Types of Religious Experiences
In terms of religious experiences, these too are just as diverse as the reasons for why people become religious. While most of the World Religions today will be theistic in practice, a handful — such as Shinto and Daoism — still bear visible signs of their animist roots. And magic, one could argue, provides the basis for all religious belief if one wanted. With that said, lets explore these three types of religious expression, keeping an open mind that they each provide avenues for connecting with the sacred. (1)
In many cases, it becomes difficult or impossible to draw any meaningful line between beliefs and practices that are magical versus those that are religious. In general, The term religion is reserved for an organized cult with a priesthood and dedicated sites of worship or sacrifice, while magic is prevalent in all societies, regardless of whether they have organized religion or more general systems of animism or shamanism. Religion and magic became conceptually separated with the development of western monotheism, where the distinction arose between supernatural events sanctioned by mainstream religious doctrine (“miracles”) and mere magic rooted in folk belief or occult speculation. In pre-monotheistic religious traditions, there is no fundamental distinction between religious practice and magic; tutelary deities concerned with magic are sometimes called “hermetic deities” or “spirit guides.”
Animism refers to the belief that non-human entities are spiritual beings, either intrinsically or because spirits inhabit them for a period of time. Unlike supernatural forces, animist spirits may be inherently good or evil. Often, these spirits are thought to be the souls of deceased relatives, and they are not worshiped as deities. Daoism and Shinto are the most animistic of the World Religions.
While animists believe everything to be spiritual in nature, they do not necessarily see the spiritual nature of everything in existence as being united (monism), the way pantheists do. Animism puts more emphasis on the uniqueness of each individual soul. In pantheism, everything shares the same spiritual essence — there are no distinct spirits and/or souls. Because humans are considered a part of nature, rather than superior to, or separate from it, animists see themselves on roughly equal footing with other animals, plants, and natural forces, and subsequently have a moral imperative to treat these agents with respect.
In animist societies, ritual is considered essential to win the favor of the spirits that ward off other malevolent spirits and provide food, shelter, and fertility. Shamans, also sometimes called medicine men or women, serve as mediums between the physical world and the world of spirits.
Animism is thought to be the belief system that laid the groundwork for the notion of a soul and the animation of traditionally inanimate objects, allowing every world religion to take those basic principles in other directions.
The term theism , first introduced by Ralph Cudworth (1617–1688), derives from the Greek word theos meaning “ god ”. It refers to any belief system that incorporates the existence of a deity. A deity is a supernatural being thought of as holy, divine or sacred. Though they take a variety of forms, deities are often expressed as taking human form. They are usually immortal, and are commonly assumed to have personalities, consciousness and intellects comparable (albeit superior) to those of humans. Typically, deities do not reveal themselves directly to humans, but make themselves known through their effects in the world. They are thought to dwell mainly in otherworldly or holy places like Heaven, Hell, the sky, the under-world, or in a supernatural plane or celestial sphere.
When only one deity is recognized, the faith tradition is called monotheistic . Typically, monotheistic traditions conceive of God as omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, and active in governance and organization of the world and the universe. The most prominent modern day monotheistic religions include Christianity, Islam and Judaism.
In contrast to monotheism, deism is the belief that at least one deity exists and created the world, but that the creator(s), though transcendent and supreme, does/do not alter the original plan for the universe. Deism typically rejects supernatural events (prophecies, miracles and divine revelations) prominent in organized religion. Instead, deism holds that religious beliefs must be founded on human reason and observed features of the natural world, and that these sources reveal the existence of a supreme being as creator.
Faith traditions involving more than one deity are called polytheistic. Polytheism recognizes multiple gods as being distinct and separate beings. Examples include the Egyptian and the Greek religions.
Monism views multiple gods as being connected under the umbrella of a greater whole. Hinduism is considered a monistic faith as each of their deities are really avatars of one universal principle, the Brahman.
Henotheism is the belief that while only one deity is worshiped other deities may exist and other people are justified in worshiping those other deities.
Monolatrism refers to the belief that there may be more than one deity, but that only one is worthy of being worshiped.(14)
It is also important to note that every society also has nonbelievers , such as atheists , who do not believe in a divine being or entity, and agnostics , who hold that ultimate reality (such as God) is unknowable. While typically not an organized group, atheists and agnostics represent a significant portion of the population. It is important to recognize that being a nonbeliever in a divine entity does not mean the individual subscribes to no morality. Indeed, many Nobel Peace Prize winners and other great humanitarians over the centuries would have classified themselves as atheists or agnostics. (15)
Distinguishing the World Religions from Everyday Religion
Before looking at each of the World Religions in our course, we should first understand how scholars typically distinguish a World Religion. There are eight religions that scholars designate as World Religions; a category can be further split into western and eastern World Religions.
Western World Religions include:
Eastern World Religions include:
There are three features, which distinguish a world religion from a non-world religion. The three features include:
- Longevity : the religion must have withstood the tests of time
- Membership : the membership of the religion is much larger than non-world religions
- Spanning of Continents : one can find the religion outside of its original place of origin
These features have remained relatively consistent since the term World Religion was first coined in the Nineteenth century. At the time, the term was utilized to identify those religions whose followers extended beyond national borders. However, the categorization is not without its faults. For example, the following questions must be considered.
- How long is longevity?
- How many members make it large enough?
- How far away from the place of origin is far enough?
Regardless of the answers to these questions, the world religion designation remains useful when distinguishing them from everyday religion. (1)