Religion has always been a baffling, yet fantastic subject. No matter how much one tries to shelf it, it always crosses our path. I would dare say that religion dictates a large part of our life, and influences who we are. Not just by shaping the cultures in which we come from, and hence our beliefs and practices in this world, but because of its relation to our very being, our very existence. We may come from different races, cultures, localities, and time zones, but stripped of our worldly innuendos is the question, who am I? We are like an amnesiac seeing the world for the first time. Men spend lifetimes in search of knowledge, piecing things together, trying to answer the age-old question. Religion has a profound impact on the world, and our very existence. This paper aims to delineate how religion affects us, and the world in we live. It offers critiques and support for various assertions and asks whether we truly are religious.
Hood, Ralph, Peter, and Bernard state that religion can bring out the best and worst in people. They point to the numerous social problems emanating from religious conflict(Hood, Ralph and Hill). Atrocities are carried out daily in the name of religion. One does not need to go as far as the dark ages and the time of the crusades or the atrocities carried out against the Jews by the Nazis. Recent history is filled with injustices in the name of religion. Rwanda, Sudan, Indonesia, Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan, among others all bear the scars of war occasioned by religious conflict. The authors further add on, ‘The events of September 11, 2001, and July 7, 2005, has brought reality closer to home for those of us who live in the United States and the United Kingdom- supposedly more religiously pluralistic and tolerant societies’ (Hood, Ralph and Hill).This comes moments after reading the introduction to Asad’s ‘Genealogies of Religion’ that delineates how it has been noted that non-westerners feel obliged to read the history of the West (but not each other’s) and how Westerners do not feel the same obligation to study non-westerners histories (Asad).
In Assad’s book, Marshall Sahlins chides Eric Wolf for reducing the histories of non-Europeans to the history of global capitalism. Sahlin notes that Western capitalism has loosened on the world enormous forces of production, coercion and destruction (Asad). In essence, Sahlin says that Western capitalism and religion are far removed, playing no role in each other’s destiny, despite their apparent similarities.
The history of capitalism over the past one century has coincided with that of religion. It is hard to dissociate the two, especially when the perceived oppressor practices a different religion and language. For the larger part of the last 100 years, Western nations have been seen as the face of oppression and dominance, and Christian as a leading religion. Islam, has, however, seen a resurgence in recent years, growing to account for 23% of the world’s population as opposed to Christianity’s. In nations like Turkey, religion has a profound impact on people’s freedom. In such nations, one religion is dominant in national politics, and so as to curtail the spread of the contradicting religion, oppresses the followers of the opposing religion.
Best-selling author Sam Harris (2004) postulates that more evil is probably done in the name of religion than in anything else. Religious tolerance has been an issue of ages. Its significance is monumental, as millions have died whenever it lacks. Beginning since the days of Moses, for those who believe in the God of Adam and Eve, to probably ancient civilizations, religious tolerance has been an issue. Religious wars have existed for millennia. The persecution of the Jews, beginning in the times of Jesus, to the 19th century anti-Jewish pogroms in the Russian empire, and anti-Semitism in the Hitler- led Nazi crusade. During the dark ages, crusading became a way of life. The results of these crusades are still being felt today and are a very eruptive Volcano. One only need to mention terrorism and people cower. And this is where people cannot get the divide between religion and capitalism. During the world wars, a rampant social change was also being seen in a lot of places. In North Korea and much of the USSR, communism was, and in some parts still is, a way of life. Socialism, fascism, capitalism, were all being practiced. The ultimate victors, the Allies, adopted capitalism. Thus during invasions such as the Gulf wars, the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Somalia, and larger parts of Africa and the Caribbean, it is always seen as Capitalism trying to control the world. Unfortunately, few care to learn of the story behind the scenes. It is always a case of this country vs. that nation, without caring to look at the intricate details.
Very few people understand terrorism, its Genesis, or repercussions. The term Jihadi, the institution of Sharia law, and such other phrases are alien to a lot of people. Well, they are known because people see them on television when a train is being bombed, a mall attacked by suicide bombers, or when a citizenry are being informed that 1000 of their brothers, sons, and daughters, millions during the world wars, have died as a result of their nation invading another.
The threat of ISIS, a much-debated topic in recent times, is perhaps the biggest religious issue right now. It is ranked in the top calamities facing the earth, along with issues such as global warming, overpopulation, and Donald Trump. Ganor contends that there is a consensus on the unparalleled threat of ISIS, especially due to its military achievements and success in recruiting thousands of people globally to join its ranks (Ganor). It has also shown some financial muscle, a strength that has earned it support from other groups such as the Boko Haram in Nigeria and the al Shabaab on the Somali Coast. What few can agree on is the issue of the nature of ISIS, its doctrines, aspirations, and strategic situation.
The uses of religion in our lives
Different religions have different cultures, traits, and traditions. Religion even separates by sect. Different sects have a way of dressing, a way of living, a way of beliefs. Religion as a social identity anchors on guiding beliefs and symbols. It serves a pivotal role in shaping social and psychological processes and offers a distinctive sacred worldview that cannot be matched by other social groups (Ysseldy, Renate and Kimberly). Ysseldyk, Matheson, and Anisman further add that religion has an advantage over other social groups in that it is grounded in a belief system that offers epistemological and ontological certainty.
Perhaps the easiest way to tell a person’s religion. A person’s dress has long been considered as the best way to depict a person’s religion. With the invent of popular culture, the idea of wearing clothes that depict one’s religion has seen some erosion. Whether this is exactly an erosion is a debate, as it can also be viewed as an adoption of the style of Western Christians. Everywhere you go, however, you will come across someone in a garb that betrays his/her religion.
Up until lately have legal and political reform being instituted regarding religious garb. In some parts, the war is still ongoing. Due to the significance of dressing as a symbol of religious affiliation, one of the ways used to curtail religious freedom is through curtailing of some dress. The issue of uniforms, especially in schools, is a hotly contested one. It may not be as alive today as it was some decades ago, but it is still prevalent in some parts. Issues of kids being prevented in school due to ‘inappropriate dress’ are still going on in numerous countries.
Wearing of religious garb is seen as a sign of defiance. In Turkey, for example, Moslem ladies in Turkish universities wear their religious garb as a sign of defiance against religious oppression present in the country’s politics. We laugh at cases of people going to sporting events dressed in religious regalia or traditional gear, but such is the importance of religious dress for identity.
Various civilizations and religions have various ways of living and construct different houses. Religious architecture has existed for ages. Temples, synagogues, mosques, are all constructed differently. Shrines, or places of worship, have been largely used to exemplify the elegance of religion or deity. Monuments have been built, and castles constructed. During wars, it is, and was always, a trend to either target or protect, religious architecture due to its symbolism. Some religious architecture is considered national and international sites and protected under law.
Architecture also pervaded to normal housing. Different religions have different ways of building houses. The features of the house, shape, design, material, and even paint differ with religion. The artifacts in the house also differ with religion. The reason for these disparities is due to the close link between religion and culture. Sometimes it is hard to draw the line between the two.
Art has always been a part of religion. Religious art is prevalent in all places, and differs in expression, meaning, and symbolism. While Christians have more pictorial art, for example, Moslems have more of calligraphy. Many churches and mosques of old will have art from different religion based on how they changed hand over time. Some art depicting religious characters or symbols is very valued. All religions have attempted a way to express their beliefs, and museums and galleries everywhere are filled with such.
Art is also exhibited in the form of song and dance. It is difficult to differentiate between religion and culture, as earlier specified. Worshipping is a kind of art, as is meditating, and some types of dance. Dance and music from various religions are one of the largest cultural attractions. Pilgrimages are always filled with celebration, usually through art. In some parts, it became a part of life.
Religious literature has been one of the most successful forms of control and change. Religious literature dictates the way of life, what we know, and what others knew. Knowledge about the world is stored in religious literature most of the time, and archeologists are busy looking for literature to piece together history. A majority of the most significant discoveries about early man, or our being, has been through literature. Stories told to us since we were kids have shaped who we think we are, and ho e associate with others. Stories of a chosen people, the rightful heirs, have shaped history to the present day. The interpretation of literature is the cause of concern, as its manipulation or the lack of understanding, has been a cause of conflict all over.
Religion is considered the law in many parts of the globe. In fact, religion plays a significant part in policy-making. Religious literature is used to guide decision-making making, and the ideal way to lead a life (Butler). People have always looked to religion to provide answers for troubling situations. Whenever decisions need to be made, whether national, international, or personal, religion has been a sort of guide and support. The constitutions or governing edicts of various nations and institutions are derived from religious literature. People still swear by the Bible and Quran in courts of law. Governments run by people of different affiliations have different agendas. Religion is so entrenched in the Constitution and policy making that in some cases religious leaders have more power than political leaders. Religious leaders, or anyone with a religious motif, has the power to influence masses.
Back to the ISIS issue, religion has never been far detached from politics. Whenever a conqueror occupied some land, they tried to assimilate and dictate their religious beliefs on the other party. The beliefs of the conquering party would become law, and would be expected to be followed by all. The idea of an Islamist state, a state governed by Sharia law, is not far removed from kingdoms, or nations, governed on other religious edicts. The growth of the Islamist state has been due to religious persecution, or the neglect of some groups. Most of the people going to join the IS are jobless youth who feel oppressed by the ruling elite. Whether due to propaganda, brainwash, or their religious beliefs, the fact is that religion is a part of our social construct. Celso opines that Islamist terror is driven by irrational forces (Celso). I beg to differ. Our religion is a part of who we are, our social identity. While it is true that most of us have lost our belief systems, especially in the face of abundance, it is true that it is during times of crisis that we seek help and refuge. Desperate people will do anything to survive, and that’s the Genesis of the problem, oppression. As long as inequity is present or perceived to be present in society, people will always stand up to it. Whatever the ideology, or method of execution, an uprising is imminent in the face of oppression, especially where dialogue fails.
Religion has influenced behavior and traits for millennia. Religious teachings and practices are part of our daily lives, our way of living, and associations. Every religion has various rites of passage, and these are spread as the religion spreads. Religion does influence not only behavior but also life. Various religions, for example, have various associations. While in some, for example, women have equal rights as men, some look down upon women. In some people can marry as many spouses as they want, get as many kids as they want, but not in other (Mahoney and Annette). While some promote material gain or emotional attachments, others exemplify control over the mind. Different religions teach their kids differently, and this is evident even in the modern school curriculum.
Belonging to a certain religious affiliation has as huge bearing on health. While most of the influence are on the emotional, and especially coping, it is also physical (Hood, Ralph and Hill). A person’s spirituality can have a huge bearing on health (Koenig, King and Carson). Monks, for example, have tremendous physical capabilities. We have heard of people discovering their inner chi, energy. People with the ability to heal, and be healed by faith, have existed for eons. Hume, in his argument against the possibility of miracles, argues not against the possibility of miracles but the possibility of the believability of a miracle’s occurrence (Knitter). Do we have the ability to affect nature?
Tied to the physical is the spiritual side of religion. The idea of the soul, a heaven, reincarnation, hell, all ties to the spiritual. Magic, miracles, visions, prophecies, mystics, and God’s have existed since the beginning of time. The idea of aliens, divine power, is well exemplified in popular culture today; through movies, conspiracy theories, and folklore. Tales of hero’s, divine conquerors and liberators chose by the creator are relevant to all religions. Do prophecies cone true? Tales of African and Caribbean medicine men who predicted the coming of the white man are recounted to this day. Prophets of the Bible, foretelling disasters, speaking with God, are well documented. In many religions, we have people who can speak directly to God. So the idea of divinity is not far-fetched.
Many people believe in dreams being a depiction of a soul, some way of communication with the spirits. These spirits may be ancestors, angels, or a deity. Durkheim, Emile, and Swain refute the idea of dreams as evincing the soul, to much detail, but what cannot be argued is that spirituality and religion are interconnected(Durkheim, Emile and Swain). People have premonitions, omens, curses, witchcraft, and other happenings to do with mysticism, which relates to supernatural forces at play. We have seen astrologers being able to predict the behavior of people, based on astronomy. Is it all interconnected?
What is religion?
All this time, the question of what exactly religion is has not been answered. There is more literature on religion than on anything else (Hood, Ralph and Hill). But what exactly are we talking about? Can we even define it? The usual answer is that ‘I know religion when I see it.’ While vague, this is true. Religion is so diverse that our best efforts can only lead us to call upon our experiences, society, and culture, to uncritically generalize the aspects of other people. That is why sun-worshippers worship God, and idols are deemed a representation of the Judeo-Christian God.
Many of us, in search for answers to our existence, arrive at one conclusion; a supreme being. He is God, Allah, Ngai, Eshwara, Buddha, Shiva, Vishu, and a whole lot of other names. And the belief in a supreme being is prevalent, even in ‘supposedly more pluralistic and religiously tolerant societies.’ Research States that over 95% of the citizens of the US believe in the existence of God, and that about 90% pray (Hood et al.). Worldwide, more than 8 in 10 people identify with a religious group. Perhaps it is the fear of the unknown that makes people accept religion, but it has been shown to have diverse effects on diverse ages and classes of people. Hood, Ralph, Hill, and Spirka state that theories are ways of organizing thoughts and ideas so as to make sense out of the data collected (Hood, Ralph and Hill). All the religious theories attempt to make sense out of the middle that is the world, but which is true? Do you believe in the right thing?
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