11.1 Foundations of the Study of Religion

Every people and culture has one or more possibly overlapping sets of absolute values, outlooks, attitudes, and beliefs that can be regarded in part as its religion. While it is in some cases difficult to classify aspects of a culture as religious or otherwise, the characteristics of a religion in general are:

o It makes absolute assertions about the existence or nonexistence of a god.

o It provides reasons for human existence. These may include statements about the origins or destiny of humanity in general or of individuals in particular.

o It makes statements about what is the content, reliability, and manner of human knowing and about what is the ultimate meaning of knowing. That is, it has intellectual content.

o It addresses the meaning of human experience and engages the emotions of the individual and society. It also includes an element of experience; that is, it must be experienced.

o It makes statements about how existence, knowledge, and experience interact in the conduct of relationships with other people, with the cosmos in general, and with God (or gods). That is, it includes an ethical code, though the source of this may vary.

Such statements provide a comprehensive world view through which to filter and give an interpretation to the intellect of both human existence and human experience.

Figure 11.1 Model of Religious Experience

Figure 11.1 is a model of religious experience. Note that this diagram is similar to that used to model the learning process. It must be, for education and training address the issues of being human and of acquiring appropriate techniques to act humanly, while religion serves to answer the question, "What is a human being?" That is, religion makes comprehensive or wholistic declarations about the ultimate meaning for the existence of humankind, both as individuals and as a society. Such comprehensive answers necessarily embrace all of being, knowing, experiencing, and doing. The central titles in this version of the circles are derived from the Bible's statement about what is owed by human beings to their Creator:

"Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your mind and with all your strength." --Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Mark 12:29b-30

There have been a variety of approaches to the study of the role and function of religion in culture that have focused on one or more of these four aspects, but each such approach is insufficient in itself to explain religion, even though all provide valuable insights. A summary of some of these is provided here, although aspects of them will be expanded on further in later sections.

Religion as Philosophy

It is possible to view religion as a branch of philosophy--that is, as part of a general intellectual search for ultimate answers and meaning in life. This aspect differentiates religion from, say, experimental science. The latter generally deals with the measurable physical universe and usually sidesteps questions of ultimate reality, even though its operating assumption must be that one does exist (i.e., that it measures something real).

Religion deals not just with what people believe about meaning but with how they think, emote, and live in the light of such beliefs. That is, it always has an important experiential and relational component, and in this way it differs from philosophy and has an abstract kinship with both the empiricism of science and the applicability of technology. However, religion also tries to provide answers to questions about ultimate origins--about an originating deity--whereas neither philosophy nor science need do this. Thus, the philosophical approach to religion, taken alone, is insufficient to determine its substance or even its meaning, for religion gains much in its empirical interaction with the deity on the one hand and with people and life on the other.

The Historical Approach

If anything, this may be opposite to the philosophical approach, for in it, religion is assessed by the roles its adherents have played throughout history. Such an approach is commonly used in overview courses having such titles as "comparative religion." Inevitably, this view of religion concentrates on religious institutions, for it is through these that the state and its decisions (and so, history) are most often and most directly influenced. However, the historical approach alone may discern little about the effect on individuals and in turn their influence on society.

For example, histories of England discuss Wilberforce and his long and eventually successful political campaign to eliminate slavery, but often omit his Christian commitment and the high view of the value of human beings that led him to oppose slavery--this at a time when the institutionalized church favoured it. Likewise, the religious convictions of the framers of the American constitution played an important role in determining its contents--but today it is the words and the judges own perceptions of social needs that matter to the courts, not the principles that motivated the framers.

It is worth noting that carefully preserved and transmitted religious writings often do have a substantial historical content that is potentially verifiable by parallel documents from other sources, and by archaeological evidence. For example, many archaeological digs in the Middle East would be difficult to interpret without the accounts found in the Bible. Archeology in turn casts light on many details of life and culture in the times described in religious works. However, this light is confined to externals, and likely to be bereft of insight into the thoughts and beliefs of practitioners.

However, a historical approach alone need not take into account the ideas behind religions (doctrine) or even the religious ideas behind social change, but need view them only as mass movements on the broad stage of human history. Thus, while history is clearly an important component of the religious picture, it too cannot stand on its own as a description of religion.

Religion as Art and Literature

These are aesthetic approaches, wherein various religious ideas are not approached directly, but via the literary value of their sacred writings, and the artistic value of the painting, sculpture, and music that their followers generate. This approach has the advantage of recognizing the rich contributions of religion to culture in these broad areas--ones so large that they could easily be the subject of many books far larger than this one. It has the disadvantage that it deals with religious ideas in a peripheral and abstract manner, as themselves forms or aspects of artistic expression, and not so much for their value as ideas. Neither can an aesthetic approach shed much light on the application of those ideas to life.

This method is certainly worthy of being included in a comprehensive examination of religion, even though its details are beyond the scope of this book. However, the aesthetic engages only part of the whole person, and this approach therefore reveals only a portion of religion's scope.

A Psychological Approach

There have also been a number of attempts to use scientific methods to study religion as a collection of mental or behavioural phenomena and even to make systematic evaluations of religious ideas. This is more comprehensive than a purely descriptive historical approach, for it recognizes that, while mass religious behaviour is important, it does not give the whole picture. The ideas themselves must at some point be grappled with, and as more than just mental or personal effects. However, religion has an element of the transcendental or supernatural about it that extends its realm beyond that of empiricism and makes it very difficult for an analytical science to fully cope with it.

Yet psychological effects are of interest, and there is considerable material of mutual concern to psychologists and to religious adherents. For example, those most concerned with finding answers to the meaning questions are the ones who are likely to be the clients of both religious and psychological counsellors. The two approaches may occasionally have superficial resemblances, for both attempt to secure a suffering client in an environment that can comfort and soothe, thus transcending anguish with a reality of another order. The modern psychologist might say that the better reality already lies within the client waiting to be summoned forth, and a mystic may well agree, differing only in the means of drawing it out.

By contrast, many religions declare that ultimate reality and meaning lie outside the individual and provide a framework in which to relate an individual not just to society, but also to the whole of being. Thus, the mystical idea of locating god within a person is in direct competition with the more conventional religious idea that God is a distinct and separate entity.

Some religions point to a supreme being as the ultimate knowable reality, all else having been created at that being's command. A few religions assert that all created matter is therefore an illusion, and so is any knowledge of it, denying that there is much, if any, reality to draw upon, and counselling an acceptance of such nihilism as the path to mental health. Others counter that such a conclusion is the very antithesis of religion, asserting that, whatever else they may be, religious ideas are every bit as much about specific realities as are scientific ones.

Psychology also makes interesting contributions to the study of behaviour under the influence of faith assertion, particularly in the proclamation and profession of that faith to large groups of people, either in person or through the media. Certain threads common to the persuasion and response of any crowd can readily be identified, and these seem to be applicable to the pronouncements of both preachers and, say, politicians. In addition, the new cognitive theories of modern psychology attempt to evaluate beliefs and knowledge, also in a scientific fashion.

The strictly psychological study of religion, however, limits religion to physical and empirical phenomena on the assumption that the mind is not more than the brain. However, most religions assert that the two are distinct and that religious activities transcend the physical. Measuring such transcendence appears to be beyond the empirical bounds of modern science. On the other hand, measuring only its effects seems to be somewhat incomplete.

Thus, all attempts to find common ground for science and religion are fraught with delicate problems. On the one hand, science seeks to evaluate religion as a quantifiable and measurable physical phenomenon, because such are its realm. On the other, religion asserts that it derives from and deals with things that are no less real for going beyond the physical realm and that science has nothing to say about such matters--only religion's effects can be scientifically measured and not its causes and motivations. Since the existence or nonexistence of the supernatural realm is a matter of basic assumption and is unlikely ever to be provable or disprovable by empirical means without a revelation from the supernatural realm, this debate is irresolvable.

Yet, it is unsatisfactory to assert that religion and science have non-overlapping magesteria (teaching domains) and leave things at that, for science can at least attempt to describe behaviour--whether religious or otherwise--and religion does attempt to describe motives--whether those of scientists or others. The way in which the two once interacted comfortably is described later in this chapter, and some thoughts on achieving new rapprochements are expanded upon in Chapter 12.

The Social Aspect of Religion

Groups of people with like beliefs play a role in society that also cannot be ignored. There is a social need--to be with, to talk to, to share emotions with, and to do with--that is part of the human experience. Such general needs extend to the commonality of religious belief and in that sphere are part of what give rise to the assemblies known as synagogues, churches, temples, reading rooms, mosques, and so on. Such gatherings are a partial expression of what it means to be a distinct culture, or a society-within-a-society, and are part of the reason for being of every person.

Put in other terms, the total cultural world view of a person or a people always includes a set of religious beliefs, even if these are mostly negations. It is not always possible to tell whether certain aspects of a society are the cause or the effect of its religious beliefs, nor is it easy to separate the religious aspect of a culture from its other elements, so intertwined are they. One can easily argue that this is true even in professedly irreligious cultures, where similar commitment, activities, behaviour, and passions are evoked for causes with other names. Thus, Western liberal humanism and communist statism both have religious significance, even though both often claim to have none--for all people act on a set of values and in turn attribute these to some cause, and all hold some values to be more important than others, even to be supreme. All people must deal with questions of the ultimate origin and meaning of life, and all cultures have some reflection of the answers to such questions in the lives of their members. Even a firm denial that such things exist, or that they matter even if they are real, is a statement with religious content and has consequences for the person or society making such a faith statement. That negative statements on religion are indeed faith affirmations becomes evident when one realizes that the same quality of emotion and the same kind of empirical evidence is behind a rejection of the supernatural as there is behind a belief in one. Thus, the common argument that the beliefs and values of irreligious people cannot be compared at all to religious faith affirmations is very weak. So is the assertion that social behaviour has no necessary connection with religion, for both logic and historical experience argue otherwise.

A social approach to the study of religion is, therefore, potentially more comprehensive than a purely historical one. However, it still tends to have the limitation of being primarily descriptive rather than evaluative and does not therefore suffice alone, for the thing being described demands an evaluation by its very nature. That is, at some point, the claims of religion upon the whole person must be dealt with. Moreover, it is evidently impossible to stand entirely outside the thing called religion and give it a dispassionate evaluation, free from any preconceived notions about the thing being described. Thus, there will be bias in any description of religion.

A Moral (Behavioural) Approach

Religion also addresses moral issues, for it is concerned with how to be a good person, how to live life in harmony with those around, and perhaps how to live a life that pleases a supreme deity--any or all of which may lead to rewards in a life to come. It is to behavioural issues generally (and moral ones specifically) that comparers of religions look, for it is here that the most common ground is found, even though the reasons for arriving at moral laws may be very different. Such commonality is yet another evidence for the universality of a moral sense and, to some extent, for the content of moral laws. Moreover, many people think of religion as a set of practices and/or rituals, that is, in behavioural terms.

What distinguishes various religions on this score, however, is the reasoning behind the rules, and the motivation for having them. One must ask if ethical rules exist just to have an orderly society, for the production of relative good, or for the pleasing of a god who is absolutely good. Do the rules exist to gain a salvation or are they behavioural guideposts for those who already have one? Do they arise from within people or do they come only from the character of the deity being worshipped? It is, incidentally, only in the context of worshipping a moral god that the concept of sin (violation of Divine standards) arises.

The moral aspect is evidently essential to comprehending a religion but clearly also does not stand alone. Moral codes need to be assessed in the context of their reason for being and also in the context of the actual behaviour people exhibit when they claim such codes for their own. Do the moral codes change a person; do they change the person's behaviour; or do they change nothing outside the person's mind? That is, do they have a transforming effect, or are they entirely mental abstractions with peripheral, if any, application to life?

Do the deeds (behaviours) dictated by moral codes become the means to the end of an eternal salvation, or are they the result of already having it, the external consequences of a prior inner transformation? Do they co-exist with belief, produce it, or are they produced by it?

That deeds themselves do not answer these fundamental questions illustrates that there is more to religion than the behaviour associated with its adherants.

Religion as a Commodity

There are two ways in which one can approach religion as a commodity. The first is to treat it as a marketable item--one with a perceived need, a set of clients, a product to respond to the need, a sales force, an organizational structure, and an appropriate pension plan. In this view, religion is a package of ideas and life-style that has to be sold into a competitive marketplace, and the methodology for doing so is similar to that for the advertising, packaging, and selling of any other product. Potential customers need to be convinced that they have a need and then persuaded to accept a particular brand-name solution. The deal must be closed, and then the client must be maintained as such over the long term. The competition has to be assessed and beaten back at every turn. The sales force (preachers) must be trained in all the latest marketing techniques. Available media have to be utilized to their fullest potential to get the message out, and the entire enterprise must be financed through voluntary payments of its purchasers. If the marketplace (cultural milieu) changes, then the company (the religious institution) must either change with it or diversify, lest it become insolvent and either cease to exist or have its assets in people taken over by a competitor.

In this view, religion maintains cultural relevance as long as it remains economically viable in the marketplace of ideas, so its models and techniques must continually be adapted to those of the culture into which the ideas are being sold. Thus, religion has discovered television, and numerous sellers of religious products now hold forth from electronic pulpits, backed by advertising, orchestras, choirs, and the latest broadcast technology. The difficulty with this approach to religion as commodity is that once the product has been wrapped up for retail sale, it may be difficult for customers to discern what are the contents of the package. Exactly what is being sold, and what is its cost? Is there a warranty?

In fact, when any product is marketed with standard methods, the lines between substance and packaging blur, and in this way, religion can metamorphose into either a business or a form of religious entertainment. If so, it necessarily comes to engage the emotions far more than the intellect. At such a point, it no longer stands on its ideas or on its ability to transform people but only on the marketing technique that has provoked the response. That is, it is not religion itself that becomes in such cases the commodity but an emotional experience described by a religious-like vocabulary. Since this is at least one step removed from the religious ideas themselves, it may be best to assess this particular phenomenon strictly in terms of its business and entertainment value and to regard its most visible sales force as media celebrities who are only incidentally related to the actual religion. They sell an emotional experience that many people are prepared to buy as a less comprehensive and less demanding substitute for religion, much less to the beliefs motivating religious behaviour. These comments apply regardless of whether the emotional experience comes from being an observer at the pomp and ceremony of some ancient ritual or from the charged atmosphere of a charismatic miracle meeting.

A second problem created by the constant repackaging of religiosity for the marketplace is that ideas which started with a claim to transcend time and culture come to be heavily modified in the light of both, and perhaps ultimately to be discarded. Thus, the irony of the search for relevance in the application of religion to modern culture is that the modified religion can all too easily thereby become irrelevant to the search for universal applicability.

To be sure, religious ideas are indeed in competition with those from other sources and with each other. In the West the very notion of a democracy requires the free competition of ideas. But, as illustrated here, the model of competition among ideas cannot be pressed too far in practice without dissipating their vitality in spectacular if unengaging show. The same observation, to the same effect, can be made of politics, which when partnered with modern media may also become a personal and emotional experience that lacks much intellectual content or relevance to people's lives. After all, the most effective marketing sells the sizzle of outward appearances to the emotions, not the steak of content to the intellect, and this is true whether the product is computer software, religion, or politics. That is, the treatment of religion strictly as a commodity obscures its nature rather than explains it.

This marketing of religious ideas and fragments also raises some interesting legal and ethical questions related to the definition and status of religious organizations in the United States and Canada. Since these organizations are tax exempt in both countries and there is in both a societal and legal prohibition against government entanglement with religion, there are few means to ensure that funds raised on television and by direct marketing will indeed be used for the stated purposes. It is not always clear that the actual use of such funds has anything to do with religion. Yet attempts to regulate activities operated by religious bodies are sure to provoke charges of interference by the government in areas prohibited to the state. On the other hand, failure to protect a trusting and unsuspecting public from fraud may be irresponsible, for only the government has the power to undertake such a role. As in the case of pluralism, there is a paradox here. To the extent that religion is to be marketed as a commodity, there must be some measure of accountability and responsibility for the activities of its people and organizations. On the other hand, freedom of religion ceases to exist if the government dictates how it shall be practised, or acts as arbiter of the validity of its ideas. But, if it ignores religion altogether, the state may fail in its duty to protect its citizens from danger. One must conclude from these marketplace considerations alone that, although the state perhaps should avoid excessive entanglement in the affairs of religion, there can never in practice be a total wall of separation between the two.

The second, and rather different, approach to religions as commodities is to assess them competitively by the benefits they bring people. Which ones promote war, famine, corruption, totalitarianism, and moral decadence? Which brings hospitals, food, medicine, new agricultural techniques, freedom from slavery, equality of opportunity, and high moral standards? What payment is asked for the material benefits offered? Is political or cultural assimilation demanded? Does the preacher demand the buyer's soul to hang at a denominational belt like a trophy scalp? Is the motivation for the message a love of God translated into love for people? What benefits are offered the believer? These could vary from a nice feeling of doing good, to avoidance of divine punishment, to divine acceptance for eternal life, to the nirvana of escape from another dreary reincarnation, or to some vague, but unspecified reward. Whatever the salvation offered by a religion, it too could be viewed as an idea in competition with similar ones, and this is one way of assessing religions that may be useful if taken in conjunction with others listed here.

Analyses of the commodity aspect of religion are quite legitimate, for they deal with the effects of beliefs on people and culture, and such effects are of interest to everyone, not just those who profess a certain religion. For example, a religion that believed in and practised human sacrifice, the killing of people with some other skin colour or religion, or the violent overthrow of the state has a direct impact on everyone in the society. Consequently, the society has a vested interest in protecting itself from beliefs that threaten its existence or the lives of its citizens.

The comparison of religions may be undertaken with the implicit assumption that there is a standard to which the comparison is being made--that absolute religious ideas exist. This assumption is especially evident when the comparison is being conducted with the ostensible purpose of debunking the very notion of religion (common in secular universities), and there is a logical circularity here from which no immediate escape is evident. Even when no standard is made apparent, the effects chosen for comparative study reflect the relative importance attached to such things by the one making the report. Why is one group of outcomes from religious beliefs more desirable than another, and who is qualified to judge between the two? In particular, who can say that one moral standard is higher than another, apart from an all-knowing deity who Himself reveals the truth? It is no easier, therefore, to make comparisons between religions as commodities in an objective manner than it is to do so as objects of scientific, historical, or psychological examination. To a greater or lesser degree, the comparer of religions is emotionally and religiously affected by the objects under study, making an objective analysis difficult if not impossible.

On the other hand, such comparisons may be conducted with a view to choosing the portions one likes from various religious systems. This practice is one contributor to religious fragmentation in the twentieth century--the picking of religious ideas from this or that system of beliefs as one might select a dinner from a smorgasbord. The result may be an exotic but ephemeral taste experience, but in the long haul and for practical purposes the components may not go together at all.

The same kind of fragmentation may also take place when religious ideas are exported to other cultures. If they go attached to the cultural strings of the sending nation, they will be perceived as strictly cultural exports and not as religious ones. If a religion is indeed universal, then it is culturally independent and it can be believed in and practised by the peoples of any language, culture, civilization, time, or economic status. If it is not, pieces of it will perhaps be added to the importing culture and religion, but the religion as a whole will not be widely adopted.

Even when religious and charitable organizations go to other nations with aid for hunger or disaster, such help may be received only as a mixed blessing. It may create dependence, encourage poverty, cause resentment, and actually promote rejection of the religious or cultural message accompanying it. Thus, those who undertake missionary or religious-based relief work must have a clear idea of what it is that they are attempting to do or to persuade a people of, as well as how to make it that people's belief, independent of all cultural and material considerations. Similar comments could be made of the political and social strings attached to aid provided by governments.

In summary, religion can be treated as a commodity, but this is a level of abstraction that fails to do justice to any of its content and claims, or to measure its impact on people. Such a view of religion is also superficial, for it looks only at its competitive behaviour and not at the object itself. Religions can also be analysed from a commodity perspective, with their effects compared to one another or to some implied standard. This is more useful, though it is impaired both by the difficulty in achieving objectivity and that of knowing what can be included in the study. In addition, all such attempts suggest that there is a kind of meta-religious standard by which the truth claims of religion can be assessed, and this too becomes a religious statement. One ends up in the same place as before--religious statements can be validated against a standard only if that standard exists independently and absolutely.

Religion as a Personal Experience

This final view of religion regards it as a sum of personal experiences, an intimate thing difficult to expound upon in universal terms. Such an element is the focus of the mystical religions that search for ultimate reality within each person--one that must necessarily constitute a different experience for each individual. This aspect is present in a different sense in evangelical Christianity, which holds that true religion involves a personal relationship with a personal God, one that recognizes individual differences but whose character is nonetheless essentially similar, but only because God never changes.

While this view of religion expresses an important aspect, it is one that is of most interest to individuals and their own experience and is of lesser concern to the historian or forecaster because it addresses societal and ethical questions only indirectly, by hypothesizing how the changed individual might work out relationships with respect to other people. That is, assuming that religion is a personal experience means that its behavioural consequences in general terms are elusive. When actions do not appear to match the religious theory, it is not certain whether the theory is faulty or whether the personal experience of it is absent.

This uncertainty has always, for instance, been a particular problem for evangelical Christians, who assert that the believer in Christ has been born again to a new life and has the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit to live that new life successfully. How are actions completely inconsistent with the religion's moral code to be explained? How are the apparent conflicts among faith, emotions, the intellect, and one's relationships to be resolved? Is the person's understanding defective or was the experience a false one? The only answer that can be given is that God alone knows absolutely who His true people are, and this reply is unlikely to satisfy the skeptical observer. Another difficulty is caused by the fact that people respond emotionally in very different ways to the same set of beliefs. Is this simply an artifact of their differing personalities and interests, or does this observation invalidate either the experiences of some, on the one hand, or the claim to universality on the other?

As a result, personal experience alone is also insufficient to explain the phenomenon of religion. It does not hold religious ideas up to scrutiny in themselves, but attempts to assess them solely in terms of experiences--and experiences claimed in the same cause may be very diverse. External reference points are needed in doctrine to account for experiences; they are insufficient on their own to explain religion.


As this overview indicates, religion is rich and complex, affecting both the individual and group life in a wide variety of ways, none of which taken alone provides a satisfactory explanation. At least the entire context of the model diagrammed at the start of this section in Figure 11.1 is necessary, and even then it is not clear whether what has been achieved is an understanding of religion or just a partial redefinition of something that lacks a full explanation. It is clear that the impact of religion on both individuals and society as a whole is substantial, and it is appropriate to consider that impact further, first by looking at the teachings of some of the major religions, then by discussing the origins of modern science and technology in their religious context. It will also be of interest to consider whether that impact will continue to diminish, as it has in the industrial age, or whether religion will make a comeback and become an important factor in the information age.

The Fourth Civilization Table of Contents
Copyright © 1988-2002 by Rick Sutcliffe
Published by Arjay Books division of Arjay Enterprises