Religion Research Paper

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Religions are characteristically central in accountings of world history. While many people consider religion private, many are affected by its public presence. Religion supports empires and consoles victims. It inspires war and motivates warriors, but it can also be an agency of peace and the working of justice. The religious may be privileged as supporters of the state or hounded when they dissent.

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Moderns have given the name “religion” to the many efforts through which people respond to what they experience or believe in as supernatural or suprahuman forces or beings. Exceptions in the form of purely humanistic religions are few. Most people in most cultures throughout most of history have given evidence that tending to religious matters is basic in their existence, and the energy they give to these has produced artifacts—temples and the like— and events, phenomena with which historians have consistently reckoned.

While religion may be what many modern people have come to call it—a private affair—it always has had a public presence. Individuals may be religious, but most of them form communities and these may collide with each other, attempt to exert power, and often turn out to be useful to civil authorities just as the religious communities find civil authorities useful.

Religion in Prehistory and Preliterate Cultures

Prehistoric and preliterate people could not and did not leave behind sacred texts of the sort that inform most study of religion throughout history. Yet archaeology reveals numberless grave sites whose contents show that the living engaged in ceremonies and left articles suggesting their care for the dead and their concern for their afterlife existence. Some of this evidence in Europe and parts of Asia dates back over 70,000 years. Lacking texts, scholars have to deduce the meanings of the relics, but these demonstrate that religion is a constant and profound dimension of human life, so much so that many neuroscientists hypothesize that humans are “hard-wired” to seek meaning through rites and ceremonies, myths and symbols, ideas and behaviors, that they associate with the word religion.

One of the most common and, to those who uncover the altars and bones, most unsettling set of practices, has to do with human sacrifice. Castes of people, usually priests, were assigned the task of pleasing deities, for example the gods of fertility or weather or war, by offering their fellows or their captives on altars. Especially when such killing occurred in northern climates, as in Scandinavia, some corpses were so well preserved that scholars can deduce much about the way of life of the sacrificed and the sacrificers. While human sacrifice has virtually disappeared in modern times, it was long a factor in societies. In Aztec cultures in South America just before Europeans arrived and conquered them, thousands of their people had been ceremoniously sacrificed. In many ancient religions animals were substituted for people by those who wanted to win the favor of their deities. Bloodless sacrificial offerings, for example, gifts of money, remain favored ways of being religious into our own times.

Not only beginnings and ends, birth and death, fertility and burial rites occupied the religious. From observing how great stones were placed, as in Stonehenge in England or throughout Maya and Aztec cultures in Central and South America, scholars deduce that people observed the heavens for signs of divine will. They paid attention to the seasons of the year and the movement of sun and moon and stars, calculating some of their bearings from these. Many ancients worshiped sun-gods or moon-gods. Such observance has lived on in moderated ways within literate cultures, where Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, among others, thrived. Their sacred texts prescribed certain ceremonial days in the light of the phases of the moon.

Just as they looked up to the heavens, these religious folks also looked backward and ahead, as their texts reveal: they wanted to account for how the world came into being and what its future, often a future ending in destruction, would be. Their stylized stories of beginnings (myths of origin) provided guidance for daily living. Their altars and relics also signal that they were concerned about weather and the gods or forces that control it, since it had so much impact on their survival and possible prosperity. They danced, prayed, and made offerings to deities associated with agriculture and hunting.

The Rise of “World Religions”

Knowledge of what religion meant in ancient lives becomes more sure when historians can deal with texts in which priests and scribes recorded their presumed transactions with the divine or in which they prescribed ceremonies. Many of those have left rich heritages where they appeared around the Mediterranean Sea and especially in the Middle East. In the fifth century BCE Athens was a bustling city, whose architects produced temples such as the Parthenon, where the statue of Athena by Phidias dominated. Readers of the literature of ancient Greece become familiar with large companies of gods, whom citizens always tried to understand, often to pacify, and sometimes to emulate.

While a thousand years before that, around 1500 BCE, Chinese peoples gave signs that they were preoccupied with the sacred, it was with the birth of Confucius in 551 BCE that texts appeared which provide access to the spiritual world of China. Whether Confucius should be thought of as a religious founder or a philosopher is a point of debate, but students of Chinese religion characteristically study his writings. These became influential in China and have remained so thousands of years later. He taught followers to be humble and generous, respectful of their ancestors, and devoted to civic life.

Even before Confucius died, China saw the emergence of another philosophy, a this-worldly faith, Daoism, which paid little attention to a life to come, as most other religions have done. Attractive especially to poor farmers, to peasant classes, it taught reverence for the natural world, the landscape, in the face of which people were to learn to be serene but never weak.

More vital and influential through the centuries have been religions that emerged in the subcontinent of Asia, especially in India. Less interested in science and invention than the Chinese, Indians can be said to have specialized in responses to the sacred. Settlers of Indo-European background planted the roots of Hinduism, a faith that called for respect, even awe, for priests and holy people called Brahmans. It is hard to grasp an essence of Hinduism, so diverse are the shoots and so manifold are the sacred writings that grew from those roots. It called for worship of many gods including one above the others, Brahma. A core belief of Hindus was that all living beings possessed an inner soul, one that outlasted the body but would then transmigrate to a new body. That belief led to regard for cows as sacred. But Hinduism is not only a set of beliefs: it stipulates complex practices, many of them related to the belief in transmigration.

Just as Daoism coexisted with and challenged Confucianism in China, so Buddhism emerged to rival Hinduism in India. In the case of this philosophy and religion it is possible to point to a single founder, Siddhartha Gautama (566–486 BCE), son of a prince from Nepal. Sheltered in childhood and assured a life of leisure and reasonable luxury, he left behind the way of life these permitted and rode off seeking enlightenment and salvation. Indeed, he did experience such, and became known as “The Enlightened,” the Buddha. His journey led him and his followers to self-denial and the pursuit of sanctity. While Hinduism fostered a caste system in which the poor were destined to remain poor and the rich to enjoy riches, Buddhism was more spiritually democratic. But the wealthy were also attracted, and many of them contributed to the building of monasteries that were attractive to the most rigorous followers. Buddhist monasteries sprang up in city after city along the holy Ganges River.

Buddhism entered world history and was assured of a future when Asoka, a king of India, gained power and prestige often by the use of the sword but also with building and humanitarian concerns, around 265 BCE. Through his spreading empire Buddhism prospered, while Asoka built hospitals and educational centers to give it practical effect among the people he dominated. Hinduism, after early prosperity, languished but was periodically revivified. Buddhists meanwhile spread their self-disciplined ways of life into China and Japan, eventual and virtual home bases for one of what came to be called “the world religions.”

Developments Called “Greco-Roman,” Jewish, and Christian

Greek and Roman cultures survived in the centuries of great cultural productivity. Philosopher Karl Jaspers spoke of the centuries between 700 BCE to 200 BCE as an “axial period,” a time of religious formation and creativity, and these dates are commonly accepted. This is often marked in Greek drama and Roman poetry as well as in the records of statecraft. While honor was shown the old Greek gods in the course of developments associated with Rome in the fourth century BCE, the Roman rulers increasingly came to be treated as divine agents worthy of worship. They, in turn, invoked some of the gods, offering them sacrifice of animals. Culturally open to other influences, they also welcomed Isis, the mother-god from Egypt, who ruled the universe, and Mithras, the sun-god from Persia. Much more complex was the arrival of Jews from Palestine and, from within their Judaism, a new sect that the Romans soon learned to name “Christian.”

The Roman Republic came to be the Roman Empire in the centuries in which Judaism and Christianity came to be a presence. Together these two also became “world religions,” dynamic inheritances from a five-hundred-year period in world history that saw special creativity and devotion. Webbed at the beginning and conflicted by the end of the first century CE, Judaism and Christianity also demand separate treatment by scholars of religion.

Hebrew people—their name refers to their having wandered—told themselves that they were people who came from slavery in Egypt. They had seen glories, beginning with their conquest of many small ethnic groups in Palestine, and kingship beginning around 1000 BCE. They revered the memory of charismatic rulers such as David, who captured his capital city of Jerusalem, and then his son Solomon, a temple-builder there. The temple-goers and their priests and scribes recounted and lived by stories of their freedom from slavery, their wandering in a wilderness, and their conquest in Canaan, on the soil of Palestine.

Among their stories, one that inspired much of their moral concern and many of their religious rites was one about Moses, a leader who helped free them from slavery, often with apparently miraculous means. Among these was one that had to do with the deity they called Yahweh, revealed through ten “utterances” that came to be called the Ten Commandments. Followers of these commandments, in northern and southern kingdoms (the latter being called Judea, hence “Jewish”), considered to be the special chosen people of God, forbade the making of divine images. They often revered lesser gods whom they considered anti-Yahweh, but to whom they were frequently attracted. Their attraction quickened criticism by prophets, mainly in the eighth century BCE. These were men in a special calling that directed them to judge errant people and promise divine assurance to the righteous. God held Jews to an especially high standard, and, as they interpreted it, let them prosper or meet disaster, depending upon how well they kept divine laws, especially the Ten Commandments.

While most Jews, freed from captivity in Babylon after 586 BCE, lived in Palestine, they also saw the creation of the Diaspora, a dispersal of peoples, and they were strategically placed in much of what had become the Roman Empire. They built synagogues and worshiped in relative freedom so long as they did not give the rulers any troubles. It was Christianity, one of Judaism’s offspring, originally a Jewish sect, that did give trouble and receive it.

This faith centered in a rabbi of Nazareth, Jesus, in the course of time believed by most of his followers to have been born of a virgin, Mary of Nazareth, who had been impregnated by the Holy Spirit, and without a human father. He was one of many latter-day prophets, such as John the Baptist, who influenced his mission. In the sacred writings called the Gospels, which became part of a “New Testament,” this Jesus was portrayed as a wonder-worker whose main task was healing and preaching the imminence of God’s kingdom. Exactly what that meant depended upon who was writing about it or interpreting the writings, but it had to do with divine sovereignty exercised in “saving” people from their sins.

With Israel chafing under resented Roman rule, however, many wanted saving from the Romans. The Gospels picture Jesus teaching his disciples that he was to be executed. Meanwhile, a growing number of enemies among religious authorities targeted him for execution. The Gospels portray him as knowing that this form of execution, crucifixion, was to be his destiny, his means of saving people. In such portrayals his death was a sacrifice pleasing to the one he called Father. In the experience and belief of his followers, he was resurrected, raised from the dead, and after making appearances among them for forty days, ascended into heaven, thence to rule.

In the eyes of Greeks and Romans the sect that followed this resurrected one, called Christians, could have survived as one more strange movement. However, while some of them served in the Roman army and paid taxes, they refused to give signals of worship that would show they regarded the ruler, Caesar, as divine. Forty years after Jesus’ death, around 70 CE, conflicts between these Christians and other Jews led to schism and growing enmity. More important for survival, however, was the attitude of Roman rulers and other elites, who scorned them and saw them as subversive. Before the year 70, persecution of Christians had begun in Jerusalem, Rome, and outposts along the way this fast-spreading faith was developing.

Divided Christendom and the Rise of Islam

In the course of three centuries as Rome declined, one of its emperors, Constantine, for a mixture of reasons, became a believer and directed his empire on a course that led Christianity by the end of the fourth century CE to be the official religion of Rome. The persecuted now became the persecutors in many instances. Christianity was official, legally established, and was to remain so for a millennium and more. When as the eastern half gained power and influence and Rome divided, the Christian movement also progressively divided, with headquarters in Rome and in Constantinople, Constantine’s power became based in what is today’s Turkey. The Christian story, including the account of the development of its creeds, doctrines, and practices, henceforth had western and eastern versions, and these split permanently in 1054 CE. If Christianity sprang out of Judaism, still another world religion, second in size only to Christianity, developed out of and then over against those two. It developed in the small cities of the Arabian Peninsula, where Muhammad was born around 570 CE.

Christians and Jews lived there, but old religions considered to be pagan thrived in the interior, where at Mecca, Muhammad’s birthplace, people revered and made pilgrimages to a great black meteorite in a shrine they called Kaaba. In that city Muhammad experienced a profound religious revelation and claimed that he was recording the direct utterances of God, Allah, in the sacred book that became the Qur’an. Islam means “submission,” and the religion that issued from the prophet Muhammad’s revelation and transcription, stressing obedience to Allah, prescribed precise and simple ways in which one pursued Islamic faithfulness.

While the Qur’an included many passages advocating tolerance and peace, the text also included militant themes and the prophet’s career included military ventures. The Arabian Peninsula, always dry, in the early years of the sixth century was experiencing drought, and many desperate Arabs joined Muhammad’s conquering armies. By 635, Damascus in Syria fell, followed the year later by Jerusalem. The armies invaded Egypt and captured Alexandria in 641. Everywhere the victorious Muslims won converts and built mosques. Many of these moves were threatening and even devastating to Christians, who met defeat in northern Africa and parts of Europe, including Spain. There Muslims developed a sophisticated civilization, which it shared with Jews and Christians until 1492. Constantinople had fallen in 1453, and for much of the next century the Ottoman Turks spread Islam while assaulting Europe all the way into Hungary. The Christians earlier gained some selective victories as they tried to win back the holy places of Palestine in a series of bloody crusades, but outside Europe itself Islam held its own and became a permanent challenger.

Religious Expansion and Division

Meanwhile, for a thousand years Buddhists were on the move. They came from India into many parts of China, just as they had expanded into Sri Lanka. Mahayana, a new form of Buddhism, developed in northern India. It was a more aggressive and proselytizing faith than the passive Buddhism of earlier years. Shrines and giant statues of Buddha marked the path of their progress. Emperor Shomu in Japan embraced Buddhism in 737. Spared in an epidemic, he credited Buddha and erected the Great Buddha at Nara. Like Christianity and Islam, Buddhism spread not only with armies but also through energetic missionaries and proselytizers. Each left in its trail and on its soil great houses of worship and thousands of smaller ones, places for pilgrimage and devotion, libraries for the encouragement of learning and piety—in short: civilizations.

While Western Catholic Christianity that was centered in Rome dominated Europe, with the Muslim present in the West, in Spain, and threatening in the East toward Vienna, and with Jews surviving as an often sequestered minority, one church system set the terms for religious and much of civil life. The Catholic Church was in position to enforce loyalty and persecute dissenters. The head of Catholicism, the pope, could not only field an army but also demand and frequently gain obedience from monarchs whose people would be denied access to heaven if their rulers did not acquiesce to Rome.

It was in that context that all over Europe restless reformers began to question the Catholic system and to subvert it. Their main instrument was the preached and taught Bible, a book of divine revelation that became available in the fifteenth century CE as Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of movable type and new presses helped ordinary people gain access to it and its message. In German-speaking Saxony a monk, Martin Luther, after 1517 preached a gospel of liberation and came to storm the official church, which hounded him in turn. Joined by Swiss and other reforming scholars and with support of some princes in the Holy Roman Empire (much of today’s Germany) and elsewhere, these questioners undercut the teachings and much of the edifice of Catholicism, though it continued to dominate in most of Europe. But as the new movements called Protestant after 1529 made their way, often in alliance with the state in Germany, England, Scandinavia, the Lowlands, and elsewhere, they helped assure that Europe would be divided religiously. This became doubly evident as Protestants themselves were divided, in no position to be attracted back to Rome as a unit or to be destroyed as one.

When the Western Hemisphere became a subject of knowledge in Europe, Catholic Christianity prevailed in the central and southern Americas. Meanwhile, Dutch, Swedish, and especially English churches had turned Protestant. Merchants and explorers from these countries dominated in that part of America that became the United States, as well as in all of Canada but Quebec.

Renaissance, Enlightenment, and Secularism

While the faith was spreading, Christianity and to a lesser extent all religions in the sixteenth century began to face fresh challenges from propagators of a new approach to the world. Sometimes it was called the Renaissance, because it involved a recovery in the thought world of the glories of Greece and Rome, just as it celebrated their arts and sciences. Sometimes the change came in what was called the Enlightenment. This was a movement in northwest Europe, one that celebrated reason, progress, and science, often at the expense of faith.

In Renaissance times some challengers such as Copernicus and Galileo, who presented new views of the physical universe, were harassed, the latter condemned by the pope. Sometimes they won converts from enlightened church leaders who fused rationalist or scientific thought with their faith and church. But in any case, the modern world saw an increase in tension between believers and nonbelievers. The emergent worldview of the latter came to be called “secular,” from the Latin word saeculum. The implication or even overt claim was that whether or not God existed, one could live out a full life interpreting and changing the world without recourse to God, sacred texts, religious institutions, and the like.

In the nineteenth century, on the soil of secularism, there arose more pitiless and belligerent rivals to Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. Most of the twentieth-century forms ended in -ism: Fascism, Communism, Nazism, Maoism were typical. Many of these took on the trappings of the religions they set out to replace. They called for the sacrifice of millions of lives in war, and they took other lives. They generated myths of leadership and symbols such as the swastika, the hammer and sickle, and the star to rally or subjugate people. They invented ceremonies and rituals. In due course their creations imploded and they waned, while in most cases the religions they had set out to abolish returned and often prevailed in various areas.

Religious Survival and Revival

In the twenty-first century, religion without doubt plays as large a role as it had centuries earlier, despite many predictions that modernity, secularity, and science would sweep it away. The old heartland of Christianity, western Europe, did not experience the growth in the number of religious adherents, though Christianity in its various forms survived there. Yet nearly 2 billion people around the world were numbered as Christian in 2009, about one billion of them Roman Catholic. Notably prosperous were new Christian movements, especially Pentecostalism, in the southern world, especially sub-Saharan Africa. Meanwhile Islam advanced by population growth, efforts to convert, and development of philosophies and movements attractive to many among the world’s poor. Hinduism was also among the advancing religions.

Religion came wearing many guises. In a vast generalization that needs many qualifiers, it could be said that in the world of today, more people are being healed and more are being killed in the name of religion than of any other force. Healing here would mean not only physical and personal spiritual healing, but reconciliation, concord, works of justice and mercy. Killing here need not always mean literal murder; it could imply anything negative related to persons, including oppression, repression, suppression. But it can point directly to killing, since armies move against each other, or terrorists act in the name of their gods. Efforts at reconciling the religious do occur, and many people of good will in many cultures initiate and promote movements of interfaith dialogue and common action. These are dwarfed, however, by the massive, convulsive moments of tribe against tribe, people against people, and often nation against nation on the basis of mixed motives, but many of them being religious.

Religion in the Contemporary World

Any assessment of the role of religion has to begin with the place it plays in the life of individuals. This is as true in Jainism, Sikhism, Shinto, Babism, and other significant movements that one will find in atlases and encyclopedias of religion or in open encounters around the world. Historical change came because of Buddha realizing enlightenment, Jesus teaching and dying, monks like Francis of Assisi, Jewish scholars like Maimonides, and reformers like Martin Luther experiencing fire in their soul, acquiring a mission, and then spreading their message and changing the world. But there would be no religious movements were there not also stirrings and hungers in individual souls, and at least partial and often wholly enthusiastic responses to God or the gods.

At the other extreme, religions have to be appraised as mass movements. Millions of Muslims make pilgrimages to Kaaba in Mecca, as Christians went on crusades; they form armies in support of kings who they think rule by divine right, or they stimulate revivals, awakenings, and renewal movements. They can be attached to movements already existing: often nations are ready to war against nations, but they mobilize when they are convinced that God or the good is on their side, and that enemies of God— Satan, if you will, among others—are on the other side.

Religions often undertake revolutionary missions. While their main function may be conservative, urging respect as they often do for the wisdom and achievements of sacred ancestors and offering ballast and sanity in times of disturbance, they may also take it to be their mission to upset the world. Thus the Hebrew prophets of the eighth century BCE, acting on the basis of a covenant they claimed God had with Israel that was now being forgotten, called the people to repent, change their ways, and do works of justice and mercy. They may form resistance movements against modern dictators, or provide conscience for individuals who need courage and divine authorization. So religions make history both in their integrating roles and when they are prophetic and disruptive. Since they deal with invisibles, with soul and spirit and unseen forces, they may not be as easy to track and chronicle as are wars, earthquakes, famines, or catastrophes, but they do as much as such phenomena to alter the human landscape through history and into the present.


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Religion Research Paper

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This sample religion research paper features: 6700 words (approx. 22 pages), an outline, and a bibliography with 36 sources. Browse other research paper examples for more inspiration. If you need a thorough research paper written according to all the academic standards, you can always turn to our experienced writers for help. This is how your paper can get an A! Feel free to contact our writing service for professional assistance. We offer high-quality assignments for reasonable rates.


  1. Introduction
  2. Development of Religion and Belief
  3. Early Explanations for Religion and Belief
  4. Major Religions and Belief Systems
    1. Eastern and Western Traditions
    2. Hinduism
    3. Buddhism
    4. Judaism
    5. Christianity
    6. Islam
  5. Religious Objects, Symbols, and Rituals
  6. Religion, Manuscripts, and Teachings
  7. Future Directions
  8. Conclusion
  9. Bibliography


Religion and belief are of great importance for anthropological research on the development of humankind and its history, as they represent the human reaction to an extrahuman, holy, transcendent, or divine object. Almost no other terms of the mental and intellectual human life seem to have such a big and colorful variety as “belief ” or “religion.”

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At first, a look into the past: The term religion has its etymologic and historical roots in the ancient Roman world. A different context can be found for the terms personal belief or universal faith; they have their semantic origin in the Greek word pístis, which Saint Paul used in his letters, or in the Latin fides. Whereas religion gives the framework, belief fills this framework with individual religious activities. Faith means the universal religious activity of a group of people of the same religion. The Latin noun religio stems from the verb re-legere, which has the meaning “to do something diligently, to do something again, to re-read something,” according to Marcus T. Cicero (106–43 BCE). The prefix re- could even be translated as “to do something diligently again and again.” The careful execution of rituals was prescribed by rules, which were only valid through their exact observance. Therefore in the ancient Roman culture, the Latin noun religio expresses the right observance of cults and, as a consequence, the respect for the gods. The verb re-legere is the opposite of the verb neg-legere (to neglect).

The derivation of the noun religio from religare (to connect, to reconnect) is in general problematic, because this reconnection can be seen in a feeling of an inner attachment to something transcendent, which was not common to classical beliefs. In its character, religio is in Roman antiquity rather a virtue than a kind of feeling. Central in the diligent performance of rituals was a kind of “pious awe,” which was not so intensive that the acting person in religious affairs was moved inside. This is one of the reasons why ancient Roman religio is basically incomprehensible to us. Nowadays, the adjective religiosus means “pious.” In a later development, homo religiosus means “member of an order,” a person who lives according to the three evangelical counsels: poverty, chastity, and obedience. This person wants to be, in his religious life, a good example to others. It was this meaning of the word pious (religiosus) that brought the noun religion into the Christian-shaped, Western culture, and less the Latin noun religio, in the ancient Roman sense.

To exhaust the full meaning of religion or belief, it is not sufficient to speak only of devoutness or “expression of devoutness.” Religion and belief also cover the sentence fides quaerens intellectum (faith or belief that searches for insight). Therefore, it has also to do with rationality and the search for reasonable causes. Saint Augustine (354–430 CE), as an exponent of Christian antiquity, and Saint Thomas Aquinas (ca. 1224/5–1274 CE), as a philosopher of high scholasticism, shaped the concept of religio as identical with Christianity. Other, non-Christian religions or beliefs could only be classified as lex, secta, or fides.

The meaning of the term lex is universal, according to our expression “denomination” or “total structure of life.” There is also a lex Christianorum, which means “doctrine and law of the Christian faith.” By no means is the forming of the concepts “religion” and “belief ” steady or logical. Within the historical development, beginning with classical antiquity up to the advent of Protestantism in the 16th century, it is not possible to find a strictly continuous development to the modern term religion. So, religio cannot be translated by or equated with religion or belief in today’s meaning.

If the Christian context of the word religion is left aside, then religion and also belief can be defined as the relationship of a human to a personal or impersonal transcendent, in whatever shape of “the Real”: a divine persona or impersona. The meaning of the Western terms religion or belief, influenced by Christian thoughts, changes in other European and non-European languages from “something that is owed to the transcendence” to “law/doctrine” and “eternal, never-ending structure.”

As a result, the term religion is more objective than the rather subjective term belief. Also, the concepts of belief— characterized as individual, personal belief, or conviction— and faith—characterized as universal belief—can be differentiated. Religion is in general the system of faith that people of the same conviction have in common. Belief is the personal activity, the “personal” faith, within the framework of religion. Belief system is very near to religion, but it emphasizes the personal religious activity more than universal faith.

Development of Religion and Belief

After this etymological study, the paradigmatic development of the modern terms religion and belief will now be described in order to give a contemporary view on them. A religion that prescribes a belief in a deity of imaginable terms is marked as rational, according to the Lutheran theologian and historian of comparative religion Rudolf Otto. In his classic work, The Idea of the Holy (1917/1925), Otto also asked for the objectivity of religion or belief, and emphasized the “contrast between Rationalism and profounder religion.” One cannot do justice to religion or belief only by rational terms. The two opposite characterizations of religion are, as Otto pointed out, the tremendum, or the “awefulness,” and simultaneously the fascinans, or the “fascinating.” The tremendum shakes people in awe in sight of the mysterious, completely different being, God. This form of fear is by far different than the “natural,” or ordinary fear of a human, and applies more to the general “world-fear.” The tremendum derives from a “numinous dread” that terrifies and fascinates people at the same time.

The Romanian historian of religion Mircea Eliade, who worked at the University of Chicago, addressed Rudolf Otto’s reflections at the beginning of his book The Sacred and the Profane (1957/1959). Eliade focused on the nature of religion or belief, describing the manifestations of religion and the religious in a world that dissociates itself more and more from religious dimensions. But even in a secular world, there is something sacred that is characterized by humans as the opposite of the profane. The process is always the same: the “completely different” is a reality that is not of our world and manifests itself on things that are components of our natural, profane world.

Eliade repeatedly spoke of homo religious, and he wanted to make clear that religion and belief belong to the human nature. Therefore, people live as long as possible in the sacred universe. By the word sacred, the dimension of the religious is described. This dimension surrounds, carries, and holds the human as a religious being. On the other side, a secular person, who is able to live without any religious feeling, has a completely different, secular experience of the universe. She lives in a desacralized world. The religious feeling has to find its way by another, maybe hidden means. The secular person lives totally differently from the homo religious.

Almost 150 years earlier than Eliade, Friedrich D. E. Schleiermacher, a German Lutheran theologian and philosopher, classified religion and belief as a “feeling,” as the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau did before him. Schleiermacher called religion a “feeling of infinity” in his second speech, “On the Nature of Religion,” of his five speeches appearing in On Religion (1799/1996).

The German philosopher of the Age of Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant, stood in strong contrast to the definition of religion or belief as “feeling.” In his work Religion Within the Boundaries of Mere Reason (1793/1998), Kant proved that there was no way to conclude the certain feature of direct divine influence by a feeling. Hence, according to Kant, religion must be based on reason alone in order to be universal. For Kant, religion had to be a “pure religion of reason.” Although these two characterizations of religion as a “feeling” (Schleiermacher) or as a “pure religion of reason” (Kant) are opposing, these two definitions of religion may be coincident in the fact that religion or belief is something according to human nature. Therefore, around the year 1800, a concept of internal religion developed, which remains effective today.

Statements on religion or belief by the Protestant theologians Ernst Troeltsch (1912/1981) and Paul Tillich (1955, 1961/1988) underlined this fact. In another way, Tillich’s works can be regarded as examples of the effective power of the concept of religion or belief. In a different approach to Immanuel Kant, he distanced himself to consider “feeling” as the basic determination of religion. If religion could be connected to the pure subjectivity of emotion, then it would decline, because religion would loose its seriousness, its truth, and its highest sense. Without a highest content, religion would stay empty. In his essay “Religion as a Function of the Human Mind?” (1955/1988), Tillich defined religion as “something that concerns us immediately,” in the deepest sense of the universe. That which “concerns us immediately” referred to all creative functions of the human mind. However, this did not mean that religion and belief are fictions of the mind, created by human beings.

According to Tillich, the human mind is able to be creative in relation to both itself and to the world. But this creativeness is limited by the relationship to God. Religions and beliefs contain all areas of the human life and of the mind, as they build the substance, the basis, and the depth of the human intellectual life. Therefore religion or belief is not based on a function of the mind at all. Religion is universal; belief is individual. They are consequently the unconditioned components in every situation of human life. Being moved by religion is always related to a religious object. In this context, Tillich emphasized two points: (1) Religion and belief are always related to a content, which cannot be explained in the end; and (2) religion has always a social dimension, too. Nobody is alone in being religiously moved or in feeling any kind of religious emotion. Therefore, the objectivity of religion is founded by its social dimension, according to Tillich. As a consequence, religion and belief are situated in the human being, who is touched by a “revealed unconditioned being,” by a religious object. This can generally be applied to everyone. “Religious reality,” however, goes along with a secret consciousness: tua res agitur, “your situation is concerned.”

Two definitions of the concept of religion can be found in Tillich’s work. Both differ crucially from the traditional one—religion or belief as the human answers to the transcendent. (1) Tillich spoke of an “autonomous religion” that does not know a representational God, nor, consequently, any form of prayer. But in contradiction to that, religion is not impious or lacking a God. It just does not know any kind of ecclesiastical objectification of God. With mysticism, it is different again, because mysticism elevates itself beyond the objectification of God. (2) In his later essay, “Christianity and the Encounter of the World Religions” (1961/1988), Tillich mentioned quasireligions, which are similar to religions and have some features in common with religions. But quasireligions are only related to secular objects and consequently to secular institutions. Tillich differentiates between quasireligions and pseudoreligions. Both pretend intentionally to be similar to religions. The expansion of the concepts of religion or of belief as inward phenomena, which have been developed since the beginning of the 19th century, became clear in Tillich’s considerations.

The two concepts of quasireligions and pseudoreligions must be strictly distinguished from traditional, historical religions. Similar to quasireligions is what Eric Voegelin (1938/1999) and Raymond Aron (1965/1968) spoke of as political religion. An explosive nature is exhibited in the relationship between religion and politics, as it is demonstrated in the concept of political religion, and later on in the concepts of state religion or civil religion. The term political religion has its roots in religio politica, going back to the early 17th century. Since the 1930s, it served to classify the politicaltotalitarian mass movements of this time in a critical attitude toward ideology. This modern “political religion,” however, must be clearly distinguished from the “political religion” of classical antiquity and the later concepts of state religion and civil religion, which tried to institutionalize the relationship between religion and politics, not always in a fruitful way.

Generally speaking, it is possible to identify religion or belief as being situated in a person. Religion or belief must be further defined as a relationship and interchange between a human being and transcendent reality, which is relevant for humans. But the relationship to transcendence is not the only decisive criterion for a religion or a belief. Religions and beliefs are rather connected by a kind of “family resemblance,” as defined by Ludwig Wittgenstein (1953/2001). They are determined by overlapping qualities, including holiness, prayers, and services. Religions and beliefs also show similarities that connect them. These similarities, however, must not necessarily be alike in every religion or belief. Regarding those similarities, the reference to transcendence plays, of course, an important role. John Hick (2005) pointed out that another fundamental “family resemblance” of religions and beliefs, in addition to their reference to the transcendence, is their soteriological content, which describes the ability of a religion or belief to redeem human souls and allow salvation. However different their contents and traditions may be, this soteriological quality is a feature that all religions and beliefs have in common in various manners. Also, the validity of religious traditions was of great importance for Hick.

Religion and belief in the modern ideology can carefully be defined as generic terms, or concepts, which slowly have grown in importance in our modern age. These concepts are very different from the ancient meaning of the word religio, which first described all imaginations, attitudes, and actions of a person concerning the ultimate reality. Humans accept the ultimate reality as powers or a power, spirits or demons, gods or God, the “Sacred” or the “Absolute,” or just “Transcendence.” In ancient times, religio was not used as a collective name for each belief or as a universal term, in which various beliefs were summed up. The term religio, representing the past view on religion or belief, was used in a very narrow sense from antiquity up to the 16th century. At first, religio referred to the exercising of the rituals prescribed by law, but only later with regard to the Christian denomination. In general, it took a long time before religio and later “religion” had achieved their meaning, which led to the modern understanding of “religion.” Religion is more than the mere name of a personal belief. It expresses that humans are concerned about something beyond them. Also, death obtains a different meaning within a religious worldview. Romano Guardini (1940/1998), the Catholic priest, theologian, and philosopher of religion, considered death as the gate to the other side of human life, which remains secret to those who still live in this world. For religious people, death is no longer the end of life but, instead, is the turning point to a different reality.

Summing up, the terms religion and belief can be characterized by the following three points:

  1. There are no universal terms for all religions or beliefsystems of humankind in each epoch.
  2. There is no term that includes all aspects of what ismeant by religion or belief today. Even all these terms together cannot cover every aspect now meant by religion or belief.
  3. Earlier terms of religio or religion stand in contrast to themodern meaning of religion. They emphasize the external practice of religion, the observance of ritual instructions and regulations, and the obedience to religious laws.

These three points, however, cannot unambiguously classify religions or beliefs and they do not ultimately define them. But they do outline the broad frame of the modern concept of religion and belief.

Early Explanations for Religion and Belief

Since ancient times, as many sources teach, people have had various religious or pseudoreligious systems. In the past, religions and beliefs were the result of natural phenomena, which led people to fear and to require that these natural phenomena be explained. Also, social facts and mechanisms had to be explained through religious patterns. Ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman religions show this function of early religions or belief systems. These religions and beliefs were polytheistic (i.e., there were many different gods, who had different things to take care of). In many cases, one god is honored as supreme among the others (e.g., Zeus in ancient Greek religion or Jupiter/Jove in ancient Roman religion). The holy or the deity was often linked with nature. Humans found in nature the powerful influence of God: Therefore trees or fountains or mountains (esp. the peak, like Mount Fuji in Japan) were adored as holy, or as the place where the deity lives. Also in totems, things of everyday life or symbols or even animals, the spirit of a deity is believed to be effective. Therefore, it is forbidden, it is a taboo, to kill an animal in which a deity is believed to be present. These original religious aspects can be found within African religions and beliefs, or within the religions of the Pacific islands.

In the Egyptian and Roman traditions, the emperor was adored as a god and found his place in the Pantheon after his death. Archaeological proofs of these ancient religions and belief systems can be found in the pyramids in Egypt, as well as in the ancient Roman temples around the Mediterranean Sea. From the onset of European culture, politics, religion, and society were interconnected within the ancient state, the Greek pólis or the Roman civitas. So religions and politics were interlinked in ancient European societies. Later on, these three aspects differentiated more and more. Today, politics, religions, and societies are almost separated, but one should be aware that humans are oriented toward religious belief, as civilians within a political state and a civil society. So it is useful to respect religion and belief even within a political point of view.

At the beginning of ancient Greek culture, the explanations for the reasons why the universe came to exist, and why it exists the way it does, were given in the myths of the writers Homer (ca. 8th century BCE) and Hesiod (ca. 8th century BCE). Next, there was a shift from mythos (myths) to lógos (reason). This shift can be found in the quotations and fragments of the pre-Socratic philosophers, who turned their interests toward nature and the reasons for natural phenomena. Thales of Miletus (ca. 624–546 BCE), for example, a philosopher of nature living on the Ionic coast (today’s Turkey), gave a precise forecast for a total eclipse by calculation, but people took him almost for a prophet, and, what is more, he could forecast a rich bearing of olives, so that he lent all the olive presses in his country for a small amount of money, and consequently he was able to borrow them for a very good price. The next step from myths to reason can be found in the philosophy of Plato (ca. 428/427–348/347 BCE), a disciple of Socrates (ca. 469–399 BCE). Plato underlined his arguments in his dialogues with myths, in order to explain them better to his disciples. Among them, there was another important philosopher, the educator of Alexander the Great, Aristotle (384–322 BCE). Aristotle was also very interested in investigating natural phenomena and in explaining the world by reason, not by myths.

The general aim of this early Greek philosophy was to explain the universe by using human reason rather than mythical explanations. As a result, the soul of a human should not be in a disturbed situation, but in a quiet state, which is characterized as eudaimonía (felicity). The early philosophical schools in ancient Greece always had the intention of caring for the soul by giving reasonable explanations for the universe and its existence. Consequently, these early philosophical schools played the role that religions or beliefs play in our own time.

Major Religions and Belief Systems

There are many religious systems, including ancient systems or natural religions, or smaller derivates from the major religions or belief systems. All religions and belief systems aim to provide answers to human questions on the transcendent and to major questions on life and death. People thus find orientation for their lives within these major religions and belief systems.

Eastern and Western Traditions

In general, Eastern traditions differ from Western traditions. Among Eastern traditions, which have more the character of belief systems than religions, there is Hinduism and Buddhism, but also Confucianism in China, which concentrates on the ethical life, and the animistic and polytheistic Shinto in Japan, which honors and prays to the ancestors. These are known as very old religious traditions in the Eastern part of the world.

The Western traditions are better described as religions than as belief systems. The most important are Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. All three of these religions refer in quite different ways to Abraham (ca. 2000 BCE) as an ideal of a pious and religious person.

Also, Zoroastrianism is counted among the major religious traditions or belief systems. It is considered to be the first monotheistic belief system, with Ahura Mazda as the universal God. But it is also a dualistic system; asha/arta is the principle of “truth” and “order” whereas druj, “lie,” is the opposite. Both principles “fight” against each other in the world. Zoroastrianism was founded by the prophet Zoroaster, or Zarathushtra, in the farmland area of today’s Western Iran. The main teachings of Zoroastrianism can be found in the scripture Zend-Avesta.


In Asia, the Hindu traditions are well known; the religion of the Vedas and the Upanishads is grounded in very old scriptures (e.g., the Bhagavad Gita or “Song of God”). The beginning of these traditions is about 4,000 years BCE in India. The Hindu traditions have a polytheistic basis, with Shiva and Vishnu as the central deities, but only one eternal aim: the unification of the individual soul, atman, with the highest spirit, Brahman. After several lives, the soul can enter the Brahman, leaving the system of reincarnation (samsara), if the karma, the balance of all individual actions, is good enough. Five elements are considered to be central for Hindu beliefs: (1) dharma (ethics and duties), (2) samsara (cycle of reincarnation), (3) karma (action and resulting reaction), (4) moksha (liberation from the cycle of rebirth), and (5) yogas (paths and practices). Though it is controversially debated among scholars whether the caste system is an important part of Hindu teaching, this social system remains strong even today. There are four castes, called varnas, beginning with the highest cast: (1) Brahmins (teachers and priests); (2) Kshatriyas (warriors, nobles, and kings); (3) Vaishyas (farmers, merchants, and businessmen); and (4) Shudras (servants and laborers). The caste system is very rigid. Marriage is only possible within one caste. People outside the caste system, Parjanya or Antyaja (or now Dalits), the “untouchables,” have almost no chance to progress in social life. Therefore, this system has often been criticized as discriminatory (e.g., by Mahatma Gandhi [1869–1948], whose ideal was absolute peacefulness).


Also in Asia, the Buddhist tradition is founded on the philosophy of Siddhartha Gautama Buddha (ca. 563–483 BCE), who was a teacher of spiritual wisdom. There are two main traditions in Buddhism: the Mahayana (great vehicle) Buddhism and the Theravada (ancient teaching) Buddhism. A smaller tradition is the Hinayana (low vehicle) Buddhism. Central Buddhist teachings contain the Four Noble Truths: (1) the nature of suffering (dukkha), (2) suffering’s origin (samudaya), (3) suffering’s cessation (nirodha), and (4) the way (marga) leading to the cessation of suffering. This “way” (marga) is characterized by the Noble Eightfold Path: (1) right view, (2) right intention (wisdom), (3) right speech, (4) right action, (5) right livelihood (ethical conduct), (6) right effort, (7) right mindfulness, and (8) right concentration (concentration). The Noble Eightfold Path contains the ethical “program” of Buddhism.

One aim of Buddhism is to bring cessation from suffering to the human soul. There are several traditions within Buddhism. Among them, there is Zen Buddhism in Japan and Tibetan Buddhism, whose head is the Dalai Lama. The monastic tradition is also very common in Buddhism, because its discipline helps the adherent to succeed in achieving the aim, the nirvana, as a unity of the individual soul with the universal in the absolute nothingness (nirvana).


The Mosaic tradition, later Judaism, is historically the first major tradition in Western culture. Christianity and Islam followed. In Judaism, humankind has been given the advice to follow God’s law, which was revealed on Mount Sinai, or Horeb to Moses. This revelation took place during the Exodus, the Jews’ escape out of Egyptian slavery. Moses was the leader of the people of Israel during that time. A life in accordance to the law will end up in felicity and prosperity, even after death. The prophets played a major role, because they renewed the concentration on God’s revelation within his law. During the reign of the Babylonian emperor Nebuchadnezzar II (ca. 630–562 BCE), the Jewish people were kidnapped and taken to Babylon. The Babylonian Talmud was written during this time, a commentary on the Torah, with respect to other commentaries and the oral tradition, in order to give a set of rules for everyday life. Literature interpreting the Torah is known as midrash.

When the people of Israel returned to the Holy Land, they built the first temple. In the year 70 CE, the temple was destroyed by the Romans, and the rabbinic phase began in Judaism. Rabbis are teachers of the Holy Scripture and they interpret for believers. They also give advice to pious Jews on how to manage life and how to decide in problematic situations. The halakha means to follow properly the way of the Jewish tradition.

Judaism today is quite various. There are liberal branches, as well as orthodox branches, whose believers observe the traditional religious law very strictly. As predicted in the prophecies of the Hebrew Bible, Jewish people still wait for the Messiah, who will come in the future in order to complete the divine law in his person.


In Christianity, Jesus Christ is believed to be the son of God, who came to redeem people. After the original sin of Adam and Eve, humankind survived for the redemption. The redeemer is Jesus Christ, who was crucified by the Romans after being accused, by the Jews in Jerusalem, of heresy for pretending to be the Messiah, and whose resurrection after 3 days astonished people, especially his own disciples. After another 40 days, Jesus Christ went up into heaven. After another 9 days, the Holy Spirit was sent down to earth in order to lead the faithful and to give consolation to them. God is the Holy Trinity in Christian tradition: God-Father, God-Son, God-Holy-Spirit.

Later, the Christian church developed into a more and more powerful institution, which secures the tradition of belief and teaching. Although crusades have occurred, the Christian doctrine is against force and tends toward peace on earth. In the year 1054 CE, the Eastern Greek Church turned away from the Latin Roman Church with the pope, the bishop of Rome, as Vicar of Christ and head of the church. Formally, there were two reasons for the East-West Schism: First, the Western and the Eastern traditions could not find a proper date for Easter, and second, the Eastern tradition could not agree to the filioque (“and by the Son”) within the credo, the big confession of the faith. The filioque means that the Holy Spirit was sent by the Father and Son together.

In the 16th century, the Protestant Reformation movements began with the Augustinian monk Martin Luther (1483–1546) in Germany, Huldrych Zwingli (1484–1531), and John Calvin (1509–1564) in Switzerland. The theologians Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466 or 1469–1536) and Philipp Melanchthon (1497–1560) both followed the Lutheran teaching and supported the Protestant teaching in the academic sector (e.g., by writing important letters). The Protestant Reformation movements wanted to renew the Western Church (e.g., by providing new translations of the Bible, and a new structure by changing the hierarchy). But in the end, these movements divided the church again as a result of a second big schism. Protestant Christianity then divided again into the many small movements and churches, or denominations, of today.

In 1534, the English Church separated from the Roman Church, and as a result the Church of England or Anglican Church was founded. The king or the queen of England is the head of the Anglican Church, and meanwhile the Archbishop of Canterbury exercises this office worldwide in the Anglican Church (e.g., the Episcopal Church in the USA). Whereas the High Church is near to the Catholic Church, the Low Church is nearer to the Protestant Church. So the Anglican Church regards itself as a “middle way” between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism.

In contrast to Protestantism, the Catholic Church keeps up its 2,000-year-old tradition and discipline, although the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican (1962–1965) has changed some elements in this tradition.


Islam was founded by the prophet Muhammad (ca. 570–632 CE), who had a direct revelation from God (Allah). This revelation is written down in the Koran, the holy book of Islam. In 622 CE, the first year of the Islamic calendar, Muhammad went from Mecca to Medina; this event is called the Hijra, or “walk,” which was the founding act of Islam. Sometime later, Muhammad returned to Mecca with his soldiers and gained a lot of followers and power. Islam regards itself as the final religion, which is based on the ultimate revelation given by God to Muhammad. This revelation gave perfection to the Mosaic and Christian revelation. Muhammad, the prophet of God, is the last and the highest of the prophets.

In the Islamic tradition, on each Friday there is a ritual prayer in the mosque. Ritual prayers are among the most important elements of Islam, the so-called Five Pillars of Islam: (1) fasting in the month of Ramadan, (2) the pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj), (3) ritual prayers (salát) several times a day, (4) charity (e.g., giving money to the poor), and (5) the profession of faith. Also, the observance of religious law (sharia), which contains rules for all areas of human life, is central to Islamic teaching. Islam is a religion or belief system of strict discipline, and it has gained a lot of influence in the states of both the Near East and the Middle East, as well as in Indonesia and Africa.

Religious Objects, Symbols, and Rituals

Each major religion or belief system knows certain objects and symbols, as well as rites. The rite is often connected with specific objects or symbols. In Buddhism, for instance, the wheel is a symbol of the recurrence of life and, more important, the Noble Eightfold Path. In the Mosaic tradition, the Star of David is the central symbol of identification. In Christianity, the cross, on which Christ was sacrificed, is the core symbol. And in the Islamic tradition, the half moon, as well as the sword, is central.

Symbols serve to give meaning to rites. In Jewish service, for example, the scrolls of the Torah must not be touched by humans, because they are absolutely sacred and represent God’s presence. Therefore signs exist, sometimes formed like a human hand, with which the scrolls of the Torah can be touched in order to follow the lines, which have to be cited. Another symbol in Jewish service is the shofar, a horn (e.g., from a ram, which is blown in preparation for and during Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when humans reconcile with God). Yom Kippur is celebrated 10 days after Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

In the Catholic Holy Mass, wine and bread are leavened and then transubstantiated into the blood and body of Christ as an unbloody renewal of the Crucifixion of Christ. The Host is then essentially Christ, and it is carefully venerated and adored. Also, the Virgin Mary is venerated in the Catholic faith as the Mother of Jesus Christ (i.e., the Mother of God). In the Protestant traditions, the transubstantiation is interpreted in a different way. The essential real presence of Christ is limited to the moment of the transubstantiation. Also, the veneration of the Virgin Mary and the saints is not common in the Protestant tradition. In order to venerate the Corpus Christi (body of Christ), the Virgin Mary, or the saints, there are often processions of Christians, especially in the Catholic tradition.

The pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca, one of the holy cities of Islam, has its aim in circling around the Kaaba, or “cube.” The Kaaba is a thousand-year-old small building and the most sacred place in Islam. In the Eastern corner of the Kaaba, there is the Black Stone, the most important feature of the “cube.” All Muslims pray in the direction of Mecca, as it is the center of Islam.

Also, ritual dances or specific music or songs help to bring people into a state of mind that leads them toward a deeper understanding of the transcendent. The location for rites is, in most cases, a sacred place or a temple (in Christianity, a church), which can be seen as the house of God. These “houses of God or gods” attach a specific place to religions or beliefs, thereby providing an identity for them; also, they provide a meeting point for the believers as a kind of “home.”

Religion, Manuscripts, and Teachings

Religions and belief systems express themselves in teachings, on the one hand manifested by oral traditions and on the other by sacred manuscripts. The basis for most of the teachings is a divine revelation.

The most common religious manuscript in our times is the Holy Bible, the “book of books.” But in the Far East, we have a lively tradition of Holy Scriptures: In the Vedas and Upanishads, Indian religious wisdom is written down, as in the Bhagavad Gita, or Song of God, as mentioned earlier. In the Bhagavad Gita, Sanjaya, who has a supernatural eye, tells the blind-born king Dhritarashtra about the big battle (between the near-related royal families of the Pandavas and Kauravas) that took place in the region where now the city of Delhi is located.

Judaism and Christianity refer in different ways to the Holy Bible. The Mosaic tradition is based on the five books of Moses, the Mosaic law or the Torah, the books of the prophets, and the psalms. Another important writing of Jewish tradition is The Guide of the Perplexed by Moses Maimonides (ca. 1135–1204), which considers religious and philosophical aspects, and helps to interpret the Jewish law properly. Maimonides’s influence on Jewish thinking still remains intense. Christianity is also based on the Old Testament, partly equivalent to the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh), but also on the New Testament: the Four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, the Epistles of Saint Paul, and the General or Catholic Epistles, as well as the Apocalypse of Saint John.

In the Koran, or “the recitation,” the holy book of Islam, the revelation to Muhammad resulted in the central teachings of Islam, which are the core of the religious law, the sharia. Furthermore, the sunna, the history of the life of Muhammad, is the model of a good life for a Muslim. In Islam, the religious law, the sharia, has a great meaning, so the most important religious leaders are judges.

Teachings of all religions provide explanations for the beginning of the universe, as in Genesis, the first book of the bible, moral teachings, and orders for a good life, which must match the will of God. These moral teachings belong to the realm of natural rights, which are similar in all religions and belief systems and their teachings. Natural rights follow human nature and therefore human rationality. Religious teachings give answers to crucial human questions concerning the universe, ethical problems, and life and death.

Future Directions

In the field of religions and beliefs, many fruitful future research areas can be found. The humanities, especially the studies of religion, which are linked to anthropological and sociocultural research, create new research areas: using the structuralistic method of the French ethnologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, rituals are analyzed in order to discover the common structures of rituals in different religions or beliefs. Furthermore, the discourse of religions and beliefs are examined as well. Therefore, the dynamics and controversies within this discursive process are analyzed and described in order to obtain more results concerning the relationship between different religions and belief systems.

Also, the aesthetics of religions or beliefs are currently under scrutiny. Religions and beliefs can be described as aesthetical systems or systems of symbols, which influence the human realization of reality. The aesthetics of religion build up a systematic coherence for religions and belief systems. Another field of interest is the influence of religions and beliefs on different human societies and politics, because religions and belief systems provide ethical rules and values. Psychological studies examine the inner processes caused by the personal beliefs of a human being, for example during religious examinations, such as prayers or meditations. Very important for future research on religion is the investigation of human nature. All religions or belief systems provide concepts of human nature. This question of human nature is important for answering many questions and solving many problems in terms of the sciences in the future (e.g., in human-genetics research).

Also, in philosophy and theology, there are new areas of research, especially the examination of the relationship between rationality and religion or belief. For example, the context of metaphysical considerations of late antiquity and the appearance of Christian revelation in the first centuries, beginning with early Fathers of the Church like Origen (185–254 CE) and ending with Saint Augustine (354–430 CE). During that time, theology has its origins in the confrontation of philosophy and religion. A major rational concentration on religious thoughts can be found in the Middle Ages (e.g., in the Summa Theologica, written from 1264–1274, of Saint Thomas Aquinas). The rationalism of the European Enlightenment emphasized critical views grounded in logic and nature. After rationalism, German idealism included religion systematically within philosophy as a philosophical perfection of the spirit. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) understood his philosophical work as a negative profile of religion in contrast to Christian thinking, which, he posited, is not suitable to human nature. But in the 20th and 21st centuries, religions and beliefs soon came back to the intellectual agenda. Therefore, religions and beliefs are truly fruitful objects for future research, as well as for anthropological research.


Summing up, the following three points are important for an anthropological perspective of religions and beliefs:

  1. Religions and belief systems want to give humans aspecial place in the universe and within reality itself, which is of course a different orientation from the scientific worldview, but nevertheless one way to consider the universe and humans within it.
  2. People may not want to refer to religion or beliefs assomething entirely made by humans. For many people, religions and beliefs should include a serious transcendental relationship (e.g., based on a revelation). Otherwise, religion is in danger of becoming an ideology, which may lead people to the use of force and cruelty, as in totalitarian political systems. Such systems are often characterized as political religions, like fascism, national socialism, or communism.
  3. Moreover, religions and belief systems need not be rigidsystems of moral teachings in order to suppress others. Religions offer guidelines for life respecting the truth, with the aim being a future life (of the soul) in truth and peace. In religions and belief systems, people want to live their lives in accordance with God, as fruitful and successful individuals. And, what is more, people want to gain the hope for eternal life or redemption after death, which thereby gives a meaningful sense to human existence, like a gate to paradise, near to God or the transcendent.

Religions and beliefs belong to many fields in the humanities: theology, philosophy, sociology, history, religious studies, and psychology (among others). It is very important that, in many perspectives on human life, religion and belief play a role as an answer to the question of the sense of human life and death. In religions and belief systems, humans seek answers to many other questions as well, especially in terms of ethical questions and the question of a good life. As a result, religions and belief systems play a major role within anthropological considerations of any kind.


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