There are a couple of critical issues when it comes to the study of what a religious tradition says. The first is to make a distinction between the oral tradition and the written tradition. Many well-developed, world religions have an established canon of sacred texts, as well as an oral tradition. In some cases, this also has come to be written down. For instance, in Judaism, there is the tradition of the Oral Torah and the written Torah. The written Torah has become the Tanakh or the Hebrew Bible as we know it. The Oral Torah has also been written down in established commentaries in the Talmud. However, many indigenous religions have not written down their oral traditions. In fact, there are still some indigenous people that do not have a written language, and so their entire religious tradition is passed down orally from generation to generation. These oral traditions are more difficult for scholars to study and to follow over time.
Another critical issue is to determine what the teaching or text or story or myth is doing for the religion. That is, how is it functioning for the group of people? Whether it is an established doctrine, as in a creed, or a mythical story that has been passed down orally, through the generations, what a religion says usually functions in a couple of common ways. They define the group as a community and bring a sense of unity to the group. There are two main ways that religious expressions do this. The first is that they explain where the world, the universe or cosmos has come from. Sometimes they are very explicit about this. For instance, in the Shinto religion of Japan, the origins of the Japanese islands are explained by the divine couple Izanagi and Izanami stirring up the ocean floor with a trident from the heavens, and the drippings became the Japanese islands. The Japanese people are also the descendents of these semi-divine beings. So the second ways that these stories work are that they explain where...
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