Hans Otto Seitschek. 21st Century Anthropology: A Reference Handbook. Editor: H James Birx. Volume 1. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2010.
Religions and beliefs are of great importance for anthropological research on the development of humankind and its history, as they represent the human reaction to an extrahuman, holy, transcendent, or divine object. Almost no other terms of the mental and intellectual human life seem to have such a big and colorful variety as “belief” or “religion.”
At first, a look into the past: The term religion has its etymologic and historical roots in the ancient Roman world. A different context can be found for the terms personal belief or universal faith; they have their semantic origin in the Greek word pístis, which Saint Paul used in his letters, or in the Latin fides. Whereas religion gives the framework, belief fills this framework with individual religious activities. Faith means the universal religious activity of a group of people of the same religion. The Latin noun religio stems from the verb re-legere, which has the meaning “to do something diligently, to do something again, to re-read something,” according to Marcus T. Cicero (106-43 BCE). The prefix re-could even be translated as “to do something diligently again and again.” The careful execution of rituals was prescribed by rules, which were only valid through their exact observance. Therefore in the ancient Roman culture, the Latin noun religio expresses the right observance of cults and, as a consequence, the respect for the gods. The verb re-legere is the opposite of the verb neg-legere (to neglect).
The derivation of the noun religio from religare (to connect, to reconnect) is in general problematic, because this reconnection can be seen in a feeling of an inner attachment to something transcendent, which was not common to classical beliefs. In its character, religio is in Roman antiquity rather a virtue than a kind of feeling. Central in the diligent performance of rituals was a kind of “pious awe,” which was not so intensive that the acting person in religious affairs was moved inside. This is one of the reasons why ancient Roman religio is basically incomprehensible to us. Nowadays, the adjective religiosus means “pious.” In a later development, homo religiosus means “member of an order,” a person who lives according to the three evangelical counsels: poverty, chastity, and obedience. This person wants to be, in his religious life, a good example to others. It was this meaning of the word pious (religiosus) that brought the noun religion into the Christian-shaped, Western culture, and less the Latin noun religio, in the ancient Roman sense.
To exhaust the full meaning of religion or belief, it is not sufficient to speak only of devoutness or “expression of devoutness.” Religion and belief also cover the sentence fides quaerens intellectum (faith or belief that searches for insight). Therefore, it has also to do with rationality and the search for reasonable causes. Saint Augustine (354-430 CE), as an exponent of Christian antiquity, and Saint Thomas Aquinas (ca. 1224/5-1274 CE), as a philosopher of high scholasticism, shaped the concept of religio as identical with Christianity. Other, non-Christian religions or beliefs could only be classified as lex, secta, or fides. The meaning of the term lex is universal, according to our expression “denomination” or “total structure of life.” There is also a lex Christianorum, which means “doctrine and law of the Christian faith.” By no means is the forming of the concepts “religion” and “belief” steady or logical. Within the historical development, beginning with classical antiquity up to the advent of Protestantism in the 16th century, it is not possible to find a strictly continuous development to the modern term religion. So, religio cannot be translated by or equated with religion or belief in today’s meaning.
If the Christian context of the word religion is left aside, then religion and also belief can be defined as the relationship of a human to a personal or impersonal transcendent, in whatever shape of “the Real”: a divine persona or impersona. The meaning of the Western terms religion or belief, influenced by Christian thoughts, changes in other European and non-European languages from “something that is owed to the transcendence” to “law/doctrine” and “eternal, never-ending structure.”
As a result, the term religion is more objective than the rather subjective term belief. Also, the concepts of belief—characterized as individual, personal belief, or conviction—and faith—characterized as universal belief—can be differentiated. Religion is in general the system of faith that people of the same conviction have in common. Belief is the personal activity, the “personal” faith, within the framework of religion. Belief system is very near to religion, but it emphasizes the personal religious activity more than universal faith.
Further Development of Religions and Beliefs: Historical Perspectives
After this etymological study, the paradigmatic development of the modern terms religion and belief will now be described in order to give a contemporary view on them. A religion that prescribes a belief in a deity of imaginable terms is marked as rational, according to the Lutheran theologian and historian of comparative religion Rudolf Otto. In his classic work, The Idea of the Holy (1917/1925), Otto also asked for the objectivity of religion or belief, and emphasized the “contrast between Rationalism and profounder religion.” One cannot do justice to religion or belief only by rational terms. The two opposite characterizations of religion are, as Otto pointed out, the tremendum, or the “awefulness,” and simultaneously the fascinans, or the “fascinating.” The tremendum shakes people in awe in sight of the mysterious, completely different being, God. This form of fear is by far different than the “natural,” or ordinary fear of a human, and applies more to the general “world-fear.” The tremendum derives from a “numinous dread” that terrifies and fascinates people at the same time.
The Romanian historian of religion Mircea Eliade, who worked at the University of Chicago, addressed Rudolf Otto’s reflections at the beginning of his book The Sacred and the Profane (1957/1959). Eliade focused on the nature of religion or belief, describing the manifestations of religion and the religious in a world that dissociates itself more and more from religious dimensions. But even in a secular world, there is something sacred that is characterized by humans as the opposite of the profane. The process is always the same: the “completely different” is a reality that is not of our world and manifests itself on things that are components of our natural, profane world.
Eliade repeatedly spoke of homo religious, and he wanted to make clear that religion and belief belong to the human nature. Therefore, people live as long as possible in the sacred universe. By the word sacred, the dimension of the religious is described. This dimension surrounds, carries, and holds the human as a religious being. On the other side, a secular person, who is able to live without any religious feeling, has a completely different, secular experience of the universe. She lives in a desacralized world. The religious feeling has to find its way by another, maybe hidden means. The secular person lives totally differently from the homo religious.
Almost 150 years earlier than Eliade, Friedrich D. E. Schleiermacher, a German Lutheran theologian and philosopher, classified religion and belief as a “feeling,” as the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau did before him. Schleiermacher called religion a “feeling of infinity” in his second speech, “On the Nature of Religion,” of his five speeches appearing in On Religion (1799/1996).
The German philosopher of the Age of Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant, stood in strong contrast to the definition of religion or belief as “feeling.” In his work Religion Within the Boundaries of Mere Reason (1793/1998), Kant proved that there was no way to conclude the certain feature of direct divine influence by a feeling. Hence, according to Kant, religion must be based on reason alone in order to be universal. For Kant, religion had to be a “pure religion of reason.” Although these two characterizations of religion as a “feeling” (Schleiermacher) or as a “pure religion of reason” (Kant) are opposing, these two definitions of religion may be coincident in the fact that religion or belief is something according to human nature. Therefore, around the year 1800, a concept of internal religion developed, which remains effective today.
Statements on religion or belief by the Protestant theologians Ernst Troeltsch (1912/1981) and Paul Tillich (1955, 1961/1988) underlined this fact. In another way, Tillich’s works can be regarded as examples of the effective power of the concept of religion or belief. In a different approach to Immanuel Kant, he distanced himself to consider “feeling” as the basic determination of religion. If religion could be connected to the pure subjectivity of emotion, then it would decline, because religion would loose its seriousness, its truth, and its highest sense. Without a highest content, religion would stay empty. In his essay “Religion as a Function of the Human Mind?” (1955/1988), Tillich defined religion as “something that concerns us immediately,” in the deepest sense of the universe. That which “concerns us immediately” referred to all creative functions of the human mind. However, this did not mean that religion and belief are fictions of the mind, created by human beings.
According to Tillich, the human mind is able to be creative in relation to both itself and to the world. But this creativeness is limited by the relationship to God. Religions and beliefs contain all areas of the human life and of the mind, as they build the substance, the basis, and the depth of the human intellectual life. Therefore religion or belief is not based on a function of the mind at all. Religion is universal; belief is individual. They are consequently the unconditioned components in every situation of human life. Being moved by religion is always related to a religious object. In this context, Tillich emphasized two points: (1) Religion and belief are always related to a content, which cannot be explained in the end; and (2) religion has always a social dimension, too. Nobody is alone in being religiously moved or in feeling any kind of religious emotion. Therefore, the objectivity of religion is founded by its social dimension, according to Tillich. As a consequence, religion and belief are situated in the human being, who is touched by a “revealed unconditioned being,” by a religious object. This can generally be applied to everyone. “Religious reality,” however, goes along with a secret consciousness: tua res agitur, “your situation is concerned.”
Two definitions of the concept of religion can be found in Tillich’s work. Both differ crucially from the traditional one—religion or belief as the human answers to the transcendent. (1) Tillich spoke of an “autonomous religion” that does not know a representational God, nor, consequently, any form of prayer. But in contradiction to that, religion is not impious or lacking a God. It just does not know any kind of ecclesiastical objectification of God. With mysticism, it is different again, because mysticism elevates itself beyond the objectification of God. (2) In his later essay, “Christianity and the Encounter of the World Religions” (1961/1988), Tillich mentioned quasireligions, which are similar to religions and have some features in common with religions. But quasireligions are only related to secular objects and consequently to secular institutions. Tillich differentiates between quasireligions and pseudoreligions. Both pretend intentionally to be similar to religions. The expansion of the concepts of religion or of belief as inward phenomena, which have been developed since the beginning of the 19th century, became clear in Tillich’s considerations.
The two concepts of quasireligions and pseudoreligions must be strictly distinguished from traditional, historical religions. Similar to quasireligions is what Eric Voegelin (1938/1999) and Raymond Aron (1965/1968) spoke of as political religion. An explosive nature is exhibited in the relationship between religion and politics, as it is demonstrated in the concept of political religion, and later on in the concepts of state religion or civil religion. The term political religion has its roots in religio politica, going back to the early 17th century. Since the 1930s, it served to classify the political-totalitarian mass movements of this time in a critical attitude toward ideology. This modern “political religion,” however, must be clearly distinguished from the “political religion” of classical antiquity and the later concepts of state religion and civil religion, which tried to institutionalize the relationship between religion and politics, not always in a fruitful way.
Generally speaking, it is possible to identify religion or belief as being situated in a person. Religion or belief must be further defined as a relationship and interchange between a human being and transcendent reality, which is relevant for humans. But the relationship to transcendence is not the only decisive criterion for a religion or a belief. Religions and beliefs are rather connected by a kind of “family resemblance,” as defined by Ludwig Wittgenstein (1953/2001). They are determined by overlapping qualities, including holiness, prayers, and services. Religions and beliefs also show similarities that connect them. These similarities, however, must not necessarily be alike in every religion or belief. Regarding those similarities, the reference to transcendence plays, of course, an important role. John Hick (2005) pointed out that another fundamental “family resemblance” of religions and beliefs, in addition to their reference to the transcendence, is their soteriological content, which describes the ability of a religion or belief to redeem human souls and allow salvation. However different their contents and traditions may be, this soteriological quality is a feature that all religions and beliefs have in common in various manners. Also, the validity of religious traditions was of great importance for Hick.
Religion and belief in the modern ideology can carefully be defined as generic terms, or concepts, which slowly have grown in importance in our modern age. These concepts are very different from the ancient meaning of the word religio, which first described all imaginations, attitudes, and actions of a person concerning the ultimate reality. Humans accept the ultimate reality as powers or a power, spirits or demons, gods or God, the “Sacred” or the “Absolute,” or just “Transcendence.” In ancient times, religio was not used as a collective name for each belief or as a universal term, in which various beliefs were summed up. The term religio, representing the past view on religion or belief, was used in a very narrow sense from antiquity up to the 16th century. At first, religio referred to the exercising of the rituals prescribed by law, but only later with regard to the Christian denomination. In general, it took a long time before religio and later “religion” had achieved their meaning, which led to the modern understanding of “religion.” Religion is more than the mere name of a personal belief. It expresses that humans are concerned about something beyond them. Also, death obtains a different meaning within a religious world-view. Romano Guardini (1940/1998), the Catholic priest, theologian, and philosopher of religion, considered death as the gate to the other side of human life, which remains secret to those who still live in this world. For religious people, death is no longer the end of life but, instead, is the turning point to a different reality.
Summing up, the terms religion and belief can be characterized by the following three points:
- There are no universal terms for all religions or belief systems of humankind in each epoch.
- There is no term that includes all aspects of what is meant by religion or belief today. Even all these terms together cannot cover every aspect now meant by religion or belief.
- Earlier terms of religio or religion stand in contrast to the modern meaning of religion. They emphasize the external practice of religion, the observance of ritual instructions and regulations, and the obedience to religious laws.
These three points, however, cannot unambiguously classify religions or beliefs and they do not ultimately define them. But they do outline the broad frame of the modern concept of religion and belief.
Early Explanations for Religions and Beliefs
Since ancient times, as many sources teach, people have had various religious or pseudoreligious systems. In the past, religions and beliefs were the result of natural phenomena, which led people to fear and to require that these natural phenomena be explained. Also, social facts and mechanisms had to be explained through religious patterns. Ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman religions show this function of early religions or belief systems. These religions and beliefs were polytheistic (i.e., there were many different gods, who had different things to take care of). In many cases, one god is honored as supreme among the others (e.g., Zeus in ancient Greek religion or Jupiter/Jove in ancient Roman religion). The holy or the deity was often linked with nature. Humans found in nature the powerful influence of God: Therefore trees or fountains or mountains (esp. the peak, like Mount Fuji in Japan) were adored as holy, or as the place where the deity lives. Also in totems, things of everyday life or symbols or even animals, the spirit of a deity is believed to be effective. Therefore, it is forbidden, it is a taboo, to kill an animal in which a deity is believed to be present. These original religious aspects can be found within African religions and beliefs, or within the religions of the Pacific islands.
In the Egyptian and Roman traditions, the emperor was adored as a god and found his place in the Pantheon after his death. Archaeological proofs of these ancient religions and belief systems can be found in the pyramids in Egypt, as well as in the ancient Roman temples around the Mediterranean Sea. From the onset of European culture, politics, religion, and society were interconnected within the ancient state, the Greek pólis or the Roman civitas. So religions and politics were interlinked in ancient European societies. Later on, these three aspects differentiated more and more. Today, politics, religions, and societies are almost separated, but one should be aware that humans are oriented toward religious belief, as civilians within a political state and a civil society. So it is useful to respect religion and belief even within a political point of view.
At the beginning of ancient Greek culture, the explanations for the reasons why the universe came to exist, and why it exists the way it does, were given in the myths of the writers Homer (ca. 8th century BCE) and Hesiod (ca. 8th century BCE). Next, there was a shift from mythos (myths) to lógos (reason). This shift can be found in the quotations and fragments of the pre-Socratic philosophers, who turned their interests toward nature and the reasons for natural phenomena. Thales of Miletus (ca. 624-546 BCE), for example, a philosopher of nature living on the Ionic coast (today’s Turkey), gave a precise forecast for a total eclipse by calculation, but people took him almost for a prophet, and, what is more, he could forecast a rich bearing of olives, so that he lent all the olive presses in his country for a small amount of money, and consequently he was able to borrow them for a very good price. The next step from myths to reason can be found in the philosophy of Plato (ca. 428/427-348/347 BCE), a disciple of Socrates (ca. 469-399 BCE). Plato underlined his arguments in his dialogues with myths, in order to explain them better to his disciples. Among them, there was another important philosopher, the educator of Alexander the Great, Aristotle (384-322 BCE). Aristotle was also very interested in investigating natural phenomena and in explaining the world by reason, not by myths.
The general aim of this early Greek philosophy was to explain the universe by using human reason rather than mythical explanations. As a result, the soul of a human should not be in a disturbed situation, but in a quiet state, which is characterized as eudaimonía (felicity). The early philosophical schools in ancient Greece always had the intention of caring for the soul by giving reasonable explanations for the universe and its existence. Consequently, these early philosophical schools played the role that religions or beliefs play in our own time.
Major Religions and Belief Systems
There are many religious systems, including ancient systems or natural religions, or smaller derivates from the major religions or belief systems. All religions and belief systems aim to provide answers to human questions on the transcendent and to major questions on life and death. People thus find orientation for their lives within these major religions and belief systems.
Eastern and Western Traditions
In general, Eastern traditions differ from Western traditions. Among Eastern traditions, which have more the character of belief systems than religions, there is Hinduism and Buddhism, but also Confucianism in China, which concentrates on the ethical life, and the animistic and polytheistic Shinto in Japan, which honors and prays to the ancestors. These are known as very old religious traditions in the Eastern part of the world.
The Western traditions are better described as religions than as belief systems. The most important are Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. All three of these religions refer in quite different ways to Abraham (ca. 2000 BCE) as an ideal of a pious and religious person.
Also, Zoroastrianism is counted among the major religious traditions or belief systems. It is considered to be the first monotheistic belief system, with Ahura Mazda as the universal God. But it is also a dualistic system; asha/arta is the principle of “truth” and “order” whereas druj, “lie,” is the opposite. Both principles “fight” against each other in the world. Zoroastrianism was founded by the prophet Zoroaster, or Zarathushtra, in the farmland area of today’s Western Iran. The main teachings of Zoroastrianism can be found in the scripture Zend-Avesta.
In Asia, the Hindu traditions are well known; the religion of the Vedas and the Upanishads is grounded in very old scriptures (e.g., the Bhagavad Gita or “Song of God”). The beginning of these traditions is about 4,000 years BCE in India. The Hindu traditions have a polytheistic basis, with Shiva and Vishnu as the central deities, but only one eternal aim: the unification of the individual soul, atman, with the highest spirit, Brahman. After several lives, the soul can enter the Brahman, leaving the system of reincarnation (samsara), if the karma, the balance of all individual actions, is good enough. Five elements are considered to be central for Hindu beliefs: (1) dharma (ethics and duties), (2) samsara(cycle of reincarnation), (3) karma (action and resulting reaction), (4) moksha (liberation from the cycle of rebirth), and (5) yogas (paths and practices). Though it is controversially debated among scholars whether the caste system is an important part of Hindu teaching, this social system remains strong even today. There are four castes, called varnas, beginning with the highest cast: (1) Brahmins (teachers and priests); (2) Kshatriyas (warriors, nobles, and kings); (3) Vaishyas (farmers, merchants, and businessmen); and (4) Shudras (servants and laborers). The caste system is very rigid. Marriage is only possible within one caste. People outside the caste system, Parjanya or Antyaja (or now Dalits), the “untouchables,” have almost no chance to progress in social life. Therefore, this system has often been criticized as discriminatory (e.g., by Mahatma Gandhi [1869-1948], whose ideal was absolute peacefulness).
Also in Asia, the Buddhist tradition is founded on the philosophy of Siddhartha Gautama Buddha (ca. 563-483 BCE), who was a teacher of spiritual wisdom. There are two main traditions in Buddhism: the Mahayana (great vehicle) Buddhism and the Theravada (ancient teaching) Buddhism. A smaller tradition is the Hinayana (low vehicle) Buddhism. Central Buddhist teachings contain the Four Noble Truths: (1) the nature of suffering (dukkha), (2) suffering’s origin (samudaya), (3) suffering’s cessation (nirodha), and (4) the way (marga) leading to the cessation of suffering. This “way” (marga) is characterized by the Noble Eightfold Path: (1) right view, (2) right intention (wisdom), (3) right speech, (4) right action, (5) right livelihood (ethical conduct), (6) right effort, (7) right mindfulness, and (8) right concentration (concentration). The Noble Eightfold Path contains the ethical “program” of Buddhism.
One aim of Buddhism is to bring cessation from suffering to the human soul. There are several traditions within Buddhism. Among them, there is Zen Buddhism in Japan and Tibetan Buddhism, whose head is the Dalai Lama. The monastic tradition is also very common in Buddhism, because its discipline helps the adherent to succeed in achieving the aim, the nirvana, as a unity of the individual soul with the universal in the absolute nothingness (nirvana).
The Mosaic tradition, later Judaism, is historically the first major tradition in Western culture. Christianity and Islam followed. In Judaism, humankind has been given the advice to follow God’s law, which was revealed on Mount Sinai, or Horeb to Moses. This revelation took place during the Exodus, the Jews’ escape out of Egyptian slavery. Moses was the leader of the people of Israel during that time. A life in accordance to the law will end up in felicity and prosperity, even after death. The prophets played a major role, because they renewed the concentration on God’s revelation within his law. During the reign of the Babylonian emperor Nebuchadnezzar II (ca. 630-562 BCE), the Jewish people were kidnapped and taken to Babylon. The Babylonian Talmud was written during this time, a commentary on the Torah, with respect to other commentaries and the oral tradition, in order to give a set of rules for everyday life. Literature interpreting the Torah is known as midrash.
When the people of Israel returned to the Holy Land, they built the first temple. In the year 70 CE, the temple was destroyed by the Romans, and the rabbinic phase began in Judaism. Rabbis are teachers of the Holy Scripture and they interpret for believers. They also give advice to pious Jews on how to manage life and how to decide in problematic situations. The halakha means to follow properly the way of the Jewish tradition.
Judaism today is quite various. There are liberal branches, as well as orthodox branches, whose believers observe the traditional religious law very strictly. As predicted in the prophecies of the Hebrew Bible, Jewish people still wait for the Messiah, who will come in the future in order to complete the divine law in his person.
In Christianity, Jesus Christ is believed to be the son of God, who came to redeem people. After the original sin of Adam and Eve, humankind survived for the redemption. The redeemer is Jesus Christ, who was crucified by the Romans after being accused, by the Jews in Jerusalem, of heresy for pretending to be the Messiah, and whose resurrection after 3 days astonished people, especially his own disciples. After another 40 days, Jesus Christ went up into heaven. After another 9 days, the Holy Spirit was sent down to earth in order to lead the faithful and to give consolation to them. God is the Holy Trinity in Christian tradition: God-Father, God-Son, God-Holy-Spirit.
Later, the Christian church developed into a more and more powerful institution, which secures the tradition of belief and teaching. Although crusades have occurred, the Christian doctrine is against force and tends toward peace on earth. In the year 1054 CE, the Eastern Greek Church turned away from the Latin Roman Church with the pope, the bishop of Rome, as Vicar of Christ and head of the church. Formally, there were two reasons for the East-West Schism: First, the Western and the Eastern traditions could not find a proper date for Easter, and second, the Eastern tradition could not agree to the filioque (“and by the Son”) within the credo, the big confession of the faith. The filioque means that the Holy Spirit was sent by the Father and Son together.
In the 16th century, the Protestant Reformation movements began with the Augustinian monk Martin Luther (1483-1546) in Germany, Huldrych Zwingli (1484-1531), and John Calvin (1509-1564) in Switzerland. The theologians Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466 or 1469-1536) and Philipp Melanchthon (1497-1560) both followed the Lutheran teaching and supported the Protestant teaching in the academic sector (e.g., by writing important letters). The Protestant Reformation movements wanted to renew the Western Church (e.g., by providing new translations of the Bible, and a new structure by changing the hierarchy). But in the end, these movements divided the church again as a result of a second big schism. Protestant Christianity then divided again into the many small movements and churches, or denominations, of today.
In 1534, the English Church separated from the Roman Church, and as a result the Church of England or Anglican Church was founded. The king or the queen of England is the head of the Anglican Church, and meanwhile the Archbishop of Canterbury exercises this office worldwide in the Anglican Church (e.g., the Episcopal Church in the USA). Whereas the High Church is near to the Catholic Church, the Low Church is nearer to the Protestant Church. So the Anglican Church regards itself as a “middle way” between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. In contrast to Protestantism, the Catholic Church keeps up its 2,000-year-old tradition and discipline, although the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican (1962-1965) has changed some elements in this tradition.
Islam was founded by the prophet Muhammad (ca. 570-632 CE), who had a direct revelation from God (Allāh). This revelation is written down in the Koran, the holy book of Islam. In 622 CE, the first year of the Islamic calendar, Muhammad went from Mecca to Medina; this event is called the Hijra, or “walk,” which was the founding act of Islam. Sometime later, Muhammad returned to Mecca with his soldiers and gained a lot of followers and power. Islam regards itself as the final religion, which is based on the ultimate revelation given by God to Muhammad. This revelation gave perfection to the Mosaic and Christian revelation. Muhammad, the prophet of God, is the last and the highest of the prophets.
In the Islamic tradition, on each Friday there is a ritual prayer in the mosque. Ritual prayers are among the most important elements of Islam, the so-called Five Pillars of Islam: (1) fasting in the month of Ramadan, (2) the pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj), (3) ritual prayers (salát) several times a day, (4) charity (e.g., giving money to the poor), and (5) the profession of faith. Also, the observance of religious law (sharia), which contains rules for all areas of human life, is central to Islamic teaching. Islam is a religion or belief system of strict discipline, and it has gained a lot of influence in the states of both the Near East and the Middle East, as well as in Indonesia and Africa.
Religious Objects, Symbols, and Rituals
Each major religion or belief system knows certain objects and symbols, as well as rites. The rite is often connected with specific objects or symbols. In Buddhism, for instance, the wheel is a symbol of the recurrence of life and, more important, the Noble Eightfold Path. In the Mosaic tradition, the Star of David is the central symbol of identification. In Christianity, the cross, on which Christ was sacrificed, is the core symbol. And in the Islamic tradition, the half moon, as well as the sword, is central.
Symbols serve to give meaning to rites. In Jewish service, for example, the scrolls of the Torah must not be touched by humans, because they are absolutely sacred and represent God’s presence. Therefore signs exist, sometimes formed like a human hand, with which the scrolls of the Torah can be touched in order to follow the lines, which have to be cited. Another symbol in Jewish service is the shofar, a horn (e.g., from a ram, which is blown in preparation for and during Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when humans reconcile with God). Yom Kippur is celebrated 10 days after Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.
In the Catholic Holy Mass, wine and bread are leavened and then transubstantiated into the blood and body of Christ as an unbloody renewal of the Crucifixion of Christ. The Host is then essentially Christ, and it is carefully venerated and adored. Also, the Virgin Mary is venerated in the Catholic faith as the Mother of Jesus Christ (i.e., the Mother of God). In the Protestant traditions, the transub-stantiation is interpreted in a different way. The essential real presence of Christ is limited to the moment of the transubstantiation. Also, the veneration of the Virgin Mary and the saints is not common in the Protestant tradition. In order to venerate the Corpus Christi (body of Christ), the Virgin Mary, or the saints, there are often processions of Christians, especially in the Catholic tradition.
The pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca, one of the holy cities of Islam, has its aim in circling around the Kaaba, or “cube.” The Kaaba is a thousand-year-old small building and the most sacred place in Islam. In the Eastern corner of the Kaaba, there is the Black Stone, the most important feature of the “cube.” All Muslims pray in the direction of Mecca, as it is the center of Islam.
Also, ritual dances or specific music or songs help to bring people into a state of mind that leads them toward a deeper understanding of the transcendent. The location for rites is, in most cases, a sacred place or a temple (in Christianity, a church), which can be seen as the house of God. These “houses of God or gods” attach a specific place to religions or beliefs, thereby providing an identity for them; also, they provide a meeting point for the believers as a kind of “home.”
Religious Manuscripts and Teachings
Religions and belief systems express themselves in teachings, on the one hand manifested by oral traditions and on the other by sacred manuscripts. The basis for most of the teachings is a divine revelation.
The most common religious manuscript in our times is the Holy Bible, the “book of books.” But in the Far East, we have a lively tradition of Holy Scriptures: In the Vedas and Upanishads, Indian religious wisdom is written down, as in the Bhagavad Gita, or Song of God, as mentioned earlier. In the Bhagavad Gita, Sanjaya, who has a supernatural eye, tells the blind-born king Dhritarashtra about the big battle (between the near-related royal families of the Pandavas and Kauravas) that took place in the region where now the city of Delhi is located.
Judaism and Christianity refer in different ways to the Holy Bible. The Mosaic tradition is based on the five books of Moses, the Mosaic law or the Torah, the books of the prophets, and the psalms. Another important writing of Jewish tradition is The Guide of the Perplexed by Moses Maimonides (ca. 1135-1204), which considers religious and philosophical aspects, and helps to interpret the Jewish law properly. Maimonides’s influence on Jewish thinking still remains intense. Christianity is also based on the Old Testament, partly equivalent to the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh), but also on the New Testament: the Four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, the Epistles of Saint Paul, and the General or Catholic Epistles, as well as the Apocalypse of Saint John.
In the Koran, or “the recitation,” the holy book of Islam, the revelation to Muhammad resulted in the central teachings of Islam, which are the core of the religious law, the sharia. Furthermore, the sunna, the history of the life of Muhammad, is the model of a good life for a Muslim. In Islam, the religious law, the sharia, has a great meaning, so the most important religious leaders are judges.
Teachings of all religions provide explanations for the beginning of the universe, as in Genesis, the first book of the bible, moral teachings, and orders for a good life, which must match the will of God. These moral teachings belong to the realm of natural rights, which are similar in all religions and belief systems and their teachings. Natural rights follow human nature and therefore human rationality. Religious teachings give answers to crucial human questions concerning the universe, ethical problems, and life and death.
In the field of religions and beliefs, many fruitful future research areas can be found. The humanities, especially the studies of religion, which are linked to anthropological and sociocultural research, create new research areas: using the structuralistic method of the French ethnologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, rituals are analyzed in order to discover the common structures of rituals in different religions or beliefs. Furthermore, the discourse of religions and beliefs are examined as well. Therefore, the dynamics and controversies within this discursive process are analyzed and described in order to obtain more results concerning the relationship between different religions and belief systems.
Also, the aesthetics of religions or beliefs are currently under scrutiny. Religions and beliefs can be described as aesthetical systems or systems of symbols, which influence the human realization of reality. The aesthetics of religion build up a systematic coherence for religions and belief systems. Another field of interest is the influence of religions and beliefs on different human societies and politics, because religions and belief systems provide ethical rules and values. Psychological studies examine the inner processes caused by the personal beliefs of a human being, for example during religious examinations, such as prayers or meditations. Very important for future research on religion is the investigation of human nature. All religions or belief systems provide concepts of human nature. This question of human nature is important for answering many questions and solving many problems in terms of the sciences in the future (e.g., in human-genetics research).
Also, in philosophy and theology, there are new areas of research, especially the examination of the relationship between rationality and religion or belief. For example, the context of metaphysical considerations of late antiquity and the appearance of Christian revelation in the first centuries, beginning with early Fathers of the Church like Origen (185-254 CE) and ending with Saint Augustine (354-430 CE). During that time, theology has its origins in the confrontation of philosophy and religion. A major rational concentration on religious thoughts can be found in the Middle Ages (e.g., in the Summa Theologica, written from 1264-1274, of Saint Thomas Aquinas). The rationalism of the European Enlightenment emphasized critical views grounded in logic and nature. After rationalism, German idealism included religion systematically within philosophy as a philosophical perfection of the spirit. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) understood his philosophical work as a negative profile of religion in contrast to Christian thinking, which, he posited, is not suitable to human nature. But in the 20th and 21st centuries, religions and beliefs soon came back to the intellectual agenda. Therefore, religions and beliefs are truly fruitful objects for future research, as well as for anthropological research.
Summing up, the following three points are important for an anthropological perspective of religions and beliefs:
- Religions and belief systems want to give humans a special place in the universe and within reality itself, which is of course a different orientation from the scientific worldview, but nevertheless one way to consider the universe and humans within it.
- People may not want to refer to religion or beliefs as something entirely made by humans. For many people, religions and beliefs should include a serious transcendental relationship (e.g., based on a revelation). Otherwise, religion is in danger of becoming an ideology, which may lead people to the use of force and cruelty, as in totalitarian political systems. Such systems are often characterized as political religions, like fascism, national socialism, or communism.
- Moreover, religions and belief systems need not be rigid systems of moral teachings in order to suppress others. Religions offer guidelines for life respecting the truth, with the aim being a future life (of the soul) in truth and peace. In religions and belief systems, people want to live their lives in accordance with God, as fruitful and successful individuals. And, what is more, people want to gain the hope for eternal life or redemption after death, which thereby gives a meaningful sense to human existence, like a gate to paradise, near to God or the transcendent.
Religions and beliefs belong to many fields in the humanities: theology, philosophy, sociology, history, religious studies, and psychology (among others). It is very important that, in many perspectives on human life, religion and belief play a role as an answer to the question of the sense of human life and death. In religions and belief systems, humans seek answers to many other questions as well, especially in terms of ethical questions and the question of a good life. As a result, religions and belief systems play a major role within anthropological considerations of any kind.