Tag Archives: history of religion

Superstition is a Bad Word

Before moving house, I throw away all the old brooms. But this is just an antiquated superstition.

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Inscription in the Asclepion at Epidayuros in Greece, imploring the god of Health for healing

There is, at the outset of any serious pursuit of understanding religion and the history of religion, the need to isolate and redeploy the use of the term ‘superstition’ as routinely applied in contemporary English.

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Filed under Religious Literacy, Ways to Learn the World Religions

Evidence is for Silly Nannies

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The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, Caravaggio, 1602

I would like to post an expanded version of a short article that I originally shared in November 2013. It fits well with the Easter season. The original title is My Very Own Historical Jesus and can also be found in the archives in its original form. Please feel free to comment. Continue reading

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Filed under Christianity, Origins, Religious Controversy, Revelation

Religion’s Roots in Indigenous Religion

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Aboriginal tribesmen of Australia

The student who is truly attracted to the study of religion will benefit from the enormous number of sacred stories of indigenous religions collected by anthropologists. The roots of religion pass backward from ancient religion through indigenous religion into prehistoric religion. There are hundreds of living indigenous religions and thousands that have faded into extinction. Continue reading

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The Neverending Story : Sunni and Shi’ite

It is standard these days to describe Shi’ah Islam as a splinter group that formed very early in the history of Islam as a result of disagreement over the rightful successor to the Prophet Muhammad. But the student of religion should consider this explanation as part of the sacred history (traditional narrative) of Islam and not as historical fact.

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The newly restored (Shi’ah) Al Askari Shrine, north of Baghdad: originally built in the tenth century, destroyed in Sunni – Shi’ah conflict in 2006-7.

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Modern Religion vs Late 18th century Churches

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George Whitefield, preacher of the Christian revivals that became the ‘Great Awakening’ in colonial US.

Many Christian churches of North America have their origins in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and my students often asked me whether these are best studied as Modern Religion or as part of Christianity.

The introductory class on religion is not the place to memorize the hundreds of different sects of Christianity or their origins. Later, when studying Christianity in depth, a student can research the details of sectarianism in European churches and the continued splintering of denominations in the Americas.

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Religious Cult : No Such Thing

One of the best things you can do for yourself as an honest student of religion is to throw away the common concept of a ‘religious cult’.

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The porch of caryatids at the Erechtheum in Athens, the civic cult of Athena.

 

The student who has accepted my notion of  Modern Religion and has discarded the concept of religious cult (or ‘secte’ in French) as a rogue religion, will be able to explore these religions, whether or not these religions function within accepted laws or cultural norms and regardless of their modern expression, denomination, or relationship to the state.

The ‘cult of a god’ is a term that goes to the heart of all religion, both the living traditions and those that are extinct.

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Modern Religion

To help you remember the many and diverse religions of the world, my seven categories of all religions past and present offer you assistance and support.

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The Mahikari-no-Waza Temple at Takayama, Japan.

 

Modern Religion – the last of my categories – allows you to easily isolate the more recent religions from their ancient inspiration. A modern religion is any and all religion that has a founder or foundation after the beginning of the nineteenth century. Modern religion contains at least one, but most often several, of the following: Continue reading

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The Term ‘Abrahamic’

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image above: detail of Abraham and Isaac on the way to the Place of Sacrifice Marc Chagall, 1931

It is endlessly troublesome to create helpful categories for the myriad religions of the world.

The centuries of hostility between the so-called Abrahamic religions originate from their competitive claims to the Hebrew prophetic tradition and from their mutually exclusive claims to the revelations attributed to Abraham and the canon of Israelite prophets. I’m not sure why this category title ever felt right to anyone, religious or otherwise. Continue reading

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Oh, I’ve Heard About Your Religion

My religion told me about your religion!  The student of religion is very often discouraged and deterred by the discovery that all religion spends so much time and effort commenting upon, and criticizing the religions of others.

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For the good Muslim, it is God who speaks in the Qur’an; it is God who writes the poetry of the Qur’an, and in this poem God mentions the Jewish people and the Christians by name. To be more precise, God devotes more than twenty per cent of the Qur’an to talking about Judaism, Christianity and other religions.

God discusses the failings, or otherwise, of the Sabeans, possibly the Mandaeans, and of numerous ancient religions of various Arabic tribes.

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Your Angel, My Devil

One of the more popular topics of discussion in the World Religions class is the subject of angels and demons.

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Most ideas about angels, devils and demons do not come from sacred writings but more often come from stories, traditions and the arts adjacent to an adherent’s religion. Continue reading

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Too Many Religions! part II

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The objective of my categories is to orient the student once and for all into religion as a topic of study.

The seven categories are:

  • Prehistoric Religion
  • Indigenous Religion
  • Ancient Religion
  • The Hindi Religions
  • Religions of China
  • The Abrahamic (or Revealed Religions, if you like)
  • Modern Religion

It is very important to note that, in my system of categories, I ignore the claims made by any one religion. Many of the modern religions, for example, consider themselves to be a continuation of – or, often, a singularly orthodox expression of – Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, or one of the ancient religions. Continue reading

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All Scripture is Sibylline

The obscure nature of sacred writing, or any ancient text for that matter, can be surprisingly discouraging for the student of religion. So much of religious scripture is ambiguous and often unintelligible.

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My Very Own Historical Jesus

For the good Christian, the four Gospels of the New Testament are central to belief in Jesus. These gospels (the Christian revelation) are often referred to as the canonical gospels to distinguish them from the many other gospels and writings that belong to forms of Christianity that did not survive or, for other reasons were not included in the Bible. CaravaggioThomas01The canonical Gospel we know as The Gospel According to John contains over a dozen stories not found in the three earlier Gospels. The most startling of these stories is that of the apostle Thomas who would not believe his friends and peers who claimed that Jesus had come back from the grave and was alive. Continue reading

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The Pope, The Emperor, and The Other Guy

In the fall of 2006, the Pope of the Catholic Church, in a public discourse, quoted a medieval Byzantine emperor who had declared (hundreds of years ago) that Islam had added nothing new to the world of religious thought.

cherubPlaque01 Implied in the statement was the idea that much of Islam is found in the beliefs of those who were assimilated into the Arab Empire and that Islam had added only the oppression of the new rulers.

This quotation caused an outpouring of indignation, with many voices claiming to have been sorely insulted. Of course, the original statement from the late 1300s can tell us quite a bit about the conflicts between empires, the nature of religious controversy and something of the Byzantine mind.  Continue reading

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Roaming around the Egyptian Desert

In the Christian traditions, the founders of Christian monasticism are often referred to as the Desert Fathers.

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