Elements of Religion

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ELEMENTS OF RELIGION
James Fieser

CONTENTS

1. Methodology.
2. Indigenous Beliefs and Practices.
3. The Great Religions.
4. Religious Rituals.
5. Religious Myth.
6. Religious Experiences.
7. Religion and Social Conflict.
8. Religious Pluralism.

CHAPTER 1
METHODOLOGY: LOOKING AT OTHER PEOPLE’S BELIEFS

Consider the following exchange from an advice column, and pay special notice to its account of "the most religious people on earth":

Dear Mr. Angst: I watched one of those nature shows on TV the other day. They showed a giant bird with a nine foot wing span that eats only bones. I mean it eats huge bones, like from horses and elephants, which the bird swallows whole. I'm wondering: if the bird's stomach acid is strong enough to digest a big bone, then why doesn't the stomach acid also dissolve the stomach itself? Signed, Bird Bone Dear Bird Bone: I'd like to have used your question as a sounding board to address weightier questions, such as "what happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable barrier," or "could God create a rock so large that he couldn't move it?" Unfortunately, I'm familiar with the bird you're talking about, and there's no real paradox here. The Valdostian vulture you refer to indeed swallows whole the bones of large animals. However, its stomach digests the skin and cartilage attached to the bones, and the bones themselves pass right through the bird, completely intact. As the bird flies around, a stream of bones drops from its hinter region. The most interesting part of this phenomenon, though, is the reaction from the villagers below who get pelted by the falling bones. The vultures have their greatest feast during the dry season when famine drives large animals into starvation. It is also during such droughts that villagers beseech their gods for rain. So, a long time ago, villagers prayed for rain and, from their perspectives, the gods showered them with bones. Thinking that their communication to the gods somehow got scrambled, they developed increasingly more complex prayer rituals with the aim of adding greater precision to their petitions. Dances, trances, chants, and sacrifices were tossed into the mix. Of course, the gods' response remained the same: more bones. Eventually the villagers' ceremonies became so elaborate that proper performance lasted all day, every day of the year. Anthropologist now see them as the most religious people on earth. In my opinion, we should import some of these birds, let them drop a few bones on us and perhaps restore some family values to this country!

Mr. Angst’s discussion above of "the most religious people on earth" constitutes a basic analysis of the causes of religious beliefs and practices in one village community. There is a phenomenon to be explained, namely, the village’s religious attitudes, and there is an explanation offered, namely, a misunderstanding about the source of the falling bones. What Mr. Angst does here in jest, theologians, philosophers and anthropologists have been doing in earnest for centuries. As humans, we seem compelled to offer explanations and theories about everything we encounter, and religion is a particularly inviting subject because of its complexity, universality, and importance. Any analysis of religion, though, involves an orientation or perspective. Even a basic definition of the term "religion" reveals much about the definer’s orientation. Recently I heard a television evangelist define "religion" as "Our attempt to know God." Although the brevity of this definition has merits, it nevertheless assumes that (a) a "God" exists, and (b) God’s existence is central to religion. Both of these assumptions present problems. Concerning the assumption that God exists, social scientists believe that only our human behavior and attitudes are relevant to the study of religion, and not the truth of a religious reality behind one’s beliefs. Concerning the assumption that God’s...
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