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Overview Over Religion

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Overview of Religion

In this tutorial, you will learn about the religious experience in general and some of its variations around the world. The focus will be on the types of religious beliefs and religious leaders, especially in small-scale societies. An exploration of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, or any other major religion is beyond the scope of this tutorial. The approach taken is that of cultural relativity--religious practices or beliefs are not evaluated in terms of their "correctness" or "sophistication" but, rather, in terms of their function within the societies that maintain them.

What is Religion?

A religion is a system of beliefs usually involving the worship of supernatural forces or beings. Religious beliefs provide shape and meaning to one's perception of the universe. In other words, they provide a sense of order in what might otherwise be seen as a chaotic existence. Religions also provide understanding and meaning for inexplicable events such as a loved one being killed in an earthquake or some other unpredictable force of nature. For most religious people, their beliefs about the supernatural are at the very core of their world views.

Importance of Rituals

Symbolic objects used

in Christian rituals

The performance of rituals is an integral part of all religions. Rituals are stylized and usually repetitive acts that take place at a set time and location. They almost always involve the use of symbolic objects, words, and actions. For example, going to church on Sunday is a common religious ritual for Christians around the world. It usually requires the wearing of somewhat different clothing and interacting with others in a particular manner in a sacred location. At the heart of this experience is a sequence of traditional ritual acts that symbolically represent aspects of the life, teachings, and death of Jesus.

Maya Temple in Guatemala

built on a high pyramid base

to make it a sacred location

Most religious rituals are performed in special places and under special conditions, such as in a dedicated temple or at a sacred spot. This is an intentional separation between the secular and the sacred. By being removed from the ordinary world, the sacred acts are enhanced for the believers--the separation makes the rituals more effective. Only allowing initiated people to participate in religious rituals also can have the same effect.

Religious ritual reinforces the basic tenets of religion. For instance, the "partaking of the host" in the Catholic mass is a symbolic participation in the "last supper" of Jesus and, by extension, an affirmation of the acceptance of his teachings. Rituals are often charged with high emotions. The exalted feelings people feel during rituals provide positive reinforcement for continuing them. When rituals make people "feel good", they reinforce the belief that the religion is the "correct" one.

Non-Religious Rituals

Not all rituals are religious. Brushing your teeth every morning in the same place and in the same way is a non-religious ritual. Like religious rituals, it also can make you "feel good", which reinforces your continuance of the practice. However, it rarely involves a belief in supernatural beings or forces.

Children displaying their

national flag--a powerful

secular symbolic object

Political ideologies and movements often have rituals that can be profoundly important, especially when they become the focus of nationalism. Communism and extreme nationalist movements in the 20th century essentially became secular religions in some countries. They had their rituals, essentially sacred objects, and beliefs that provided meaning and order for millions of people. Even in democratic nations



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