitting Christians and Jews against Muslims to such an extent that some have predicted a catastrophic “clash of civilizations.” No religion has ever sanctioned violence against innocent people, but such political clashes have given a holy aura to doing just that, posing a grave threat to life and peace. Sadism, terrorism, wars over land and resources, political oppression, and envi- ronmental destruction can all be given a thin veneer of religious sanctification, thus obscuring their evil aspects.

His Highness the Aga Khan, spiritual leader of Isma’ili Shi’a Muslims, main- tains that the real problem today is a “clash of ignorance.”46 This is not the time to think of the world in terms of superficial, rigid distinctions between “us” and “them.” It is the time when we must try to understand each other’s beliefs and feelings clearly, carefully, and compassionately, and bring truly religious respons- es into play. To take such a journey does not mean forsaking our own religious beliefs or our scepticism. But the journey is likely to broaden our perspective and thus bring us closer to understanding other members of our human family.

Lenses for studying religions How can the study of religions be approached?

Scholars of different disciplines have their own lenses through which they attempt to describe and explain religions. Some studies focus on the history of religious institutions; others may address the psychological experience of reli- gion. Some scholars devote themselves to the careful study of religious texts, while others conduct their research by observing religious practices. Some scholars have explored one particular religion deeply; others have sought to compare themes, concepts, and practices across different religions. In recent years, scholars have used feminist critical approaches to explore how religions have defined gender; they have used postcolonial theories to investigate how the experience of colonialism and imperialism has continued to have an impact on some religions; scholars interested in issues of gender and sexuality have focused on how religious texts and ideologies have helped to shape attitudes about gender expectations and sexual norms.

Regardless of the disciplinary lens or lenses that are used in studying religion, there are also important questions to ask about our own perspectives. Do we view our own religion through the same lens as we view others? Is it possible to be objective about one’s own religion, or about the religions of others? Is it indeed possible to be completely objective about religion as we study it? To what extent might our own beliefs and practices affect our ability to understand those of others? Are accounts that come from inside or outside a religion more relia- ble? Should we strive for empathy, or adopt a more critical approach? These are complex questions to which there may not be definitive answers, but they are very important questions to keep in mind as we undertake our study of living religions. In addition to exploring various scholarly perspectives, we will try to listen carefully to individuals of all faiths as they tell their own stories.

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Key terms absolutist Believing in one’s received traditions as completely and exclusively true. agnosticism Belief that if there is anything beyond this life it is impossible for humans

to know it. allegory Narrative using symbols to convey abstract ideas. atheism Belief that there is no deity. awakening Full awareness of invisible Reality. charisma Magnetic attraction, a quality often ascribed to spiritual leaders. comparative religion A discipline that attempts to compare and understand patterns

found in different religious traditions. Creationism Belief that all life was created by God. dogma Doctrines proclaimed as absolutely true by religious institutions. enlightenment Wisdom that is thought to come from direct experience of Ultimate

Reality. exclusivism Belief that one’s own tradition is the only true religion and that others are

invalid. fundamentalism Insistence on what is perceived as the historical form of one’s religion. gnosis Intuitive knowledge of spiritual realities. humanism An approach to life focusing on humans’ responsibility to lead ethical lives

without belief in the supernatural. immanent Present in the visible world. incarnation Physical embodiment of the divine. intelligent design Theory that scientific discoveries prove the existence of an all-

encompassing Designer, since they reveal complexities that seem to be beyond chance or evolutionary process.

liberal Taking a flexible, nondogmatic approach. metaphysics Philosophy based on theories of subtle realities that transcend the physical

world. monotheism Belief that there is only one deity. mysticism The intuitive perception of spiritual truths beyond the limits of reason. myth A symbolic story expressing ideas about reality or spiritual history. orthodox Strictly standing by received traditions. polytheism Belief that there are many deities. profane Worldly, secular, as opposed to sacred. realization Personal awareness of the existence of Unseen Reality. redaction Editing and organization of a religion’s scriptures. religion A particular response to dimensions of life considered sacred, as shaped by

institutionalized traditions. ritual Repeated, patterned religious act. sacred The realm of the extraordinary, beyond everyday perceptions, the supernatural,

holy. scientific materialism Belief that only the material world exists and that the

supernatural is only imagined by humans. secularism Personal disregard of religion; government policy of not favoring one

religion. spirituality Any personal response to dimensions of life that are considered sacred. symbol Visible representation of an invisible reality or concept. theism Belief in a deity or deities. transcendent Spiritual reality that exists apart from the material universe. universalism Acceptance that truth may be found in all religions.

Suggested reading Asad, Talal, Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam,

Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993. A fascinating study of the development of the concept of religion in the West.

Barbour, Ian. G., Religion and Science: Historical and Contemporary Issues, New York: HarperOne, 1997. Engaging, accessible introduction to past and present debates regarding religion and science.

Braun, Willi and Russell T. McCutcheon, eds, Guide to the Study of Religion, London: Cassell, 2000. A series of short articles on key topics in the study of religion, organized around the themes of description, explanation, and location.

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Browning, Don and M. Christian Green, eds, Sex, Marriage, and Family in World Religions, New York: Columbia University Press, 2009. A collection of primary texts with introductions outlining how the major world religions have addressed issues of sex and family.

Campbell, Joseph with Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth, New York: Doubleday, 1988. More brilliant comparisons of the world’s mythologies, with deep insights into their common psychological and spiritual truths.

Capra, Fritjof, The Tao of Physics, third edition, Boston: Shambhala, 1991. A fascinating comparison of the insights of Eastern religions and contemporary physics.

Carter, Robert E., ed., God, The Self, and Nothingness—Reflections: Eastern and Western, New York: Paragon House, 1990. Essays from major Eastern and Western scholars of religion on variant ways of experiencing and describing Ultimate Reality.

Dawkins, Richard, The God Delusion, Boston: Houghton Mifflin and London: Transworld (Bantam Press), 2006. Controversial arguments against belief in a personal God by a leading atheistic evolutionary biologist.

Eliade, Mircea, trans. Rosemary Sheed, Patterns in Comparative Religion, Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1958, 1996. A classic study of beliefs, rituals, symbols, and myths from around the world.

Eliade, Mircea, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion, New York: Harcourt, 1959. A good basic introduction to Eliade’s theories of sacred space and sacred time.

Fisher, Mary Pat, Women in Religion, New York: Pearson Longman, 2007. Many women’s stories and analysis of how each major religion has included or excluded them.

Fuller, Robert C., Spiritual But Not Religious, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. An introduction to an increasingly prominent trend.

Harris, Sam, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion, New York: Simon and Schuster, 2014. One of the leading “new atheists” argues that meditation can be valuable for those who otherwise reject religion.

Hick, John, An Interpretation of Religion, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992. A leading philosopher of religion offers a rational justification for seeing the major world religions as culturally conditioned forms of response to the great mystery of Being.

Juergensmeyer, Mark and Margo Kitts, eds, Princeton Readings in Religion and Violence, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011. A wide-ranging anthology of key readings on the relationship between religion and violence, from both scholars and religious texts.

King, Ursula, Women and Spirituality: Voices of Protest and Promise, second edition, University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993. Excellent cross-cultural survey of feminist theology and spiritual activism.

Marty, Martin E. and R. Scott Appleby, The Fundamentalism Project, five volumes, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991–2000. Scholarly analyses of fundamentalist phenomena in all religions and around the globe.

McCutcheon, Russell T., Manufacturing Religion: The Discourse on Sui Generis Religion and the Politics of Nostalgia, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. Critique of the comparative study of religions as isolated phenomena without social and historical contexts.

McGrath, Alister E., Dawkins’ God: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life, Oxford: Blackwell, 2005. A biochemist and Christian theologian refutes Richard Dawkins’s criticism of religion.

Otto, Rudolf, The Idea of the Holy, second edition, London: Oxford University Press, 1950. An important exploration of “nonrational” experiences of the divine.

Paden, William E., Interpreting the Sacred: Ways of Viewing Religion, Boston: Beacon Press, 1992. A gentle, readable introduction to the complexities of theoretical perspectives on religion.

Pals, Daniel L., Nine Theories of Religion, third edition, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. Accessible introduction to anthropological, sociological, and psychoanalytical theories of religion.

Sharma, Arvind, ed., Women in World Religions, Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1987. Analyses of the historical and contemporary place of women in each of the major religions.

Smart, Ninian, Worldviews: Crosscultural Explorations of Human Beliefs, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2000. In-depth exploration of many dimensions of religious ideologies that influence beliefs around the world.

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Stone, Merlin, When God was a Woman, San Diego, California: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976. Pioneering survey of archaeological evidence of the early religion of the Goddess.

Ward, Keith, God, Chance and Necessity, Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 1997. A leading Christian theologian critiques scientific theories that deny the existence of God.

Ward, Keith, The Case for Religion, Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2004. An attempt to justify and define religion in historical contexts and also contemporary understandings.

1.1 Explain what is meant by spirituality

The inner dimensions of religion, such as experiences, beliefs, and values, can be referred to as spirituality. This is part of what is called religion, but it may occur in personal, noninstitutional ways, without the ritual and social dimensions of organized religions.

1.2 Identify three perspectives used to explain the existence of religion

During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, scientific materialism gained prominence as a theory to explain the fact that religion can be found in some form in every culture around the world. The materialistic point of view is that the supernatural is invented by humans; only the material world exists.

According to the functional perspective, religions are found everywhere because they are useful, both for society and individuals. The faith perspective believes that there is an underlying reality that cannot readily be perceived. Human responses to this Ultimate Reality have been expressed and institution- alized as the structures of some religions.

1.3 Differentiate between monotheistic, polytheistic, and nontheistic

Religions based on one’s relationship to a Divine Being are called theistic. If the being is worshiped as a singular form, the religion is called monotheistic. If many attributes and forms of the divine are emphasized, the religion may be labeled polytheistic. In nontheistic traditions Ultimate Reality may be perceived without a personal deity or deities.

1.4 Explain the significance of rituals, symbols, and myths in religions

Rituals, such as recitation of prayers and scriptures, singing, dancing, sharing of food, lighting of candles, and making offerings, are the predictable and repeated acts used in worship to express reverence and perhaps to enter into communion with what is worshiped or to request help. Symbols are images borrowed from the material world; visible representations of an invisible reality or concept. Through the use of metaphor, they help connect believers with the Ultimate Reality. Myths are the symbolic stories that communities use to explain the universe and their place within it. They have four primary functions: mystical, cosmological, sociological, and psychological.

1.5 Contrast absolutist with liberal interpretations of a religious tradition

Within each faith people may have different ways of interpreting their tradition. Those who resist contemporary influences and affirm what they perceive as the historical core of their religion (selected doctrines and practices from the past) could be called absolutists. Such people are also sometimes called fundamen- talists, though this term is problematic. Those who are called religious liberals

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take a more flexible approach to religious tradition. They may see scriptures as products of a specific culture and time rather than the eternal voice of truth, and may interpret passages metaphorically rather than literally.

1.6 Discuss the major positions that have emerged in the dialogue between science and religion since the nineteenth century

In 1859 Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species propounded the theory of evolu- tion by natural selection and directly contradicted a literal understanding of the biblical Book of Genesis. As science has progressed, it has in some senses moved back to a more nuanced understanding of religious belief. It continues to ques- tion its own assumptions, with various new hypotheses being suggested about the nature of the universe. “Superstring theory” proposes that the universe may not be made of particles at all and that there may be at least ten dimensions of time and space. New branches of science are finding that the universe is not always predictable, nor does it always operate according to human notions of cause and effect.

In the United States, the conservative Christian community has objected to mechanistic scientific theories of biological evolution, preferring Creationism— the concept of intentional divine creation in all life forms. Intelligent design— the theory that scientific discoveries prove the existence of an all-encompassing Designer—has been cited in support of Creationism.

1.7 Describe how women are challenging the patriarchal nature of many institutionalized religions

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