[#1] The Meaning of Key Terms and Expressions Here
[A] When I mention religion here, I do not mean primarily <participating in an "organized religious tradition"> (such as being a member of Roman Catholicism or Islam - although that might be good for some people). By “religion” I refer, first of all, to what—for me—is the heart of all religion – spirituality, namely, what is in our deepest core, not scientifically quantifiable, from which springs the energy (“the spirit”) to pursue meaning in life and where—the great Traditions point out—we can find our fundamental goodness as humans (expressed for example as Imago Dei [Image of God] in Judaism and Christianity or “Buddha Nature” in Buddhism”). I will, therefore, use the term "religion-spirituality" (taken as one, singular entity) to emphasize this.
[B] To explain further, by spirituality, I mean the deep drive--hardwired in humans--to search for MEANING. There is a very strong drive found in humans to search for their deepest, most genuine, and authentically good desires (I’ll call this "Depth") and, at the same time, there is also an equally strong drive to pursue something bigger than themselves, to go beyond themselves. I’ll refer to this as "Self-Transcendence." Spirituality then is: the human quest for meaning, depth, and transcendence. That is actually also my working definition for “religion” itself because that could be a description of what the heart and core of authentic religion is all about (spirituality). This quest for meaning, depth and transcendence has been done for most of history within the context of concrete religious traditions, such as Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, etc. Today, however, more and more people do not feel the need to belong to a religious tradition to be on a spiritual quest.
[C] The “Open-Mindedness” I suggest for Studying Religion. I think it would be optimal if a person who wants to study religion-spirituality is also a “seeker.” A seeker—we can say—is someone who seeks to live life not superficially (as many do) but at a deeper, more authentic level. In effect, that would mean—at the minimum level—not accepting an uncritical scientific dogmatism (the idea that “only what can be scientifically proven is true”) but instead being open to at least the possibility that there is Something Bigger (or Greater) than what conventional science can verify. I think that this is the best attitude to have as one takes a course on religion…
In other words, this is a position that deeply values modern science but rejects “scientism” (the quasi-dogmatic belief that the only truly real things are what science can prove). More proactively, it means making the effort to cultivate some kind of "spirituality" in oneself. For some, it means considering oneself an active adherent of a religious tradition.
If that is not possible for you, then, at the very minimum, I suggest a healthy curiosity and openness to study human religiosity and what positive and negative roles it has and continues to play in human society, culture, and civilization.
Resource: See Huston Smith’s thoughts on “the religious sense”
[#2] Our Primary Question: Why Does Religion-Spirituality Matter?
With that we can now ask: Why does religion-spirituality still matter? In a learning environment such as the university, this is connected with the question: Why is it good to study religion-spirituality or even, why is it beneficial to be religiously "literate"?
To make that more existential or more applicable to concrete life itself, we can also ask at a deeper level: Why is it a positive thing to have a "religious-spiritual" sense or a “religious outlook” on life? Why is it good to cultivate some kind of "spirituality" in oneself? Below are some responses to those key questions as we start this course in religious studies.
Let’s start with a sociological, historical, and cultural reason for studying religion.
[#3] Religion-Spirituality has been a vital and integral part of human reality for most of humanity’s history and across all human cultures. It continues to be so for the majority of people in the world today.
A religious outlook on life has been the standard worldview of almost everyone for most of human history in all human civilizations. It continues to be so today for most of the world’s population (according to some estimates, at least 70% of the world's inhabitants still consider themselves “religious”). However, it is in the so-called "developed" countries that religion is widely considered "unenlightened" or “backward” by an increasing number of people. Nevertheless, if one seeks to understand how almost all people who have lived in the past and how most people even in the present, think and view the world, one definitely has to study religion. So, do you want to understand the foundations of your culture and civilization (yes, that includes this supposedly “enlightened” Western culture and civilization!)? Studying religion and being religiously “literate” about the great world religions and their positive as well as negative effects on human civilizations, cultures, and societies is an essential task.
Resources: Former US Secretary of State John Kerry famously said that if he went back to College today, he would major in comparative religions. (In this LINK, it is found around the 10th minute mark)
Let’s go now to a deeper, existential reason for pursuing a more serious engagement with religion-spirituality.
enable me/us to find higher meaning, genuine non-egocentric self-fulfillment, depth and transcendence?
In psychologist Abraham Maslow's widely used "hierarchy of needs,” (School of Life version) the more basic needs of humans (such as physiological and safety needs) are located at the lower levels of the pyramid. This is not to say that they are unimportant. In fact, they are supremely important as a foundation because if these primary needs are not met, humans will not even realize that they have “higher” and more noble needs.
It is seldom mentioned that for all the importance given to the so-called STEM areas (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) in higher education today, these fields are meant to meet areas of human life that belong to the more basic, “lower” human needs in Maslow’s scheme. The fact of the matter is that science (and related areas) is largely incapable of responding to “higher” human needs such as love and belonging, emotional maturity, self-actualization (the highest need), as well as the deepest existential questions of life.
What then can respond more adequately to these “higher” or “deeper” perplexing issues? I must say that it is the humanities (philosophy, literature, history, art, psychology, etc.) that could deal in a better way with these questions. And within the humanities, it is obviously religion-spirituality as a more integral discipline that is—one can say—most capable of responding to humanity’s higher and deeper questions, needs, and aspirations.
[#5] Know the Limits of Science! One important skill to learn at the university is how to more clearly discern different “domains” -- such as which domains of life are more proper to science (and related areas) and which ones are more proper to Religion-Spirituality and other fields in the humanities. Although we live in a world that prioritizes empirical science (and its applications such as technology and engineering) above all else, it is rarely acknowledged that although science works wonderfully with the things that properly belong to its domain, it has severe limitations in areas beyond its domains, such as existential and ultimate meanings, purpose, values, etc. These questions are normally "beyond" science and "more properly" religious-spiritual and philosophical.
The late scholar of religion, Huston Smith frequently decried "scientism" (not science itself!). Scientism is the intellectual position that holds that the only truly valuable things to learn and know in life can ONLY be taught by science. In other words, scientism is the fallacious thinking that what science has turned up or can turn up is the sum of all that is. That is simply not true, as any true scientist will admit.
Smith, for example, clarified that science cannot handle some of the following, crucially important matters for human life:
- Values in their final and proper sense, for example, Why should we have integrity?
- Existential and global meanings: for example, Why am I depressed? What is the meaning of life?;
- Final causes: for example, What is the ultimate meaning of it all?;
- The “Invisible”: We're not talking of "invisibles" that can affect matter (e.g., magnetism) but invisible entities such as thoughts, love, even spirits, ghosts, etc. (if those things exist). These are outside of the realm of science
- Quality (not quantifiable quality such as the material indicators of the quality of life but ...) = spiritual, philosophical and existential "quality”, such as, the quality of my life in terms of love, contentment, happiness, purpose or meaning
- Our "superiors" – this refers to anything superior to our material reality (no offence to materialists but it is considered the "inferior" realm in this scheme) that cannot be measured by our conventional scientific methods at this point (if such things exist) such as angels, God, non-bodily beings, etc.
In another place, Smith clearly points out: "We have not discovered anything that conclusively proves that beings greater than us [our “superiors”] do not exist." This illustrates the principle that science cannot deal with its "superiors" – that is, possible realities that are greater than material reality. These beings (if they exist) are, at this point, beyond conventional scientific methods and even if they do exist, science cannot discover them at this point.
[#6] Epistemic Humility. One clear mark that someone or something has integrity is that they are or it is aware of their limitations. That can be called “epistemic humility” – a humble acknowledgement of the limits of one’s knowledge. A true scientist is well aware of the limits of science. When someone claims that the only real things are limited to what we can see and touch, there is no epistemic humility there and, therefore, no integrity as well.
What field can handle the things that conventional science cannot deal with? Again, it is religion-spirituality taken as an integral discipline that includes not only religion in the narrow sense but also disciplines such as philosophy, art, literature, history, and psychology practiced within a worldview that is open to the possibility that the TOTALITY of REALITY is so much bigger and greater than the material realm.
[#7] The God Question. The Abrahamic religions that we are more familiar with in the West (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) have historically given a central place to the question of “God”—believed to be an Omnipotent Being who created everything and continues to sustain them. When religion is discussed here in the West, therefore, foremost in people’s minds is usually the burning question: Does God really exist?It is noteworthy, however, that the discipline called the philosophy of religion teaches us that there is no 100% perfect or conclusive way to convince everyone about the reality of God’s existence. In fact, the plain truth is that, from a philosophical standpoint, although there are seemingly valid reasons for continued belief in God (for religious faith), there are also sufficient reasons for agnosticism and even atheism.
Agnosticism (the position that says: No one really knows for certain that God exists)—I personally think—can be a position of integrity. Moreover, a sincere “open to listen to different positions” kind of atheism can likewise be a standpoint of integrity. However, a vicious and intolerant atheism that is ironically "dogmatically held" goes against "epistemic humility" (Recall that this means: I am aware of the limits of my knowledge). I consider epistemic humility as a crucial indication of integrity in those seeking for truth and knowledge. I therefore consider this kind of atheism an unhelpful and even dishonest position.
At the other end of the spectrum, a vicious, blind, "too convinced," and equally intolerant "faith stance" is also unhelpful and dishonest because it likewise goes against--the abovementioned--epistemic humility.
[#8] Religion and the human quest to understand the TOTALITY of things, “the Big Picture”
Personally, and as a scholar of religion and theology, I do not think that the question “Does God really exist?” is the most important issue in the study of religion. It is—I suggest—a secondary question in terms of importance. Besides, since there can be no conclusive way to answer this question, pursuing it endlessly is, in a sense, a futile endeavour.
Rather, the more helpful approach for me is studying the concept of “god” (or similar expressions such as “Spirit,” “the Real,” “the Holy,” “Nirvana,” etc.) as an important and key symbol of humanity’s ongoing effort to “relate to the total scheme of things” which—according to religion scholar Huston Smith—is the heart of the religious problem. In short, the idea of “god” (and parallel notions) is a crucial key to understanding the ways by which humans throughout history and in every milieu have tried to cope with, make sense of, shed light on, maintain hope and positivity about LIFE and EXISTENCE which nevertheless remain ultimately mysterious. In this sense, “god” (and parallel notions) is a crucially important theme to examine. It also follows that the human “faith in God” (or some other ultimate factor) that religion-spirituality examines is actually a study of one of the most important aspects of humanity.
Religion-spirituality is important because it studies this human quest to understand the “totality of things” by utilizing the idea of “god” (and parallel ideas). Huston Smith calls “God” the one who completes the jigsaw puzzle and shows the whole of reality to be a “panorama.” (in an interview with Robert Kuhn - Closer to Truth)
This, however, is being severely challenged in our postmodern world. The postmodern world dislikes “metanarratives” and religion is as perfect a metanarrative as one can get. We will deal with this theme in another essay on contemporary forms of religion-spirituality.
[#9] Theology Gives a Glimpse of a Believer's “Insider-Perspectives” If you study not only Religion but go on further to study Theology (the discipline that gives supreme importance to a faith stance), you'll even be able to see history or religious belief systems, as it were, from the inside or from an "insider's perspective." You'll come to understand better how believers' minds work, what makes them tick.
One good resource for this is this article by Tara Burton in The Atlantic titled "Study Theology, Even If You Don't Believe in God".
[#10] The Religion of Life. In our postmodern world, believing according to how the traditional religions define belief, is becoming increasingly difficult for more and more people. There seems to be a new kind of “spirituality” that is arising which is very evident in the West today. As mentioned, we will discuss this more in a subsequent article. Please refer also to my essay entitled, The Secularized West - Source of Immorality and Godlessness or (Flawed) Embodiment of the "Kingdom of God"? .
Huston Smith, Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief. Harper, 2001.
_____, The Soul of Christianity: Restoring the Great Tradition. Harper, 2005.
John Cottingham. Why Believe? Continuum, 2009.
Alain de Botton. “TED talk: Atheism 2.0.” January 17, 2012. https://www.ted.com/talks/alain_de_botton_atheism_2_0
Roger Walsh, Essential Spirituality: The 7 Central Practices to Awaken Heart and Mind. Wiley, 1999.
_____, The World’s Great Wisdom: Timeless Teachings from Religions and Philosophies. SUNY Press, 2014.
University of Northern Iowa. “Why Should I Study Religion?” Accessed December 29, 2020. https://philrel.uni.edu/why-should-i-study-religion
Dale Tuggy. “Why Study Religion?” Published: February 17, 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CmEWtEl0oPo&list=PLMCt15e8gG-j3nRRZlmhltadY8XDn4KAH
“Why Study Religion?” Accessed December 29, 2020. http://www.studyreligion.org/why/leads.html