RE2002: Western Religion

Chapter 3: The Tour: Western Religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam No major religious tradition lives in isolation. The living world religious traditions spring from the Indian subcontinent, where Hinduism and Buddhism emerged, and the ancient Middle East (or “West Asia” as it is known in Asia), where Judaism originated and gave birth to the other “religions of the book,” Christianity and Islam, both of which became global players in the following centuries. Before exploring those religions of the book, however, we take a brief look at ancient Greek religious traditions that failed to survive, but had a profound impact on Western civilization. Prolegomena: The Ancient Greeks Modern Western civilization has two interwoven strands: on the one hand, a spiritual tradition from West Asia originating with the ancient Hebrews that emerges as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and on the other hand, in the Greek tradition, a thousand-year practice of rituals surrounding Greek spirituality, which profoundly influenced both Roman culture and the formation of Christianity, died out formally, and was then rediscovered when Christendom encountered Greek philosophy in the Renaissance. The Enlightenment philosophers and Romantics turned to the Greeks for inspiration, as did Freud and Marx; indeed, Freud’s office in Vienna is filled with religious artifacts, including statues of Eros and Athena. Moreover, many modern secular ideas—notably democracy—emerged from the religious practices of ancient Greece. Debates in ancient Greece about belief, religion, and politics not only preceded but also prefigured modern controversies—although the philosophers drew deeply on Greek mythology for their ideas, as did Freud, Jung, and other modern thinkers—but distanced themselves over time. Plato used some traditional myths and created some of his own, not to advance belief but to teach or make a point. Aristotle complained, in his Metaphysics (1989, p. 1000a[1] (ix)), that Hesiod and the cosmologists “considered only what was convincing to themselves” and seemed to confuse “first principles” with Gods. Ancient Greek Belief Since Greek religious practices were organized around each local polis (“city”), beliefs about the many Gods and Goddesses varied somewhat from place to place, but many of them were shared, and the Olympian deities played a key role and were organized hierarchically from their king, Zeus, on down. As in most ancient religions, where people lived close to nature, the Greek deities might be seen as anthropomorphic representations of the various forces in the natural world. These concepts are foundational in Western civilization and continue to influence modern culture; moreover, the names are familiar even to those readers who have not also read Percy Jackson’s popular novels, and their architecture is widely replicated. As the Sky God, Zeus controlled lightning and thunder, Poseidon the sea, as well as earthquakes. The complexities of human nature were also deified: Aphrodite was love and Athena wisdom, but also courage, strategy and civilization, among other traits. Athena was, of course, the patron deity of Athens, who was honored by the Parthenon (built starting in 447 BCE), which inspired much of Western civilization and architecture but also reveals the cultural evolution of Athens. The Parthenon was appropriated by the Christians in the fifth century CE (dedicated to Saint Sophia and then Mary), the Muslims in the 15th, a Venetian general in the 17th (who used it as a gunpowder store), and finally the Greek government, where it is being meticulously restored by the Committee for the Conservation of the Monuments of the Acropolis. She was renamed Minerva by the Romans and has a prominent place in the U.S. Library of Congress. The Greeks worldview elaborately posited parallel but interacting worlds of Gods and humans that enabled them not only to make sense of the world and how it worked—to systematize their knowledge of natural forces, as Max Weber (1968, p. 399ff) put it—but also to empower themselves in the face of natural and social limitations. By honoring the appropriate God or seeking her or his advice, the Greeks believed that they could influence events that had seemed beyond their control, like cycles of nature, love, war, and death. Greek theories of anthropogeny and cosmogony were told in narratives about the Gods. Events in nature and social history were explained as beyond human agency—they were often a result of conflicts between the Gods dwelling on Mount Olympus or of the actions of heroes, who were sometimes offspring of a union between a God and a human, such as Odysseus, the main protagonist in the classic epics the Iliad and the Odyssey. Even the Trojan War, a major event in Greek history, was a result of interaction between Gods and humans, divine intervention, and the heroic action of demigods who were from both worlds. As in other ancient traditions, it is difficult if not impossible to disentangle the religious from the political, as they formed something of a seamless web in Greek social organization. Sourvinou-Inwood (2000b, p. 13) argues that the Greek polis (city) provided the fundamental framework for Greek religion, although Kindt (2009) contends that there are limits to this widely accepted model for understanding its nature. Each polis was a religious system that formed part of the more complex world-of-the-polis system, interacting with the religious systems of the other poleis and with the Panhellenic religious dimension; thus, direct and full participation in religion was reserved for citizens, that is, those who made up the community which articulated the religion. One belonged to the religious community of one’s own polis (or ethnos, tribal state); in the sacra of others, even in Panhellenic sanctuaries, one could only participate as a xenos (foreigner). The polis thus “anchored, legitimated, and mediated all religious activity” (Sourvinou-Inwood, 2000b, p. 15). One significant example of how it worked is the famous Delphi shrine built around a sacred spring, considered the center (navel) of the world. When people arrived from all over Greece to seek answers to their questions about the future from Pythia, Apollo’s priestess, they could not approach on their own but were represented by Delphians, who acted as proxies (proxenoi), first offering a sacrifice and then inquiring on behalf of the xenos wishing to have their questions answered. Although the interpretation of the oracle sometimes led to disputes, the flexibility of religious beliefs led to Delphi’s becoming a gathering point for critical inquiry and even a space for negotiations among rivals. It was this strategic combination of local organization and Panhellenic practice spanning the Greek poleis that, in fact, led to the gradual emergence of a social organization that eventually led to the birth of democracy as we know it (Sourvinou-Inwood, 2000b). A network of relationships emerged as people came together from the various Greek cities, perhaps  Kurtz, L. R. (2016). Gods in the global village: The world’s religions in sociological perspective (4th ed.). Los Angeles, CA: SAGE. Chapter 2   Sociological Tour: Turning East If a group of 10 people were taken to represent the world’s religious communities, three would identify themselves as Christians, two as Muslims, two would be unaffiliated or atheists, one would be Hindu, and one would be Buddhist or a member of a related East Asian religion (like Taoism). Another would have to represent every other religious group, including various folk religions, tribal and shamanist traditions, and Judaism (see Figure 2.1). This model is complicated by the enormous number of people actually involved. On closer examination, for example, you would discover that each of these persons represents not only a religious tradition but particular elements of the world’s social organization as well. Some religious traditions are surprisingly underrepresented; for example, Jews do not get a full representative because their numbers are relatively small. Because of the broad dispersion of Jews around the world (in more than 100 countries) and their impact on religious and political affairs, however, their influence is much larger than the numbers would suggest. That groups such as shamanists would not get their own representative would not surprise most of the readers of this book. More people, however, identify themselves as shamanists around the world (almost 10 million) than as United Methodists in the United States. In this chapter, I will briefly examine some of the major beliefs and practices of the major religious communities in South and East Asia—especially Hinduism and Buddhism but also Confucianism, Taoism, and Shintoism. In Chapter 3, I will explore Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Finally, we will look at indigenous religions in Chapter 4, which lie outside the world’s major religions in more local forms but also helped to shape the large cosmopolitan faiths and still interact with them. Because of the diversity within each tradition, the discussion will be highly oversimplified. It will, however, introduce the basics of the most prevalent traditions. Of special interest are the ways in which each of these traditions relates organically to a specific local social group and then changes over time as it diffuses and interacts with other religious perspectives and cultures. Although sometimes presented as immutable, each tradition proves in fact to be the product of centuries of transformation. Before beginning this tour, I will provide a brief sociological orientation regarding the various kinds of religions that will be encountered along the way. Types of Religious Traditions Most efforts to classify religions are, out of convenience, theological: The texts for most of the world’s religions are readily available, although not always in good translation, so scholars can at least construct theological categories within which to place them. Do people believe in one God, many male or female Gods, or both? Are they more concerned with individual or with collective religious issues? With the actions of Gods or of humans? Is history presented as linear or cyclical? Was the world created by one God or many? Do people suffer because of their own actions or because of the actions of the Gods? Figure 2.1 Worldwide Adherents of the Major Traditions Source: Data From Pew Charitable Trust (2014). The very questions we ask about religious traditions reflect our own culture-bound interests, however, and it is often impossible to define “correct” or “orthodox” beliefs and practices from within any given tradition, let alone to identify them from the outside. How are scholars to judge which sacred texts are significant, and how should they interpret them? To what extent have time and translation altered the original sacred texts? What was the sociohistorical climate when they were produced, and how does it compare with the current context? How wide is the gap between what Redfield (1957) called the “big tradition,” the “official” beliefs as defined by elites, and the “little tradition”—that is, the popular version of a religion to which everyday people adhere? How much of each of these traditions should be used to characterize a religion’s theology (if it even has one)? Which is more authoritative: the ancient or the recent versions of a tradition? One theological distinction widely used by sociologists is that between this-worldly and otherworldly religious orientations—that is, does a religion emphasize ethical activity in this lifetime, or does it focus on what happens to people after they die or after a major transformation in the world, such as the coming of a messiah? Relying solely on religious texts to determine whether a tradition is this-worldly or otherworldly may be misleading, however; a text emphasizing rewards in the next life, for example, may serve to focus a believer’s attention on how he or she lives in this one. Sometimes otherworldly language may refer to both an afterlife and to hope within this world, perhaps in disguised rhetoric, as in most African American spirituals. Moreover, each tradition has such internal diversity that it is hard to characterize a whole tradition. Christianity may appear this-worldly in one congregation and otherworldly in another congregation just down the street. Other issues must be addressed outside the textual sources: Is the tradition more concerned with doctrine or with practice? What are the socioeconomic and demographic characteristics of the religion’s practitioners? Have these characteristics changed over time? Are they similar around the world? To what extent do beliefs and practices vary between cultures and across social strata within cultures? Are certain kinds of people or social groups more likely to practice the tradition than others are? Those few broad, cross-cultural characterizations of religious traditions that brave scholars have attempted always fall short of the mark, but it is still helpful to get some sense of the varieties of religious life from a sociological perspective. Despite the impossibility of finding fully satisfactory answers, I will keep asking these questions throughout the book.



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Item 1

Explain why Judaism has elements of universalism. (1–2 paragraphs)

Your Response

Judaism incorporates several universalism components, such as belief in God, Jesus , human immortality, sin, and eventually, universal reconciliation. As a result, Judaism becomes monotheistic, has a distinct identity, and has agreements with God. Judaism goes further in demonstrating universalism by preaching the existence of a single God who wants people to participate in doing and expressing what is right (Kurtz, 2016).




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Module 1: Judaism
Explain why Judaism has elements of universalism.


Learning Objective 1.1 – Explain the universalism elements of Judaism.

Response is not present. Response is a vague, inaccurate, and/or incomplete explanation of the universalism elements of Judaism. Response is a clear, accurate, and complete explanation of the universalism elements of Judaism.



Item 2

Explain the key themes of the Exodus story central to Judaism. (2–3 paragraphs)

Your Response

Exodus depicts the unique relationship between the Jewish people, Yahweh, God, and the Israelites. Many of the critical concepts of the Jewish religion are outlined in the book’s stories. Some examples are the struggle, where the Israelites were enslaved, salvation, in which

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