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XXXII. What Must a Religion Look Like?

Religious beliefs and their attendant moral values usually find accommodation within organizational structures, set procedures, and their expression in particular symbols. In western society, the forms of Christian institutions have become so well-established that it is often easy even for secularized lay people to assume that a religion must have analogous structures and symbols to those of Christianity. The model of the separated worship building, a stable congregation, served by a resident priesthood which has power to mediate or counsel, are all items for which analogues are expected of other religions. Yet even a cursory review must make it clear that religion need not look like this model. The major religions of the world manifest a variety of diverse arrangements, from, on the one hand, sacerdotalism, the practice of sacrifice, and sacramentalism with profuse use of auxiliary aids to faith (such as incense, dance, and imagery) to, on the other hand, keen asceticism and singular dependence on verbal expression and prayer. Both extremes may be encountered within one major tradition, in Hinduism or Christianity, while, in its orthodox expression, Islam is more uniformly ascetic—its ecstatic manifestations occurring at the fringes.

Religious worship differs greatly in form and frequency among the various religions. It has different implications and takes a distinctive form in non-theistic systems such as Buddhism. Since there is no transcendent deity, there is no point in supplication, no place for adoration, no need for expressions of dependence, humility, and subservience, no purpose in proclamations of praise—all of which form a part of Christian worship. Yet contemporary Christian worship is itself the product of a long process of evolution. The Judaeo-Christian tradition has changed radically over the centuries. Old Testament demands for animal sacrifice for a vengeful God are far removed from the devotional practice of, say, nineteenth-century mainstream Protestantism. The replacement of chanting and metrical psalm-singing by popular hymns gave a quite different appearance to Christian worship in the course of a couple of centuries. Today, the concept of an anthropomorphic God has waned in Christianity, and from the point of view of modern theology, contemporary Christian worship, in which anthropomorphic imagery is abundant, is distinctly anachronistic. It can hardly be surprising that some modern denominations, unburdened by old traditions (in which the patina of antiquity is easily mistaken for the aura of sanctity) should have reduced, if not altogether relinquished, traces of the anthropomorphism of the past. Even apart from such evolutionary trends, however, there is abundant diversity among Christian denominations to establish the point that any stereotyping of what worship implies betrays the many-sided diversity of religion in today’s world. Thus, the Roman Church developed the elaborate use of auditory, visual, and olfactory sensation in the service of faith. Catholic liturgy, whilst abjuring the use of dance and drugs, which have been employed in other religions, has elaborate ritual, sacraments, and vestments, a great wealth of symbolism, and a profusion of ceremonies marking the calendar and hierarchy of the Church and the rites of passage for individuals. In sharpest contrast to Roman Catholicism stand the Quakers, who reject any concept of a priesthood, any enactment of ritual (even of the unsacramental commemorative patterns of ritual common in some of the Protestant denominations) and the use of imagery and vestments. Emphasis on the adequacy and competence of lay performances, the rejection of sacrality, whether of buildings, places, seasons or ceremonies, and such aids as talismans and rosaries, is a characteristic in greater or lesser measure of Protestant religion. Evangelicals reject the idea of a priesthood, and Quakers, Brethren, Christadelphians, and Christian Scientists function without a paid ministry. While most Protestant denominations retain a breaking of bread ceremony they do so often as a commemorative act in obedience to scripture, and not as a performance with any intrinsic power. Thus, whilst in some instances different actions have similar purposes, in other cases, as with the breaking of bread, an apparently similar act acquires, in accordance with a denomination’s teaching, a distinctive meaning. Where, as in Christian Science, the deity is regarded as an abstract principle, acts of worship, whilst having a familiar religious purpose of bringing the believer into rapport with a divine mind, take on a quite different complexion from the supplicatory practices of denominations which retain an anthropomorphic view of deity.

New religions—and all religions were new at some time—are likely to ignore or to jettison some of the traditional practices and institutions of older and established faiths. They are all the more likely to do so if they arise in periods of accelerated social and technical development when the life-patterns of ordinary people are undergoing radical change, and when assumptions about basic institutions—family, community, education, the economic
order—are all changing.

New religions—and all religions were new at some time—are likely to ignore or to jettison some of the traditional practices and institutions of older and established faiths. They are all the more likely to do so if they arise in periods of accelerated social and technical development when the life-patterns of ordinary people are undergoing radical change, and when assumptions about basic institutions—family, community, education, the economic order—are all changing. In a more dynamic society, with increasingly impersonal social relations, and the influence of new media of communication, and a wider diffusion of all sorts of information and knowledge, the increased diversity of religious expression is entirely to be expected. New religions in western society are unlikely to find congenial the structures of the churches that originated two, three, four or fifteen or more centuries ago. To offer one example, given the intensified degree of social, geographic, and diurnal mobility of modern population, it would not be appropriate to suppose that new religions would organize themselves congregationally as stable and static communities. Other techniques of communication have superseded the pulpit and the printing press, and it would be surprising, in this area of activity as in others, if new religions were not to embrace the enhanced facilities of the era in which they emerge. That they do things differently from the traditional stereotype of religion, that they look outside western society for their legitimation, or that they employ new techniques for spiritual enlightenment does not disqualify them as manifestations of human religiosity.

XXXIII. In Conclusion
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