Understanding Religion

© Thomas Hilgers

First Encounter

For months you have wanted to take a break from work and everyday life, and recently some

friends invited you to vacation with them at their mountain cabin. At first you hesitate. This is

not the kind of trip you had in mind. After reconsidering, you realize that a remote getaway with

friends is just the change of pace you need.

Now, three weeks later, you have been traveling all day and have just arrived at the cabin. It is

late afternoon, and the air is so cold you can see your breath. Your friends welcome you warmly,

and there’s a nice fire in the living room. Your hosts show you to your room and give you a short

tour. Soon you are all fixing supper together—pasta, mushrooms, salad. During the meal you

discuss your work, your zany relatives, and your mutual friends. Everyone is laughing and

having a good time. It’s confirmed: coming here was a great idea.

After supper, your friends won’t let you help with the dishes. “I think I’ll go out for a walk,” you

say, putting on your heavy, hooded jacket. As the front door closes behind you, you step into a

world transformed by twilight.

What strikes you first is the smell in the air. There is nothing quite like the scent of burning

wood—almost like incense. It fits perfectly with the chill. You walk farther, beyond the clearing

that surrounds the house, and suddenly you are on a path beneath tall pine trees. As a strong

breeze rises, the trees make an eerie, whispering sound. It is not exactly a rustle; it is more like a

rush. You recall reading once that the sound of wind in pines is the sound of eternity.

Moving on, you find yourself walking along the mountain’s ridge. To your left, you see the

evening star against the blue-black sky. To your right, it’s still light and you see why you are

cold: you are literally above the clouds. You sit down on a flat rock, pull up your hood, and

watch the pine tree silhouettes disappear as darkness spreads its thickening veil.

It’s difficult to pull yourself away. All around you stars begin to pop out, and soon they are

blooming thick as wildflowers. Overhead, the mass of stars resembles a river—it must be the

Milky Way. You get up and slowly turn full circle to take it all in. You had almost forgotten

about stars. You don’t see them much back home, let alone think of them. Where you live, stars

appear in movies. Here, though, stars are mysterious points of light. You remember what you

once learned: stars are so distant that their light can take millions of years to reach earth. You

realize that some of the stars you see may no longer exist. Only their light remains.

At last you begin to walk back to the cabin. A cluster of clouds emerges on the horizon, lit from

behind by the rising moon. You see your friends’ wooden cabin in the distance. From here it

looks so small. The stars seem like the permanent, real world, while the house appears little and

temporary—more like a question mark in the great book of the universe. Questions flood your

mind. Who are we human beings? Do we make any difference to the universe? Are we part of

any cosmic plan? Is there any point to the universe at all? What is it all about?

What is Religion?

The Starry Night, one of the world’s most loved paintings, depicts a sky full of luminous,

spinning stars. Painted near the end of its creator’s life, the work summarizes the vision of

Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890). Van Gogh was an intensely religious man who had planned to

be an ordained minister in the Dutch Reformed Church, as was his father. But he struggled with

his studies and had a falling-out with Church authorities. For a time, he lived as a lay preacher,

working with poor miners in Belgium. When he was 27, his brother Theo, an art dealer,

encouraged him to take up painting.

Despite his new career, van Gogh continued to think of himself as a minister. If he could not

preach in words, he would preach in pictures. His subjects were the simple things of life: trees,

sunflowers, a wicker chair, a bridge, his postman, a farmer sowing seeds, peasants eating a meal,

workers bringing in the harvest. His paintings express a quiet awe before the wonder that he

sensed in everyday objects and ordinary people. It was his special sense of the sacredness he saw

all around him that he wanted to share. Almost as a reminder, in The Starry Night van Gogh

placed the little church tower below the night sky, pointing like a compass needle upward to the

stars. The heavenly realm with its spinning fires illuminates van Gogh’s vision of the sacred

character of the entire universe.

Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night provides a startling perspective. The familiar world that we

know, with a steeple in the middle, is dwarfed by the vast, mysterious cosmos.

Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY

Key Characteristics of Religion

When people begin their study of religions, they bring ideas from the religion in which they were

raised or from the predominant religion of their society. They may assume, for example, that

every religion has a sacred book or that it worships a divine being or that it has a set of

commandments. Indeed, many religions do share all these characteristics, but some do not.

Shinto, for example, does not have a set of commandments, nor does it preach a moral code; Zen

Buddhism does not worship a divine being; and many tribal religions have no written sacred

scripture. Nevertheless, we call them all religions. What, then—if not a common set of

elements—must be present for something to be called a religion?

An obvious starting point for many scholars is to examine linguistic clues: What are the

linguistic roots of the term religion? Intriguingly, the word’s Latin roots are re-, meaning

“again,” and lig-, meaning “join” or “connect” (as in the word ligament). 1 Thus the common

translation of religion is “to join again,” “to reconnect.” If this derivation is correct, then the

word religion suggests the joining of our natural, human world to the sacred world. In classical

Latin, the term religio meant awe for the gods and concern for proper ritual. 2 We must

recognize, though, that the term religion arose in Western culture and may not be entirely

appropriate when applied across cultures; spiritual path, for example, might be a more fitting

designation to refer to other religious systems. We will keep these things in mind when we use

the long-established term religion.

Religion [is] a way of life founded upon the apprehension of sacredness in existence.

Julian Huxley, biologist 3

People have constantly tried to define religion, and there are thus many notable attempts. These

definitions may emphasize a sense of dependence on a higher power, awareness of the passing

nature of life, the use of symbolism and ritual, the structuring of time, or the acceptance of moral

rules. But reading these definitions makes one aware of their limitations. The definitions often

seem inadequate and time-bound, the product of a particular culture or period or discipline.

Perhaps, for the time being, it is better to simply be open to many possible definitions, without as

yet embracing any single one. After studying the major world religions, we will undoubtedly

come closer to our own definition of religion.

The problem of how to define religion continues to plague scholars, who love definition. A

definition may apply well to some religions, but not to others. A definition may apply to

religions of the past, but may not be suitable for a religion of the future.

Traditional dictionary definitions of religion read something like this: a system of belief that

involves worship of a God or gods, prayer, ritual, and a moral code. But there are so many

exceptions to that definition that it is neither comprehensive nor accurate. So instead of saying

that a religion must have certain characteristics, it is more useful to list a series of characteristics

that are found in what are commonly accepted as religions. Scholars note that what we ordinarily

call religions manifest to some degree the following eight elements: 4

 Belief system Several beliefs fit together into a fairly complete and systematic

interpretation of the universe and the human being’s place in it; this is also called a


 Community The belief system is shared, and its ideals are practiced by a group.

 Central myths Stories that express the religious beliefs of a group are retold and often

reenacted. Examples of central myths include the major events in the life of the Hindu

god Krishna, the enlightenment experience of the Buddha, the exodus of the Israelites

from oppression in Egypt, the death and resurrection of Jesus, or Muhammad’s escape

from Mecca to Medina. Scholars call such central stories myths. We should note that the

term myth, as scholars use it, is a specialized term. It does not in itself mean that the

stories are historically untrue (as in popular usage) but only that the stories are central to

the religion.

 Ritual Beliefs are enacted and made real through ceremonies.

 Ethics Rules about human behavior are established. These are often viewed as having

been revealed from a supernatural realm, but they can also be viewed as socially

generated guidelines. Characteristic emotional experiences Among the emotional

experiences typically associated with religions are dread, guilt, awe, mystery, devotion,

conversion, “rebirth,” liberation, ecstasy, bliss, and inner peace.

 Material expression Religions make use of an astonishing variety of physical elements—

statues, paintings, musical compositions, musical instruments, ritual objects, flowers,

incense, clothing, architecture, and specific locations.

 Sacredness A distinction is made between the sacred and the ordinary; ceremonies often

emphasize this distinction through the deliberate use of different language, clothing, and

architecture. Certain objects, actions, people, and places may share in the sacredness or

express it.

Each of the traditions that we will study in the pages ahead will exhibit most of these

characteristics. But the religious traditions, like the people who practice them, will manifest the

characteristics in different ways and at different times.

The Sacred

All religions are concerned with the deepest level of reality, and for most religions the core or

origin of everything is sacred and mysterious. This sense of a mysterious, originating holiness is

called by many names: Brahman, Dao, Great Mother, Divine Parent, Great Spirit, Ground of

Being, Great Mysterious, the Ultimate, the Absolute, the Divine, the Holy. People, however,

experience and explain sacred reality in different ways, as we shall see in the chapters that


Religious rituals are often symbolic reenactments of a religion’s key stories. The presentation of

crowns to the bride and groom reminds them of the crowns that await them in heaven.

© Thomas Hilgers

One familiar term for the sacred reality, particularly in the Western world, is God, and

monotheism * is the term that means a belief in one God. In some systems, the term God often

carries with it the notion of a Cosmic Person—a divine being with will and intelligence who is

just and compassionate and infinite in virtues. God is also called omnipotent (“having total

power over the universe”). Although God may be said to have personal aspects, all monotheistic

religions agree that the reality of God is beyond all categories: God is said to be pure spirit, not

fully definable in words. This notion of a powerful God, distinct from the universe, describes a

sacredness that is active in the world but also distinct from it. That is, God is transcendent—

unlimited by the world and all ordinary reality.

* Note: Words shown in boldface type are listed and defined in the “Key Terms” section at the

end of each chapter.

In some religions, however, the sacred reality is not viewed as having personal attributes but is

more like an energy or mysterious power. Frequently, the sacred is then spoken of as something

immanent within the universe. In some religions, there is a tendency to speak of the universe not

just as having been created but also as a manifestation of the sacred nature itself, in which

nothing is separate from the sacred. This view, called pantheism (Greek: “all divine”), sees the

sacred as being discoverable within the physical world and its processes. In other words, nature

itself is holy.

Some religions worship the sacred reality in the form of many coexisting gods, a view called

polytheism. The multiple gods may be fairly separate entities, each in charge of an aspect of

reality (such as nature gods), or they may be multiple manifestations of the same basic sacred


In recent centuries, we find a tendency to deny the existence of any God or gods (atheism), to

argue that the existence of God cannot be proven (agnosticism), or simply to take no position

(nontheism). (Such tendencies are not strictly modern; they can also be found in some ancient

systems, such as Jainism; see Chapter 5.) However, if one sees religion broadly, as a “spiritual

path,” then even systems based on these three views—particularly if they show other typical

characteristics of a religion—can also be called religions.

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