Reading: Religion in the Landscape

That Special Day

It’s that special day in the week again. People begin to gather, set apart by their passionate convictions and the symbols that bind them together. Some stand by and scoff but the like-minded take strength from each other and stride proudly on, indifferent to those who do not share their commitment. For those caught up since birth (the less sympathetic might say “indoctrinated”) by their elders’ commitment and enthusiasm, this is the climax of their week.

How can an observer convey in words the feelings of those who gather at this special place at this special time? The chanting and singing lift those present out of the work-a-day world. Truly, to be here does raise the spirits and charge the batteries for the week ahead. To be sitting in the same row and conscious of familiar faces, possibly among generations of the same family, gives a sense of belonging that others can hardly imagine. This is something of value to be passed from generation to generation. But enough of this; those who will officiate have taken up their positions. It is time for minds and hearts to focus, for the moment has come. The whistle blows, the ball is passed, the match has begun.

My account of “that special day” deliberately encourages you to assume that I was beginning this study of religion with a description of a religious gathering at a place of worship. After all, for many people the word “religion” conjures up just such a picture of gatherings on days held to be special by different groups in the community; for example, at a Jewish synagogue on Saturday, an Islamic mosque on a Friday (Islam is professed by Muslims) and a Christian church on a Sunday. Whether or not you think of yourself as religious, the celebration of these special days and the marking of events such as marriage and death in places like churches or mosques are hard to avoid. Regardless of our personal attitudes towards religion, these associations give rise to a measure of shared understanding of what we mean by religion. It’s something we take for granted. You might anticipate, therefore, that mapping the limits of religion should be straightforward—a matter of common sense, for we all know what we mean by religion. But is it as straightforward as that?

One prominent football manager declared: “Some people say that football is a matter of life and death. It isn’t. It’s much more important than that.”[1] In speaking about his personal commitment to football, I am sure that Bill Shankly was not intentionally seeking to cast it as some sort of religion. Yet, the language he used is reminiscent of a characteristic associated with religion: namely, that religion claims to offer its followers meaning and a way through life which leads them to attach greater importance to it than anything else. If we take Bill Shankly seriously, establishing a clear boundary between religion and other kinds of commitment may prove less easy than we might have imagined.

Practice Exercises

Can you suggest some parallels between following a football club and following a religion?

Discussion

Both football and religion can arouse deep passions, even to the point of violence, and their respective followers will often make considerable sacrifices. Both groups are inclined to mark themselves out with exclusive codes of dress and forms of ritual behavior. Both have their own songs. There is individual experience but also a powerful sense of belonging to a community with its own code, which is reinforced by sharing in pilgrimage—whether to a place of worship or to a football stadium. Both religion and football produce their heroes, their ordinary followers and their fanatics.

So, am I suggesting that the activity of a religious person at a place of worship can be adequately described in much the same way as, for example, the passionate support of a football fan at the local stadium? Not exactly, but I do want you to consider that the meaning of the familiar term religion may be less clear-cut than it seems. Although many people rush to pronounce judgements on whether religion is true or false or whether it is a good thing or a bad thing, few pause long enough to ask, “What is religion—how do we recognize it when we encounter it?”

Liverpool football fans waving flags in a stadium.

Photo: Popperfoto. Football supporters show their colours.

Religion in the landscape

Assumptions

We are beginning to see that many of the assumptions we hold about the characteristics of religion are given to us by the society we live in or by our immediate community, which for some people may be a religious community. Don’t lose sight of your assumptions about religion. At this point, it may be that you have not thought much about them before, or you may be personally hostile to religion, or be approaching this course from the standpoint of a very specific, personal religious conviction. Later in the course I am going to argue that the study of religion should not be colored either by personal religious conviction, or lack of it. To argue in this way, however, is not to deny that we all bring assumptions—individual, social and cultural—to any study we undertake. This is an important point that deserves further discussion, but for the moment, I want to continue looking at the way in which the word “religion” is commonly used and understood.

When dealing with the signs of religion, there would probably be general agreement that Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Sikhism—all of which have many followers in Britain—are religions, if for no other reason than because this is how they are conventionally described. (Note that we have slid from talking about religion in general to specific religions. However, if you had imagined walking into a “New Age” bookshop, you might have have found yourself juggling with words like cult, mysticism, magic, superstition, as well as religion. You might have found yourself pondering whether yoga is more akin to religion than aerobics, or whether the TM (Transcendental Meditation) classes, which are being advertised at the local college, are an expression of a particular lifestyle or philosophy, a leisure activity, or part of a distinctively religious outlook and practice.

People bending backwards on their stomachs in a yoga pose.

Photo: Popperfoto. Yoga relaxation class

The videos you have watched show others who were not happy about the unqualified use of the word religion to describe their own beliefs and practices. Some of the speakers preferred “way of life” or “faith” rather than “religion.” A Muslim pointed out that the sacred book of Islam, the Qur’an, used the Arabic din to refer to Islam which, he stated, was far better translated into English as a way of life. In the minds of some, religion was equated too narrowly with ritual, for others with worship and/or with belief in God. It was because of these sorts of associations that the spokesperson for TM was adamant that it is not a religion. It seems, then, that the use of the familiar term “religion” is not only problematic in relation to more recent styles of belief and practice (such as TM). It may be disputed even when applied to long-standing beliefs and practices that I am sure most people in Britain would unhesitatingly think of as “religion.”

Religions in Britain

Once again we see that the popular conventional use of the term “religion” is far from straightforward. It refers to a widely differing range of beliefs held by people in Britain. Its popular use implies that there is sufficient in common between Islam and Buddhism to place them within this same overall category of religion. Yet, Islam speaks uncompromisingly about the divine will of Allah (God), the creator of all, and Buddhism certainly does not speak of all things coming into being as a result of acts of creation. The popular use of “religion” nevertheless implies that there is more in common between them than, say, between Christianity and Marxism.

Remember that at the beginning of this course I challenged the view that establishing a boundary line around religion would be straightforward. Anybody can express a view about what kind of a thing religion is, whether they like it or not, and about the extent to which they believe that religion is true. People do this in reacting to news stories, whether about pronouncements from the Archbishop of Canterbury, the veiling of Muslim women, or some little-known sect. One of the purposes of this course is to introduce you to skills that will enable you to test judgements passed by others and encourage you to become aware of the way in which you arrive at your own judgements. I would call the kind of study that made use of such skills a critical study. This doesn’t mean approaching a subject in a negative and destructive spirit. Rather, critical students are those who are led by a spirit of free inquiry and who seek to test their own conclusions, and the claims made by others, in the light of reliable evidence and sound argument. You have already done this in the exercise on TM.

Life is short and yet academics still seem to find the time to take a commonplace term or assumption and turn it into a “problem”! Why should you want to take on board another “problem”—that of the use of the term religion? Why study religion in the first place?


  1. Bill Shankly, when manager of Liverpool Football Club