Reading: Religion in Context

Special days in Britain


Whatever else they may be, religions grow in historical and social settings. The present form of a religion has its roots in the past. Religion can exercise a strong influence upon society and the cultural forms of a society, but religion itself is no less affected by changes and pressures within society. Religion gives meaning to a pattern of living and may even be responsible for establishing a certain lifestyle or distinctive social organisation or institution. At the same time, religion often works upon symbolism, customs and ideas already to be found in society. In short, a religion exists within a context and can no more be understood adequately apart from that context than can a single line of verse ripped out of a sonnet. Clearly, some of the differences we find between religions, and in the same religion viewed over a period of time, are a result of their development within different historical and social contexts.

In looking at special days in Britain, we will undertake the first of two studies of religion. In this first study, the context I wish to examine is the place of these special days within their immediate religious setting rather than in the wider context of British society. In the second study I will look more closely at the relationship between expressions of religion and their social context in the city of Calcutta.

Many religions follow weekly and annual cycles of celebration. The official British calendar is marked by both Christian and secular celebrations. In some cases, days that were once Christian celebrations have become secular public holidays; Whitsun is now the Spring Bank Holiday. The celebration of Christmas has become overlaid with customs that have grown in popularity since the Victorian period, so today Christmas trees and the figure of Father Christmas are inseparably linked in the minds of many with the celebration of the birth of Jesus. Attitudes to Sunday, once reserved by Christians as a day of rest and worship, have also changed.

Religions in Britain other than Christianity have their own cycles of celebration, although their days have no place within the list of official British holidays. The Christian day of rest has its roots in the Jewish Shabbat (the Sabbath day), the seventh day on which, according to the Bible, God rested from the labours of creation. Jews, however, celebrate Shabbat from Friday sunset to Saturday sunset. Muslims are obliged to carry out a cycle of five daily prayers of which the midday prayer on Friday is of particular communal importance to men. Some communities, such as Hindus and Sikhs, are not bound to a weekly pattern of communal worship on a particular day and so have tended to adopt Sunday in Britain. These patterns of celebration are examples of Ninian Smart’s social and institutional dimension. As you read, try to find further examples of Smart’s seven dimensions in addition to those I have highlighted.

Days and Time

The separating out of a special day or time in the week runs in parallel with the marking out of a space that is set aside for worship, ritual and communal activity (material dimension). The place where a religious community gathers speaks powerfully about the convictions shared by its members.

This is nowhere more evident than in the mosque where Muslims form orderly lines at the set times of prayer facing a mihrab (Figure 1), an empty niche indicating the direction of the city of Mecca to which all Muslims are expected to make a pilgrimage at least once in their life, if they have the health and means to do so.

People praying in a mosque

Figure 1. Carlos Reyes-Manzo/Andes Press Agency. Interior of mosque in Regent’s Park, London, showing Muslims at prayer facing the mihrab

Prayer is led by an imam (leader) who stands facing the mihrab and who may also give an address during the Friday midday prayer. A typical mosque is singularly lacking in adornment, apart from Arabic calligraphy, and no human figure is portrayed as it is believed that it is blasphemous to attempt to reduce God (Allah) to human form. Muslims believe that the line of prophets recognised by Jews and Christians included Jesus and culminated in the life of Muhammad. Strict Muslim belief insists upon the humanity of these prophets including Muhammad, the greatest of them, to whom was revealed the Qur’an. The Qur’an and the religious laws derived from it provide comprehensive “guidance” which, if followed, will enable the devout Muslim to meet the test of the Day of Judgement. Individuals who perform the physical ritual of prostration that accompanies prayer symbolise an intent to conform their will to the will of Allah expressed in the Qur’an (practical and ritual dimension). The word mosque, in fact, comes from the Arabic meaning “a place of prostration.”

If the eye is drawn to the mihrab in a mosque, in a Jewish synagogue it is drawn to the ark which contains the scroll of Torah (“teaching”) on which is written what Jews accept as the revelation granted to the patriarch, Moses. (The same scriptural record is to be found in the first five books of the Christian Old Testament.) An ark may be no more than a bare cupboard but the ark in a synagogue is often decorated (Figure 2).

In front of the ark burns the eternal flame. A synagogue (literally, a gathering place) is not a consecrated area. Its primary function is as a place in which to study and receive teaching about the meaning of Torah, and it is the primary duty of a rabbi, a qualified teacher of Jewish law, to provide this instruction. Contained within Torah are the ten commandments that insist upon the existence of one God and prohibit any attempt to represent this God in the form of an image (ethical and legal dimension). The decoration of a synagogue scrupulously follows this prohibition. For the Jew, to live in accord with the teachings of Torah is to keep faith with a view of history founded upon a belief in a relationship between God and the people of Israel. It anticipates the coming of the Messiah (the “Anointed One” of God) and the inauguration of an age of universal peace. The past sufferings of the Jews have frequently been interpreted within the framework of belief in this relationship with God and in the ultimate realization of the Messianic Age (narrative or mythic dimension). The keeping of Shabbat is but one example of living a life designed to fulfill the requirements of Torah and so hasten the coming of the Messianic Age. As is made plain in the video clips, the home and not the synagogue is the most important location for celebrating and observing Shabbat.

In a Christian place of worship, the style and level of decoration will vary considerably according to the denomination. But whether through the symbolism of a bare cross or an ornate crucifix, with the figure of Jesus hanging from the cross, or through stained glass windows, those present will be directed to the central Christian belief that God took human form in the person of Jesus (Figure 3).

The cross is outlined in the ground-plan of many churches, and other architectural features, such as spires pointing to the heavens, make theological statements of their own. The self-sacrifice of Jesus on the cross provides a model for daily conduct, and the reading of the Bible brings this constantly to mind. In some Protestant churches, a prominent place is given to the pulpit, from where the meaning of the Bible is expounded (doctrinal and philosophical dimension). In many Christian denominations, the significance of Jesus’ death is brought home to believers through the sharing of bread and wine in a manner commended in the Christian New Testament but understood and carried out in different ways across the denominations. The frequency and importance given to this celebration at the altar also affects the ordering of space within a church, and you will see this if you visit a Roman Catholic church where the altar occupies a prominent position and the sharing of bread and wine (the mass) is celebrated daily. If you then go to a nonconformist church or chapel, for example a United Reform Church, there you will probably find that a plain table has replaced an altar, that there is a prominent pulpit, and that the sharing of bread and wine—here referred to as Holy Communion—may take place no more than once a month. The sharing of bread and wine in the name of Jesus is variously believed to stand as a remembrance of his sacrifice (as found widely in Protestantism) or as a mystery through which the bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Jesus (as in Roman Catholicism).

Solid objects, whether a cross, an ark or a mihrab, can point to something beyond themselves: to a reality which the believer holds to be ever-present yet which cannot be apprehended in the same way as we can hear the chanting of Torah in a synagogue, touch the bread and wine consumed by Christians, and see a Muslim community gather for prayer (experiential and emotional dimension). The existence of this reality cannot be established through reference to factors other than the testimony of those who claim to have experienced it. It is for this reason that religion is rejected by some with as much passion as that displayed by its most devout followers. Yet, so compelling is the sense of this reality that it directs and gives meaning to the daily lives of believers.

This brief summary of Muslim, Jewish and Christian practices provides many concrete examples (as I hope you found) of Smart’s “dimensions” or “aspects” of religion. They also match Bruce’s substantive definition in that they are beliefs, actions and institutions that assume the existence of a supernatural entity. The marking out or setting apart evident in these practices is a common feature in many religions.

Practice Exercises

Note down some simple physical actions performed by people who enter a church, synagogue or mosque that illustrate this “marking out” or “setting apart.” (Your video notes will be helpful for this Exercise.)


Many religions insist that those entering their respective places of worship follow certain codes of dress and/or perform rituals relating to hygiene. For example, although attitudes have become more relaxed of late, many Christians attending a church still choose to wear their best clothes, and women in some denominations prefer to cover their heads while men are expected to remove any head covering. In contrast, Jewish men are careful to cover their heads in a synagogue, whereas Muslims remove their shoes and complete a simple ritual of washing before entering a mosque, and women cover their heads, arms and legs. The practices differ but the underlying intention is the same: to conduct oneself appropriately or respectfully in a place set apart for a distinct purpose. Placing these customs in context enables us to see the underlying purpose. For example, a British Jew who covers his head does so as a mark of humility—the cap is a constant reminder that there is a greater being above humanity. A British Christian who removes his hat before entering church stands in a different tradition in which uncovering the head is a mark of respect and humility.