Wednesday, September 5, 2012

What is religion, and what is its role?

Symbols representing some world religions,
 from left to right:
row 1: Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism
row 2: Islam, Buddhism, Shinto
row 3: Sikhism, Bahá'í Faith, Jainism

What is religion? I have mentioned religion many times in this blog, but I have never defined the term. That is not easy, as many of you realize. There are maybe as many definitions as there are scholars of the subject.

Thus I will not attempt to provide a definition that will please everyone. Following the lead of some scholars,  I will list several characteristics of religions, although not every religion needs to display all of them:
  • Belief in something sacred (for example, gods or other supernatural beings).
  • A distinction between sacred and profane objects.
  • Ritual acts focused on sacred objects.
  • A moral code believed to be sanctioned by the gods.
  • Characteristically religious feelings (awe, sense of mystery, sense of guilt, adoration), which tend to be aroused in the presence of sacred objects and during the practice of ritual, and which are connected in idea with the gods.
  • Prayer and other forms of communication with gods.
  • A world view, or a general picture of the world as a whole and the place of the individual therein. This picture contains some specification of an over-all purpose or point of the world and an indication of how the individual fits into it.
  • A more or less total organization of one’s life based on the world view.
  • A social group bound together by the above.

One does not have to accept every one of these characteristics or the precise wording in order to recognize that this list is helpful to distinguish religions from non-religions. Using this list, atheism would not be a religion, since it lacks everyone of these characteristics (or so atheists insist).

I grew up in a tradition which claims that everyone is religious, in the sense that people everywhere believe in something. But is that true? As we shall see in a later post, some atheists deny this claim emphatically. Then, is this traditional understanding of religion still helpful when one is talking to atheists? 

The etymology of the term religion is uncertain, and is thus not particularly helpful in explaining its meaning. Many languages use a word that translates as religion, but they may use it in a different way, as in Sanskrit where it also means law. And some have no word for religion at all.

Thankfully, I do not have to resolve all these issues now. Most of us can recognize a religion when we see it. But are we then not using some version of the aforementioned list?

I want to start a new series on religion in general and the major religions of the world in particular. Previously I dealt with several teachings of these religions, especially Islam, but I have not yet introduced them properly. Now I want to make amends. 

I will first deal with the three Abrahamic religions, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Within Christianity, I will examine various traditions, including (in this election year in the US) Mormonism. I will discuss some other religions as well, if I have the time and patience.

This series will not be Religion 101 or a course on Comparative World Religions. Instead, I will focus, as I will explain further, on the role that certain religions already play in public on the world stage, and thus the role that religion can and, indeed, ought to play in the public arena.

The above chart illustrates the spread of various faiths in today's world (Christianity here is broken down into three main families: Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant), but it does not show how many of these religions can be found in other countries where they have become your neighbor and mine.

Since religion is a well-nigh universal phenomenon, it is easy to surmise why many people claim that everyone believes in something. Many dictionary definitions of religion include the word faith; in fact, these words have become virtually interchangeable, although religion differs from private belief in that the former has a social aspect.

A recent global poll (2012) reports that 59% of the world's population is religious, 23% are not religious, and 13% are atheists. This report notes, among other things, that religiosity is higher among the poor and lower among the college educated. It also remarks that religiosity has declined 9% worldwide since 2005.

World nonreligious population by percentage, Dentsu Institute (2006) and Zuckerman (2005)

The data can be broken down more precisely for individual counties; in the following chart the percentage of population in each country that consider themselves non-religious (2006, averages involve data from multiple sources). The countries are listed in declining order (and in this format in order to save space):

  Estonia 75.7  Azerbaijan 74  Sweden 46-85 (average of 65.5)  Czech Republic 64.3  Vietnam 46.1-81 (average of 63.55)  Denmark 43-80 (average of 61.5)  Albania 60  United Kingdom 39-65 (average of 52)  Japan 51.8  China 8-93 (average of 50.5)  France 43-54 (average of 48.5)  Russia 48.1  Belarus 47.8  Hungary 42.6   Ukraine 42.4  Netherlands 39-44 (average of 41.5)  Latvia 40.6 South Korea 36.4  Belgium 35.4  New Zealand 34.7  Germany 34.6  Chile 33.8  Luxembourg 29.9  Slovenia 29.9  Venezuela 27.0  Spain 23.3  Slovakia 23.1  Australia 22.3  Mexico 20.5  Lithuania 19.4 Italy 17.8 Canada 16.2 United States 16.1 Argentina 16.0 South Africa 15.1 Croatia 13.2 Austria 12.2 Finland 11.7 Portugal 11.4 Puerto Rico 11.1 Bulgaria 11.1 Philippines 10.9 Ireland 7.0 India 6.6 Serbia 5.8 Peru 4.7 Poland 4.6 Iceland 4.3 Greece 4.0 Turkey 2.5 Romania 2.4 Tanzania 1.7 Malta 1.3 Iran 1.1 Uganda 1.1 Nigeria 0.7  Bangladesh 0.1

It has been estimated that there are about 4,200 religions in the world. The five largest religious groups by population are Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism.

In this series I want to examine some of these religions, especially those that are the most widespread and influential on the world stage. Influence is especially relevant for this blog. I will focus particularly on how these religions see their role and how they play it in public life.

In Canada, for example, public life became completely secularized during the last century, and thus religion lost most of its influence in education and politics. But religion was at one time one of the institutional bases of the public sphere in Canada. Although it will never regain that traditional role, it should not be overlooked or underestimated. Similar developments have taken place in other countries.

Today, many faiths are challenging the assumption that religion is a matter only of private concern. They are demonstrating its historical and continued relevance to public life. The contemporary relevance of religion in the public sphere is what I want to emphasize in this series.

While writing this series, I do not want to neglect current events in the world. I will interrupt it, if necessary, in order to discuss topical matters. The world does not stop turning so we can first deal with our immediate concerns. Thus I will probably alternate on a weekly basis, or add some posts in between.

My hope and prayer is that this series will be a learning experience for everyone concerned. I, for one, enjoy doing the research for each post. Even picking a topic is stimulating. I hope you will enjoy this series as well.


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