"Elements of Religion"

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The Essential Elements of Religious Life

Joel Dubois
(c) 2009, 2011, 2013--for free, fully cited distribution only

In the mid-twentieth century, the influential religious studies scholar Wilfred Cantwell Smith argued that the abstract noun "religion" masks the complexity of what religion is all about [1]. He pointed out that what when we look for religion, what we see are religious people engaging in, preserving and transforming traditions of practice and thinking that have been passed on to them. This dynamic interaction between people and the religious traditions they trust, both over time and across space, accounts for the complexity and change of religions. Like the nineteenth century sociologist Emil Durkheim, I often use the phrase "religious life" rather than "religion" to designate this dynamic interaction [2].

Building on Smith's analysis and Durkheim's terminology, this essay proposes a way to analyze religious life into three essential elements. I often refer to these elements as "dimensions" because, like the dimensions of space and time used to analyze movement, they can never be completely separated from one another. I also use the analogy of "layers," because the essential elements of culture are also built upon one another, some being easier to observe and others requiring some digging to uncover. This explanation of the elements of culture is intend to orient readers to the diverse examples of Buddhist culture sampled in this course.

I. The Academic Study of Religion: Empathy, Objectivity, and Neutrality

In studying the elements of religious life, it helps to know what viewpoint one is taking, and especially to distinguish between faith-based religious study and the academic study of religion [3]. The study of ideas and principles within a religious community almost always aims to convince oneself and others of the validity of those ideas and principles. To be sure, such faith-based study often involves intense questioning, but the ultimate goal is to nurture trust in one's chosen religious tradition, in order to motivate zealous application of its teachings. The goal of academic study, on the other hand, is to examine religious life in an objective and neutral way, so that one can gain insight into a tradition without actually adhering to or joining it. Such objective study creates an environment in which people of all religious outlooks, including atheists, can study and ask questions about a given religious tradition. Though such study may at times appear critical of religious views, it must also involve genuine empathy: withholding judgement about another's perspective long enough to gain deeper understanding of it.

Since grouping empathy with objectivity and neutrality may seem like a contradiction, it helps to look more closely at each of these terms. For many, the term "objective" implies cold detachment, like that of a scientist dissecting a specimen. Such an approach assumes that "objective" study means finding the one, universally available truth, and that finding that truth requires only logic and no emotion. In practice, most of the time scientists and academic scholars alike can only move closer to truth by gathering whatever evidence is available, following their own hunches of where to look. They then propose an explanation that accounts for the available evidence, guided by their passion for understanding, even though they often sense that such explanations will have to be adjusted when further evidence is gathered. Following his passion to understand invisible truths, Newton gazed up at the sky, examined the data available to him, and suddenly realized what made planets move; reviewing more precise modern measurements, Einstein's passion led him to realize that Newton had overlooked equally mysterious connections between space and time. The visionaries who advanced germ theory contemplated what kind of invisible entities might be making people sick, revolutionizing the treatment of diseases; now other visionaries are realizing the complex ways that the dynamic human immune system can either make or break the spread of germs.

In the study of religious life, gathering evidence most obviously involves finding out about important religious teachings and observing rituals and customs, which may seem to require little emotion. But as WC Smith pointed out, it is even more important to study the perspectives of the individuals who struggle daily to follow those teachings and engage in those practices. Because such perspectives are deeply personal and strikingly diverse, even within a single religious tradition, putting oneself empathically in the shoes of religious adherents is a powerful aid to the objective study of religious life.

The word "neutral," too, often suggests to people a lack of emotion, and thus may seem at odds with empathy, but here again one must understand the kind of neutrality that academic scholars are advocating when they study religion. Neutral in this context means assuming that there is more than one correct religious point of view on life--that every religious tradition has something to teach about the nature of the human condition and the invisible forces that impact all of us--rather than a lack of commitment to any particular set of values. The judge and jurors in a courtroom likewise strive to provide a neutral hearing of everyone's story in hearing a case, but that neutrality requires passionate adherence to certain procedures and rules. In practice, many religious studies scholars too are passionate about being neutral in examining the strikingly diverse claims and practices observed among religious adherents. This principle of neutrality is what inspires their empathy for each person's perspective, equally valuing the point of view of each individual.

In summary, if we think of objectivity and neutrality as coldly detached, requiring black and white distinctions between truth and falsehood, then empathy will surely seem an obstacle to objectivity and neutrality, or at least a distraction. On the other hand, if we think of objectivity and neutrality as requiring the balanced integration of a wide range of perspectives that is essential to the study of religious life, then empathy becomes the key to objectivity and neutrality. The essential elements of religious life described below provide an objective, neutral framework that underscores the need for empathic observation.

One final word of caution to dispell a common misconceptions about the academic study of religion: insisting on objectivity, neutrality and empathy in the academic study of religion does not mean forever renouncing all discriminating value judgements about religious truths. In modern scientific investigation, each investigator goes on to make personal choices based not only on what they have studied, but also on their hunches, intuitions and personal preferences. In private, Newton dabled in alchemy and magic, and Einstein reflected on the nature of God. After leaving the courtroom, likewise, judge, jurors, plantifs and defendents act in ways that are only partly influenced by the formal examinations they have administered and endured. So too, religious studies professors and students are free to make their own religious choices outside of academic conferences and classrooms, and indeed many choose to embrace one or another religious perpsective. Such personal choices also have an important place in academic discourse, since they add one more perspective to the study of religious life.

II. The Dynamic, Unseen Elements of Religious Life: Belief, Reflection, Awareness & Trust

When inquiring about religious traditions that are not one's own, people today often ask, "what do they believe?" By this people usually mean, "what invisible beings and forces do individuals in those cultures assume are influencing their lives, moment by moment?"
For most cultures this includes faith in divine and other spiritual or supernatural beings listening to people's prayers and responding to them; such belief also includes trusting that spiritual forces ensure that certain kinds of actions are rewarded and others punished after death. Apart from religious ideas, people also assume the existence of more abstract entities, such as nature and the many invisible elements of which things and people are composed. They also sense and talk about forces that influence what goes on in nature. These forces include both outer events and the psychological currents that shape personalities. Words like "truth," "fate" and "luck" hint at such forces.

Asking about such beliefs is key to understanding religion, and it makes sense to think of belief as the first of three "dimensions," or "layers," of religious life. At the same time, such questioning can be misleading if it assumes that beliefs can always be explicitly articulated, and that they are consistently held within a given cultural group. There are two problems with such an assumption:

  1. First, if we consider our own beliefs honestly we notice that much of what we believe, we don't really think about explicitly. I believe that the earth existed before I was born, and that when I sit down on my office chair each morning it will support my weight. But I never thought to state those beliefs until I read a philosophical analysis of belief that suggested those examples. When I begin to think about it there are many other beliefs I hold without thinking about them, which I can bring into my awareness during moments of reflection, but which for the most part manifest only in the way that I act.

Such examples may sound trivial; but there are also more significant beliefs that people realize and articulate only if and when explicitly asked to do so. Many believe that everyone has the right to a free trial. Yet most people probably do not think much about that right unless they are asked about it by a judge preparing them to participate in such a trial. Similarly, many throughout the world believe that they will somehow experience the consequences of both good and bad actions sometime in the future. Yet most might forget, or even never realize, that they hold such a belief until someone asks about their religious convictions. Likewise, we will see in this course that even for many religious people, belief in vividly described divine beings such as Jesus, Krishna or Lao Tzu exists unconsciously most of the time, brought to the foreground of awareness only occasionally during communal rituals.

  1. Second, people tend to develop their most significant beliefs over time; they then continually adjust and revise those beliefs, rather than adhering to them uniformly in a static way. Looking at daily experience makes this clear. Trust in observable things like people, animals, organizations, and even objects develops gradually through a series of interactions that lead us to believe that such people, animals, etc. will behave consistently in a supportive way towards us.

Likewise, people increase their trust in invisible beings and forces over time. Based on daily experience of the world, people reason that such invisible beings and forces are available to them, either supporting or adversely affecting them. Observing and reflecting on her actions through prayer and scriptural reading, a Christian comes to trust that the force of sin influences everyone and that the divine power of Jesus Christ can redeem her from all sin. As we'll see in Unit 3, Pure Land Buddhists cultivate a similar sense of trust in the Buddha Amitabha, and Buddhists in general develop trust that the Buddha's teaching leads to freedom from all limitations. Perhaps the most important and often overlooked point about belief is that the non-specialist religious person's understanding of divine and other supernatural beings often also varies considerably from what experts formally say about them, giving rise to tremendous variations in the belief of a group.

Most people, unfortunately, associate the term "belief" with static declarations to which particular groups uniformly adhere, and about which authoritative sources can easily inform us. The word thus lulls our minds into forgetting about the dynamic nature of belief just noted. Therefore, as you study the examples of Buddhist religious life surveyed in this course, I urge you to draw on the more dynamic substitutes for the word "belief" that I have suggested about--especially "reflection," but also "awareness" and "trust". These words heighten curiosity about the often unconscious and continually fluctuating nature of belief.

(Note that I refer to people's "awareness" of divine, supernatural or other spiritual beings and forces without taking any stand on whether such beings and forces are real or not. Similarly I use the word "trust" without taking any position on whether such trust is well-founded or not.)

Using such fresh language to describe belief will help you to avoid worn out phrases like "so and so never lost his faith" and "the Chinese exhibit a strong belief in the afterlife." Such superficial stereotypes flatten the dynamic experience of reflection and trust-building suggested by the sources we will examine. Drawing on this new terminology to describe belief as "reflection," "awareness" and "trust" will thus sharpen your analyses of sources you view and read.

III. Describing the Unseen: Invisible Beings, Forces & Worlds

Another way to remain curious and open to the dynamic nature of belief is to think more precisely about the nature of the unseen entities that people reflect on, cultivate awareness of, and learn to trust. I have already suggested some ways to do this by using the plural terms "invisible beings " (not simply "higher power" in the singular) and "forces," rather than "god" or "nature." I clarify these and other related terms more fully below, and invite you to use them to whatever extent you feel they help you speak more precisely about the unseen. But I also invite you to come up with your own fresh labels and categories that help you analyze more precisely the way that Asian cultures think about the unseen.

Both religious and non-religious worldviews stress that a uniquely endowed few, usually both gifted and trained in discerning hidden truths, are able to directly perceive the kinds of invisible beings and forces described above. Such people are sometimes refered to as "mystics," but the records they leave of their experience are often more precise than the word "mystery" suggests. Most people, however, reflect on, catch glimpses of and gradually come to trust such invisible beings and forces based on depictions provided by the visionary few, whom they may never directly meet. Such depictions of invisible beings and forces may be (a) verbal, including poetry, prose, commentary, and conversation, delivered as song, oral recitation, writing, or through informal speech. Often more popular, however, are (b) symbolic depictions of the unseen, which include sculpture, painting, decorative design, architecture. Dramatic enactment and other forms of live storytelling include (c) a mix of verbal and symbolic elements.

IV. Dimensions and Layers: Integrating the Visible Elements of Religion

Reflection about invisible beings and forces is only one of the dimensions, or layers, of culture. As hinted earlier in stressing that beliefs form and transform subtly over time, trust in particular depictions of the unseen develops in the context of daily sensory engagement with the visible world. The visible objects, spaces and actions of that world thus play a pivotal role in shaping religious worldviews, which is why people often think of religion as something displayed in things and events. These visible elements of religious life are the foundation of trust in invisible beings and forces. An investigator of religious life, then, must pay equally close attention to visible elements of culture.

I suggest that such visible forms may usefully be conceived of as two distinct layers, practice and its social web, which underlie the belief or reflection layer discussed in detail so far. Listing these three together we have:

  1. reflection:becoming aware of and directing one’s thoughts, feelings & senory experiences, especially about invisible beings and forces, which involves both taking in how one is being affected and working with thoughts and feelings to remain engaged in the what one is doing (vs. simply "believing" passively);

  2. practice: habitual engagement in activities or skills that invite reflection, including especially art forms, rituals and customs, whether formally prescribed in an authoritative source, passed on through observing anothers' behaviors, or simply developed informally by a single individual; and 

  3. the social web: the network of social relationships between people who assume particular roles within consistently defined communities small or large, such as families, ethnic groups, and states.

Like the above discussions of reflection and the unseen, the following explanation of the visible elements of culture assumes that the three can never be completely separated, as the analogy of "dimensions" and "layers" both suggest. All are simultaneously experienced by each individual in a given religious tradition, somewhat in the same way that time encompasses the three dimensions of space, and that an individual plant simultaneously inhabits distinct layers of soil.

Yet the investigator of culture must distinguish the three, since they are separable to a degree, primarily in situations that many would consider unbalanced or dysfunctional. An individual may very well engage in practice, including reciting words that describe invisible beings and/or forces, without engagement or trust in that unseen. The routine of ritual, or the fascination of a particular artistic form, may numb a person's mind to the point where he loses awareness of his unseen goal. Likewise, absorption in community life might lead to a similar kind of forgetfulness. On the other hand, fascination with the unseen may lead some visionaries to leave behind their community and experiment with new kinds of arts & rituals. Also, small differences in the practice of art or religion may cause tension between different communities. The interweaving of reflection, practice, and the social web in religious traditions, then, is as complex as the trajectory of a line in a three dimensional graph, or the intermingling of root systems and microorganisms in compacted layers of soil.

V. Detecting Clues About Practice

As with the reflection element of culture, observers often oversimplify the more visible elements of practice and the social web, but for different reasons. Unlike the invisible beings and forces and the dynamic processes of reflection about and trust in such beings and forces, practice and its social web are visible for all to see. Yet people often think of them in terms of broad concepts rather than looking closely at the particulars.

For example, observers tend to label all religious rituals and ceremonies as "worship" or "prayer," emphasizing the inward attitudes involved; but they often gloss over the very real differences in actions, objects, words and spaces. When observing the social web of religious rituals and customs, on the other hand, observers generally notice the external features of individuals, especially those with formal roles; but they often miss the many informal roles and relationships that make up a social web. In addition, outsiders observers of a particular religious tradition often find it especially difficult to understand practice and its social web based on written records and material artefacts, because such sources often only hint at the details practice and the social web. The people who created those sources tended to take such details for granted and so focused on depicting or reflecting about invisible beings and forces. Therefore an outide observer relying on written records and material artefacts must make a special effort to gather clues about practice and its social web.

As in considering the reflection element of religious life, then, an investigator must seek out more precise language to describe practices and communities of a given culture, which will sharpen her analysis. Many of the assignments for this course will ask you to identify precisely the elements of some important practice, prompting you to consider repeatedly the following questions:

Often these questions will require that you infer information not explicitly detailed in a written sources or material artefact, and sometimes they will be impossible to answer completely, though even absence of information can be significant. A source which says nothing about practice often suggests an author speaking to those who already know and do the required practice; a source that mentions nothing about reflection suggests someone who thinks that once correct practice is done, reflection will occur on its own. In asking all of these questions, finally, it is important to consider whether a particular practice was actually performed by real people, or whether it is an ideal prescribed by a particular specialist which may not have been widely practiced; both are significant, but distinguishing the two is key. The articulation of rules for practice by specialists usually implies understanding among many practitioners that things should be done in a particular way. Yet in reality a given individual--even one who is aware of and approves of such rules--will likely deviate from the precise rules at least some of the time.

VI. Detecting Clues About Community

With regards to investigating the social web of culture, an important key is often discerning the processes by which certain people within a culture specialize in particular kinds of activities (i.e., religious ritual, leadership, administration, music, art, literary production). Another key is the relationships of different specialists with each other. One fundamental distinction is that between specialists trained within established institutions (e.g., professors), as opposed to those who gain their authority from some type of charisma (e.g., independent authors and speakers); but the two are not mutually exclusive. Also important, finally, is the relationship of such specialists with people who do not specialize in those activities, who typically do more common work such as managing households, growing food, manufacturing goods, and maintaining societal order.

The following questions summarize the above distinctions. Here even more than with questions about practice, the investigator of culture must often infer details not explicitly stated in written records or foregrounded in material artefacts. Sources describing ritual, for example, usually prescribe action for certain types of people, acting in particular social contexts. Depictions of the unseen often describe specific kinds of people relating to invisible beings , forces, and/or other worlds.

As noted above regarding practice, with social roles and relationships too a distinction needs to be made between ideal and actual behaviors. Ideals may occasionally be articulated (either explicitly or implicitly) in written, spoken, or visual sources, but most of the time such ideals lie dormant as the sense of obligation that people feel towards each other to act in certain ways. Actual behavior is easier to observe face to face; but written records and material artefacts rarely record such direct observations, especially when dealing with distant historical periods.

Identifying the social web layer of a given culture is especially key overall because it is typically specialists who create or commission the written records and material artefacts that depict unseen power and forces. Understanding these specialists, their audiences, and their motives ensures accurate interpretation of sources, especially those of distant times and places. Some specialists address their own colleagues, while others address other types of specialists. Still others address primarily non-specialists, or some combination of these. The documents of early Christianity found in the New Testamt, for example, clearly represent leaders and writers in different communities addressing the very different needs of a variety of members--Jewish & Greek, men & women, etc. The Indian, Chinese and other Asian sources represented in this course reflect a similar diversity of specialists and their audiences.

VII. Conclusion: Starting Your Own Investigation

This overview of the elements of culture is intended as a starting point for your exploration of the primary sources encountered throughout the course, rather than as a definitive statement of truth to be accepted, memorized and repeated. I do urge you to study, remember, and seriously reflect on the points I have made regarding

But I also hope that you will test these ideas rather than simply accept them, ideally discussing them with peers and weighing the alternatives. I hope you will consider to what extent the examples of Buddhist religious life that you study throughout the semester are adequately explained by the analytical tools presented in this essay, ideally once again in conversation with others who may hold different views. And I hope that you will come up with your own ideas and perspectives about culture generally, and Buddhist traditions in particular. In the long run, finally, I hope that you will develop and sharpen investigative skills that will serve you in your life in some important way.


  1. See Wilfred Cantwell Smith, The Meaning and End of Religion (San Fransisco: Harper Row, 1962). [back to text]

  2. See Emil Durkhein, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co, Inc., 1915). [back to text]

  3. The discussion of this section builds on the comments of contemporary scholar of religion Rita Gross; see Feminism and Religion: an Introduction (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996), 6-16. [back to text]

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