Beginning the Study of Religion: wk 3

We began this week’s seminar by looking at definitions of religion, starting with an idea put forward by Ninian Smart. Smart put forward the idea that every religion has the same seven dimensions in order for it to actually be a religion. Naturally, his idea is called the Seven Dimensions of Religion. The seven dimensions Smart says there are within each religion are: practical and ritual; experiential and emotional; narrative/mythic; doctrinal and/or philosophical; ethical and legal; social and institutional; material.

The practical and ritual dimension is about things like worship, praying, regular gatherings and rites of passage. All of these things are a very practical element of a religion, with important rituals included in the worship.

By experiential and emotional, Smart is referring to the way people react when they encounter something that they believe to be very profound, whether it be a feeling of awe, guilt, inner peace. Smart says that a religion must have this quality in order for it to be truly classed as a religion. However, if a religion has this dimension alone, it is not – for Smart – a religion. Smart states that one can only class something as a religion if it adheres to each of the seven dimensions he identifies, not just a couple of them.

The narrative, or, mythical dimension Ninian Smart identifies refers to stories in a religion that can help to explain and inspire. The example we saw was the Hopi tradition of how peaches became sweet and how bees got their wings. There are many stories within many religions that can help inspire or explain. For example, in Christianity, the story of the Good Samaritan can inspire people to be selfless and help those in need, without letting prejudice getting in the way.

Smart notices  a doctrinal or philosophical aspect of religion. He explains this as a way to try and provide answers to the ‘big’ questions like ‘does God exist?’. The answers religion can offer, can lead to doctrines that its followers will follow.

The ethical, or, legal dimension of religion is the ideas and laws that shape behaviour. Again, using the example of Christianity, a prime example of laws that shape our behaviour today, is the Decalogue. The commandments set out in the Decalogue have shaped our laws today, and in turn, affect our everyday behaviour. For example, we all know that it is wrong to kill, as it is ingrained in us from birth through the law and our family. However, if we look at the law, we can see that it is heavily based upon the laws of the Bible.

The sixth dimension we looked at in our seminar was the social and institutional dimension. It is the idea that the religion provides a sense of identity for its followers. The social aspect of worship or festivals brings a community together. The institutional dimension can refer to the hierarchy of the religion.

The final dimension identified by Ninian Smart is the material. It can be described as the outgrowth of the religion through material things like architecture, music, art, symbols. All around the world there are examples of the material dimension of religion. For example, Jews have built exquisite synagogues, Hindu temples are filled with beautiful symbols of their avatars of their god etc.

After making sure we understood Ninian Smart’s definition of religion, we moved on to look at other ideas people have put forward in trying to define religion.

Melford Spiro defined religion as “an institution consisting of culturally patterned interaction with culturally postulated superhuman beings”, suggesting that he believed that religion was a human construction. Karl Marx presented the same sort of idea by describing religion as “the opium of the people”and “the heart in a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions”. He was very much of the opinion that religion was simply a way to stop the proletariat from rising against the capitalist system by making them believe that their position in society was God’s doing, and therefore should not be challenged.  —Emile Durkheim stated that religion is “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden—beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all who adhere to them”. By this he meant that religion serves as a uniting force in society, and strengthening commitment to each other. The last individual person’s definition of religion we looked  at was that of Peter Berger. He defined religion as an “audacious attempt to conceive of the entire universe as humanly significant”, clearly illustrating his secular view of the world.

Lastly, we looked at general definitions of religion and their strengths and weaknesses. The first we looked at was the substantive definition, which focuses on the content or substance of the religious belief. Max Weber sided with the substantive definition, saying that religion is a belief in a higher, superior, supernatural power that cannot be explained scientifically. This definition of religion is exclusive, and draw a clear line between religious and non-religious belief. However, it is often accused of western bias, as it does not seem to take into account religions such as Buddhism that do not have the western idea of God.

We moved on to the functional definition of religion next, which defines religion in terms of the social or psychological functions it performs for the individual or society. Durkheim was a functionalist, and defined religion in terms of the contribution it makes to social integration. The functional definition is very inclusive, which can be a downfall, as just because something unites a community, doesn’t mean that it can be a religion. Take the example of football: it unites a large group of people, and even has set rituals such as singing the club’s song. If we were to use the functional definition of religion, football would have to be classed as a religion, even though it clearly is not.

Lastly, we learnt about the social constructionist definition, which is an interpretivist approach that focuses on how members of society construct religion themselves, meaning there is no universal definition of religion. By doing this, it allows interpretivists to gain a deeper understanding of the meaning of religion to different people. This can be useful, as not everyone has the same idea of what religion is, and different people will use religion in different ways, depending on how they are feeling. However, this approach presents challenges when trying to make generalisations about religion and its benefits/functions.

All in all, this was a very interesting seminar, as we were able to look at how religion can be perceived in so many different ways depending on your general outlook, while also allowing us to be critical and look into why it is so difficult to come up with a definition of religion, that fits Abrahamic and non-Abrahamic faiths.



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