World Religions

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Religious life throughout the world, regardless of the specific tradition, exhibits both personal-psychological and communal-social aspects. Of course, persons within the diverse religious traditions of the world perceive the spiritual dimension of their faith as transcending both the individual psychological and emotional as well as the corporate and social aspects of their faith's expressions. Nonetheless, two major academic strands of religious studies over the last century have focused primarily on either the psychological (e.g., James 1961; Freud 1928; Jung 1938) or the social (e.g., Weber 1963; Durkheim 1965; Wach 1958) dimensions of religion. An Oglala Lakota's ("Sioux" in Algonquian) vision reveals these two interactive aspects of religion.

The Plains Indians in America were noted for their vision quests, and periods of fasting and life-cycle rituals often were associated with those quests. However, the vision of Black Elk, a Lakota shaman, occurred spontaneously when he was 9 years old and was stricken by fever and other physical maladies (Neidardt 1972, pp. 17–39). His vision began with two men dressed in traditional garb but shaped like slanting arrows coming from the sky to get him. As a little cloud descended around him, the young Black Elk rose into the sky and disappeared into a large cloud bank. He saw an expansive white plain across which he was led by a beautiful bay horse. As he looked in the four directions, he saw twelve black horses in the West, twelve white horses in the North, twelve sorrel horses in the East, and twelve buckskin horses in the South. After the arrival of Black Elk, the horses formed into lines and formations to lead him to the "Grandfathers." As this heavenly equine parade proceeded, horses appeared everywhere, dancing and frolicking and changing into all types of animals, such as buffalo, deer, and wild birds. Ahead lay a large teepee.

As Black Elk entered the rainbow door of the tepee, he saw six old men sitting in a row. As he stood before the seated figures, he was struck by the fact that the old men reminded him of the ancient hills and stars. The oldest spoke, saying, "Your grandfathers all over the world are having a council, and they have called you here to teach you." Black Elk later remarked of the speaker, "His voice was very kind but I shook all over with fear now, for I knew that these were not old men but the Powers of the World and the first was the Power of the West; the second, of the North; the third, of the East; the fourth, of the South; the fifth, of the Sky; the sixth, of the Earth."

The spokesman of the elders gave Black Elk six sacred objects. First, he received a wooden cup full of water, symbolizing the water of the sky that has the power to make things green and alive. Second, he was given a bow that had within it the power to destroy. Third, he was given a sacred name, "Eagle Wing Stretches," which he was to embody in his role as shaman (healer and diviner) for his tribe. Fourth, he was given an herb of power that would allow him to cleanse and heal those who were sick in body or spirit. Fifth, he was given the sacred pipe, which had as its purposes a strengthening of the collective might of the Lakota tribe and a healing of the divisions among the Lakota, to allow them to live in peace and harmony. Finally, Black Elk received a bright red stick that was the "center of the nation's circle" or hoop. This stick symbolized a sacred focusing of the Lakota nation and linked the Lakota to their ancestors as well as to those who would follow them.

Black Elk's vision ended with a flight into a foreboding future in which the Lakota would encounter white-skinned "bluecoats" who would threaten the sacred hoop of the Lakota nation. Many years later, as Black Elk reflected on his vision, he realized that even in the devastating upheaval caused by the wars between his nation and the "bluecoats," his people had been given the sacred objects and rituals that would allow them to rise above mundane exigencies and to heal the nation and restore the hoop in times of trouble.

The vision of Black Elk makes it clear that what sometimes appear to be perfunctory religious rituals, fantastic myths, or arcane ethical injunctions often have their roots in a deep sense of the contact between human beings and that which they have experienced as a divine power. This article emphasizes the social aspects of world religions, but it is important to keep in mind that the religious experiences codified in the social institutions of the world's religions are not fully captured by psychological or sociological explanations alone. There has been a tendency in the academic study of religion to interpret religious experiences and behavior by reducing them to psychological or social causes or antecedents. For example, Sigmund Freud (1928) reduces religious experiences to unconscious projections of human needs that he likens to infantile fantasies that rational humans should grow beyond. A contemporary of Freud, Emile Durkheim (1965, p. 466), has a tendency to reduce religions to their social functions: "If religion has given birth to all that is essential in society, it is because the idea of society is the soul of religion."

While the pioneering work of Max Weber and Durkheim laid the groundwork for much of contemporary social analysis of religion, comparative sociologists of religion such as Joachim Wach (1958) have tempered earlier tendencies toward sociological reductionism. Wach sought to understand the nature of religion by examining traditions throughout the world and noting the primary elements they shared. He identified religious experience as the basic and formative element in the rise of religious traditions around the world and then investigated the expression of this experience in thought, action, and community.

Wach said that there is a symbiotic relationship between religion and society. On the one hand, religion influences the form and character of social organizations or relations in the family, clan, or nation as well as develops new social institutions such as the Christian church, the Buddhist sangha, and the "Lakota nation." On the other hand, social factors shape religious experience, expression, and institutions. For example, in Black Elk's vision, the role of the warrior in Lakota society is expressed through the two men who come to escort Black Elk into the sky, and in his later mystical venture into the future, Black Elk as Lakota shaman (wichash wakan is one who converses with and transmits the Lakota's ultimate spiritual power, or Wakan) becomes the ultimate warrior who battles a "blue man" (perhaps representing personified evil or the dreaded "bluecoats"). Lakota social conventions that name the natural directions as four (North, South, East, West) are modified by Black Elk's vision to include Sky and Earth, making six vision directions that influence the number of elders Black Elk encounters in the heavenly teepee and the number of sacred objects he is given. Here the shaman's vision modifies social conventions even as it creates a social subconvention for other visionaries who also name the directions as six. The objects are conventional implements of Black Elk's culture that are empowered to serve symbolically as multivocal conveyors of sacred knowledge and wisdom. Finally, Black Elk's vision can be viewed sociologically as confirming the corporate sacredness (the sacred hoop) of the nation of the Lakota. For example, a Lakota's vision was powerful and meaningful only to the extent that the tribe accepted it. In this sense one can understand why Durkheim would say that religion, in this case the Lakota's, is society writ large in the sky.

However, for Wach and for scholars, such as Niman Smart (1969), who follow his lead, the forms and expressions of religious life are best understood as emanating from religious experience. Smart identifies six dimensions that all religions share: (1) ritual, (2) mythological, (3) doctrinal, (4) ethical, (5) social, and (6) experiential. The author of this article has provided an interpretative framework for understanding the necessary interdependence of these six elements of religious traditions in Two Sacred Worlds: Experience and Structure in the World's Religions (Shinn 1977). These dimensions of the religious life form the structure of this analysis of the social aspect of world religions.


Building on the insights of William James and Rudolph Otto (1946), more recent scholars such as Wach, Smart, and Mircea Eliade (1959) seek the origin of religion in the religious experience of a founder or religious community. These scholars assert that genuinely religious experiences include an awareness or an immediate experience of an ultimate reality or sacred power, whether a theistic divinity as in the case of the God(s) of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam or a nontheistic transcendental reality as in the case of the Buddhists' Nirvana or the Hindus' Brahman/Atman. James suggests that transcendental or mystical experiences are immediate apprehensions of the divine that are marked by ineffability, a noetic quality, transiency, and passivity. From one perspective, ineffability can be understood as the inability of language to relay the emotional and cognitive content of a peak religious experience; it also may be described as a failure of language to capture the divine subject of such an experience, that is, the ultimate reality itself. Nonetheless, religious experiences inevitably are understood as providing new states of knowledge that cannot be grasped fully by the discursive intellect. This noetic dimension of religious experience often is described as the revelation of new knowledge (i.e., illumination) that is provided by religious experiences. In fact, it is precisely an awareness of an encounter with a sacred reality in religious experiences that differentiates these experiences from nonreligious peak experiences (e.g., an aesthetic peak experience of a piece of music). Religious experiences also tend to be marked by brevity (i.e., transiency) and the passivity of the person having the experience. While aesthetic, political, and erotic peak experiences may be characterized by ineffability, transiency, and passivity, only religious experiences bring with them a consciousness of an encounter with a "holy other" sacred reality.

Whether a founding religious experience is immediate and direct, such as the Buddha's nontheistic enlightenment experience of Nirvana, or cumulative and indirect, as was the lengthy exodus journey of the Hebrews, religious experiences are, in Wach's terms, "the most powerful, comprehensive, shattering, and profound experience" of which human beings are capable (1958, p. 35). Wach concludes that a necessary criterion of genuine religious experience "is that it issues in action. It involves imperative; it is the most powerful source of motivation and action" (1958, p. 36). Consequently, religious experiences may be viewed as the wellspring of religion both in the formation of a new religious tradition and in the origin of the faith of the later generations.

Even if one accepts the primacy of religious experience, it is important to note that founding religious experiences are deeply immersed in the social and cultural realities of their time and place. For example, whether immediate and direct or cumulative and indirect, religious experiences inevitably are expressed in the language and concepts of the persons and culture in which they arose. Black Elk's vision of Wakan in the form of the six Grandfathers clearly reflects the Lakotas' social and political structure as well as their idealized notions of nation and nature. The Thunder Beings and Grandfathers who are the personifications of Wakan Tanka ("Great Power") obviously arise from the natural, linguistic, and social environments of the Lakota. So does the conception of Wakan itself as a pervasive power that permeates animal and human life as well as that of nature. A contemporary Lakota has said, "All life is Wakan." So also is everything which exhibits power whether in action, as in the winds and drifting clouds, or in passive endurance, as the boulder by the wayside.

Religious experiences occur to persons who have already been socialized. The most obvious social tool is the language used to express even the most profound religious experiences. The ineffable nature of religious experiences requires the use of metaphors or extensions of everyday language, as in the case of Black Elk, and to some extent, the experience itself is shaped by the language in which it is expressed.

Divine names usually are borrowed from the social and linguistic environment of the founder or founding community. For example, the exodus experience of the Hebrew people was interpreted by them as a liberating religious experience fostered by the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This God, whose name is given in the Book of Exodus as Yahweh ("I am who I am"), is also called El Elyon ("God most high"), El Shaddai ("God of the mountain"), and Elohim (usually translated as "God"). Moses probably borrowed the name "Yahweh" from the Midianites. El Elyon was the high god of Salem (later called Jerusalem) and was worshiped by King Melchizedek. It also is known that the Canaanite high god of the same period was named El and appears in different cultic sites throughout the ancient Near East. Although it is clear that the Hebraic religious texts understand Yahweh and El quite differently than do their known local counterparts, the Hebrew high god embraced the local deity nomenclatures while modifying their meanings.

In a similar fashion, the divinity of the man Jesus is acknowledged in early Christian texts through references to earlier Jewish apocalyptic language and expectations. In the Jewish apocalyptic literature (e.g., I Enoch), the "Son of Man" appears as a righteous judge who will come to earth to signal the beginning of the heavenly kingdom and God's rule. As an eternal savior, the Son of Man will come to save the righteous followers of God and destroy all those who ignore him. In those linguistic borrowings, however, significant modifications of the original conceptions are made to adjust the titles and expectations to the man Jesus as perceived by his followers. For example, Jesus comes as the Son of Man not primarily as a stern and vengeful judge but as a savior who is himself the sacrifice. This linguistic and conceptual transformation reflects the dependence of language on experience as much as it reveals the social and linguistic dimensions of religious experience.

Similar examples of borrowed—and transformed—god names abound in religious literature and history throughout the world. In Saudi Arabia in the sixth century, Mohammed elevated a local polytheistic Meccan god, Allah, to the status of an international deity. In tenth-century Indian Puranic literature, devotees of the god Vishnu promote his avatar, called Krishna, to a supreme theistic position as the god above all gods. Although the Bhagavata Purana recounts the lilas, or play, of Krishna as though the author were describing historic figure, it is clear to textual scholars that there are two essentially distinct and dynamic story traditions arise from the Brahminical Krishna of Bhagavad Gita fame and from the indigenous cowherd Gopala Krishna associated with the western Indian Abhira tribes.

Although devotees of either Allah or Krishna now perceive their divinity and his name as having been "from the beginning," there is little doubt that the local social and linguistic environments provided both content and context for the names of the divinities in these two traditions. Perhaps the most radical example of theistic amalgamation is that of the Indian goddess Kali. Described in medieval Indian texts as being synonymous with literally dozens of local and regional goddess names and traditions, Kali is a latecomer to the Indian theistic scene as one who is given the primary attributes of many gods and goddesses. The mythological tale of the birth of Kali reveals an amalgamation process that gave birth to this great goddess now worshiped by millions in India as the "Supreme Mother." Finally, the concept and expressions of the nontheistic Nirvana experienced by the Buddha were fundamentally shaped by the notion of reincarnation or rebirth and other metaphysical assumptions common to most religious traditions in India in the fifth century b.c.

These examples show that while religious experience of the sacred may be the initiating point of the world's religious traditions or an individual's faith, that experience is given shape and substance by the linguistic and social context out of which it arises. It is also true, however, that life-altering religious experiences such as those described above shape the language and traditions through which they are expressed. This symbiotic relationship occurs in the other dimensions of religious life that are shared by the world's religions.


Formative religious experiences contain within them impulses to expression (myth) and re-creation (ritual) that later become routinized and then institutionalized. Core myths and rituals, therefore, attempt to convey and re-create the experience of the founder or religious community. Both myths and rituals rely on symbols whose content must be shared in order for them to have meaning for the religious group that uses them. Symbols have not only shared cognitive meanings but also common emotional significance and value. That is, symbols do not simply convey intellectual understanding but also engender an emotive response. Furthermore, religious symbols are integrative and transforming agents in that they point to realities that have been encountered but are hidden from everyday vision and experience. Paul Ricoeur (1972) says that symbols yield their meaning in enigma, not through literal or direct translation. Symbols, therefore, suggest rather than explicate; they provide "opaque glimpses" of reality rather than definitive pictures. Understood in this fashion, the journey from symbol to myth is a short one for Ricoeur, who takes myth to be a narrative form of the symbol. Put simply, myths are narratives or stories of the sacred and of human encounters with it.

As stories of sacred powers or beings, myths fall into two basic categories: expressive and reflective. Expressive myths are sacred narratives that attempt to relate the founding or codifying religious experiences of a religious tradition, while reflective mythic narratives are composed subsequently to integrate the sacred experience into everyday life. For example, Black Elk's "re-telling" of his vision experience becomes an expressive myth or sacred narrative for the Oglala Lakota to which they refer again and again in reflective stories of the Thunderbeings or the Grandfathers, wherein the Lakota attempt to extend the lessons of this experience to later problems they encounter. Nearly every extant religious tradition tells and retells its sacred narrative of the founder's or founders' encounter with the sacred reality. Black Elk's vision becomes such a story for the Oglala Lakota.

The story of the exodus of the Hebrews is recounted as a symbolic and founding narrative of God's liberation for Jewish people of all times. The stories of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus form the core myths of Christians when one understands a myth to mean "sacred narrative" rather than "untrue story." Likewise, the story of the Buddha's arduous meditative journey culminating in the attainment of Nirvana inspires religious thought and behavior throughout all Buddhist lands even today. Similarly, Muhammad's auditory experience of Allah on Mount Hira, which resulted in his recording of the Qur'an, constitutes the sacred history of millions of Muslims on all the continents. Finally, even though scholars are confident in their judgment that the life of Krishna as told in the tenth-century Bhagavata Purana is really an anthology of stories borrowed from earlier Krishna traditions, these lilas, or "playful episodes," told as a single life of Krishna have inspired religious experiences, poetry, and rituals that still enliven the lives of millions of Hindus throughout the world. From even this selective set of examples of founding myths, it is clear how deeply they drink from the social, linguistic, and institutional wellsprings of their time and place.

The generative function of core myths is shared by certain rituals that attempt to "represent" in a spatial and physical context the core experience of a religious tradition. From one perspective, core rituals are those that emerge from sacred narratives or myths as their active component. From a second perspective, core rituals represent repetitive, institutionalized behavior and clearly are immersed in the social sphere of religious life. For example, the Christian narrative that relates the Last Supper of Jesus as a sacramental event (e.g., Mark 14:12–26) is physically presented in the early Christian love feast that becomes the Lord's Supper (Eucharistic ritual or Mass) of later Christian churches.

The work of Victor Turner (1969) in a traditional African religious context provides a vocabulary for the religious and social transactions that take place in core myths and rituals. Turner describes three phases in ritual reenactments that attempt to (1) separate or detach the participant from everyday consciousness and social position, (2) provide a moment of liminality and communitas of shared experience with participants in rituals, and then (3) reintegrate ritual participants back into everyday life with its social roles and structure. Liminality is the neutral psychological and social state of transition between one's former social roles and consciousness and the new status one assumes beyond the ritual. Communitas for Turner is a mode of social relationship that is marked by an egalitarianism that is uncommon in the stratified roles and relationships of the everyday world. Consequently, Turner would argue that religious rituals may provide an in-between, or liminal, moment of social and psychological experience that religious devotees often assert includes an encounter with their sacred power or reality.

The Passover narrative in the Book of Exodus provides a good example of a core myth that is later enacted, in this case in a Passover meal. In its literal meaning, the Passover myth refers to the tenth plague, when the angel of death killed Egyptian firstborn children while sparing the Hebrew children just before the exodus journey. In its symbolic sense, the Passover story that is "represented" in the Passover sacrificial meal symbolizes Yahweh's power of liberation. To the extent that the story of the exodus reveals the beginning of Yahweh's covenantal relationship to the Hebrew people, the Passover ritual attempts to recreate or revivify that relationship.

Beyond the community's social embodiment of the sacred story of Israel's encounter with Yahweh in a festive and communal sacrificial ritual of the Passover, the social aspects of both the myth and the ritual are evident. Sacrifices were the common mode of worship for the pre-Mosaic tribal religions as well as for the contemporary cults in Moses' day. It is very likely that the Passover ritual described in Exodus 12 derives from a combination of a nomadic animal sacrifice and an agricultural feast of unleavened cakes, both of which predate the exodus event. While the Hebrews' experience of Yahweh in the exodus journey reshapes both the story and the ritual as a liberation event, both the Hebrew myth and the ritual have antecedents in the social and religious world of which they were a part.

Similarly, the baptism and Eucharist rituals in the Christian faith are core rituals that stem from the religious narratives that gave birth to them. Likewise, traditional nontheistic Theravada forms of Buddhist meditation appear to stem directly from the Buddha's spiritual struggle and release but draw on Jain and Hindu forms that predate them. Among the Oglala Lakota, the horse dance ritual was taught by Black Elk to his tribe in a fashion that replicated as closely as possible the vision he received. Therefore, the six old Grandfathers, the horses representing the four cardinal directions, and the various sacred implements he was given all become central elements of the horse dance ritual.

In Islam, the Hajj is one of the five pillars of faith that is incumbent on all Muslims to honor and embody. The Hajj is a pilgrimage that reenacts the spiritual journey of Muhammad with periods of fasting, prayer, and meditation that culminate with ritual circumambulations of the Ka'ba, the black stone in the central mosque of Mecca that is the seat of Allah's throne. In the Hindu devotional traditions, it is common for dramatic performances, stylized ritual dance forms such as Bharata Natyam, and temple dramatic readings to convey episodes of the encounter of devotees with the divine. Consequently, theatrical dramatic productions of the lilas, or playful pastimes, of the cowherd god Krishna are enjoyed by villagers throughout India not simply as theatrical events but as representations of Krishna's delightful divine play. The daily ritual reenactment that occurs before the shrines of Krishna, Kali, and other Indian divinities is called puja and is a ritual ceremony that probably emanates from the stylized honorific behavior one accords to a royal guest. Here the social precursors to religious ritual are evident, even though they are transformed by the religious narrative and ritual context into which they are placed.

Scholars across a variety of disciplines and perspectives have asserted the interconnection of myth, ritual, and the religious community. Perhaps the most clear summary of this relationship is given by Bronislaw Malinowski, who says, "An intimate connection exists between the word, the mythos, the sacred tales of a tribe, on the one hand and their ritual acts, their moral deeds, their social organization, and even their practical activities on the other" (1954, p. 96). Malinowski indicates that while core myths and rituals may have their origin in founding religious experiences, they also serve as social "warrants" for the primary beliefs of the society out of which they arise and which they help shape. From this perspective, myths and rituals serve primarily as vehicles that legitimate social institutions. Core myths and rituals appear to be charged with the difficult task of representing and re-creating founding religious experiences. They also reflect and embrace their social and cultural contexts. Furthermore, not all myths and rituals serve this primary and essentialist function; certain myths, rituals, and religious behaviors diverge considerably from the impetus the core narrative seems to suggest.


Malinowski and Wach make clear that ethics arise partly as a result of religious experience but also participate fully in social processes. While religious experiences may give rise to immediate expression (core myths) and reenactments (core rituals), they also give impetus to new attitudes and intentions, which are reflected in norms for behavior. In the Christian context, such behavior is claimed to be the mark of a "reborn" person whose conduct manifests the tangible effects of an experience of God. Conversely, the ethical norms and traditions that arise within a religious institution may reflect as much the mores of the surrounding culture and society as they do the experience upon which the institution was founded. Social factors such as language, family roles, and social customs play a role in the process of the externalization of the religious life in ethical laws. James says simply that behavior is the empirical criterion for determining the quality and validity of a religious experience. The distinction he makes between the person who has a religious experience and the person who undergoes a religious conversion is the distinction between having a highly charged peak experience and living a new life born of that experience.

It appears that all religious traditions evidence an interdependent and necessary relationship of conduct to experience so that what is experienced as an ecstatic encounter with the divine is expressed as a new and integrated mode of living. The committed ethical life of a devotee, then, is ideally understood as an active extension of religious experience expressed through communal or shared norms. While an immediate religious experience may provide a core religious impulse (e.g., to love God and one's neighbor in the Christian context or to fear Allah in the Muslim context), that impetus becomes manifest in the concrete situations of social behavior. For example, the nontheistic enlightenment experience of the Buddha resulted in a sense of detachment from the world that was linked to enduring traditions of metta and karuna (love and compassion) and resulted in "detached compassion" as the complex ethical norm the Buddha modeled for his disciples.

The most obvious intrusion of social norms and processes into the religious life occurs in moral decision making. The natural and social worlds in which people live provide challenges and problems that require an ethical response. Consequently, life in the world poses many situations not anticipated in the religious texts and routinized ethical norms of religious traditions. As a result, over time, ethical systems often come to reflect the surrounding secular culture and social norms as much as they do the basic religious impulse from which they are supposed to derive their direction. This process is mediated during the life of the founder whose authority and behavior provides a model for action. In subsequent generations, however, individuals and institutions such as the Pope, the Buddhist sangha (community of elders), and the Lakota tribal council often determine the ethical norms of a community. When ethical statements and positions stray too far from their initial impulses, they are in danger of mirroring the society they intend to make sacred. Put simply, while ethical impulses may originate in religious experiences, the ethical laws, norms, and traditions that are constituted in scriptures and institutional pronouncements often distort the moral imperative by including rationalizations that conform to social, not religious, expectations.

An example of the difference between ethical impulse and moral law can be found in the Hebrew notion of a covenantal relationship with God. Moses and the exodus tribes experienced a compassionate, mighty, jealous, and demanding God. The laws of the early Hebrews, therefore, were viewed not only as commandments arising from a stern leader or group of legalistic lawmakers but also as expressions of an appreciative and liberating relationship with God. The Sinai story of the transmission of the Ten Commandments is intended to reveal the Hebrews' ethical relationship with Yahweh. It was on that holy mountain that the covenant between Yahweh and his people was given concrete expression. However, this relationship was marked by infidelity on the part of Yahweh's people. Therefore, for many of them, the codes of conduct contained in the Ten Commandments and the Levitical Code were experienced as the oppressive laws of a judgmental God.

Jesus summarized the essence of ethical behavior in a twofold commandment to love God and love one's neighbor that was enjoined on all who would count themselves as disciples of God. However, the teachings of Jesus and the commandment of love have led over the centuries to disputes about whether Christians should engage in war, permit abortions, treat homosexuals as equals, and allow divorces. Institutionalized Christian churches in their many forms have decreed what proper ethical conduct is with regard to such issues, and those norms vary and even contradict each other within and across Christian religious traditions. This is the difference between the imperative to love God and love one's "neighbor" and ethical laws that must express divine love in complex and rapidly changing social contexts and situations. Seemingly universal laws such as "Do not kill" mean something quite different to a Lakota warrior who may kill (and sometimes scalp) his enemy (but not a fellow tribesman) than they do to a Muslim who is encouraged to kill an infidel who defames Allah or to a Buddhist who is enjoined not to kill any living being.

Even among seemingly similar traditions, such as the Hindu devotional sects, ethical norms can vary immensely. In the Kali goddess tradition, animal sacrifice is still commonly practiced as a way of returning to the goddess the life-giving force she has bestowed on her creation. Some devotees of Kali have interpreted her mythological destruction of demons as a model for their own behaviors and have followed suit as thieves and murderers in the Indian Thuggi tradition. By contrast, Kali devotees such as Rahmakrishnan understand Kali to be a transcendent "ocean of bliss" who engenders peacefulness and nonviolence in her disciples.

What is true of all these religious traditions around the world is that persons usually are taught what constitutes proper or ethical behavior, and in that context, ethics are learned conceptions born of the social process and its experiences. Consequently, ethical norms and their expression often reflect the social environment in which religious traditions arise. A clear expression of this fact is found in the Hindu religious tradition's embrace of the caste system that sacralizes a socially elitist and patriarchal social system that predates Hinduism. Caste distinctions that are sacralized in the mythical and theological texts of the Hindu tradition serve as warrants for social roles and norms that undergird not only the Hindu traditions but also those of the Buddhists and Jains in India.


Just as religious experience may result in the formation of a religious movement that tells the founding story of contact with a sacred power (core myth), tries to re-create that experience for the beginning and subsequent communities (core rituals), and impels new believers to act in accordance with this vision or revelation (ethical impulse leading to institutionalized ethics), so it is that even very early in a religious tradition's history questions and criticisms arise that must be answered. Religious reflection takes a variety of forms that touch the total corporate life of a religious community. Sacred scriptures often encompass expressive myths that relate in narrative form the founder's or founders' contact with the sacred core rituals in outline or in full, ethical injunctions and moral codes, and reflective myths, doctrines, and explications that attempt to answer believers' questions and unbelievers' skepticism. Almost inevitably, members of a religious community are provoked from without and within to explain how their sacred reality is related to the origin of the community and perhaps even to the origin of the world. Consequently, reflective myths that represent second-level or posterior reflection are incorporated to explain those beginnings.

Three distinct but interrelated purposes and functions of reflective myths are to (1) explain origins, (2) rationalize aspects of core beliefs, and (3) provide an apologetic defense of the faith to disbelieving insiders or outsiders. A good example of reflective theologizing is the development of the biography of the Buddha. The oldest Pali texts essentially begin the life of the Buddha with his disillusionment with the world at age 29, when he was already a husband and a father. The early texts indicate that his name was Siddhartha and that his father, Suddhodana, ruled a small district in the north Indian republic of the Sakyas. This early story indicates that Siddhartha was married at the age of 16 or 17, had a son, and then became disillusioned with the human suffering he saw around him and renounced the world to seek spiritual liberation while leaving his family behind.

Approximately five hundred years after the death of the Buddha, two separate "biographies" were written that contained accumulated legends not only about the miraculous birth of the Buddha but also about the great renunciation. The birth story describes the descent of the Buddha from the heavens as a white elephant who miraculously enters his mother's side and is born nine months later as a fully functioning adultlike child. These biographies describe the Buddha's physical features (captured in religious images and icons) as including the lengthened ears of an aristocrat, a smoothly shaped conical bump on the top of the head indicating his intelligence, and other marks that foretell his later enlightenment.

These latter-day scriptures recount his renunciation of the world in a full-blown, theologized story of encounters with an ill man, a decrepit old man, a dead man, and a religious ascetic. The story of the Buddha's four visions provides a fuller explication of the reasons for his renunciation. Both the birth story confirming the Buddha's sacred origins and the story of the four visions of the Buddha (a rationalization of his renunciation) represent reflective myths that fill in biographical gaps in earlier stories of his life in light of his later enlightened status.

Parallels to the biographical history of the Buddha can be found in the scriptural stories of the miraculous births of Jesus, Mahavira (founder of the Jains), Krishna, Kali, and Muhammad, among others. A similar genre of reflective myths can be found in the creation stories that often are added dozens of years or even centuries after the founding experience. Good examples of this process are the Hebrew creation stories told in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2. God's creation in seven days is the youngest creation story (the priestly story of the seventh century b.c. that is told in Genesis 1:1– 2:4a) and is placed at the beginning of the book of Genesis. It is likely that the Akkadian myth of Tiamat served as a model for this story of the creation of the world out of a watery chaos.

The older Yahwist creation story, found in Genesis 2:4b ff., is set in a desert environment instead of a primeval ocean and very likely goes back to the tenth century b.c. A decidedly more anthropomorphic story, the Yahwist Garden of Eden story, was added at least three to four hundred years after the exodus experience. Neither the priestly story nor the Yahwist story received its present form until the sixth or seventh century b.c., when both were called upon to explicate the creative power of their Hebrew God set against the Canaanites' theology of nature's seasonal birth, death, and rebirth that the Hebrews encountered in Palestine. For the Palestinian farmer, Canaanite or Israelite, the question was, "Is it Yahweh or Baal to whom one should offer sacrifices and give allegiance if one's crops are to prosper?" The two Genesis creation stories explain not only who is responsible for the origin of life on earth but also how one can explain human illness, suffering, and death in the context of the God who led the Hebrews out of Egypt. In Africa and India, the numerous and sometimes contradictory creation stories one finds in a single religious tradition reveal less about the illogical nature of some reflective myths than they do about the human need to have questions of birth, death, suffering, social relationships, and the founding of the tribe placed in the context of a tradition's ultimate reality.

When religious traditions develop full-fledged social institutions, it is common for sacred texts and other interpretative theological texts to explain the necessity of those religious organizations and their officials. Whether it is the early church fathers' explanations of the seat of Peter on which the Pope sits in the Roman Catholic tradition or a Lakota visionary myth that explains the role of the shaman in the community, reflective myths and theologies develop as intellectual and institutional rationalizations for the extension of the founding experiences and tradition into all aspects of life and society. Religious councils, theological traditions, sectarian disputes, and doctrinal formulas all arise as socialized institutions that attempt to explicate, defend, and provide an apology for a religious faith firmly embedded in the personal and social lives of its adherents. For example, Islamic theology extends the influence of the Qur'anic faith into the economic, political, and social lives of the Muslim people. Likewise, from birth and family relationships through wars and death, the Lakota's life was experienced within the sacred hoop.

The extension of religious faith into all aspects of life is justified in scriptures and doctrinal tracts by the reflective process of mythmaking and theologizing. Peter Berger (1969) calls such activity the construction of a nomos. A theological nomos is essentially a socially constructed worldview that attempts to order all of human experience in the context of a sacred reality, whether theistic (e.g., Krishna or Allah) or nontheistic (e.g., Nirvana). Such theological reflection is determined to a great extent by the social and human circumstances that give rise to the questions that must be answered as well as the language and social conventions through which the reflections are expressed. However, Wach reminds us that the prophetic function of religious traditions often shapes the social environment to a religious vision and not simply vice versa. Puritan society in colonial America is an example of religious faith shaping social mores and institutions.


Religious institutions arise as the fullest and most obvious social expression of a religious faith. They are equally the home for the core myths and rituals to be enacted and the loci of the religious communities whose individual and collective needs must be met. Religious institutions vary from formal collectivities such as the Christian church, the Muslim mosque, the Hindu temple, and the Buddhist sangha to their extended representations in festivals and ceremonial events such as weddings and funerals. It is within the social institution that communitas understood as a spiritual leveling of religious adherents exists alongside a religious community in which social differentiation and hierarchies usually persist. Religious institutions are usually the most deeply embedded social aspect of religion, since it is their task to control the external conduct of their members through rites, rituals, and ethical norms while providing an economic and political power base through which they can compete with other social institutions. Simply put, religious institutions are to a great extent socially constructed realities that provide for the habituation and rationalization of religious thought and behavior.

James (1961) viewed the church, synagogue, or other religious organization as a "secondhand" extension of the religious life. In terms of institutional leadership, Abraham Maslow (1970) distinguishes between "prophets" (i.e., those who found the religion) and "legalists" (those who regulate, systematize, and organize religious behavior in institutional forms). Even from this brief discussion of the interrelationships of the primary aspects of the religious life, one can see why Michael Novak says, "Institutions are the normal, natural expression of the human spirit. But that spirit is self-transcending. It is never satisfied with its own finite expressions" (1971, p. 156). According to Novak, the basic conflict is between the human spirit and all institutions.

No religious institution has escaped criticism of its creeds, dogmas, ethics, and authoritative pronouncements from those within the tradition who insist that the essential faith demands revisions of the institution's expressions of that faith. These criticisms give rise not only to reform movements but also to schisms and new sects that emerge as a result of the clash between the received faith in its textual and social forms and the religious experiences and impulses of a reformer or critic within the organization. Martin Luther was a reformer whose critique of his received Roman Catholic heritage was both personal and theological. Similarly, the numerous Buddhist sects that arose in the first hundred years after the death of the Buddha gained their impetus from quarrels over doctrine, lifestyle, and interpretations of the essential nature of the faith. The Sunni and Shi'a (also called Shi'ite) branches of Islam have dozens of contemporary expressions that emanate from a fundamental split in the tradition that occurred shortly after the death of Muhammad and focused on the source of authority for future proclamations in Islam. Typical of other religious traditions, Islam gave early birth to a pietistic mystical tradition, known as Sufism, which has consistently criticized both major theological branches of that religion for their legalistic and worldly focus to the detriment of the nourishment of the spiritual life. The Kabbala is a similar type of mystical reform tradition within Judaism. From one perspective, sectarian and schismatic movements are attempts to recapture the original experience and spirit of a religious tradition in response to institutionalized forms of worship and expression that appear devoid of the core spirit that gave birth to them. Nonetheless, in those cases where the new movement or sect survives its charismatic beginning, it necessarily develops the same institutional forms (religious community, rituals, ethics, etc.) that it rejected in its predecessor and that are experienced by some faithful later generations as too distant from its spiritual foundation and in need of reform. This pattern of dissatisfaction with institutional codifications of religious experience, a time of spiritual innovation or reform, and then institutionalization of the reform is one that continues in all the major religious traditions in the world, producing new sects or, in rare cases, altogether new religious traditions.


The attempt to reform a traditional religion in a given cultural setting sometimes has produced a new religious movement (NRM) that threatens the established norms and values of the host society, not just the established religious institution. Often an NRM emanates from an established religion as a reform or even extension of that tradition. An example is early Christianity, which some Jewish and non-Jewish converts saw as fulfilling Jewish prophecy and others regarded as a dangerous and heretical sect that threatened both the Jewish and the Roman institutions of Jesus' time. When the connection with the established tradition is more tenuous, the new revelation and resulting behavior distance themselves almost immediately from traditional institutional forms. For example, Joseph Smith's discovery of lost tablets of scripture not only "completed" the Christian revelation and scriptures but essentially replaced them. Smith's Mormonism promoted theological (e.g., preeminence of the Book of Mormon), ethical (e.g., polygamy), and other views and practices that were at odds not only with traditional Christian norms and institutions but also with those of American society. Such NRMs often generate considerable opposition from both religious and political authorities who perceive a threat to their worldview and the norms that come from that nomos. In the first century after the death of Jesus, his followers were martyred by Roman authorities who considered them members of an NRM outside the protection of law afforded Jews in the Roman Empire. Likewise, by the end of the nineteenth century in America, the Mormons not only were attacked by their Christian neighbors asheretical "cult" but were for a time denied the legal right to hold property and to marry.

Approximately one hundred years after groups such as the Mormons, the Seventh-Day Adventists, and the Theosophical Society were considered "cults" to be suppressed, a new wave of NRMs (also called "cults") flooded America. Some of those NRMs were essentially splinter groups of Christians (e.g., Jesus movements) whose evangelical fervor and communitarian lifestyle set them apart from more established Christian churches. Other NRMs, such as Scientology, were the imaginative offspring of idiosyncratic founders such as L. Ron Hubbard, a science fiction writer who promised "total freedom" to all who would practice his strict regimen of psychological and spiritual "clearing." Still other NRMs were imports from Asia with gurus such as Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (Transcendental Meditation) and Guru Maharaj Ji (Divine Light Mission) who taught their own particular Hindu meditational paths to enlightenment. One NRM, the Unification Church of Sung Mung Moon, was essentially a syncretistic blend of Christian missionary and Korean folk religious traditions. The Reverend Moon claims to have had a special revelation on Easter Sunday in 1936, when Jesus appeared to him and asked that Moon complete the messiah's work. Moon's revelation led to a new scripture called The Divine Principle, new rituals, and a worldwide mission to unify all Christian and world faiths.

Finally, some of the NRMs of the l960s in America were not "new" at all but instead were traditional faiths of other cultures seeking converts in an American mission field. One such NRMs was the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), more commonly called the Hare Krishnas. While lumped together with other NRMs, the Hare Krishnas practice what is more properly understood as a traditional form of devotional (bhakti) Hinduism centering on the god Krishna. This devotional Hindu faith was brought to America in 1965 by the Hindu sage A. C. Bhaktivedanta Prabhupada. Prabhupada was an acharya, or spiritual teacher, whose lineage traces back to the Krishna reformer Chaitanya in the sixteenth century and whose own guru asked him to bring the Hare Krishna faith to English-speaking people. While adapting his teachings to a foreign culture as all missionaries must, Prabhupada taught the same Indian scriptures (e.g., Bhagavata Purana), rituals (e.g., worship before Krishna images and chanting Krishna's name), religious dress (e.g., saffron robes), and ethics (e.g., vegetarianism and ritual cleanliness) that had been taught by Indian masters for centuries. While the Krishna faith originated over 2,000 years ago, part of what made this religion seem so new and different to American youths and religious institutions was its evangelical missionary and ecstatic devotional elements (e.g., public chanting and dancing), which were innovations of Chaitinya's reform nearly 400 years ago (see Shinn 1987a).

Whatever the origin or character of NRMs, they represent external challenges to established religions in much the same way that sectarian reforms represent internal challenges. From the point of view of formative religious experiences, NRMs offer alternative spiritual paths to religious seekers who do not find spiritual satisfaction in their natal or traditional religious institutions (Ellwood 1973; Richardson 1985; Shinn 1993). The host society's response to NRMs often reveals the extent to which that society's secular or religious institutions satisfy the needs of its populace (Robbins and Anthony 1981; Barker 1982; Wilson 1981). When religious institutions have stagnated or strayed from their spiritual source, challenges and alternatives arise from within. Likewise, evangelical and missionary ventures from religions around the world take whatever opportunity they are given to provide alternative paths to spiritual fulfillment.


One tendency of insitutionalized religious traditions is to seek to become world religions. The impetus to spread a religion throughout the world sometimes comes from the exclusivistic theological claims that assert the superiority of one faith over another (e.g., Christianity and Islam). Some religious traditions actively seek less to convert others than to assimilate other religions into their own theology and practice (e.g., Hinduism). Still others spread to other lands and cultures after being forced out of their homelands (e.g., Judaism and Buddhism). The broad reach of world religions has resulted in multifaith societies such as India (e.g., Hinduism, Islam, Sikkhism, and Jainism), China (e.g., Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism), and the United States (e.g., Christianity, Judaism, and Islam), where different religions have coexisted for centuries. What can one expect of the interaction of world religions as rapid communications and travel bring people and their religious faiths face to face in ever greater numbers in the twenty-first century?

First, it should be expected that wherever religious institutions are interwoven with political and cultural institutions, resistance to or rejection of other world faiths will occur. This tendency will be exacerbated in areas where religious fundamentalism is the dominant voice. Islamic states such as Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan reveal how religious institutions are interwoven with political institutions in ways that suppress tolerance of other faiths. Adding tribal or ethnic loyalties to the mix only increases the difficulty of achieving interreligious tolerance and harmony. The Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, the Bosnian Muslims and Serbian Christians in Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Tamil Hindus and Singhalese Buddhists in Sri Lanka all represent inseparable blends of political, ethnic, and religious exclusivity. Therefore, one mode of interaction of world religions will be intolerance of and sometimes violence toward other faiths created to a great extent by the socialization of religious institutions by the nationalistic and ethnic norms of the people and cultures they intend to save.

Second, in areas where religions have coexisted for a long time, it is common for accommodations and even assimilation to occur that reflect the common home. For example, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam have coexisted for more than nine hundred years in India, and in spite of their sometimes violent interactions, remarkable innovations have occurred. Leaders from the Muslim King Akbar to the Hindu sage Gandhi have sought to bring about mutual respect among the religions of India and all the world. Likewise, devotional Hinduism historically has often bridged religious divides by inviting people of all faiths and castes to join in its worship. In the case of Sikhism, Guru Nanck blended devotional Hindu traditions with certain Islamic tenets to form a syncretistic new faith in the sixteenth century. A similar phenomenon occurred in Iran, where Zoroastrian and Islamic roots gave rise in the nineteenth century to the Baha'i faith, which incorporates the scriptures and symbols of all the major world religions into a new syncretistic religion. While the birth of such new syncretistic world religions is rare, what does occur often—and probably will increase—is the adoption of ideas (e.g., reincarnation and impersonal divinity) and practices (e.g., vegetarianism and meditation) from one faith by persons of another faith.

Third, some religious individuals and institutions will continue to seek dialogue with and understanding of persons of other faiths while maintaining their own religious ideas and practices. For example, Mahatma Gandhi was deeply influenced by the Christian and Muslim scriptures and near the end of his life sought peace between Hindus and Muslims when few others could rise above communal loyalties. Still, when shot by an assassin, Gandhi uttered the name of his Hindu family divinity, Rama. Gandhi appreciated the teachings and practices of other world religions but died a Hindu. In a similar fashion, the Buddhist Sarvodaya Movement in Sri Lanka borrows liberally from Gandhi's ideas and disciples even as it embeds its work in Buddhist ideas and practices. So too the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., learned the rudiments of nonviolent action from Gandhi's teachings while situating them within his Christian theology and faith. Thus, even when certain ideas are transferred from one faith to another out of respectful dialogue and interaction, it is common for one's native tradition to remain at the core of one's thought and action.

On a more formal level, there have been many attempts at interfaith dialogue in which the formulation of a common theology (i.e., "perrienal philosophy") or practice for all religions has been sought (see Shinn 1987b). The Christian Trappist monk Thomas Merton spent many of the last years of his life reading about and having a dialogue with persons of other faiths. He was accidentally killed in Bangkok, Thailand, during an interfaith conference with Christian, Buddhist, and other monks from Asia. Most efforts at interfaith dialogue arise when individuals seek to understand their own faith better and to transcend the institutional reflections of a limited time and place. Both formal and informal dialogues are certain to increase as "the global village" becomes a reality and world religions become increasingly familiar in all lands.


Clifford Geertz argues that each world religion is essentially "(1) a system of symbols which acts (2) to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivation in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic" (1968, p. 1). This socio-anthropological definition of religion embraces in a clear and simple fashion most of the interpretation of underlying relationships that this article has described. Any religion, whether established or new, is a system of symbols that simultaneously attempts to express and reveal dimensions of sacred experience beyond that of the everyday by using socially conditioned language and conceptions. Likewise, the general order of existence (nomos) that is formulated in the myths, rituals, and ethical norms of a religious tradition emerges from the social consciousness, communal norms, and shared conceptions of the community which give rise to those elements. Finally, what Berger calls "legitimation" and Geertz calls "factuality" represent nothing other than broad-based social acceptance of certain religious beliefs. Consequently, from their inception in religious experience to their full social expression in concrete institutions, religious traditions involve an interplay between personal and social forces. No aspect—experiential, mythical, ritual, ethical, doctrinal, or institutional—of any of the world's religious traditions escapes some social conditioning, and no culture or society is left unchallenged by its religious expressions and lifestyles.


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Larry D. Shinn

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