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2.2: What Is Religion?

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    Religious phenomena include an incredible diversity of objects (e.g., a Native American "medicine bundle," a Roman Catholic priest's stole [an essential part of his attire as a priest], an image of the Hindu goddess Durga); places (e.g., a Japanese Shinto shrine, the location of the Budda's enlightenment, a traditional Chinese family gravesite); practices (e.g., a group of Evangelical Christians singing a devotional song, the giving of tzedekah [a charitable contribution] by an Orthodox Jew to a needy person, a Hindu making an offering of clarified butter into the home fire [referred to in Hinduism as "the mouth of the gods"]); experiences (e.g., the insight of a student of Muslim theology into the absolute sovereignty of Allah, being "slain in the Spirit" by a Pentecostal Christian, a Hindu yogi's attainment of ekagrata [one pointed concentration] in which the distinction between subject and object is overcome); beliefs (e.g., that Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead, that Ali was the rightful successor to Muhammad and true heir of Muhammad's wilaya [spiritual discernment], that the true Dao [or Tao] 6 is nameless, ageless, and the womb of all things); and, of course, stories, among many other sorts of things. Being religious, being characterized by the quality that distinguishes what people readily identify as religious namely, the sacred such phenomena have something to do with what is felt by participants (at least moderately sincere participants) to lie beyond the perspectives of ordinary human awareness and the mundane sphere of everyday life. These phenomena somehow refer participants to, and orient them with respect to, something that to their imagination lies beyond appearances, beyond what meets the eye and ear. For participants a religious phenomenon bears upon the conditions of life, upon the really real, upon that beyond which no further or higher appeal can be imagined, upon authority or cosmic bedrock, as it were, upon the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end of things, and, as well, upon what is of importance that is, the source of meaningful order, purpose, and value in life, and, in consequence, direction as to how life ought to be lived.

    For such a phenomenon to have a religious function and not merely be something associated with religion, it must, as far as participants' understanding is concerned, serve to put them in touch with the dimension of ultimacy, to connect and bring them into some kind of rapport with it some phenomena doing so in a more central way, some less so. The result will be to change or transform the participants' lives insofar as they will have been (re)connected with and brought (back) into rapport with what gives life meaning, purpose, and direction, with what gives it an basis or grounding. 7 The transformation will be all the more relevant, powerful, and compelling when participants come to it (the experience of transformation) in the midst of experiences that otherwise leave them with a sense of disconnection from that dimension of ultimacy, unsure about the purpose of life, and uncertain how they should respond. This promise of change or transformation is nicely illustrated by a quotation that the author once found on the back of a package of herbal tea:

    In Japan, a simple open gateway acts as a symbol to mark off the precincts of the shrine. In passing through it, one leaves behind psychologically and symbolically the humdrum ordinary world, and enters the sacred space of the temple. After worship, one again moves through the gate to re enter the realm of everyday life but as a renewed person. All peoples have set aside some place to serve as a sacred place, whether it be a mountain top, a garden, or a church [possibly an interior place found in meditation, or a sacred time, such as the Jewish Sabbath], so that it may represent and activate within them a Great Power another dimension of ultimate realityo. So, one is allowed time when truth, significance and worth are recognized and cultivated to be carried back into the ordinary world. 8

    In each religious tradition, not only outward forms differ, but what is deemed to be ly real is differently understood and imagined: the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the Holy Trinity, Allah, the Buddha Nature, Kr~Yfa, the Dao of Heaven and Earth, the Kami, Wakan tanka, or what have you. That there is some conception of an ultimate realityo and some conception as to how one should relate to it is generic to all religion. 9

    In what follows, when realty appears in italics, followed by a small circle (o) the phrase is meant to serve as a variable, to be filled in by the specific religious tradition in question. More specifically, ultimate realityo (capitalized or not, but always highlighted by italics and the small circle) will refer to whatever the people of a given tradition take to be the ground of meaning and purpose in life. Also is left open (to be filled in by the specific tradition) the question whether and to what extent the means of being put in touch with ultimate realityo is divinely given, awakened to by the founder of a tradition, or humanly contrived.

    The fact that each religion is oriented by a conception of ultimate realityo does not itself imply that each such notion refers to or characterizes the same thing or even the same kind of thing, let alone characterizes it equally well · contrary to the claims of some scholars writing as phenomenologists of religion. The theoretical framework of six ways of being religious does not assume that there is a single ultimate realityo' referred to by the different conceptions of ultimate realityo in all traditions, that there is a single sort of thing (a set of features in common) constituting what the different traditions respectively take to be ultimate realityo, or even that there exists anything outside the metaphysical function of ultimate realityo within specific religious traditions. The framework is deliberately articulated in such a way as to avoid begging all such metaphysical and theological questions. These are legitimate questions, worthy of serious investigation. The theory does not attempt to answer them, however. What it does assume is that any given religion possesses a system of symbols, beliefs, and practices through which access to ultimate realityo' (i.e., to what the tradition takes to be ly real) is alleged to be granted. By itself, the phenomenological study of religion is not competent to answer whether there really is an ultimate realityo or what its nature happens to be. Where the discipline presumes to resolve this question, it has overstepped its role and has implicitly, if not covertly, engaged in theologizing namely, given expression to a position of faith in an ultimate realityo (or faith that ly there is no such thing). Theology is a respectable activity in its place, but it should not pass itself off as having reached its conclusions on phenomenological grounds.

    The claim that each religion is oriented by some conception of ultimate realityo implies that within the world view of each religion there is a conception (or a set of concepts) that performs the same generic function of ultimacy, serving a foundational role within that religion's world view. The role of this function (or at least one of its roles) is to connect ultimate realityo and meaning, how things are, and how life therefore ought to be lived. Cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz had it right when he wrote that the heart of a religious perspective is

    the conviction that the values one holds are grounded in the inherent structure of ultimate realityo, that between the way one ought to live and the way things really are there is an unbreakable inner connection. What sacred symbols do for those to whom theyare sacred is to formulate an image of the world's construction [an image encompassing all that lies beyond the perspective of everyday experience, a more or lesscomprehensive world view] and a program for human conduct that are ... reflexesof one another. o10

    We can summarize what has been said so far in terms of some definitions.

    A religiousphenomenon may be defined generically as whatever (e.g., practice, symbol, object, person, encounter, experience, place, intention, doctrine, story, etc.) serves for a person or group of persons in some way to refer to, or connect them with, what they take to be ly real.

    A thing may be said to function religiously in the respect in which it serves for a participant as a means of drawing near to, and coming into right or appropriate relationship with, what is taken to be ultimate realityo.

    A religion may be generically defined as a system of symbols (e.g., words and gestures, stories and practices, objects and places) that function religiously, namely, an ongoing system of symbols that participants use to draw near to, and come into right or appropriate relationship with, what they deem to be ultimate realityo.

    A few comments on these definitions are in order before proceeding. (The phrase system ofsymbols, introduced in the definition of religion, will be taken up and clarified later on in the current chapter.)

    As definitions, these three are intended more to focus and explain the functional essence of religion as religion than to delimit the boundaries of what will and what will not count as religion. These definitions have been constructed on the basis of cultural phenomena conventionally recognized to be religious. Such cultural phenomena serve here as paradigm cases of what is religious. The point of the definitions is principally to draw out and comprehend what makes certain phenomena religious. Being phenomena of human culture, religions and religious phenomena will typically have many functions psychological, social, political, educational, aesthetic, and economic. But in addition to these functions, for participants who are at least moderately serious about their involvement in religion, the set of symbols, beliefs, and practices that make up a religion specifically have a religious function, the one identified above. The definitions, of course, may be used to delimit what will and what will not count as religion beyond conventionally recognized religions, and many nontraditional phenomena of human religiousness (i.e., phenomena that would not conventionally or traditionally be recognized as religious) can be identified and illuminated by means of them. However, again, it is not the so called boundary problem that concerns us here. It is rather the articulation of what it is about the functioning ofreligion as religion that allows for different ways of being religious.

    A related question often raised in connection with definitions of religion is whether all people are in some sense religious, whether they realize it or not. On the basis of the definitions offered above, strictly speaking, the answer would have to be no. Indeed, even sincerely religious people are frequently not particularly wholehearted or sincere in their involvement in religious practices sometimes despite their best intentions. It is quite apparent that not all people, and certainly not all modern Westernized people, are convinced of the existence beyond the perspectives of ordinary human awareness of an ultimate realityo that is a ground of worth, meaning, and purpose, or deliberately seek to orient their lives in relation to an ultimate realityo. And even in so called "primitive" cultures, anthropologists occasionally point out how there often appear to be a few skeptics and relatively nonserious participants in relation to the religious practices of the culture who, to the extent they are involved, are involved more for the sake of nonreligious functions, or solely for their sake, than specifically for drawing near to, and coming into right relationship to, the ultimate realityo. Nonetheless, the intent here is to clarify what is involved in the religious function of religious phenomena and the generic varieties of that function.

    At times in what follows phrases will be used other than those given in the definitions that mean substantially the same thing but focus attention in a certain way. Thus, on occasion, religion will be referred to as "a means of getting in touch with ultimate realityo," and religious practices as "means of seeking atonement with ultimate realityo'"; the word at onement (drawing on the English roots of the Christian theological concept of atonement) is meant to refer to "the state of being 'at one with' ultimate realityo," however it is understood.ll Used here, it is meant to encompass in its range of meaning "reconciled with," "in right or appropriate relation with," "in rapport with," "in agreement with," "in harmony with," "in conformity to," and "in union with" with the understanding that the precise characterization of this state of at onement will differ from one tradition to another.

    Among scholars in religious studies and among phenomenologists in particular many different definitions of religion are now in use.12 All subin their referen~e, so much so that most amount to different phrasings referring to the same things, differing only in the peculiar emphases their author wishes to make. Each, including the ones just offered, has a little arbitrariness about itother phrasing could probably do as well. But the particular phrasing the definition has reflects nuances that its author wishes to highlight. The phrasings of this book's definitions, of course, reflect particular nuances. Their justification rests solely upon their usefulness in guiding comparative study and illuminating what is to be understood in the current case, ways of being religious.

    Some scholarship in the comparative study of religion gives a much greater stress to the role of social and cultural context in determining the meaning and function(s) of particular religious expressions than this book is prepared to give. For example, some would argue on the basis of that stress that what is common to the many sociocultural subtraditions of Christianity, say, is insignificant in comparison to the differences between them. Thus, given its unique role within Croatian Roman Catholic life, devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary among women in violence torn former Yugoslavia could be construed to be a very different thing from devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary among socially and economically secure adult women Roman Catholics in St. Cloud, Minnesota. And the former of these two may be construed to have significant commonality with devotion to Kannon (the female expression of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, often associated with the Buddha Amida) among unemployed Pure Land women Buddhists in pre World War II Nagasaki, Japan, that the latter does not. Though this kind of research is eminently worthwhile, it should be seen as representing one among several possible emphases one that focuses on the immediate social and cultural context to the relative neglect of more abstract matters, such as the generic functions and patterns of religious life being explored in this text.


    This page titled 2.2: What Is Religion? is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Dale Cannon (Independent) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.