Introduction to the Study of Religion

I. What is “Religion”?
According to Living Religions, 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. (Living Religions, 2) A more complete definition is provided in the Key terms” section at the end of the chapter:
A particular response to dimensions of life considered sacred, as shaped by institutionalized traditions. (Living Religions, 28)

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.” (Living Religions, 3)


According to the 1990 edition of the Cambridge Encyclopedia, “no single definition will suffice to encompass the varied sets of traditions, practices, and ideas which constitute different religions” (, in which case it may simply be impossible to develop a universally acceptable definition of religion. A potential solution to this problem might be to focus on commonly occurring attributes of religious traditions, such as:
Religious Belief
• revealed and/or discovered truths regarding the origin and meaning of life
belief in (a) supernatural being(s) and some sort of afterlife
conceptual foundations for religious practices and experiences
Religious Practice
an institutionalized body with the authority to regulate and perform religious rituals
a community that engages in individual and/or group practices
normative patterns of moral conduct
Religious Experience
a conceptual understanding of normative religious experiences
rituals/practices intended to produce such experiences
subjective experiences of the sacred and/or mystical experiences
From this perspective, a tradition that possesses a majority of these attributes might be classified as a religion (which is to say that the absence of one or two attributes would not preclude a tradition from being regarded as a religion).

II. Why Are There Religions?
Perspectives on the Origin of Religion
Cultural anthropologists, sociologists, philosophers, psychologists, and even biologists have peered at religion through their own particular lenses, trying to explain what religion is, [as well as] its function and purpose ... . [The following are three] of the major theories that have evolved. They are not mutually exclusive. (Living Religions, 5)
(i) The Faith Perspective
Religion is a Human Response to an Ultimate Reality
From the point of view of religious faith, there truly is an underlying reality that cannot readily be perceived. ... 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. (Living Religions, 9)
To perceive truth directly, beyond the senses, beyond the limits of human reason, beyond blind belief, is often called mysticism. ... 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. (Living Religions, 9)

An alternative kind of spiritual experience brings one into contact with what the German professor of theology Rudolph Otto (1869-1937) called the Wholly Other.’ Otto referred to this as numinous — a nonrational, nonsensory experience of that which is totally outside the self and cannot be described. ... 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. (Living Religions, 11)
(ii) The Materialist Perspective
There is no Ultimate Reality ~ 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. (Living Religions, 5)

Sigmund Freud: “Religious ideas ... are not precipitates of experience or end-results of thinking: they are illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest and most urgent wishes of mankind. ... Thus the benevolent rule of a divine Providence allays our fear of the dangers of life; the establishment of a moral world-order ensures the fulfillment of the demands of justice, which have so often remained unfulfilled in human civilization; and the promulgation of earthly existence in a future life provides the local and temporal framework in which these wish-fulfillments shall take place. ... It is an enormous relief to the individual psyche if the conflicts of its childhood arising from the father complex — conflicts which it has never wholly overcome — are removed from it and brought to a solution which is universally accepted.” (Anthology of Living Religions, 9-10; cf. Living Religions, 5)

Karl Marx: “Man makes religion: religion does not make man. ... 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.” (Living Religions, 5)
Friedrich Nietzsche: “‘Whither is God?’ he cried. ‘I shall tell you! We have killed him — you and I. We are all his murderers! ... God is Dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, the murderers of all murderers, comfort ourselves? What was holiest and most powerful of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives. Who will wipe this blood off us? ... Must we not ourselves become gods simply to seem worthy of it?” (Anthology of Living Religions, 12)

(iii) The Functional Perspective
Humans Create Religions Because They Are 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. (Living Religions, 6) In short, religions provide insightful answers to fundamental human questions such as:
Who are we?
Why are we here?
Why is there suffering?
How should we treat others?
How can we reach our potential?
What happens after we die?

III. Why Should We Study Religion?

“Traditional cultures and religions naturally assumed their own points of view to be absolute. They did not understand their standpoints to be versions of the world alongside others. One’s own religious beliefs seemed so widely accepted and self-evidently true that they were taken not as one of several descriptions of reality, but simply as the description of reality itself.” (William E. Paden in Anthology of Living Religions (1st Edition), 2)
  • What has changed in our world that has challenged “traditional” assumptions regarding the absoluteness of one’s own religious tradition?

IV. How Should We Study Religion?
“As a descriptive enterprise, the comparative study of religion tries to proceed without the interpretive bias of any particular religious or antireligious position. Rather than looking at religion as something right or wrong, it looks at it as a type of experience, behavior, and symbol system. Religion is therefore seen as a phenomenon. ... The comparative attitude therefore calls for a dispassionate capacity to comprehend and explain other people’s experience of their worlds without interjecting one’s own preferences. One must ‘bracket off’ one’s own concepts of how the world ought to be organized in order to listen to how others configure it, and temporarily set aside what the world means to oneself in order to gain access to what the world means to others.” (William E. Paden in Anthology of Living Religions (1st Edition), 5)
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of this phenomonological approach to the study of religion?
  • How does it compare with other possible approaches that might be adopted?

Science, Rationality & Religion
In the seventeenth century, knowledge of nature became more secularized (that is, divorced from the sacred) as scientists developed models of the universe 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. ... The old unitary concepts of science and religion received another serious challenge in 1859, when the naturalist Charles Darwin (1809-1882) published 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. .... 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. (Living Religions, 19-20)
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 position, 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 propositions 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 ... what is sometimes called creation theology, referring to scientific enquiries by people who believe in a creative deity or deities. (Living Religions, 24)

Absolutists and Liberals
Within each faith people often 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 contemporary 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 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 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 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 people and because those who are labeled “fundamentalists” may not be engaged in a return to the true basics of their religion. ...
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. ...
While absolutists tend to take their scriptures and received religious traditions as literally and absolutely true, liberals have for several centuries been engaged in a different approach to understanding their own religions and those of others .... Non-faith-based methods of exegesis (critical explanation or interpretation of texts) revealthat “sacred” scriptures may include  polemics against opponents of the religion, myths, cultural influences, ethical instruction, later interpolations, mistakes by copyists, literary devices, factual history, and genuine spiritual inspiration. ... Although such research attempts to be objective, it is not necessarily undertaken with sceptical intentions. To the contrary, these forms of research are taught in many seminaries as ways of reconciling faith with reason. ( Living Religions, 17-9)
  • Are the liberals right and the absolutists wrong? Or do the absolutists have an acceptable religious perspective? Indeed, can a religious perspective ever be deemed unacceptableand if so, on what grounds?

I. A Not-So-Random Universe
Patrick Glynn
…The fine-tuning of seemingly heterogeneous values and ratios necessary to get from the big bang to life as we know it involves intricate coordination over vast differences in scale — from the galactic level down to the subatomic one — and across multi-billion-year tracts of time. Hoyle, who coined the term “big bang,” has questioned the very legitimacy of the metaphor of an initial “explosion.” “An explosion in a junkyard does not lead to sundry bits of metal being assembled into a useful working machine,” he writes. The more physicists have learned about the universe, the more it looks like a put-up job.
       The great modern era…is at an end. It is truly justifiable to speak of our current period as the “postmodern age.” And there is every reason to suppose that this postmodern age will also be postsecular, since the original philosophical assumptions underpinning the modern secular worldview have been shattered — ironically enough, by science itself….
       The barrier that modern science appeared to erect to faith has fallen. Of course, the anthropic principle tells us nothing about the Person of God or the existence of an afterlife; it has nothing to say about such issues as right or wrong or the “problem of evil.” But it does offer as strong an indication as reason and science alone could be expected to provide that God exists. (Anthology of Living Religions, 19)
  • Is this a convincing argument for the existence of God?
  • How does this argument affect the traditional interpretation of Genesis in the Judeo-Christian tradition? What are the broader implications of reinterpreting the “literal” meaning of the bible to accommodate science and rationality?
  • Does this argument imply a monotheistic conception of God, or is it consistent with the existence of many gods? Does it support some religious traditions more than others, or is it potentially consistent with all religions?
II. The New Polytheism
David Miller

Religiously, polytheism is the worship of many gods and goddesses. Though monotheism in its exclusive forms — say, in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam — rules out the possibility of polytheism in religion, polytheism, in a curious way, includes a monotheism of sorts. The great polytheist cultures — Greek, Hindu, Egyptian, Mesopotamian, American Indian — have in actual practice been composed of communities of men and women who worship one God or Goddess, or at least they worship one at a time — Athena, Vishnu, Ra, Baal, Wakan Tanka. The theologies of these peoples, however, affirm the reality and the worship of many. This implies that a polytheistic religion is actually a polytheistic theology, a system of symbolizing reality in a plural way in order to account for all experience, but that the religious practice is composed of consecutive monotheisms. Similarly, it would seem possible that one might profess a monotheistic faith, but need a polytheistic theology to account for all of one’s experiences in the life-context of that faith. (Anthology of Living Religions, 15)
  • What does Miller mean by “polytheism” and in what sense can it include the notion of “monotheism”?
  • What would the implications of such a “polytheistic theology be with regard to a monotheistic tradition such as Judaism, Christianity, or Islam?
  • Do you think that contemporary monotheistic traditions are capable of adopting such a polytheistic conception of “the Divine”? What are the implications of rejecting such a position?
III. The Ground of Being
Tarthang Tulku

All of us are part of being; we are being. Our total life experience is this being, this ground, which embraces all of existence. Nirvana [in Buddhism, the cessation of suffering, attained through spiritual awakening] and samsara [the endless round of bodily reincarnations in this world, with all its illusions] are both manifested within this ground level. The more we understand this, the more life becomes rich and fulfilling. We see that this ground of being is totally open; everything is manifest there. Nothing can destroy this openness. Meditation enables us to remain at this ground state for long periods of time. ... But once we are skilled at perceiving the arising and flowing of thought, we are able to go beyond this level of perception, to experience a level that is similar to the fresh perception of childhood. We are able to directly experience mind as a process. When we can soar, when we can transmute the quality of the mind, then we approach genuine freedom.(Anthology of Living Religions, 16)
  • What does Tarthang Tulku mean by the statement: “All of us are part of being; we are being. Our total life experience is this being, this ground, which embraces all of existence”?
  • Do you think it is possible to attain a direct realization of this “unity of being” — a state in which “genuine freedom” is fully realized?
  • Is this perspective “rational” or does it rely primarily on “religious faith”?
  • Is this perspective consistent with the major religious traditions of the West — Judaism, Christianity and Islam?

IV. The Image of God as Dominating Other
Judith Plaskow
It is not simply male metaphors that need to be broken ... but also the larger picture of who God is. ... The God of Jewish liturgy is a king robed in majesty, a merciful but probing father, and master of the world. His sovereign Otherness is elaborated extensively: his dominion over creation, his control of history past and future, his revenge against his enemies, his power over the human soul. ... The notion of God as dominating Other finds quintessential expression in the image of the holy warrior who punishes the wicked with destruction and death. The God who hears the groaning of his people in Egypt is a fighter more powerful than all the armies of Pharaoh, a God whose army can destroy the Egyptians, drowning them in the seas (Exodus 15). When Israel enters the promised land, God is present in his ark at the head of its marching armies, giving military victory over city after city (Joshua). Hardening the hearts of the local people, God ensures that they “should receive no mercy” but be “utterly destroyed” (Joshua 11:20). ... Metaphors of sovereignty, lordship, kingship, and judicial and military power evoke images of arbitrary and autocratic rule tha have been rejected in the human political sphere at the same time they live on in religious language. If the image of God as male provides religious support for male dominance in society, the image of God as supreme Other would seem to legitimate dominance of any kind. God as ruler and king of the universe is the pinnacle of a vast hierarchy that extends from God “himself” to angels/men/women/children/animals and finally the earth. As hierarchical ruler, God is a model for the many schemes of dominance that human beings create for themselves. (Anthology of Living Religions, 30-1)
  • What is the main point that the author is making?
  • Do you think that God is male, female, both or neither?
  • Do we possess the liberty to change how we think about God, or are the sacred depictions of God from the past immutable?
  • Is there a place for the feminine in a contemporary Judeo-Christian-Islamic theology?
Final Question
What are the implications of these four passages with regard to the pluralistic world of religion in which we live? Do they open up possibilities for interfaith dialogue and if so, how?