Unlike Comparative Religion, this course is not an exercise in comparing and contrasting different religions. It is an analysis of religion itself. There is, however, a certain degree of similarity to Comparative Religion, for it is nearly impossible to study anything in a vacuum. Therefore, examples of material covered are provided in the religions of the world — not for the purpose of comparing one to another, or in how they differently address particular issues, but as illustrative examples of the topic being covered. An outline of the individual lessons follows.
Lesson 1: Religion – Devotion – Reverence
What is religion? Derived from an ancient Latin root meaning “to be bound to”, the color of religion has a tinge of devotion or reverence. But, what is the object of that devotion and reverence? Christians and many others assume that the only logical answer to that question is “God”; but, there are much broader responses possible. And, the religions of the world make that patently clear.
Lesson 2: Organized Religion – Cults
Faith need not be organized; but, when it is, we know these organizations as either “religions” or “cults”. This lesson will explore the process by which faiths become organized into religions, as well as the true meaning of that often abused term “cult”.
Lesson 3: Magic – Inductive and Sympathetic
Many religions make active use of magic. For some, this takes the form of inductive magic – magic which impels, or induces, changes to the path of temporal events. For others, magic takes the form of sympathetic magic – magic which encourages changes to the path of temporal events through a method that allegorically might be considered a ‘priming of the pump’.
Lesson 4: The Origin of Religion
How did religion begin? Has humanity always had religion? If not, what prompted it into existence? This class will look at some of the proposed theories and explanations for how religion began. Also introduced will be a thought as to when religion began.
Lesson 5: Fundamental Forms (ICSE)
This lesson looks at the four principal structural forms that faith can take: individualist, communal, shamanistic, and ecclesiastical. Examples of each will be offered to enable the student to better understand the differences, and to recognize that almost all of the commonly known religious paths of today fall within a single form: ecclesiastical.
Lesson 6: Religious _Expression: Myth & Doctrine
This lesson covers myths — the narrative stories of a faith that reveal the true essence of both human and spiritual entities. Many times these stories are historically accurate; but, there are also many instances where their ‘historicity’ is either disputed or rejected. Nevertheless, they still have value to a faith through the ethical, moral and religious values they convey through the story.
By comparison, doctrine consists of explicit demands on the faithful. It dictates who they are, what they do, how they are to do it, and establishes the relationship protocols of how one relates to them through religious practices. Unlike myths, doctrine is nearly always written, and is explicit in tone, requiring no interpretation or analysis.
Lesson 7: Sacred Scripture / Sacred Space
Most religions commit their doctrine and many of their myths to print. This written collection of religious guidance is known as scripture. The faithful may believe that their scripture is a collection of well thought out human theories and beliefs, inspired writings conveyed from Deity to humanity through the authorship of some divinely inspired scribe, or even the actual “word of God” as Deity specifically directed it to be recorded. Regardless of source, however, scripture serves a common role for all religions. This lesson will use a variety of scriptural texts to illustrate these different ‘scriptures’.
Sacred space is a space which holds some divine power or purpose for the faithful. This space may be temporary (Wicca) or permanent (Native American), and it may occur naturally, historically, or by design. Students will be introduced to sacred space through a variety of religious paths, and have the opportunity to “visit” some of these through public internet sites.
Lesson 8: Ritual
Ritual is a patterned form of behavior that is believed to either induce or memorialize a particular event, belief or doctrine. It is, in essence, the “right way to do things”. Albeit rituals may vary widely in form, and even intent, across the world, all religions have them.
Lesson 9: Ultimate Reality
Religion is all about Truth, or Reality. What is this “ultimate reality”? Is it God? Is it God expressing Himself in multiple forms? Is it several (or many) gods? Is it anthropomorphic, human-like or is it an impersonal “force”? Modern theologians sometimes use the term the “ground of all being”; but, what does that mean? This lesson will explore some of the many different ways various religions perceive this “Ultimate Reality”.
Lesson 10: Religious Functionality: Nature
Many religions have an intricate involvement with nature. This does not, however, mean they are similar in their approach. Religion may espouse: a human dominance or dominion over nature (e.g. Christianity, Judaism); a reverence or respect for nature that borders on awe (Taoism); the view that nature is the entirety and embodiment of Deity (Druid, Shinto); the view that nature is but an _expression of an even more expansive Deity (Wicca, Ásatrú); or, a dismissive disregard for the material world as maya or illusion (Advaita Vedanta, Seichi-no Ie, Christian Science). This lesson will look at the various relationships that exist between religion and nature, and use modern faiths to illustrate these various views.
Lesson 11: Religious Functionality: Social
Many religions tend to have evolved while focused primarily on the problem of getting humans to live together harmoniously. In other words, they stress the social aspects of life. This lesson looks at this ‘social functionality’ as a religious feature (e.g. Confucianism, Taoism).
Lesson 12: Religious Functionality: Psychological
A variety of religions evolved while concerned most immediately on the problem of a personal relationship with Reality. In these religions, they stress the psychological aspects of life, and how to bring oneself into harmony with Reality. This lesson looks at this ‘psychological functionality’ as a religious feature (e.g. Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism).
Lesson 13: Religious Functionality: Political
Some theorists have proposed that religion evolved to serve a political and economic purpose. Karl Marx believed that religion kept the ‘have nots’ subdued and controlled by the ‘haves’. He described religion as the “opium of the people”. This lesson will explore political and economic aspects of religion, and determine what level of validity (if any) there was to Marx’s theory.
Lesson 14: Religious Globalization
Religions virtually all began within a narrow cultural context. As such, they reflected the history, fears, needs, and experiences of a particular cultural group. Gradually, however, religious expressions have expanded their appeal. They have, in other words, “globalized”. Although it does happen, it is an extremely rare occurrence when a religion maintains the original, narrow cultural limitations of its founding throughout this globalization process What happens to a religion when it “goes global”? In this lesson, we’ll explore the globalization process, and look at the often parallel occurrence of doctrinal dilution and syncretistic accretions to a religion as it globalizes.
Lesson 15: Millenarian / Eschatalogical Faiths
Pop culture claims that the Mayans foresaw the “end of the world” in 2012. Jehovah’s Witnesses knock at your door to talk to you about the apocalypse. Jean Beaudrillard writes of the “end of time”. Hinduism (and several related religions) accept a ‘cosmic cycle’ which includes the creation, existence, and dissolution of the entire universe. Supermarket tabloids run stories about the “end times”.
There are many faiths which hold eschatological views central to their belief system. Some are Christian (e.g. Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists), but many are not (e.g. Hinduism). This lesson examines how these views both empower and limit the faiths that hold them.
Lesson 16: Ecclesiasticism: Eastern Faiths
Several religions are often grouped together as what are known as “eastern religions”. All ecclesiastical in structure, these faiths share a significant body of beliefs, doctrines, rituals and myths.
Lesson 17: Ecclesiasticism: Western Faiths
Similarly, the group of “western religions” tend to share far more with each other than they do with religions from the other groups. In fact, the three largest religions in this group all claim the same historical individual as their “patriarch”.
Lesson 18: Ecclesiasticism : Southern Faiths
The third major grouping of ecclesiastical religions is often known as the “southern religions”. Again, these faiths share a significant body of beliefs, doctrines, rituals and myths.
Lesson 19: The Fourth Way: Communal & Shamanistic Faiths
There is a sizeable percentage of the world’s inhabitants who practice non-ecclesiastical religions. Some of these faiths have ‘migrated’ into a more ecclesiastical structure; but, most remain staunchly rooted in communal or shamanistic structures. What, if anything, do these faiths have in common with each other? In this lesson, we’ll find out.
Lesson 20: The Future of Religion
Revitalization; reform; expansion; dissolution; consolidation; splintering; et cetera. The options for the “future of religion” seem almost endless. Nevertheless, past history should serve as a highly influential guide to what to expect regarding the future of religion. Religion is rarely, and then only obliquely, referenced in most futuristic science fiction works (e.g. Star Trek), but that is no indication that even the science fiction writers believe that religion will simply ‘disappear’. This final lesson delves into what history tells us is likely to be the future of religion (we can make no guarantees).