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Chapter One
The Religious Response


This first unit introduces some basic questions that one must consider before embarking on a study of religion.

  • What do we mean by the term "religion?"
  • Why are there religions?
  • What are the main ways that people have understood God/ultimate reality?
  • What are the main ways that people have interpreted religious teachings?
  • What do we mean by worship, symbol or myth?


What is Religion? 

Actually, trying to define the term "religion" is a difficult task.  People tend to define things in terms of their own experiences and culture. For our purposes we can define religion in terms of its function ("what it does").  The term "religion" comes from the Latin religio meaning "to bind again" or "tie back." This definition suggests a "tying back" or connection to ultimate meanings and purposes - to that which we call Ultimate Reality or God.  While they have taken many forms, all religions share the goal of connecting people back to something greater than themselves.

Why are there Religions?

Why is religion a part of every culture in every time and place?  A number of answers have been suggested to explain why religion exists:

A.  Materialistic Answer:  The materialistic answer argues that only the material world exists.  Anything beyond the material world is consciously or unconsciously created by humanity.  Ludwig Feuerbach was an early advocated of this position.  More well known advocates included Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx.   According to Freud, religion is the psychological projection of people's fears and desires

“Religious ideas are not precipitates of experience or the end results of thinking: they are illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest and most urgent wishes of mankind.” 

The Future of an Illusion
Sigmund Freu

Karl Marx believed that religion was created by humanity for two purposes.  On the one hand, religious beliefs represent the unfulfilled longings of oppressed people for a better life.  On the other hand, religion is created by those in authority to maintain their power  and  to manipulate people

Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the sentiment of a heartless world. and the sold of soulless conditions.  It is the opium of the people . . . .

Karl Marx

B. Functional Perspective

The functional perspective argues that religion exists because it is useful. In particular, it meets the deep needs of society and individuals.   For example, sociologist Emile Durkheim argued that religion creates and maintains social order.  Psychologist Erich Fromm concluded that religion enhances person's mental health by providing stability and meaning.  Religion can fulfill one's desire for perfection, inner strength, and change.

The great scholar of comparative religions, Mircea Eliade believed that religion helped humanity find meaning in the midst of ordinary life.  He argued that there are basically two realms: the sacred and the profane.  The sacred is the realm of meaning from which the chaotic realm of the ordinary (profane) derives its meaning.   Religion helps us to seek out and find the extraordinary in the midst of the ordinary; the sacred in the midst of the profane.

C. Faith Perspective: 

Notice that the functional perspective does not really address the question of the truth of religious beliefs; rather it simply asserts that whatever its source, religion can play a positive role in promoting the well-being of society and individuals. In contrast, the faith perspective says that religions exists because God or Ultimate Reality really does exist. Religious belief springs from "mystical experience" that one cannot fully explain or articulate.

Notice that we use the phrase "God or Ultimate Reality."  As we encounter various religious traditions we will observe that not all religions have as their basis a belief in a personal deity.  For some religions such as Taoism, an impersonal force  is the "Ultimate Reality" that causes and sustains all things. For Theravada Buddhism, Ultimate Reality is the eternal cosmic law of karma to which even the gods are subject.

What are the main ways that people have understood God/ultimate reality?

"Ultimate Reality/God"  has been experienced and expressed in a variety of ways.  The study of religions uses a number of categories to help describe how people have experienced Ultimate Reality. Note that these categories of understanding are not mutually exclusive!

A. Immanent (present in the world)  OR Transcendent (above and outside the material universe)

B. Theistic (relational) OR or Non-theistic (non-personal)

C. Monotheistic (one God) OR polytheistic (many gods) OR monistic (multiple perceptions or manifestations of one substance)

D. Incarnations: (literally - "in flesh") God/Ultimate Reality is usually invisible, but on occasions appears in human form

E. Atheism - Belief that there is no God. Ultimate reality is the mundane.

F. Agnosticism:  "Impossible to know"

What do we mean by worship, symbol and myth?

Worship can be defined as "a dramatic gesture which attempts to express in outward form the reverence and awe which one experiences in response to Ultimate Reality." Worship can include rituals, sacraments prayers and other spiritual practices. 

Symbols are  "images borrowed from the material world which are similar to ineffable (inexpressible, indescribable) spiritual experiences." Symbols can include objects, places, persons and actions. Examples include:

  • sharing of food
  • use of fire/candles
  • water
  • sun

Symbols are intended to be experienced, not explained.  They are "multi-layered realities with many levels of meaning and significance."

B. Myths: stories based on symbols. Notice that we do not necessarily make any judgment about the historical accuracy of the story. The point is that myths are stories that for a community of adherents is eternally valid. They are stories that use symbols to express ultimate reality and basic truths for the believer. Types of myths include:

  • Stories that model behavior
  • Stories that explain how the world and its present order came to be (cosmogony)
  • Stories that explain how the present order will end or be superseded by an ideal order.

The individual most associated with the study of myth in the twentieth century was Joseph Campbell. Campbell believed that myths fulfilled basic social purposes such as helping people through life-cycle changes and incorporating the group's ethical codes.

What are the main ways that people have interpreted religious teachings?

Within each religious community there are different ways of interpreting its traditions. At least six models of interpretation can be identified:

A. Orthodox: adhere to an established, historical form of their religion

B. Absolutist - orthodox adherents who resist contemporary influences and affirm the "historical core" of their religion.

C. Fundamentalism - selective insistence on parts of a religious tradition. May include violence against people of other religions. 

D. Liberal: flexible approach to religious tradition; often advocate reform of ways religions is practiced, understood.

E. Heretics: those who assert positions or practices that are unacceptable to the orthodox

F. Mystics - guided by their own spiritual experiences. May or may not coincide with any of the above positions.  

How Do we Study Religion?

Academic study of religion requires us to "bracket" our own beliefs, at least temporarily, and to try to see the world from the point of view of the adherents of other faith traditions. This approach is often called phenomenology.  This approach tries to:
  • avoid "reductionism:" explaining religion as a purely historical, psychological, economic or political object. 
  • take seriously the meaning that a religious tradition has for its adherents.