Every society on earth, for all history, has practiced religion. Secularists from East to West wish it were not so, as secularists always have. From Voltaire to Richard Dawkins, some men wish religion would go away. And yet it does not. Keep reading to learn the fundamentals of religion.
By Mark D. Harris
My doctoral dissertation for my PhD in world religions compared the militancy of Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and Islam. The research demonstrated a moderate direct effect but large indirect effect of religion on militancy. Far more than just promoting or discouraging militancy, however, religion impacts every part of our lives. Religion impacts the lives even of those who deny having a religion. Knowing the fundamentals of religion, as well as the specifics of each one, explain much about the world we live in.
Four key questions
To begin discovering religion, we must consider our own presuppositions and prejudices. None of us is a blank slate. Our views are modified by our genetics, our upbringing, and our choices. Students should ask and answer the following questions as they approach each religion.
- What do you picture when you think about each religion?
- What are the basic tenets of each religion?
- What is the historical record for each religion?
- What is the impact of each religion? Numbers, geographic scope, historical importance, modern issues
Metanarratives are stories that attempt to explain reality. They are overarching explanations for existence, sin, redemption, meaning, and all the great questions in life. Every religion and philosophy promotes its own metanarrative, and rejects others. The four most important questions that metanarratives, such as those in religion, need to ask are as follows:
- Why does anything exist?
- Who am I?
- What is wrong with the world?
- How do we fix it?
Speaking from the Buddhist metanarrative, a monk might say “nothing exists, including me,” “misunderstanding the dhamma causes all the problems in the universe,” and “meditation and enlightenment will fix the problems that I have.” A Muslim might counter by saying, “No. Allah created everything. I am his creature. Evil among men is the problem, and to fix it, each people must embrace Islam and do right. A secular humanist might protest, “No. Chance caused existence. Each individual exists for this lifetime only and must find his or her own meaning. Religion and bad societies cause all problems, and only politics can fix it.” It is now time to define religion.
The idea of religion is notoriously difficult to define. Here are two broad examples:
- “Religion is the relationship between man and the superhuman power he believes in and feels himself to be dependent upon.”
- “Religions are the expression of the eternal and indestructible metaphysical craving of human nature.”
Notice that neither of these definitions would satisfy honest Christians, but together they are broad enough to include formal religions, informal religions, and philosophies. The science of religion includes a general history of religion and comparative religion. The former looks at the origin and development of a single religion, studying it on its own terms. The later develops criteria outside of any particular religion and uses those criteria to compare many religions.
For example, a general study looks at the religion as it moves through history, while comparison evaluates many religions at a given time or with regard to some other aspect, like a point of belief. A general study might look at the military history of Islam, while a comparative study might compare the militancy of Islam with Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity.
The 19th century saw a flourishing in the desire of Europeans to study non-Christian religions. Many of the scientists studying Islam, Hinduism, and the like were themselves Christians. It seemed natural to compare religions, though sometimes the purpose was an effort to show the superiority of Christianity. As the World Wars shredded faith in the legitimacy, much less the superiority, of Christianity in the minds of many, comparing religions fell out of favor in academia. Today, it is offensive to many to imply that any culture is similar to any other. Objectors posit three reasons:
- Religions can be highly different between regions, localities, and even individual practitioners. It is difficult if not impossible to account for such differences.
- Assuming that each adherent believes the same thing and will do the same (or even similar) things is dangerous.
- Modern comparative religious study came out of colonial Europe and was used as a way to prove the superiority of Christianity. Therefore, it should not be used.
Nonetheless, comparing religions allows people to rapidly understand differences and similarities between faith groups. Further, comparing religions is useful to understand cultures and actions of peoples throughout the world.
 Hans-Joachim Schoeps, The Religions of Mankind: Their Origin and Development (New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1966).
Theories of the origin of religion
There is no group of people in human history that do not have some religion. Prescientific eras tends to be more religious than later eras. Three theories of the development of religion include:
- Animism – everything has a material and immaterial part. Trees, rocks, animals, water, and humans have spirits. These spirits live forever and impact day to day human life.
- Preanimism – An impersonal power (like the Force) manifests itself in unusual phenomena. People saw this and developed religion.
- Original monotheism – the root belief of all religious systems is one God.
In reality, all these explanations have merit, but none of them are preeminent. All three precursors or types of religion – animism, preanimism, and original monotheism – have been found simultaneously in ethnography and in archeology when studying ancient peoples.
Fundamental ideas of all religions
- Holiness – In most religions, God exists, and He is holy. Beyond the divine, some people and some things are set apart to God. Holy things are attracting and repelling, delighting and frightening, mysterious and awe-inspiring. Holiness is powerful. Holiness is uniquely “other.” Holiness is never quite understandable, but a word often used as a synonym is “numinous.”
- Mana (Polynesian term) – Mana is a power linked with certain people, other beings, events, or actions. Mana is a supernatural, invisible force possessed by the “strong man” (chief or medicine man). It is potential energy, like an electric charge (cf. Luke 8:45-46). George Lucas may have been thinking of mana when he directed Star Wars. Mana can be stored in objects. Amulets, talismans, and mascots have mana. In many ancient and some modern cultures, mana is similar to magic.
- Taboo – Taboo is “negative mana” which accrues after doing something forbidden by the deity. Taboos are related to things causing repugnance, such as dead bodies, human excrement, and bodily fluids. Women are taboo when menstruating, during pregnancy, and during childbirth. Fiancés are taboo to each other until married. Taboos surround certain leaders, but men in general do not have taboo like women do. Places such as graveyards can be taboo, as can times such as the Jewish Sabbath.
- Sacred kingship – Sacred kings were venerated as having high, and sometimes even divine, concentrations of mana. Taboos surrounded the king to prevent his power from ebbing and to prevent his subjects from being harmed by his power. If a king’s mana was exhausted, he would be put to death (sacral regicide).
In Judaism, restrictions to preserve sacred kingship include:
“One may not ride on the king’s horse, and one may not sit on his throne, and one may not use his scepter, and one may not see him when he is having his hair cut, nor when he is naked, nor when he is in the bathhouse, as it is stated: ‘You shall set a king over you’ (Deuteronomy 17:15), meaning, ensure that his fear should be upon you. All these actions would lessen one’s fear of and reverence for the king.”
Other religions and cultures have similar protections. Why? Because kings are human, just like every one of their subjects. They are born and die, have roughly the same anatomy, physical strength, and intellectual capacity as their people. Kings need to be simultaneously one of their people and also superior. The king must have power that others do not, typically in martial skill, wisdom, and courage. He must be a healer. The king needs to excel in moral judgment. If the king is no better than his people, why obey him? Why not overthrow him? Romans 13 states that rulers are placed in their positions by God Himself, thus providing regal legitimacy to an otherwise normal human. Other religions do the same, trying to stabilize their nations and bless their people.
Magical and religious thought
Many assume that magic is a precursor to religious thought, but this is not accurate. Prior to 600 BC, many cultures exhibit magical thoughts, in which people can get what they want from the gods, or from powerful people, through ritual. Ritual, however, rapidly becomes rote and feels powerless. After 600 BC, religious thought became more philosophical and relational.
Characteristics of magical thought
- A part is equivalent to the whole. A connection exists between living beings and inanimate items that belong to it. For example, in 2002, a lock of Elvis Presley’s hair sold at auction for $115,000.
- The name encompasses the whole being. Consider the old Rumpelstiltskin story, in which knowing and using the name provides power over the person. In Exodus 3:13-14, God tells Moses His name. In Leviticus 24:16, the Hebrews are not permitted to speak the name of God. To know one’s name is to have power over them. Jews would not speak the name YHWH.
- All creation is filled with spiritual forces. The soul is equally in all parts of the body. If a girl has a lock of her beloved’s hair, and she burns it, he will die.
- The substance of one’s soul or life force can be transmitted by the spoken word. That explains why Isaac could not rescind his blessing to Jacob, though Esau should have had it. Part of Isaac’s very soul went out to Jacob. Blessings and curses work because of this.
- Similarity produces effects. Pouring water makes rain fall (1 Kings 18:33-35), to inflict injuries on a doll or a picture resembling someone is to inflict pain on them (voodoo).
Magic and Religion
Magic begins when religious worship is rejected. Saul visited the witch at Endor (magic) after he abandoned obeying Jehovah (religion) (1 Samuel 28). Simon Magus wanted the power of the Holy Spirit for personal gain, rejecting the subordination to God that accompanies being a Christian (Acts 9:9-24).
In religion, God has the power, and He is the master. In magic, man manipulates impersonal forces (or weak deities) and he is the master. Religion is humility, obedience, and trust. Magic is self-glorification. In the modern day, technology has become magic. That is why God forbids sorcery and all other forms of witchcraft. Magic can mix with religion through ritual. For example, in pre-Hindu Brahmanism, priests used spells and chants to force Agni and Indra to do what the priests wanted them to do.
Shamanism is an early form of religious expression. Typically, a tribe member comes to the shaman with a problem, perhaps a sickness. The shaman, a wise old man with high mana, whips himself into ecstasy (Epileptic? Drug induced? Physical (hypoxia)?). He often uses a magic drum marked with symbols from heaven and earth, as well as medicinal herbs. In his ecstasy he travels to other worlds to gain information, discover healing elements, and fight spirits (divine, demonic, ancestors) on behalf of his people. The shaman comes out of the trance, the patient feels better, and he pays the shaman. As the religion develops, the institution of shaman morphs into the institution of priest or seer (diviner).
White magic deals with fertility, rainmaking, hunting, curing, and attracting love. Black magic with war, revenge, harm, and killing. Both use ritual to make the gods do the magician’s bidding. Magic is not limited, however, to magical people. In many tribes, male maturity is marked by the semi-magical events of circumcision and feats of courage. To pass initiation, magical abilities as well as physical ones, are required. Success is marked by a ceremony with a symbolic death and resurrection.
Totemism is usually found in hunting and herding societies. Totemism posits a close link between all living things. A totem is an object representing the protecting spirits of the individual, clan, or tribe. Natives of the clan or tribe would not kill or eat the animal represented on their totem. Totemism is a social phenomenon which represents an alliance between a group of people and a certain species of animal. Totemism affects societies that practice it on a routine basis. For example, exogamy is often required in tribes that practice totemism. Marriage with a woman of the same totem is prohibited.
How man and deity commune in religion
In many religions, especially ritualistic ones, the deity needs the gift that the person is offering and will protect that person in return The offering encompasses part of the person’s soul and so forms a connection with the god. Christianity and Islam reject this idea, arguing that God needs nothing (cf. Psalm 50:1-15). The idea is that physical contact with the elements produces unity between god(s) and man.
Some gifts are considered sacraments in which a genuine spiritual change takes place. One example is the communion meal, in which people and a deity eat a sacrificed animal. The second example occurs when the sacrificed animal transforms into the god himself, and so the people are eating the deity. Catholics believe that this is what happens during the Eucharist (transubstantiation). Protestants deny that any fundamental change has happened, so what the Catholics understand as transubstantiation during the Eucharist, the Protestants understand as a ceremony memorializing Christ in the Lord’s Supper.
In a primitial offering, man gives the first fruits of his fields, the first-born of his livestock, or the first born of his sons, because he has a debt to his deity. In an expiatory offering, man tries to escape judgment for his sins. Typically, a man offers an animal sacrifice, shifting the blame to a perfect animal rather than to a human. Blood is life, and the spilling of blood is the spilling of life. Temple prostitutes would sacrifice the purity of the body to the deity.
Every religion has activities akin to prayer. Prayer is to religion what thought is to philosophy. Praying means practicing religion. Prayers are usually for petition, penitence, praise, and thanksgiving.
- Naïve prayer – In this type of prayer, the penitent reveals his wishes to the deity.
- Prophetic prayer – In this type, the prophet longs for spiritual and temporal perfection in himself and his people. Since such perfection is impossible, the prophet bemoans his and his people’s inability to achieve such perfection.
- Mystic prayer – The praying person strives for total immersion of the soul in the deity. In Catholic mysticism, the stages are purification, illumination, and total union with God.
- Liturgical prayer – This type of prayer may be part of a religious ceremony or found in a prayer book. Despite its written, fixed character, such a prayer may be a genuine if formalized request to God. Alternatively, it could be a spell to try to coerce God.
A ritual is an event, usually incorporating offering and prayer but also including scripture reading, music, dance, processions, speaking in tongues, a special location (like a church or temple) and special items (clothes, candles, food, etc.). Such rituals are designed to appeal to intellect and emotions and can induce ecstasy (like a shaman). Rituals often include silence, which is a time when men listen best to God. Nearly anything can be ritual, and rituals often go unrecognized. Many might argue that the Baptist church is devoid of ritual. However, the order of service in many Baptist congregations – intro, song, announcements, prayer, two songs, offering, song, sermon, invitation, prayer, dismissal – is itself a ritual.
Key factors in all religious movements
Nearly every religion has these key players. Each has a specified role. The Founder receives and transmits a message from the divine. The Prophet “forthtells” the message of God and “foretells” the future. The Mystic seeks a spiritual union between him- or herself and the divine. While ordinary thinking sees a distinction between subject (god) and object (man), mystical thinking sees a union. The Priest is a religious functionary overseeing public worship and the activities of the congregation. Sacrifices without priests are unknown in the history of religion. Priests often serve in judiciary and medical roles. Special garb is common. The Reformer is an innovator who combats old conventions in favor of older truth.
Interestingly, these same roles are found in political, business, and other organizations. George Washington could be considered the founder of the United States. If so, Patrick Henry and William Jennings Bryant have been the prophets, thinkers like Publius (Federalist papers) were the mystics, bureaucrats are the priests, and Martin Luther King Jr. was one of many reformers.
Classification of religions
Nature religions can be polytheistic or sometimes demonic. Folk religions are the organized religions of nations, whose deities include natural phenomena (sun, moon), historical figures (Abraham), and functions (Ares/Mars god of war, Demeter/Ceres goddess of fertility). World religions are less geographically based and appeal to broad swathe of people. Religions can also be dead, with few or no living followers, or alive, with thousands or millions of followers.
Religious adherents worldwide
- Christianity – 2.4 billion
- Islam – 1.9 billion (fastest growing, due to birth rates)
- Hindus – 1.2 billion
- Buddhists – 490 million
- African Traditional Religions – 75 million
- Taoists – 55 million
- Sikhs – 30 million
- Jews – 16 million
- Mormons – 16 million
- Jehovah’s Witnesses – 8 million
- Jains – 5 million
- Zoroastrians – 2.5 million
To understand religion, one must begin with commonalties shared by all humans in their religious thoughts, words, and actions. As long as pain, suffering, and death exist, religion will exist. As meaning and transcendence seem to evaporate from Western and world cultures, religion becomes more important and more real. Heroes may be willing to die for their community and country, and many will also die for their faith, but believers do more than die…they live for their faith.
Having discovered the fundamentals of religion, I encourage readers to study the articles at MDHI on individual religions. How can we explain Hamas’ recent attacks on Israel without knowing about Islam? How can we anticipate what Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan will do to each other without grasping the cosmic struggle that divides them? Even better than reading a few articles, take the MDHI class on world religions. It opens a door to the world that cannot be shut.
 Hans-Joachim Schoeps, The Religions of Mankind: Their Origin and Development (New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1966), 17. https://www.sefaria.org/Mishnah_Sanhedrin.3.1?lang=bi.
 13 Quirkiest Items That Sold for Millions at Auctions, Reader’s Digest, 25 Jan 2023, https://www.rd.com/list/quirkiest-auction-items-that-sold-for-millions/.