A Religions Primer

I’m not sure that there is any other part of human existence that is so often disputed as religion. Alongside politics and money, most won’t touch it with a ten-foot-pole in polite company, yet belief systems have formed and continue to form the foundation of life for many societies and individuals. “Religion” can be many things to many people: a set of guidelines for how to live a good life, a part of their culture, a guide to connecting with the divine, a source of oppression and violence, or simply nothing at all. My goal here is not to give the end-all-be-all breakdown of world religions and how to choose one—you can do that here, or here, or with this (taken with a grain of salt, of course)—but to look at the tip of the iceberg and share some ideas that might be helpful if you are interested in exploring a particular faith or faiths.

Let’s take a moment or two to consider why humans have gravitated towards religion throughout our existence and what basic characteristics distinguish religions from each other. A little “Religions 101,” if you will.

There are several main camps into which people fall when you look at their perspectives of religion: materialistic, functional, and belief-based.

  • A materialistic perspective proposes that humans have imagined that the supernatural exists, when in fact the material world is all that is real. (Marx and Freud fell into this camp: Marx felt that religion provided a false security to people and was used to oppress them; Freud thought that religion was no more than a “universal obsessional neurosis.”)
  • A functional perspective proposes that, regardless of whether or not the supernatural exists, religion is useful for both societies and individuals to create harmony and health, to further the human species, and/or to create a sense of purpose and security.
  • A belief-based perspective proposes that there is a larger-than-life supernatural reality, and religions are humanity’s responses to that reality. (Many names have been given to encounters with that reality, like enlightenment, realization, illumination, kensho, awakening, self-knowledge, gnosis, ecstatic communion, and “coming home.”)

If you feel that you have a functional or belief-based perspective about the supernatural or divine reality, exploring the kinds of religions that might suit you could be the next step. However, it’s helpful to be aware of how your perspective influences your interest in religion. If you have a functional perspective, then the lifestyle, daily practices, or community aspects of a religion may be the most important to you. If you have a belief-based perspective, then the ideas and beliefs of a religion may be more important, though those often will still include the lifestyle, practices, and community elements.

Once you know why you want to explore religions, it can help to think about the different kinds of religions that are out there, in case certain types resonate with you more than others.

Some religions (like Christianity or Judaism) distinguish between the profane existence of our everyday world and the sacred existence of the spiritual world. Some religions (such as Taoism) say that the profane and the sacred co-exist or aren’t different realities at all. Certain religions (like Buddhism) teach that the sacred is immanent or present in our lives, whereas others (such as Hinduism) teach that the sacred is mostly transcendent, existing in another sort of reality that can be accessed through prayer or ritual.

Then there are the concepts of a sacred being or entity. Depending on the religion, there may be a personal being: a Mother, Father, Teacher, Friend, or the Beloved; or, there may be a specific being with a name and a life-story. These beings often serve to personalize some or all aspects of the divine in a way that allows practitioners to connect with it. These deities may also serve as examples for how humans should live. And, sometimes, the divine is characterized as something other than a person—as elements of non-human nature, as all of existence, or as a pervasive force or love that exists in the world supernaturally.

Religions are often categorized by the number of sacred beings or entities they believe in—monotheistic religions have one, polytheistic religions have many, monistic religions hold that there is a divine nature underlying everything, and nontheistic religions don’t attribute the divine to any particular being or entity.

Whether you are atheist (believing that there is no deity), you are agnostic (not sure whether the divine exists), you believe in something but want to give it more structure, or you were raised in one religion and don’t feel like it is spiritually fulfilling anymore, understanding why you are interested and what basic types of religions are out there is a good start! If you find that you want to learn more about particular religions, you can check out resources like BBC’s religions guide website; though beware of the plethora of biased and inaccurate information about religions that exists online. To play it safe, you can find many basic comparative religion books, like John Bowker’s World Religions or Huston Smith’s The World’s Religions.

Photo by Sara Slattery

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