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Understanding World Religions

Religion is the driving force behind much of what happens in the world today -- particularly when it comes to the "big three" religions -- Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Religious differences have and continue to spark wars, create nations, and spawn ongoing conflict down through the centuries. No matter what religion you adhere to (or even if you claim that you don't adhere to any religion at all), you need to have a basic understanding of the world's religions in order to understand what is happening in the world today so that you can be better informed and a more useful citizen of your nation and of the world. Without some knowledge of religion, you will not understand the underpinnings of what is happening in an increasingly global society.
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Understanding World Religions
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Feb 5, 2015

Our quote for today is from Albert Einstein. He said, "My religion consists of a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble mind."

In this podcast, we are making our way through Garry R. Morgan's book, "Understanding World Religions in 15 Minutes a Day." Garry Morgan is a Professor of Intercultural Studies at Northwestern College. He served with World Venture for 20 years in Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, and Tanzania. 

Our topic for today is, "Animism and Folk Religions" 

Animism, from the Latin anima, meaning "breath" or "spirit," is an umbrella term for a global family of thousands of religions. In textbooks, they're often called "basic religions," based on the evolutionary assumption that in human development animistic religions came first, then polytheistic, followed eventually by monotheistic (and today by atheistic). They're also known as traditional religions, since many followers see their practices as cultural traditions, in contrast to more formally organized faiths (such as Christianity or Islam). These religions rarely have written scriptures or sacred writings; beliefs and practices are passed along orally from one generation to the next. 

The label “tribal religions” represents two features: First, the cultural groups most commonly thought of as practicing animistic religion are remote tribes that still have minimal contact with the rest of the world (such as South American Indian tribes in the Amazon jungles, or the isolated tribes of Papua New Guinea). Second, each group sees their religious beliefs and practices as exclusive to their own tribe. There is no thought that other people from different cultural groups ought to believe in the same spirits they serve. 

However, the idea that only tribal groups practice animistic religion is a common mistake. Folk religion describes animistic beliefs and practices that are adapted into one of the formal world religions. Examples include spiritism in Brazilian Catholicism, Muslim prayers offered at the tombs of sheiks and martyrs, and the occult practices of Tibetan Buddhism. 

In fact, all major religions have some followers who practice animistic rituals alongside formal activities. These may happen undercover, when the formal religion prohibits such activities, or they may be incorporated into the formal structure and ritual in a process called syncretism. Folk religion has a significant impact on billions of people who self-identify with Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, or one of the other major religions. Additionally, many New Age religions, although typically based on the Hindu concepts of karma and reincarnation, also include beliefs and practices related to animism, as do the rapidly growing Neopagan religions. 

The animistic belief system is phenomenally pervasive; conservatively, 40 percent of the earth's population holds some form of animistic belief Some textbooks just a half century ago predicted the dying out of animistic religions by the year 2000, as Western-style education progressed in developing nations. In actuality, there has been a resurgence of interest in this manner of connecting or dealing with the spirit world. 

Not even the modernized West is exempt. Some Americans who profess to be Christian and attend church regularly believe the number thirteen is unlucky, won't walk under ladders, and seek four-leaf clovers for good luck. These practices are vestiges of European, pre-Christian animism. 

How could such a vast variety of religious expression ever be joined together under one label? Well, despite tremendous differences in outward form, all animistic groups share certain common beliefs about the nature of the world. Animists believe the world is filled with spiritual powers. These may be personal spirit beings, such as ancestral spirits or nature-dwelling spirits. They may be impersonal forces, like Fate or the Evil Eye. Often it is a combination of several or all of these. These spiritual forces are believed to have influence, if not outright control, over people and events. Therefore, the animist's goal is to find out what spirits or forces are at work so that steps can be taken to protect oneself from harm and harness spiritual power for one's benefit. Manipulating the spirit world to obtain power or influence is at the core of this worldview. 

Many educated people today, even religious ones, deride animistic beliefs as mere superstition, which implies that the spirit world isn't real. However, the scriptures of the formal world religions, including the Bible, acknowledge the reality of spiritual powers. Denial of the spiritual realm comes out of a rationalistic mindset, not formal religious belief. 

Most animistic religions acknowledge the existence of a high creator god, but he is considered to be distant and unapproachable, perhaps even aloof to humans and their problems. It is the spirits that are near, active, and involved, and thus they must be dealt with to avoid or repair calamity and to gain power for achieving goals. Unlike the Holy Spirit of the Christian faith, these spirits are not considered to be God (or equal to God). 

Though some of these beings are believed to be the spirits of recently departed ancestors, they're rarely regarded as benevolent or loving toward humans. At best, they're neutral; they may even be considered malevolent. Although believers may sometimes approach spirits proactively for help with life issues (such as doing well on a test or getting a job), most animistic rituals are in response to a problem (such as illness or drought), and involve divining which spirit or spirits are causing the particular calamity so that they can be appeased and convinced to stop causing the issue. In some cases, the ritual might involve calling on a stronger spirit to drive out a weaker spirit. 

animistic religions are generally pragmatic in the sense of focusing on the here-and-now; daily life matters more than eternal destiny or life after death. When an animistic culture has adopted a formal religion, a parallel form of religious practice is common. People claim to be Christian or Muslim and attend church or mosque for matters of the next life, but retain animistic rituals to deal with matters of this life. In our next two broadcasts, we will take a more detailed looks at two animistic groupings: Native American religions and African Traditional religions. 

Now, for An Extra Minute 

Some people incorrectly use the word “pagan” to refer to a nonreligious person. Historically, and conversely, Paganism was the name given to the ancient European animistic (in some cases, polytheistic) religions preceding the arrival of Christianity from the Middle East. Neopaganism is now a growing movement that seeks to revive these religions with something of a New Age twist. Some practitioners aim to accurately restore the old traditions to look and be just as they were in the past; others are more eclectic and advocate reconstruction. Either way, a pagan is a religious person. 

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