Chapter 1 - About Religion
Looking Both Ways From Stonehenge: Basic Human Religion
Stonehenge: It is believed that the centre stone originally stood upright, marking spot where observer would stand
to watch movements of the sun and starts
o What remains of a structure erected 3500-4000 years ago. Site has already been used as a burial ground
o Believed to be for ceremonial purposes, orientation (towards point where sun rises at summer solstice) is
what led to think it may have been a kind of astronomical observatory
o Romans celebrated day as marking annual 'rebirth' of sun high point of festival Saturnalia. Christians also
celebrated birth of risen lord - Christmas was to combine unrestrained revelry of Roman midwinter festival,
marked by feasting, gift-giving and general merriment with celebration of the coming to earth of a deity
Looking Back from Stonehenge
Few concepts shared by virtually all human cultures that are fundamental to what we call religion: powerful gods,
sacred places, life after death, presence in the physical world of spirits that interact with humans in various ways.
These concepts are too old/widespread to describe where/when they first emerged.
o humans imagine wold consists of 3 levels; sky, earth, + underworld
Sky: home of the greatest deities - Sky Father, Creator, King of Heavens. (concept developed likely
from awesome storms, movement of sun/stars/planets) invariably male, was forerunner of god of
Underworld: spirits of serpents (nagas in Indian religions) or reptilian monsters (dragon lore) lived,
usually evil because associated with dark/hidden places
Earth: intermediate level where humans lived
o Where humans tend to feel in the presence of unusual energy/power
o Set apart; sacred from everyday world, treated with respect. Gather to win favor of deities by offering food,
drink, praise + prayer
o Middle East - religious centres called high places. Jordan - alter area on cliff above ancient city of Petra
o Great rivers/waterfalls; In Japan every feature of natural landscape was believed to be animated by its own
God or spirit (kami)
o Individually or as members of a family wit a collective guardian spirit
o Treated with respect. Body parts from most impressive animals (bulls bears, lions, eagles) often used as
'power objects' to help make contact with the spirits. Attributed magical properties to bear claws/eagle
feathers etc. and wear them as amulets or hung in doorways to protect from evil spirits
Death and Burial
o Bodies placed in fetal position or head facing east, suggesting a hope of rebirth into a different realm. 'Grave
goods' also included.
o Belief that dead ancestors can play a role in guiding living members of family is widespread.
o Japanese Obon, the Mexican Day of the Dead, and the Christian All-Saints Day and Hallowe'en reflect belief
that souls of the dead return to earth once a year to share a ritual meal with the living
Why are Humans Religious?
Religion seems to grow out of human experiences: from fear of death to the hope for a good afterlife, from
uncertainty surrounding natural events to the sense of control over nature provided by a priest who predicts the
change of season and movement of planets. It emerges through experience of good or bad powers sensed in dreams, sacred spaces, certain humans/animals
It has many emotional dimensions and intellectual dimensions.
It is such an ancient aspect of human experience it has become human nature. 'Homo religiosus'
Ten Waves of Religion
Wilfred Cantwell Smith 'religion in the singular' - history of human religiosity in the broadest sense.
Some religious ideas may have been carried from place of origin to other cultures, some developed more or less
independently by changing economic/social/environmental conditions
Wave 1: Shamanism
o from central Asian culture, but now generic; person who acts as an intermediary between humans and the
o ritual specialist, a kind of priest, 'medicine man', 'soul doctor', 'witch doctor'
o Most important resource - similar ways they operate suggest the way of shaman is very ancient
Most often shaman is 'called' to role by his/her psychic abilities manifested in some extraordinary
vision/revelation or near-death experience
Candidates face long/rigorous apprenticeship often including vision quest. Quester will acquire a
guiding spirit (either animal or human)
o To communicate with spirit world shaman enters trance state (often induced by drumming/chanting)
Contact made in 1/2 ways:
First: shaman's soul leaves body + travels to realm where spirits live. "ecstatic" - 'stand outside'
Second: shaman calls spirit into body + is possessed by it (may take on
Announces what he's learned of problem + how to fix (usually anger of spirit)
o Cave drawings: shaman performing ritual to ensure successful hunt or to appease spirits of hunted species
o More dangerous the endeavour, more likely to be surrounded with rituals; Bronislaw Malinowski "Magic
Science and Religion" - Trobriand Islanders performed no ceremonies before fishing in lagoon, but always
did before setting out to fish in open ocean.
Religious behavior is a way of coping with dangerous situations
o Reflect concern over future food supply, and reveal nature of human belief in spirits.
Coping with Unfriendly Spirits
o Wild uninhabited areas believed to be guarded by resident spirits - take form of monsters/mythical beasts,
"little people" like trolls
o Pain/diseases attributed to possession by malevolent spirits/demons
Sri Lanka - those with certain illnesses advised to have shaman sacrifice a chicken as offering to
'graveyard demon'; bribing him to go away
Frighten demon away by threatening to invoke another stronger spiritual power (ie. Spirit guide of
shaman) or o drive off with threaten gestures/loud noises (ie. Firecrackers in East Asia)
Wave 2: Connecting to the Cosmos
People in Neolithic "new rock" era went great lengths to create sacred areas by placing large stones in patterns
Discerning the Cosmic Cycles
o Ritual centres associated with religion but also scientific/technical
o Astrology - developed as way of understanding cycle of seasons and how humans fitted into it
No important decisions made without consulting astrologist
o High places favored as burial sites o
Pyramids connected dead with cosmos.
o Buddhist stupas connect earth with heavens (axis mundi - world axis) with wooden pole
Animals and Gods
o Certain animals associated with specific deities
Egypt = cat goddess named Bast; symbol of motherliness + hunting prowess
Hindu goddess Durga depicted riding on lion/tiger
The Bull God
o Powerful male deities associated with strength/virility of bull
Wave 3: Temple Religion
Plays enormous role in shaping many traditions
o 'Indo-European' (IE); refers to a language family and cultural system that eventually stretched from India all
the way through Europe
One of the most important cultural system
Set up social systems with 4 basic divisions; top 3: priests, warriors, middle-class commoners+ servants
Priests and Temples Elsewhere
o Jewish priesthood was hereditary
o First temple was only site where sacrificial rituals could be performed
Wave 4: Prophetic Religion
Prophet: one who speaks on behalf of deity or one who foresees/predicts the future