Ways of Being Religious

The features that characterize religions—such as a supernatural component, a related set of ethical codes and prohibitions, ritual, a problem-solution structure, agency, a grand narrative, commitment, and mystical experiences—should be balanced against the incredible variation observed in religious behaviors and beliefs throughout the world. In addition, religion as practiced needs to be viewed as multifaceted, going beyond stated “theologically correct” beliefs to include reasoning processes which are more automatic and less accessible to consciousness (Alogna et al., 2019; Barrett & Keil, 1996). Religious actions can be carried out in an unreflective manner, much like other cultural behaviors. Shinto practices in Japan are a particularly good example of this (Reid, 1997), and as a result, some Japanese people feel uncomfortable describing Shinto practices as markers of religiosity, preferring instead to view them as cultural expressions that bring people together. As in many religions, some of the more popular practices of Shinto appear to be transactional in nature, with adherents donating money and following ritual to gain some material benefit, whether it be good exam results, a bountiful harvest, or, in the case of one shrine in Kyoto, a good head of hair. Such forms of religious observance are common in most religious communities, ranging from Roman Catholicism to Buddhism, as can be seen in the ubiquitous requests for blessings, amulets, charms, fortune tellers, and various tailored services throughout much of the world.

In other cases, being religious means adherence to a highly organized set of rules or practices that demand high levels of extended and intense commitment. In some cases, religions call on adherents to forswear material gain and make great personal sacrifice in order to refine their character and attain spiritual rewards. Religious organizations may have rigidly fixed notions of truth, a concomitant zeal to protect the pure teachings from impurity and heresy, and a requirement of absolute adherence to a specific interpretation of the divine. Truth is often perceived in binary terms as an objective reality with a clear line between orthodox interpretation of sacred doctrine and all other possible variants. Religious practice, when viewed through this lens, tends to produce close-knit communities with explicit criteria for membership and a clear perception of the differences in the attitudes and behavior of members and nonmembers. Such tightly fused groups can be highly successful when in competition with other groups (Norenzayan, 2013).

In still other cases, individuals or groups may emerge with a markedly divergent orientation to spiritual practice, characterized by a focus on direct, unmediated experience of a divine entity or ultimate unseen reality. Material, social, and rigid doctrinal conventions may then be backgrounded, flouted or subverted. In many cases, these mystical forms of religious practice embrace paradoxical conceptions while actively resisting codification and categorization, in addition to foregrounding notions of divine union and the dissolution of individual self and identity. Within conservative communities, these mystical orientations may evoke awe, suspicion, or even extreme levels of intolerance and hostility.

These three ways of being religious can be thought of as three points along fluid, intersecting continuums, representing soft assemblies of specific characteristics that can become foregrounded or backgrounded in different contexts and with shifting degrees of cohesion. It may be possible for an individual, at different points in their life and even over the course of a single day, to entertain or express all three of these forms of religiosity.

The emphasis in this book is on the everyday thoughts and practices of religious adherents rather than the sectarian distinctions and distilled doctrines of the religions they practice. All the above types are often present in a single religion or can be found across a myriad of religions. The diverse ways of thinking they represent therefore highlight the fuzzy boundaries between religions and the similarities that can dynamically emerge across divides. Similarities may even be found between believers from distinct religions who, nonetheless, have many religious conceptualizations and practices in common.

At the same time, believers from the same religion can display marked differences by conceptualizing religion in highly distinct ways, even though they make use of similar labels. When religious belief is considered in terms of its fundamental conceptualizations rather than through conventional designations and visible trappings, the boundaries between religions, or variants of the same religion, often blur. Therefore, this book will avoid statements that characterize, for example, Islam as X and Christianity as Y, and it will instead focus squarely on cognition and language—such as how a particular Muslim or Christian in a certain context and time characterizes their experience.

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