Americans are most familiar with the Middle Eastern monotheistic traditions of the Jews, Christians, and Muslims. These are known as Abrahamic religions because all three revere the patriarch Abraham, and their practitioners worship a single God who reveals himself through sacred writings (the Torah, the Bible, and the Koran). All human societies have religious beliefs, however, and it is important not to let our understanding of a human universal such as religion be limited only to that which is familiar to us. To understand religion, one must look beyond, as well as at, the great Abrahamic religions.
All human societies have some belief system that can be called religion. Some of these are believed in by hundreds of millions of people, such as Christianity, Islam, Confucianism, and Hinduism, whereas others are believed in by tribal groups whose numbers are reckoned in thousands or even fewer. With such a disparity of beliefs, can we find any commonalities?
one thing all religions appear to have in common is a belief in something beyond the material world, an ultimate or absolute or transcendent reality beyond the earthly. A sense of sacredness, awe, or mystery about this beyond is common to religious beliefs and practices, and almost universal is the notion of spiritual (rather than mortal) beings that inhabit this realm and have special powers. These include gods, witches, powerful spirits, and the like. Most religions, though not all, include the concept of life after death, and most include a component of worship—ritual behavior associated with spiritual beliefs.
Intermediaries (such as priests and shamans) between people and the spiritual world are often very powerful and authoritative. Commonly there are special places for worship (such as temples, churches, holy sites) that are set apart from other sites (Stevens 1996). In virtually all religions, knowledge (about the supernatural; about where people, animals, and other natural objects came from; and about moral and ritual conduct) is obtained partly by revelation from supernatural sources. The gods of the Greeks revealed information through oracles, and the god of the Hebrews gave the Ten Commandments to Moses. Sometimes this revealed truth is recorded in texts that believers consider holy, such as the Koran of the Muslims, the Hindu Vedas, the Book of Mormon, or the New Testament of the Christians. Believers may dispute among themselves as to the proper interpretation of these holy texts.
How believers in a particular religion conceive of the ultimate varies enormously, from views similar to the Christian personal God to the considerably more diffuse Hindu conception of Brahma, a generalized "spirit behind, beneath, and beyond the world of matter and energy" (Raman 1998-1999: 6). Even within Christianity, the concept of God varies widely from an anthropomorphic creator God, such as that portrayed by Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, to a generalized force undergirding the universe that, although a source of awe, some Christians neither regard as a person nor pray to.
Human societies could not function without ethical systems—rules for behavior toward other people—and usually, though not universally, religion determines or at least strongly influences these systems. In many human societies, it is believed that rules for behavior are divinely revealed, such as the Ten Commandments, which Christians, Jews, and Muslims believe that God gave to Moses. Others may ascribe the rules for proper behavior to directives from ancestors, and still others have no supernatural source for their rules but attribute the origin of such rules to custom and tradition.
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