The Intersecting Point Of Most Major Religions
By the nature of the human condition, there is a reluctance to accept that our existence concludes on our death bed and the debate over how we continue after the last beat of our heart has become the intersecting point of most major religions. So, although irrational and improvable, the inclusion of a belief in life after death cannot be considered bizarre. The word bizarre must be reserved for those belief systems that step knee-deep in the irrational and improvable in this life.
Religion, or at least religious inquiry, is something that virtually all humans have in common. In all corners of the world and in all eras of history, people have wondered about the meaning of life, how to make the best of it, what happens afterwards, and if there is anyone or anything "out there." A "rudimentary definition of religion," Edward Burnett Tylor said, "seems best to fall back at once on this essential source ... belief in Spiritual Beings." Tylor held an evolutionary view concerning the development of culture and religion, arguing that animism (belief in spirits) was the earliest form of religious behavior.
Although Tylor's definition obviously reinforces a still common presumption - that religion is primarily defined in terms of a belief system involving immaterial beings - he nevertheless made a significant improvement on past efforts to define religion by selecting "spiritual beings" rather than "God" or "gods." Tylor also proceeded naturalistically, seeing religion as an element of human history and culture, helps to ensure his place in the field's history despite his emphasis on religion as an internal, cognitive element.
Generally speaking, certain groups that do not acknowledge the existence of one or more deities, such as Buddhism, are still religious, though some people prefer a definition of religion that discourages non-theistic groups from identifying as religious. Others are in favor of a more inclusive definition of religion that recognizes that everyone has their own set of religious beliefs. Avoid calling religious institutions that should be called churches, religions.
Religion is an area of human life. It has caused wars, inspired great acts of compassion, and produced some of the most exalted literature and philosophy known to humanity. Yet it is often difficult to get information on the world's religious traditions, information that is not only simple and interesting to read, but also objective, not partial to the point of view of one religious tradition or another.
We need always to recognize that religion can be looked at in two ways, from outside and inside. The "outside" point of view means identifying some basic facts - for example, the history, teachings, practices, and organization of a religion, facts that can be called out during research. The "inside" point of view means taking a close look at the people who live and worship in that tradition. To truly understand a religion as it exists for real people, then, you need to be able to get inside - to begin to understand the feelings of a religion's believers, their ways of looking at the world, and the things that are actually important in their religious lives. Gaining inside understanding does not mean you have to agree with believers or even accept the representations of their beliefs; it just gives you the ability to empathize with, or have a feeling for, other peoples' values.
Religion is one of those words people tend to feel they know the meaning of until it comes to providing a precise definition that covers all cases of what one wants to call religion, excluding everything else. Then it can be surprisingly difficult to define-first of all, because religion embraces so much.
Religion can range from one's innermost and subtlest feelings to large and powerful institutions that can seem as much political as religious, to folk customs that appear on the borderline between religion and culture. Many traditional societies, in fact, do not clearly distinguish between religion and the social order or popular culture; indeed, the religion scholar W. Cantwell Smith has argued that the notion most of us have of a religion as a separate, detachable area of human life apart from the political, economic, social, and cultural spheres is a quite modern idea that would be meaningless to many people in the Middle Ages and before.
At the same time, attempts at definition can and have been made. Some people, especially in the Christian West, from Enlightenment Deists (believers in God but not in "supernatural" religion) like Thomas Jefferson and Voltaire, to the pioneer anthropologist E. B. Tylor, have wanted to define religion as those ideas and practices that have to do with belief in God, gods, or spirits. Others, however, have contended that some Eastern examples of the sort of practices that "look like" religion, such as Confucian rituals or even Buddhist meditation, do not necessarily involve the Western concept of God. They have therefore expanded the idea to anything that gives one a sense of awe, wonder, or of connectedness to the universe: Friedrich Schleiermacher called it that which produces feelings of dependence on something greater than oneself. Rudolf Otto saw as the ground of religion a sense of a reality tremendous, yet fascinating and "wholly other"; this could be the Buddhist nirvana as well as God. Paul Tillich said religion is the state of being grasped by one's "ultimate concern."
Others have preferred a definition based more on religion's social or ritual role. Emile Durkheim saw religion mainly in "totems," festivals, dances, and other symbols or practices that both represented and created the unity of a tribe or society. Mircea Eliade made fundamental to religion the experience of "sacred space" and "sacred time," that is, places and occasions that are separate, "nonhomogeneous," demarcated off from the ordinary or "profane" world. He recognized, however, that these can be interior as well as out there; the experiences of prayer or meditation can make for an inward sacred space and time even in the midst of everyday life.
Perhaps it must be acknowledged that any definition of religion can only be fairly complex. It might be possible to start with the idea that religion does, in fact, need to deal in some way with whatever is seen as ultimate, unconditioned reality, call it God, Nirvana, or even the absolutely ideal social order. Then one could take into account the three forms of religious expression as put forward by the sociologist of religion, Joachim Wach. These are: the theoretical, that is, the beliefs and stories of a tradition having to do with ultimate reality or its manifestation in gods and revelations and the like, answering to the question "What do they say?"; the "practical," practices or forms of worship with the same object, answering to the question "What do they do?"; and third, the sociological, dealing with issues of leadership, organization, institutions, and relations with the larger society. All real religions, by this understanding, have both an ultimate point of reference and an expression in all three of these forms. If there is only the theoretical, it is philosophy rather than religion. If only practices, it is magic rather than religion. If only the sociological, it is a club. But put them all together with a reference to some understanding and experience of ultimate reality, that which one cannot go beyond in comprehending the meaning of the universe, and it is religion in the sense the word is used in speaking of the traditional religions, such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, or Buddhism. While this approach may not coincide with everyone's personal definition of religion, it may be useful for looking at and distinguishing religion socially or historically.
For centuries thinkers have carefully formulated and elaborated the teachings of their own religions. This kind of thinking includes Jewish, Christian, and Islamic theologies, as well as Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Confucian, and Taoist philosophies. All of these movements have to some degree influenced the study of religions in North America. But the most influential tradition has been that of Europe.
In Europe critical reflection on religion arose in ancient Greece. Ancient writers known as mythographers compiled myths and legends. Geographers and travelers described the religions of the people they visited. Above all, Greek and Roman philosophers like Xenophanes, Euhemerus, Lucretius, and Cicero strongly criticized the gods of mythology, without necessarily denying some higher god or force altogether.
In the fourth century A.D. Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. For more than a thousand years it defined the setting with which Europeans studied religions. Theologians worked out Christian teachings in great detail. They also took up topics in the philosophy of religion. For example, they tried to prove that God exists. But despite some rich cultural exchanges among Jews, Christians, and Muslims, knowledge of other religions generally remained marked by profound antagonism.
The task of describing Freemasonry is formidable. It is the largest fraternal organization in the world, with almost three million members in the United States, over seven hundred thousand members in Britain, and a million more around the world. It has been the subject of over fifty thousand books, pamphlets, and articles since it revealed itself to the world in 1717.
Although based on the primary membership requirement of firm belief in a Supreme Being, admitting men of all religions, and having a central theme of moral behavior, constant selfimprovement, and a dedication to acts of charity, Freemasonry probably has aroused more enmity than any secular organization in the history of the world. It has been consistently attacked by the Roman Catholic church, its membership forbidden to men of the Mormon faith, and even the Salvation Army and the Methodist Church in England have advised their members against Masonic membership. It has been, and is today, outlawed in a number of countries, although Masons certainly do not mind their order having been declared illegal by Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and Francisco Franco. They do mind having been branded an alternate religion, the Antichrist, and the force behind subversive plots to overthrow governments. Most recently, they have had to contend with the involvement of a clandestine, disavowed Masonic lodge in the Vatican banking scandals and allegations of unwarranted preferment and coverups in the British police and civil service.
Many anti-Masonic allegations are difficult to address because of the traditional policy of Freemasonry to decline to respond to attacks. Critics of Freemasonry benefit from the concept of "confession by silence," their accusations usually standing unanswered by a quasi-secret society that apparently feels, even in our mediaburdened society, that deeds will outweigh press releases. Because of that policy, the Freemasons may he destined to remain controversial, although their legions of critics are easily matched by the legions of notables who have chosen to embrace Masonic membership.
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