Types of Religions

Magic and Supernaturalism

Supernaturalism refers to any belief system with supernatural forces, such as magic, and, in general, is prevalent in all societies.

Learning Objectives

Give examples which help distinguish between the very similar concepts of religion and magic

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Supernatural forces are not bound to laws of nature; they work outside of them.
  • Mana is a classic example of a supernatural force that imbues objects with powers of authority.
  • The term religion is reserved for an organized cult with a priesthood and dedicated sites of worship or sacrifice, while magic is prevalent in all societies, regardless of whether they have organized religion or more general systems of animism or shamanism.

Key Terms

  • mana: A form of supernatural energy in Polynesian religion that inheres in things or people.
  • Supernatural Forces: The supernatural is that which is not subject to the laws of nature, or more figuratively, that which is said to exist above and beyond nature.
  • supernaturalism: A belief in the doctrine of supernatural or divine agency as manifested in the world, in human events, religious revelation, miracles, etc.

Supernaturalism

Supernaturalism is perhaps the broadest classification of religious practices, encompassing any belief system dealing with supernatural forces. Supernaturalism asserts the existence of forces beyond human comprehension that frequently interfere, for better or worse, in human affairs. Most simply, the laws of nature do not bind the supernatural. These forces are considered impersonal because they are thought to come and go as they see fit, and can inhabit human and non-human objects alike. In popular culture and fiction, the supernatural is whimsically associated with the paranormal and the occult, which differs from traditional concepts in some religions, such as Catholicism, where divine miracles are considered supernatural.

The concept ‘mana’ is a classic example of a supernatural force that imbues objects with powers and authority. For example, in Polynesian cultures, mana is the force that allows efficacy, or the ability to have an influence in the world. Similarly for Melanesians, mana primarily inhabits objects, like charms or amulets, which confer good fortune to whoever possesses them (though mana can also inhabit people or animals). Mana is not inherently good or evil; its impact depends on how it is used.

Magic

In many cases, it becomes difficult or impossible to draw any meaningful line between beliefs and practices that are magical versus those that are religious. In general, The term religion is reserved for an organized cult with a priesthood and dedicated sites of worship or sacrifice, while magic is prevalent in all societies, regardless of whether they have organized religion or more general systems of animism or shamanism. Religion and magic became conceptually separated with the development of western monotheism, where the distinction arose between supernatural events sanctioned by mainstream religious doctrine (“miracles”) and mere magic rooted in folk belief or occult speculation. In pre-monotheistic religious traditions, there is no fundamental distinction between religious practice and magic; tutelary deities concerned with magic are sometimes called “hermetic deities” or “spirit guides. ”

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Woman floating above bed: Supernatural force allows this woman to float.

Animism

Animism is the belief that non-human entities are spiritual beings, either intrinsically or because spirits inhabit them.

Learning Objectives

Identify some of the key elements of animism and at least one real life instantiation

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Pantheism is the belief that everything shares the same spiritual essence—individuals do not have distinct spirits or souls. Animism puts more emphasis on the uniqueness of each individual soul.
  • In animist societies, ritual is considered essential to win the favor of the spirits that ward off other malevolent spirits and provide food, shelter, and fertility.
  • Shamans, also sometimes called medicine men or women, serve as mediums between the physical world and the world of spirits.

Key Terms

  • animism: A belief that spirits inhabit some or all classes of natural objects or phenomena.
  • shaman: A member of certain tribal societies who acts as a religious medium between the concrete and spirit worlds.
  • spirits: The undying essence of a human. The soul.

Animism refers to the belief that non-human entities are spiritual beings, either intrinsically or because spirits inhabit them for a period of time. Unlike supernatural forces, animist spirits may be inherently good or evil. Often, these spirits are thought to be the souls of deceased relatives, and they are not worshiped as deities.

While animists believe everything to be spiritual in nature, they do not necessarily see the spiritual nature of everything in existence as being united (monism), the way pantheists do. Animism puts more emphasis on the uniqueness of each individual soul. In pantheism, everything shares the same spiritual essence—there are no distinct spirits and/or souls. Because humans are considered a part of nature, rather than superior to, or separate from it, animists see themselves on roughly equal footing with other animals, plants, and natural forces, and subsequently have a moral imperative to treat these agents with respect.

In animist societies, ritual is considered essential to win the favor of the spirits that ward off other malevolent spirits and provide food, shelter, and fertility. Shamans, also sometimes called medicine men or women, serve as mediums between the physical world and the world of spirits.

Animism is thought to be the belief system that laid the groundwork for the notion of a soul and the animation of traditionally inanimate objects, allowing every world religion to take those basic principles in other directions. Though earlier philosophers such as Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas discussed animism, the formal definition was postulated by Sir Edward Taylor late in the 19th century. Examples of Animism can be seen in forms of Shinto, Hinduism, Buddhism, pantheism, Paganism, and Neopaganism.

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Shinto Shrine: Shinto is an animistic religion in Japan.

Theism and Monotheism

Theism refers to any belief system that incorporates a deity.

Learning Objectives

Create a short sketch in which a monotheist, a deist, a polytheist, and Emile Durkheim enter into a debate about their views on god(s)

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Since theism is so common throughout human history, Emile Durkheim saw deities as an extension of human social life.
  • Monotheistic traditions conceive of God as omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent and active in the governance and organization of the world and universe. Judaism, Christianity and Islam are monotheistic.
  • Deism holds that religious beliefs must be founded on human reason and observed features of the natural world, and that these sources reveal the existence of a supreme being as creator.
  • Polytheism is the belief that multiple gods exist. Hard polytheism recognizes multiple gods as being distinct and separate beings, while soft polytheism views multiple gods as being connected under the umbrella of a greater whole.
  • Panentheism is the belief that the universe is a part of a deity, but that the deity is greater than the universe.
  • Polytheism is the belief that multiple gods exist, but do not intervene with the universe.
  • Monolatrism refers to the belief that there may be more than one deity, but that only one is worthy of being worshiped.

Key Terms

  • polytheism: The belief of the existence of many gods.
  • monotheism: The belief in a single god; especially within an organized religion.
  • deity: A preternatural or supernatural human or non-human being or entity, or an object that possesses miraculous or supernatural attributes, powers or superpowers (e.g. a god or goddess).

The term theism, first introduced by Ralph Cudworth (1617-1688), derives from the Greek word theos meaning “god”. It refers to any belief system that incorporates the existence of a deity. A deity is a supernatural being thought of as holy, divine or sacred. Though they take a variety of forms, deities are often expressed as taking human form. They are usually immortal, and are commonly assumed to have personalities, consciousness and intellects comparable (albeit superior) to those of humans. Typically, deities do not reveal themselves directly to humans, but make themselves known through their effects in the world. They are thought to dwell mainly in otherworldly or holy places like Heaven, Hell, the sky, the under-world, or in a supernatural plane or celestial sphere.

Due to the ubiquity of theistic traditions, Emilee Durkheim saw the deities as an extension of human social life. In line with this reasoning, psychologist Matt Rossini contends that when humans began living in larger groups, they may have created gods as a means of enforcing morality. In small groups, morality can be enforced by social forces like gossip or reputation. However, it is much harder to enforce morality using social forces in larger groups. He indicates that by including ever watchful gods and spirits, humans discovered an effective strategy for restraining selfishness and building more cooperative groups.

When only one deity is recognized, the faith tradition is called monotheistic. Typically, monotheistic traditions conceive of God as omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent and active in governance and organization of the world and the universe. The most prominent modern day monotheistic religions include Christianity, Islam and Judaism.

In contrast to monotheism, deism is the belief that at least one deity exists and created the world, but that the creator(s), though transcendent and supreme, does/do not alter the original plan for the universe. Deism typically rejects supernatural events (prophecies, miracles and divine revelations) prominent in organized religion. Instead, deism holds that religious beliefs must be founded on human reason and observed features of the natural world, and that these sources reveal the existence of a supreme being as creator.

Faith traditions involving more than one deity are called polytheistic. Hard polytheism recognizes multiple gods as being distinct and separate beings. Examples include the Egyptian and Greek religions, as well as certain schools of Hinduism. Soft polytheism views multiple gods as being connected under the umbrella of a greater whole. Some forms of Hinduism like Smartism/Advaita Vedanta are considered soft polytheistic traditions. Polytheism can also be subdivided according to how individual deities are regarded: Henotheism is the belief that while only one deity is worshiped other deities may exist and other people are justified in worshiping those other deities. Monolatrism refers to the belief that there may be more than one deity, but that only one is worthy of being worshiped.

Birth of monotheism, modern Judaism and finalizing the Torah: The beginnings of modern religion and the origins of the Hebrew Bible

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Muslim woman in tradition attire: Muslim Culture

The Sacred and the Profane

Emile Durkheim posited the sacred–profane dichotomy as central to all religion, but critics suggest this theory is too eurocentric.

Learning Objectives

Analyze the role of the sacred–profane dichotomy in religion

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The sacred – profane dichotomy is an idea posited by French sociologist Émile Durkheim.
  • Durkheim considered the sacred–profane dichotomy to be the central characteristic of religion.
  • The sacred represented the interests of the group, especially unity.
  • Sacred group symbols are called totems.
  • The profane involves mundane individual concerns.
  • According to Durkheim, sacred/profane is not equivalent to good/evil; the sacred could be good or evil, and the profane could be either as well.
  • Durkheim’s claim of the universality of the sacred–profane dichotomy has come under criticism as too centered on European thought.

Key Terms

  • profane: Not sacred or holy, unconsecrated; relating to non-religious matters, secular.

The sacred–profane dichotomy is an idea posited by French sociologist Émile Durkheim, who considered it to be the central characteristic of religion: “religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden.” In Durkheim’s theory, the sacred represented the interests of the group, especially unity, which were embodied in sacred group symbols, or totems. The profane, on the other hand, involved mundane individual concerns. Durkheim explicitly stated that the sacred/profane dichotomy was not equivalent to good/evil. The sacred could be good or evil, and the profane could be either as well.

Durkheim’s claim of the universality of this dichotomy for all religions/cults has been criticized by scholars such as British anthropologist Jack Goody. Goody also noted that “many societies have no words that translate as sacred or profane and that ultimately, just like the distinction between natural and supernatural, it was very much a product of European religious thought rather than a universally applicable criterion.”