Knowing More to Live Better: What is the Purpose of Studying Religion?

The formal study of religion and its various, cultural manifestations is as justifiable an undertaking as any other seeking to comprehend other experiences or practices in our societies. Why? Ideally and for all practical purposes, it gives us the privilege of grasping what religion is, how its practitioners view the world, what they believe in and do, and what motivates them. This knowledge allows us to appreciate our diversity and interact responsibly.

Given the significant place that religion has had in history and the decisive role it has played in shaping our global identity, it is not enough to simply “know” or “talk about” religion. Rather than being content with scratching the surface or pretend that it is not important, we should invest the time and energy to be familiar with the depths and complexities of religion with several, interconnected objectives in mind.

Without ruling out other possible goals to achieve, we must study religion to simply gain information about other people view the world and act in that light. It is about tuning in our hearts and minds to listen to their life-stories, sets of beliefs and values, and efforts to interact with what they see as their “Ultimate Reality,” namely, god, superior beings, an absolute energy integrating the universe or simply a perfect, esoteric unknown. Because religious phenomena are part of the world we live in and because the majority of its inhabitants practice a religion or believe in some form of spirituality, religion must be seen and understood as an important part of us. Therefore, we have to be proactive in grasping some basic facts about different ways of interacting with that dimension of life that transcends our five senses, a closed-minded notion of history or scientific, digital mindsets. The ultimate goal is not agree or disagree, much less to judge or put religious practices down, but to educate ourselves on this type of experience so we can interact with their practitioners in meaningful, life-giving ways. Assuming that we do not know everything and that every experience adds something new to our notion of “the truth,” the study of religion will improve ourselves and enable us to make better choices.

Along the same lines, an open-minded, welcoming, and solid understanding of religion will provide us with the insights to know in what ways religion and its manifold cultural manifestations interact with secular experiences, groups, and social institutions, either to impact them or being impacted by these social components. All sectors of society are interconnected and modify each other. With this in mind, a strict separation between “church” and “state,” for example, is neither possible nor desirable. The people who brought Christianity to the Americas were not able to separate themselves from the European, colonialist worldviews that brought them to new lands to subjugate and wipe out entire, indigenous populations. Again, whether we like it or not, religious experiences, views, and practices are part of the society we live in; as such, they deserve a careful scrutiny of their place and function.

Since context and circumstances are extremely important, religion must be examined taking into account its own generating- milieu and influencing surroundings. Although they have a lot in common (which allows for them to be studied comparatively), all world religions have traits that make them unique, precisely because of their close ties to unique histories and contexts. As expressions and socializing agents of their own cultures, religions always embody and make their own values and ways of looking at the world that only an curious, unveiling approach can make apparent. It is not simply what religions do on the surface, but rather what they take for granted. There is always something underneath the surface that explains religious views and actions, which we normally know nothing or very little about. Taking into consideration the original, historical context of Islam, for instance, allows us to comprehend its strictness or top-down regulations; in fact, the word “islam” literally means “submission.” There is a very close connection between Sidarta Gautama’s struggles with “desires” and Buddhism’s notion that the root of evil in the world is “selfish, uncontrolled passions.”

We should also embrace the academic study of religion in order to improve our societies for the better. By looking at this phenomenon and/or experience with an abstract, higher power or reality, we can certainly gain moral insights to transform society. Although not always successful, world religions seek to create a world of love, justice, and peace and prepare us for the next life. Their connections with the spiritual world, their emphasis on meditation and wisdom, and clear ties to mother nature can certainly make significant contributions to a world that is oftentimes  driven by money, power, and intellectual forms of reasoning. Consistent with their outlook, there are moral lessons to be learned from world religions.

Achieving a universal perspective of religion as a social phenomenon is important and must be a goal as well. A close look at what cultures do in relation to a higher power or being clearly shows that there are undeniable similarities among all religions; they follow transcultural, patterns of behavior.  A more formal approach to religion will definitely help us identify those elements that are repetitive and, as a result, predictable. These similarities, in turn, serve as rough material to develop a methodology of analysis that can and should be applied to the examination of all religions.

Last but not least, our understanding of the world we share and that influences us should never be one-sided or unidirectional. Thus, we must approach religion in order to obtain a new self-awareness for self-development. It is really about knowing ourselves, which is the starting and ending point and main framework of reference in interacting with others, especially with those whose convictions and actions differ from ours. On the basis of this psycho-social principle, by knowing more about other religions in their present contexts, we will also know more about our own religious convictions or the lack thereof. Comparing and contrasting ourselves with others will hopefully bring to the fore aspects of human identity we never deemed possible. At the end of the day, what would the trade-off be? Discerning who we are at deeper levels so we can better ourselves to help others.

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Justifying what Needs no Justification: Why is the Study of Religion So Important?

As a human experience with very specific cultural characteristics or in its more institutionalized faces throughout the history of humankind, religion has caught the attention of the inquisitive, restless minds of a large number of people, especially among men and women who have dedicated themselves to the scientific, academic or scholarly study of religion or world religions. What are some of the reasons that have moved so many people to do so?

Knowing that the answers are as varied as people are, there are few reasons that justify the study of religion, but some preliminary observations are in order.

Some people think that religion is simply a personal matter or something up to the choice of the individual. Others affirm that religion is only for religious people, and some simply do not care either way. There are also those that go as far as to criticize, reject, or even condemn any religion due to their belief that religion is a product of ignorance, fanaticism or a primitive mentality.  These critics would argue that professing allegiance to any religion tradition is no longer relevant (especially in this scientific, contemporary, digital era) and that, in the worst case scenarios, ends up alienating and hurting people, especially when religious beliefs are taken to an extreme. This viewpoint is not worthy of our attention for now, although we admit that, in many cases, as Carl Marx used to say, religion continues to be “the opiate of the masses.”

Despite all of the above initial responses, the study of religion (or even the experience of being part of any religion) is a big deal.

First of all, the study of religion, in any of its cultural manifestations, is significant because religion connects people with diverse, cultural understandings of God or equivalent concepts. Close to this effort, religion creates and follows theological and moral principles that help its believers transform societies for good and prepare their followers for another life after death. The idea is to facilitate encounters with the Holy Mystery that would develop a lasting, meaningful relationship with it.

Psychologically or existentially, religion gives people social identity, structure and meaning, as it provides some answers to many fundamental questions about life and death, happiness, character, hope, love, and faith. With its focus on what is ultimately important in life and human-in-born instincts linked to God, through the eyes of faith, it helps form questions as it guides people’s journeys.

As Religion helps people live with meaning and purpose, it also provides them with diverse moral compasses.  Having concrete notions of right and wrong and developing criteria and principles to differentiate between the two, religion seeks to develop peoples’ moral character as a reflection of God’s or the universe’s absolute goodness, so that we can love and serve each other in practical terms and with intentionality. Although not always achieved, the emphasis on right living is an imperfect preparation for a much better life somewhere in the universe after our earthly pilgrimages are over.

Let us not forget that religion, as a social phenomenon that enables people to deal with the Unknown, is a universal phenomenon or experience. That, in itself, speaks about its importance.  Despite the strong influence of secularism and the post-modern values prevailing in the I-phone generation, the majority of people in the world practice or identify themselves with some sort of religion or spiritual philosophy and/or movement. In fact, religious communities still are the most powerful human networks on the globe. How could we then look the other way or repress this factual reality?

Thinking of the universality of religious experiences and trying to be more specific, we need to point out that religion is more pervasive and popular than politics. If we pay any attention to the ways in which our government uses its power and resources to serve the population, shouldn’t we also spend time trying to understand the place religions have in society and the role they play in our world?

Religion is at the core of many cultures, as well as globalization. We have many cultures in our own backyard, and the world is becoming more interdependent and interconnected than ever before, which means that it is crucial that we understand religion as expressions of cultures that allow people to live more structured lives. We cannot talk about globalization while leaving out the religious experiences of the cultures they represent, the contributions they make, and the challenges they bring along the way.

In a variety of ways, religion is still a very powerful socializing factor in our societies. Thus, we need to know more about it.  Just as it did in antiquity, religion continues to play a major role in influencing the way people feel, believe, and act. Here in America, no matter how hard we try, we cannot always neatly separate “the Church” from “the State.” Religious values influence political choices, legislations, and policies.

Taking into account what happens in other parts of world, religion lies at the core of clashes between nations and/or ethnic groups. Take, for example, the numerous riots among clans or tribes in Africa, terrorism, and religiously-motivated attacks to abortion clinics and the doctors and nurses who perform abortions.

Religion is helpful in giving us criteria to understand people’s individual health or medical choices. This is exemplified in the Jehovah witnesses’ refusal to receive or give blood to patients fighting for their lives because, in their literal readings of the Old Testament, receiving or giving blood “violates” Moses’ laws regarding the nature and function of blood. For good or ill, life-and-death choices heavily depend on religious, pre-conceived concepts.

Knowing some basics about religion helps us understand job-related challenges.  Some employees might take certain days off or not do certain activities because of religious convictions. For instance, praying five stipulated times for Muslims might have an impact on certain responsibilities at job sites.  This traits should not be ignored by employers and employees.

Religion can provide guidance to people who have been spiritually revived, especially in the aftermath of tragedy or any type of personal crisis. Although some people may withdraw from religion or the of God during difficult situations, many others may actually be drawn to religion and God after experiencing a significant wake-up call in their life. September 11 drove some people to get closer to God or think about the meaning of life in more spiritual terms.

Despite all of the positive reasons that justify the study of religion, we should not forget that religion is and will continue to be seen by many as a source of alienation, exploitation and oppression. With its popular emphasis on the other world and spiritual, abstract realities, and lack of focus on earthly, urgent issues, religion has neglected very important areas of human development. With the institutionalization of its ideas and its hunger for control and power, religion has also hurt many people. Knowing more about the causes, influencing factors, and repercussions behind these types of situations is a powerful enough reason to deepen our understanding of religion and world religions. A neglect or a superficial approach to this reality would be counterproductive .

 

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God dwells in the gallery of  memorable moments

and answered prayers!

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Religion through the Eyes of Poetry

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FOTORACIONES

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FOTORACIONES

Dios no está aquí. Está en la calle buscándote.
God is not here. God is out on the street looking for you!

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FOTORACIONES

Dios vive en el santuario de un corazón confiado y agradecido
God dwells in the sanctuary of a trusting and grateful heart

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FOTORACIONES

Dios está en medio de la comunidad que se reúne en su nombre

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The Agony of Innocence: The Other Face of the Galilean

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FOTORACIONES

Cuando la inmensidad se viste de verso, vida y canción, allí hay resurrección y la promesa de un mundo a todo color

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