Talking about religion

Talking about religion

Talk of religion is everywhere. Turn on the television or open the newspaper and there will be stories of conflict between religions, disputes within religions and debates over the role of religion. There will be news of power, poverty and prejudice, of revival, revolution and revulsion, all with reference to religion.

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1 Talking about religion
Talk of religion is everywhere. Turn on the television
or open the newspaper and there will be stories of
conflict between religions, disputes within religions
and debates over the role of religion. There will be news
of power, poverty and prejudice, of revival, revolution
and revulsion, all with reference to religion.
`Religion' is a word that triggers strong and varied
reactions. For some, it conjures up a purely negative
image, as the cause of war, as an excuse for bigotry
or as a crutch for the emotionally weak. For others, it
is a central pillar of life, the response to a power that
sustains them and the motivation for compassion. All
attempts at balanced definitions throw up enormous
problems.
What exactly is religion? In many Asian cultures,
the boundaries between religion and philosophy
are far less clear than in traditions deriving from
Europe. Practitioners of various indigenous religions
often say that their spirituality is such a natural and
integrated part of their lives that there is little sense
in classifying it as something separate. And what of
those beliefs and practices that display many of the
characteristics of religion but are clearly not intended
to? Fans of football or baseball, along with the most
avid followers of celebrity culture, often appear as
committed and ritualistic as the most devout religious
believer.
A common response to this ambiguity is to seek
precise terms. Some choose to talk only of individual
religions rather than religion as a whole, but this
produces more problems than it solves. Writers
who take this approach tend to speak in terms of
`world religions', emphasizing only popular and well-
established traditions. Smaller or newer movements
may be marginalized or dismissed as `cults'. This can
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When the
US invaded Iraq in 2003, global demonstrations
saw Christian peace campaigners marching alongside
Muslims in solidarity and protest. They may well
have felt that their Christianity had more in common
with the Islam of their neighbors than it did with
the Christianity of George W Bush, the US President
much given to religious rhetoric to justify his policies.
Boundaries cut across and within religious groups as
well as between them.…read more

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Talking about religion
A visit to a synagogue in Los Angeles is likely to be
a different experience from a visit to a synagogue in
Rabat, although of course there will be similarities.
In a comparable way, religion is influenced by its
political context. In medieval Europe, Christians often
explained the lordship of Christ in terms of feudalism,
with Christ above the kings and lords whom he had set
over the people.…read more

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Hindu, Muslim and Sikh identity, as people
emphasized their differences with their Christian
rulers. In the West today, several religious groups
promote their opposition to commercialism, defining
themselves against what they see as the dominant
cultural and economic norms around them.
Indeed, a glance at the origins of particular religions
shows that many were clearly counter-cultural in their
earliest days ­ sometimes radically so. This is not
surprising; almost by definition, a `new religion' is
going against dominant perceptions.…read more

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Talking about religion
ultimate reality, a combination of these or a concept
different from them all. The terms `transcendence'
or `the sacred' are sometimes used as umbrella
descriptions for these concepts. Those academics who
insist on studying religion solely as a human activity
are missing a crucial part of the picture. As the scholar
Martin Forward puts it, to discuss religion without
considering transcendence is `like trying to understand
cricket as though it is not a sport'.…read more

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This can include mythical truth, in which a story
points to a higher meaning than can be found in
a literal reading. It can also involve the truth of
experience, which is a starting point for many religions.
Muhammad began reciting the Qur'an because he
experienced a revelation in which he was given the
words, not because he engaged in a purely rational
process to decide what was true. Likewise, Jesus'
disciples experienced his resurrection.…read more

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Talking about religion
community may be local, perhaps consisting of the
people who attend the same temple. It may be global,
as with the Muslim concept of the Umma, the
worldwide community of Muslims. It may include
all members of society, such as in much of medieval
Europe, where everyone was expected to belong to
the Christian Church. Or it may comprise scattered
individuals around the world, as with certain monastic
communities. A person may belong to several distinct
or overlapping religious communities at once.…read more

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Such perceptions underestimate the complexity of
religion, as something that relates to so many spheres
of human activity but goes beyond them. In the light
of such complexity, to ask simply whether religion is
`good' or `bad' is to miss the point. Religion serves
as a reason for war and peace, love and hatred,
dialogue and narrow-mindedness. Religion can be
used for many purposes, just as science can be used to
develop life-saving vaccines or to build sophisticated
weaponry.…read more

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