2: What is Religion?

I. Before “Religion” 

The Egyptian Pyramids

English Dictionary, 1755

“Religion is virtue, as founded upon reverence of God, and expectations of future rewards and punishments.”

  • From 140,000 to 5,000 years ago, human beings travelled from their native Africa to spread across the rest of the globe.
  • Prehistoric (Pre–written) human culture can be traced from about
    30,000 years ago to about 5,000 years ago.
  • Humans have been participating as small groups in social rituals since thousands of years before written history
  • Hundreds of indigenous tribes continue to exist
    • Huge variety of folkways
    • Anthropology covers this in more depth

  • A. The Beginning of Culture*
    • Humans encounter the world and leave their mark on it.
    • An example of this is how we treat food.
      • Raw plants exist out in the wild.
      • But cooked plants represent human activity and choice.
      • This is the essence of what is called culture.
        • Culture is humans choosing what will remain raw and
          what will be cooked within our social group.
    • *Note, however, that culture does not require a written language

  • B. Sacredness
    • As human beings attempted to make sense of the world, they began to interpret and imbue the world with symbolic meaning.
    • Observation: some objects are special or useful in the big wide world
    • Interpretation: we therefore set special objects aside for cultural reasons
      • The word “sacred” comes from the Latin, meaning to set apart from
    • Sacred: Totem
      • Observation: some objects are special and “good” for the group
      • Interpretation: those objects are given special status
    • Sacred: Taboo
      • Observation: some objects and activities are special and “bad” for the group
      • Interpretation: those objects and activities are given special status as well

Religions of Rome, 1998

There were no “special institutions and activities set aside from daily life and designed to pursue religious objectives; but rather a situation in which religion and its associated rituals were embedded in all institutions and activities.”

  • C. Ceremonial Ritual: Let’s Go Athens! Let’s Go! 
    • American ritual - baseball game
      • Rituals, totems, superstitions, trinkets (movie clip)
    • Ancient ritual - Greeks preparing for war
      • Rituals, totems, superstitions, trinkets

  • D. China, India, and Israel: Ancient Ethnic Folkways
    • Ancient folkways: “Judaism” and “Hinduism"
    • Hebrew Bible and Vedas have no word for religion
      • The closest word to "religion" in the Hebrew Bible is daht (דת), which is a borrowed word from ancient Persian and also means “law."
      • And this use of daht as "religion" only came about after Christianity began
    • Ancient Hindus had no word for "religion." The closest Sanskrit word for religion is dharma (धर्म), which actually means “law"
    • These are not “religious belief systems;” they are rules for maintaining order within a tribe or ethnicity
    • Priests make decisions on law, critics (prophets) would warn the people

II. The Beginning of Religion

  • The Greek historian Herodotus used the word threskeia to describe the sacred practices of foreign priests like the Egyptians
  • There is no “religion,” only civic rituals designed to shape, control, and pacify

  • A. Christianity: from threskia to religio
    • The word “Religion” is not in the New Testament
    • 394 | Augustine describes the act of becoming a Christian monk as “entering religion”
    • 397 | The bible in its present form (27 books) is compiled
    • 405 | Jerome completes his definitive Latin translation of the Bible
      • The Greek threskeia (as used by Herodotus) becomes the Latin word religion
      • Threskeia occurs only 4 times, and only in passing, in the New Testament
    • 600s | Due to the work of missionaires, religion becomes a word used in Old English 
      • The Medieval English conception of religion is one of "sacred ritual"
      • In English, religion will not mean "to believe in" for another 1000 years

III. Medieval Religion: Universal, Public, and Obligatory

Crónica del Perú, 1553

The indigenous peoples are found “observing no religion at all, as we understand it.”

  • Religion is a public ritual performed with your town to maintain the social order (clip)
    • Any other option would result in severe penalties (pic)
  • 1500s | Modern Europeans come to assume that every culture has a religion, and thought it notable that American Indians (as they saw it) had no religion
  • Conquistadores (Catholic): Religion is about social customs, superstitions, ceremonies, feasts, etc.

IV. Modern Religion: Local, Private, and Voluntary

A. 1500s | German Protestants: Religion as a Private Matter

  • 1517 | Martin Luthers 95 Theses starts the Protestant Reformation
    • An early Protestant leader, John Calvin, promotes the view that Christians ought to live by faith alone, and Christ alone.
  • After the Protestant Reformation, the focus of religion went from maintaining the social order (public)
    to inward, personal belief (private).
  •  1534 | England separates from the Roman Catholic Church. The idea spreads across Northern Europe that communities should choose their own version of Christianity.
  • 1555 | Peace of Augsburg determines local German princes would decide which religion his people would follow
  • A variety of denominations are formed
  • 1700s | English encyclopedias and dictionaries describe “religion” as the private belief of having reverence toward God. This privatization of belief is in part what enabled Americans to conceive of a nation of citizens who could all belong to different religions. This was a very new and radical idea at the time.
  • 1738 | Example: John Wesley describes having a personal religious experience and goes on to found the Methodist denomination apart from the Church of England.
  • Religion in Protestant areas becomes more about a state of mind than a series of actions
  • Once Christians broadened the idea of “true” religion to different denominations, religion continued to expand

B. 1614 | Four “Religions” named: Christianity, Judaism, Muhammadism, and Idolatry

  • Edward Brerewood’s 1614 book, “Enquiries Touching the Diversity of Languages and Religions.”
  • Christianity as the Correct Religion.
    • Brerewood: Christianity is held up as the exemplar of proper religious belief.
  • The People of Israel become an -ism. “Judaism.”
    • Brerewood reimagines the Jewish people as a group with private beliefs, inferior to Christians.
  • Followers of Islam disparagingly called “Mohammedans.”
    • Brerewood imagines Muslims as practicing a heretical form of Christianity, worshipping Muhammad.
  • Everyone else falls under “Idolatry." Because everyone else is the same. Right?

C. 1787 | The diverse people of India become an -ism. “Hinduism.” 

  • Tradition that has been around for thousands of years
  • Vastly different approaches depending on geography and family history
  • Colonial modernity altered the course of the Hindu religion
  • Mughal conquerors coined the word “Hindu” to identify non-Muslims
  • As the British colonized India, they simultaneously sought to understand and quantify the native inhabitants
  • Native Hindus in turn, sought to formalize what had been an informal set of regional practices and beliefs

D. 1801 - 1877 | The Religions of the East are recognized

  • 1801 | Buddhism
  • 1838 | Daoism (formerly Taoism)
  • 1877 | Confucianism
    • Note: the Chinese government doesn’t recognize Confucianism as a religion,
      but Western thinkers typically speak of it that way.