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1.3: The Substances of Religion

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    The Substances of Religion

    Whenever we speak of the substance of religion, we are speaking of the elements of religion that are either visible, tangible, or quantifiable. Thus, a visible example of a religious substance is a religious symbol. A tangible example of a religious substance is a sacred place. A quantifiable example of a religious substance would be a deity or deities within a religion. Let’s explore some example of religious substances and then consider why these alone are incapable of providing a good definition of religion. (1)


    Religious symbolism is the use by a religion of symbols including archetypes, acts, artwork, events, or natural phenomena. Religions view religious texts, rituals, and works of art as symbols of compelling ideas or ideals. Symbols help create a resonant mythos expressing the moral values of the society or the teachings of the religion, foster solidarity among adherents, and bring adherents closer to their object of worship.

    The symbolism of the early Church was characterized as being understood by initiates only. After the legalization of Christianity in the 4th-century, more recognizable symbols were put in use. Christianity has borrowed from the common stock of significant symbols known to most periods and to all regions of the world. (11)

    Sacred Arts

    One significant area of study in the humanities is that of art and art history. The art of a given culture or time period can speak volumes about the beliefs, religious or otherwise, of the people in that culture. Therefore, the intersection of art and religion is fertile ground for study. Art can evoke or enhance a religious experience. The reason for this is the emotional relationship between our senses, the world around us, and our beliefs. We may learn cognitively, but we engage with the world sensually. Our senses interact with, affect, and inform, our perceptions of the world around us. Art and religion then, are products of the sensually perceived world.


    Music is perhaps the more prevalent artistic form for religious expression. The great songs of the faith carry meaning, which spoken words or visual symbols cannot; Gregorian chants, George Frideric Handel’s (1685–1759) “ Messiah ,” and Johann Sebastian Bach’s (1685–1750) various chorales and organ pieces represent the traditional high holy church music. However, many more examples abound beyond what is considered specifically church music. Bluesy gospel hymns, Polynesian choirs singing songs like “ God Yu Tekkem Laef Blong Mi ,” the chanting and humming of Buddhist monks, even the Muslim call to prayer, can all be considered sacred forms of music. Each of these styles is capable of transporting, and transfixing, the listener to the presence of the divine.


    The architecture of a place of worship reflects the theology of the people. Iconography rich cathedrals for Orthodox Christians, solitary monasteries for Buddhist monks, and shrines to house the kami of the Shinto, each reflect the theology and praxis of the religion they represent.

    Some of the most obvious examples of architecture reflecting theology in the western world are grand cathedrals. To identify a church as a cathedral depended on size, location, importance, and the awe factor. The word cathedral comes from the root Greek word kathedra, which means ” a seat .” The cathedral housed the seat of the bishop, archbishop, or pope. One of the grandest cathedrals in Christendom is The Papal Basilica of Saint Peter in the Vatican City, center of the Roman Catholic faith.


    Writing is likely the most portable of the artistic expressions. Literature not only connects its reader to their beliefs through the use of imagination but also works as a means of transmitting those beliefs for others. We can look at an ancient text from the Middle East and understand the emotion, original intent, and ideas of the writer. Most religions throughout the world rely on written sacred texts for the transmission of their beliefs and praxis. (1)


    A ritual is a set of actions performed mainly for their symbolic value. It may be prescribed by the traditions of a community, including by a religious community. The term usually refers to actions which are stylized, and usually excludes actions which are arbitrarily chosen by the performers. The purposes of rituals are varied. Rituals can fulfill:

    • Religious obligations or ideals
    • Satisfy spiritual or emotional needs of the practitioners
    • Strengthen social bonds
    • Provide social and moral education
    • Demonstrate respect or submission
    • Allow one to state one’s affiliation
    • Serve as a rite of passage
    • Obtain social acceptance or approval for some event — or rituals are sometimes performed just for the pleasure of the ritual itself.


    Religious belief is a strong belief in a supernatural power or powers that control human destiny. Such a state may relate to the existence, characteristics, and worship of a deity or deities; divine intervention in the universe and human life; or values and practices centered on the teachings of a spiritual leader. In contrast to other belief systems, religious beliefs are usually codified. (11)

    Religious Practitioners

    There are several types of religious practitioners or people who specialize in religious behaviors.

    These are individuals who specialize in the use of spiritual power to influence others. A shaman is an individual who has access to supernatural power that can then be used for the benefit of specific clients. Found in indigenous cultures, shamans may be part-time specialists, but is usually the only person in the group that can access the supernatural. They have specialized knowledge that is deemed too dangerous for everyone to know because they do not have the training to handle the knowledge. Oftentimes, shamans train their replacement in the ways of contacting and utilizing the supernatural. Shamans are often innovative in their practices, using trance states to contact the supernatural.

    Priests are another type of religious practitioner who is trained to perform rituals for benefit of a group. Priests differ from shamans in a couple of important ways. For priests, rituals are key—innovation and creativity are generally not prized or encouraged. Priests are found in most organized religions, e.g., Buddhism, Christianity and Judaism, although they have a different name such as monks, ministers, or rabbis.

    Sorcerers and witches , unlike shamans and priests who have high status in their cultures, usually have low status because their abilities are seen in a negative manner. Both sorcerers and witches have the ability to connect with the supernatural for ill purposes.

    • Sorcerers often take on a role similar to law enforcement in the United States; they are used by people to punish someone who has violated socially proscribed rules.
    • Witches are believed to have an innate connection to the supernatural, one that they often cannot control. Because witches may inadvertently hurt people because they cannot control their power, if discovered, they are often ostracized or forced to leave their group. It is important to differentiate witches in some cultures from Wiccans. While Christianity makes no distinction between Wiccans and witches as described above, Wicca has clear mandates against using magic to harm others. The Wiccan rede states, “ An’ it harm none, do what ye will .” (12)

    The Experiential

    Rudolf Otto, a German thinker, attempted to theorize a single term that could explain the structure of all religious experience independent of cultural background. In his book, The Idea of the Holy , he identified this and called it the “numinous ” experience. For an experience to be numinous, in Otto’s opinion, it needed to involve two things.

    • First, it had to include the mysterium tremendum , which is the tendency to invoke fear and trembling.
    • Secondly, it had to include the mysterium fascinas , which is the tendency to attract, fascinate or compel.

    According to Otto, a numinous experience also has a personal quality to it, because individuals typically feel that they are opening some unique communication chain with the divine. (13)


    Many definitions of religion that one finds will rely strictly on the substances to encapsulate religion. The problem here is that, if one simply defines religion based on its substances, one ultimately defines it as an institution that is not unlike other institutions, such as sport or politics. Indeed, just like religions, sport and politics include symbols, sacred places, rituals, beliefs, and even feelings of awe — the mysterium tremendum . This is why, when thinking about religious definitions, one should articulate it not only based on what one sees, but also based on how it functions. Doing one without the other does not fully encapsulate what sets religion apart as an object of study.

    What this all means, of course, is that not only can religion be properly defined. It can also be studied, as well as a unique human institution. With that said, let’s transition now to thinking about why people are religious. Here is where the scientific study of religion has proven invaluable over the past two centuries. (1)

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