Monday, August 13, 2012

Why Religion will continue

In my World Religions course at the University of Guelph as a last discussion question I ask if human beings are naturally religious.  This sparks a lively debate - despite this being only a bonus question assignment worth 1% of their grade total.  I pose it at the end of term and without much weighting in terms of grades so students will treat it without pressure and think widely and deeply.

They do.

Usually a number point out that religion is not the same thing as spirituality and that humans may be naturally spiritual but not naturally religious.  Religion is seen as the structure of religions - institutional in form.  Spirituality as numinosity is defined by Rudolph Otto in his still important work Das Heilige/The Idea of the Holy.  

I was thinking about this today and thought something different.  First of all, 'religion' can mean the structured, institutional and organized - but organized what?  I would say organized spirituality.  Human beings may indeed in general  [but not in every case] be naturally spiritual.  But human beings are social animals and immediately begin to organize.  Those who discover others with similar spirituality create organizations with leadership, meeting places, rituals, etc.

Secondly I was thinking about why people are spiritual and therefore religious.  Most students in the discussion noted that religion used to supply answers that science now fulfills.  I think there is another, more profound level to this.  Religion and its foundation, spirituality, supply not answers, but purpose.  I was thinking back to the debate I watched online between Rowan Williams the current Archbishop of Canterbury and the famous atheist, Richard Dawkins.  Prof. Dawkins insisted that there is no purpose in the universe - it is all a colossal accident.  That everything that exists now is the result of an initial random occurrence and a series of occurrences spiralling out of that.  Archbishop Williams insisted on purpose in the universe.

I think spirituality and therefore religion will always exist as a primary force in human life because humans need purpose.  Science may someday explain every mechanical act, but cannot answer or even pose, the question, 'why?'

Sunday, August 5, 2012

art and religion and spirituality

In courses I teach on the history of religion, I stress art work and architecture as intrinsic parts of religion and spirituality.  For literate cultures this is often obvious - places of worship or meditation [in the case of Buddhist temples] are highly decorated in a manner that reinforces beliefs.  The architecture of these buildings is also what the historian William Westfall called a 'sermon in stone'.

I am cautious, however, and have some latent doubts when I post material on non-literate societies.  Cave paintings are a good case in point.  Are paintings of animals examples of what used to be called sympathetic magic?  That is, were they painted to aid in the hunt?  Or were just examples of a human love of representation ... of art?

I like to watch an English show called Time Team, where archaeologists have three days to unearth and interpret remains in the British Isles.  I am surprised at how many times the interpretations require so much imagination where corroborating evidence is absent.

This all reminds me that in the study of religion in history, an open mind must be cultivated and an agility in dropping pet theories maintained.