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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Now displaying: February, 2015
Feb 26, 2015

Our quote for today is from Eliezer Berkovits. He said, "The foundation of religion is not the affirmation that God is, but that God is concerned with man and the world; that, having created the world, he has not abandoned it, leaving it to its own devices; that he cares for his creation."

In this podcast, we are making our way through Garry R. Morgan's book, "Understanding World Religions in 15 Minutes a Day."

Our Understanding World Religions topic for today is, "The Historical Development of Judaism"

What makes a person Jewish? This seemingly basic question is not so easy to answer, even for Jewish people. 

For most particular faiths described in this book, a person identifies either by birth—into a family belonging to that religion—or by adherence (even nominally) to its beliefs and practices. While that is true for some Jewish people, many who identify as Jewish practice no religion, or practice one other than Judaism. So for some, being Jewish is more about ethnicity or family traditions than religious beliefs. Generally, if one has a Jewish mother, one is considered Jewish. On the other hand, a few people who are not ethnically Jewish convert to Judaism through profession of belief in its teachings. 

So what follows is primarily a description of the religion. Many who self-identify as Jewish do not hold these beliefs or follow these practices. 

Feb 18, 2015

Our quote for today is from Desmond Tutu. He said, "God's dream is that you and I and all of us will realize that we are family, that we are made for togetherness, for goodness, and for compassion."

In this podcast, we are making our way through Garry R. Morgan's book, "Understanding World Religions in 15 Minutes a Day." 

Our Understanding World Religions topic for today is, "African Traditional Religions" 

In terms of adherents, the largest animistic family is the African Traditional religions. Africa contains fifty-plus countries and more than one thousand different people groups, each with its own religious variations on the animistic theme. Here, too, generalizations are possible, with exceptions. 

African Traditional religions have proven exceptionally resilient in the face of modernization. As Christianity and Islam spread across Africa, it was widely predicted that traditional religions would disappear by the end of the twentieth century. On the contrary, though a majority of today's Africans claim to be either Christian or Muslim, traditional religions are widely practiced. Both monotheistic religions face the problem of nominalism (from Latin, meaning "in name only"). Syncretism and parallelism are pervasive.


Feb 12, 2015

Our quote for today is from Luther Standing Bear. He said, "Out of the Indian approach to life there came a great freedom, an intense and absorbing respect for life, enriching faith in a Supreme Power, and principles of truth, honesty, generosity, equity and brotherhood as a guide to mundane relations."

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. And, I want to remind you to take advantage of our special offer. If you enjoy this podcast, please feel free to purchase a copy of the book that we are using -- "Understanding World Religions in 15 Minutes a Day" by Garry R. Morgan. It is available on our website for just $20. You can make your purchase today at

Our topic for today is, "Native American Religions" 

Like all animistic religions, Native American religions (NARs) provide a variety of beliefs and practices that make generalizations challenging. Thus it is necessary to speak in the plural of Native religions. Depending on where they have settled, the various Native American people groups, or tribes, have made their living through agriculture, pastoral tending of livestock, or hunting and gathering. Some have lived in settled towns or small cities. Others have lived nomadically, following herds of buffalo or other wild game. One consequence has been an assortment of religious expressions and rituals. 

Another factor inhibiting description of these religions is that in most cases Native Americans left no written records of life before the arrival of European immigrants. Written sources, therefore, usually have been produced by outside observers of Native life, which inserts a non-Native worldview into depictions and explanations, even when the writer strives to avoid bias. Many early sources, unfortunately, did not even attempt neutrality but describe these religions in negative terms. 

Finally, Native American interactions with European settlers from the seventeenth century onward resulted in extensive conversion, at least outwardly, to Christianity. By the mid-twentieth century, most Native people professed to be Christian, though many mixed traditional practices with their new faith. Since 1960, there has been a massive resurgence of interest in Native culture and religions, with a subsequent reversal of the number of Native Americans professing Christianity. However, we cannot always know whether today's post-Christian Native practices and rituals are the same as they were before interaction with Europeans. 

One applicable generalization is that Native American religions have a strong emphasis on the spirit world, something they share with the rest of the huge animistic category. But specific beliefs about its traits vary. Some Native tribes have worship rituals of key spirits such as Mother Earth, thunder and/or lightning, and guardian spirits; these might be considered polytheistic, since they lack one central deity. Many other tribes, however, believe in a Great Spirit or Creator Spirit who exists above the rest of the spirit world. This spirit may be impersonal, leading to Deism, or personal and so more monotheistic in nature. Still others see this Great Spirit as a divine force in nature and, accordingly, are more pantheistic in outlook. 

Another generally valid observation is that Native peoples highly value living in balance with the natural environment. While traditionally this was a physical necessity, it also found and continues today to find validity in their respect for the spirits they believe live in the natural realm. There have been exceptions on both sides, but among the most common sources of conflict between Native American and European American cultures has been disparity in how the land and nature are treated. As European settlement moved west across the continent, the cutting of forests, plowing of the soil, and decimation of buffalo herds and other game were viewed by Native peoples as a physical encroachment on their livelihood and an attack upon the spirits that were the providers of and even dwellers in those natural resources. 

The focus of Native religions, even for believers in a Great Spirit or Creator, is not typically on that central deity (as in monotheistic religions), but rather on the surrounding spirit world that is believed to impact daily life. As with other animistic systems, maintaining good relations with the spirit realm is at the core of most beliefs and practices. Again, these religions are often described as practical, as they deal primarily with the pragmatic present. 

Because the spirits are nearby and have certain demands or requirements in order to keep relationships with humans, it is possible to offend them, with negative consequences for individuals or even entire communities. Therefore, taboos are a common feature. In Western culture, this term is often used for actions prohibited on social, moral, or ethical grounds. In Native religions, taboos are behavioral requirements or prohibitions such that doing (or not doing) them would upset the balance of nature, bring negative magical power into individuals, or offend the spirits. Taboos are rigidly enforced, since failure to follow them may bring disastrous corporate consequences. 

Native American religions rarely have priests or other full-time leaders. Everyone participates at some level. A few may have closer relationships with the spirit world and thus have ability or spiritual insight that benefits the community, most commonly in the form of healing. These medicine men (or women), as they were called by European observers, hold significant power but also great responsibility for the community's well-being. 

The usual purpose of the many types of rituals and ceremonies is to draw the physical and spiritual worlds closer together. A familiar goal is that humans may obtain strength, endurance, or wisdom from one or more spirits. The best-known ritual for an individual is the Vision Quest, which, in some tribes, may be done by anyone needing special spiritual assistance, though they're most common for young men (occasionally young women) as part of entrance into adulthood. The quest typically involves isolation from the community and fasting for several days. The aim is to receive a vision of an animal (visually representing a particular spirit) that becomes the person's totem, believed then to guard and guide him or her throughout the rest of life. 

The most common group ceremonies involve dancing and drumming, activities intended to help humans become more open to the spirit world. Dances may go on for hours or even days as the dancers disengage from the everyday world and seek communion with the spirits. Today, powwows are becoming increasingly common and nearly always include dancing. For some, this is more about recovering their culture than a religious exercise, but, again, Native peoples characteristically do not separate the sacred from the secular. 

Beliefs regarding the afterlife are variable, but generally Native people do not fear dying. Most believe there is a place to which one's spirit goes at death. For some this is a happy place; for others it contains sadness. Usually people's spirits are considered to abide in this other plane of existence as long as they are remembered by those still living. As they are forgotten, their spirit gradually fades from existence. 

Now, for An Extra Minute 

Native American religions are seeing a resurgence of interest on the part of both Natives and non-Natives (usually those exploring New Age religions). Attendance at powwows has soared, and Natives knowledgeable about traditional practices are in great demand. While some Natives are pleased that outsiders are interested, many others are concerned that more will be lost than gained. Some Native religious teachers have been known to alter symbols and practices slightly when teaching non-Natives. 

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.