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Chapter 1

Chapter 1 Textbook Notes

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David Perley

World Religion: Western Traditions – Third Edition By Oxtoby & Hussain CHAPTER 1 – ABOUT RELIGION Looking Both Ways from Stonehenge: Basic Human Religion Looking Back from Stonehenge  There are a few concepts, shared by virtually all human culture, that seem fundamental to what we call religion: powerful gods, scared places, a life of some kind of death, the presence in the physical world of spirits that interact with humans in various ways Three Worlds  Historically, it seems that humans around the globe have imagined the world to consist of 3 levels – sky, earth, and underworld  The upper-most level, the sky, has typically been considered the home of the greatest deities  how this concept developed is impossible to know, but we can guess that the awesome power of storms was one contributing factor. Another was very likely the apparent movement of the sun, the stars, and the planets across the sky. Observing the varying patters could well have led early human to believe that the heavenly bodies were living entities animated by their own individual spirits – in effect, gods and goddesses  The very highest level, in the heavens above the clouds and stars, was thought to be the home of the highest deity, typically referred to by names such as Sky Father, Creator, or King of Heaven  this deity – invariably male – was the forerunner of the god of the monotheistic religions.  Under the earth lived the spirits of serpents (surviving as the cobras, or nagas, in the religion of India) or reptilian monsters (surviving in dragon lore); perhaps because they were associated with dark and hidden places, they were usually imagined as evil  Between the sky and the underworld lay the earth: the intermediate level where humans lived Sacred Places  Around the world, there are certain types of places where humans tend to feel they are in the presence of some unusual energy or power. Such places are regarded as set apart from the everyday world and are treated with special respect  Among these scared places (the word ‘scared’ means ‘set aside’) are mountains and hilltops – the places closest to the sky-dwelling deities  In the ancient Middle East, for instance, worship was often conducted at ritual centres known simply as ‘high places’  people gathered at these sites to win the favour of the deities by offering them food, drink, praise, and prayer. Ex: the altar area on the cliff above the ancient city of Petra in Jordan Animal Spirits World Religion: Western Traditions – Third Edition By Oxtoby & Hussain  Another common and long-standing human tendency has been to attribute spirits to animals, either individually or as members of a family with a kind of collective guardian spirit  For this reason, traditional hunting societies have typically sought to ensure that the animals they kill for food are treated with the proper respect, lest other members of those species be frightened away or refuse to let themselves be caught  In addition, body parts from the most impressive animals – bulls bears, lions, eagles – have often been used as ‘power objects’, to help make contact with the spirits of these animals Death and Burial  From ancient times, humans have taken great care with the burial of their dead. The body might be positioned with the head facing east, the ‘first direction’, where the sun rises, or placed in the fetal position, suggesting a hope for rebirth into a different realm  The living were willing to sacrifice important resources to help the dead in the afterlife  The belief that deceased ancestors can play a role in guiding the living members of their families appears to be especially widespread  traditions such as the Japanese Obon, the Mexican Day of the Dead, and the Christian All Saints Day and Hallowe’en all reflect the belief that the souls of the dead return to earth once a year to share a ritual meal with the living Why are Humans Religious?  All we can say with any certainty is that religion seems to grow out of human experiences: from the fear of death to the hope for a good afterlife, from the uncertainty surrounding natural events to the sense of control over nature provided by a priest who could predict the change of seasons and the movement of the planets  Religion has many emotional dimensions, including fear, awe, love, and hate. But it also has intellectual dimensions, including curiosity about what causes things to happen, a sense of order in the universe that suggest the presence of a creator, and the drive to make sense out of human experience  Religion is such an ancient aspect of human experience that it has become part of human nature  for this reason some scholars have given our species, Home sapiens, a second name: Homo religiosus Ten Waves of Religion  Around 500 BCE, several new religious traditions began to form under the leadership of a great prophet or sage. And by the first century of the Common Era, the concept of a god born in human form was taking root in many parts of the world  Just as a great storm will bring new plants to the shore, some of which will take root and eventually choke out earlier arrivals, so from time to time major ‘waves’ have introduced new religious concepts and practices to different human cultures  where the coil and climate were suitable, the new elements were able to take root, and in time some of them may have replaced older ones World Religion: Western Traditions – Third Edition By Oxtoby & Hussain Wave 1: Shamanism  One very early wave appears to have carried the ritual specialist – in essence, a kind of priest – which we know today as a shaman (‘medicine man’, ‘soul doctor’, and ‘witchdoctor’).  The word ‘shaman’ comes from a specific central Asian culture, but it has become the generic term, for a person who acts as an intermediary between humans and the spirit world Hunting Rituals  Many ancient cave drawings depict hunting scenes in which a human figure seems to be performing a dance of some kind. Based on what we know of later hunting societies, we can guess that the figure is a shaman performing a ritual either to ensure a successful hunt or to appease the spirits of the hunted species  It seems that the more dangerous the endeavour, the more likely humans were to surround it with rituals  In addition, though, as we have seen, early humans believed that the spirits of the animals they hunted had to be appeased. Thus a special ritual might be performed to mark the first goose kill of the season, in the hope that other geese would not be frightened away from the hunting grounds  From very ancient time, humans have believed that the spirit – whether of an animal killed for food or of a human being – survives death and can communicate with others of its kind Coping with Unfriendly Spirits  Strategies for dealing with unfriendly spirits are usually based on what works with humans  Unfriendly spirits were of particular concern to those who ventured into the forest as hunters or gatherers, but they were not confined to the wilderness  Pain and disease of all kinds – from toothache to appendicitis to mental illness – were also attributed to possession by malevolent spirits or demons The Shaman  Shamans are still active in a number of cultures today  The way they operate varies, but certain patterns seem to be almost universal, which in itself suggests that the way of the shaman is very ancient  A shaman will be ‘called’ to the role by his or her psychic abilities, as manifested in some extraordinary vision or revelation, or perhaps a near-death experience  Candidates for the role of the shaman face a long and rigorous apprenticeship that often includes a vision quest, in the course of which they are likely to confront terrifying apparitions. Typically the questor will acquire a guiding spirit, sometimes the spirit of a particular animal (perhaps a bear or an eagle, whose claws or feathers the shaman may World Religion: Western Traditions – Third Edition By Oxtoby & Hussain wear to draw strength from its special powers) and sometimes a more human-like spirit (a good or goddess). This spirit then continues to serve as a guide and protector throughout the shaman’s life  To communicate with the spirit world, the shaman enters a trance state (often induced by rhythmic chanting or drumming)  Contact is made in one of two ways  in the first, the shaman’s soul leaves his body (which may appear lifeless) and travels to the realm where the spirits live; this way is described as ‘ecstatic’ (Greek meaning to ‘stand outside’). In the second, the shaman calls the sprit into her won body and is possessed by it; in such cases the shaman may take on the voice and personality of the spirit, or mimic its way of moving  In either case, after regaining normal consciousness the shaman announces what he has learned about the problem at hand and what should be done about it  typically, the problem is traced to the anger of a particular spirit; the shaman then explains the reason for that anger and what must be done to appease the spirit: in most cases the appropriate response is to perform a ritual sacrifice of some kind Wave 2: Connecting to the Cosmos  Our second wave is the one that inspired the building of structures like Stonehenge  People of the Neolithic (‘new rock’) era went to extraordinary lengths to create sacred areas by assembling huge stones in complex pattern  The main reason undoubtedly had something to do with religion – for instance, the need for a public space where the rituals essential to the society – weddings, puberty rites, funerals – could be performed Discerning the Cosmic Cycles  One very important function of priests was to track the seasons and determine the best time for seasonal activities such as planting  What we now call astrology developed as a way of understanding the cycle of the seasons and how humans fitted into it, collectively and individually  In ancient times no important decision would have been made without consulting an expert in the movements of the sun, moon, planets, and constellations  Even in modern times, many people, including political leaders, consult an astrologer before making major decisions Hilltop Tombs  Suggested earlier that the two powerful reasons behind human religion are the fear of death and the idea of an afterlife  Ancient cultures around the world appear to have favoured high places as burial sites  Where there were no hills, artificial ones were sometimes built, at least for the most important members of the society  i.e. the pyramids of Egypt Animals and Gods World Religion: Western Traditions – Third Edition By Oxtoby & Hussain  Another common feature of Neolithic religion was a tendency to associate certain animals with specific deities The Bull God  A similar pattern of association links the most powerful male deities with the strength and virility of the bull  Ex: when Moses returns from the mountain and finds that his brother Aaron, the first high priest, had allowed the people to worship an image of a golden calf or bullock, he denounces this practice as idolatry Wave 3: Temple Religion  A third wave brought larger temples, more elaborate sacrificial rituals, and, with the latter, the development of a priestly class endowed with unusual power, prestige,
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