religion 4047


April 29, 2021

Religion, sacred engagement with that which is believed to be a spiritual reality. Religion is a worldwide phenomenon that has played a part in all human culture and so is a much broader, more complex category than the set of beliefs or practices found in any single religious tradition. An adequate understanding of religion must take into account its distinctive qualities and patterns as a form of human experience, as well as the similarities and differences in religions across human cultures.

In all cultures, human beings make a practice of interacting with what are taken to be spiritual powers. These powers may be in the form of gods, spirits, ancestors, or any kind of sacred reality with which humans believe themselves to be connected. Sometimes a spiritual power is understood broadly as an all-embracing reality (see Pantheism), and sometimes it is approached through its manifestation in special symbols. It may be regarded as external to the self, internal, or both. People interact with such a presence in a sacred manner—that is, with reverence and care. Religion is the term most commonly used to designate this complex and diverse realm of human experience.


The word religion is derived from the Latin noun religio, which denotes both earnest observance of ritual obligations and an inward spirit of reverence. In modern usage, religion covers a wide spectrum of meanings that reflect the enormous variety of ways the term can be interpreted. At one extreme, many committed believers recognize only their own tradition as a religion, understanding expressions such as worship and prayer to refer exclusively to the practices of their tradition. Although many believers stop short of claiming an exclusive status for their tradition, they may nevertheless use vague or idealizing terms in defining religion—for example, “true love of God,” or “the path of enlightenment.” At the other extreme, religion may be equated with ignorance, fanaticism, or wishful thinking.

By defining religion as a sacred engagement with what is taken to be a spiritual reality, it is possible to consider the importance of religion in human life without making claims about what it really is or ought to be. Religion is not an object with a single, fixed meaning, or even a zone with clear boundaries. It is an aspect of human experience that may intersect, incorporate, or transcend other aspects of life and society. Such a definition avoids the drawbacks of limiting the investigation of religion to Western or biblical categories such as monotheism (belief in one god only) or to church structure, which are not universal. For example, in tribal societies, religion—unlike the Christian church—usually is not a separate institution but pervades the whole of public and private life. In Buddhism, gods are not as central as the idea of a Buddha (fully enlightened human being). In many traditional cultures the idea of a sacred cosmic order is the most prominent religious belief. Because of this variety, some scholars prefer to use a general term such as the sacred to designate the common foundation of religious life.

Religion in this understanding includes a complex of activities that cannot be reduced to any single aspect of human experience. It is a part of individual life but also of group dynamics. Religion includes patterns of behavior but also patterns of language and thought. It is sometimes a highly organized institution that sets itself apart from a culture, and it is sometimes an integral part of a culture. Religious experience may be expressed in visual symbols, dance and performance, elaborate philosophical systems, legendary and imaginative stories, formal ceremonies, meditative techniques, and detailed rules of ethical conduct and law. Each of these elements assumes innumerable cultural forms. In some ways there are as many forms of religious expression as there are human cultural environments.


When the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in 1963 against the practice of prayer in public schools, it recommended at the same time that the study of religion should be part of every student’s education. In Europe, new materials for the study of religion were gathered when European explorers first began to make extensive contact with non-Western cultures. Over the past four centuries, innumerable philosophers, anthropologists, sociologists, and psychologists have proposed theories of religion. The common factor in their various perspectives is the perception that religion need not be studied from a sectarian or partisan standpoint but may be approached impartially, as a subject for scholarly investigation.

A Antiquity

The first recorded Western attempts to understand and document religious phenomena were made by the Greeks and Romans. As early as the 6th century bc, Greek philosopher Xenophanes noted that different cultures visualized the gods in different ways. In the following century, Greek historian Herodotus recorded the wide range of religious practices he encountered in his travels, comparing the religious observances of various cultures, such as sacrifice and worship, with their Greek equivalents. Roman historians Julius Caesar and Cornelius Tacitus similarly recorded the rites and customs of peoples that they met on their military campaigns.

B Ages of Exploration and Enlightenment

Although the systematic study of religions did not emerge until the latter half of the 19th century, the groundwork was laid in the three preceding centuries. In the 16th century, Western knowledge of other cultures increased dramatically through extensive trade and exploration. Explorers and missionaries reported in detail on the range of religious beliefs and practices around the world. As a result, a great deal of traditional bias against non-Christian religions was challenged as early as the 16th and 17th centuries.

In the Age of Enlightenment (early and mid-18th century), thinkers took a special interest in what they termed natural religion—the inborn capacity of all humans to arrive at a belief in the existence of a supreme being and to act on that belief. To thinkers of the Enlightenment, natural religion compared favorably with the supernatural religion of the Bible. For example, French philosopher Voltaire condemned the social effects of revealed religion (religion that is communicated through supernatural authorities such as prophets or sacred scriptures), and German philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder argued that every culture possesses a unique spirit that is part of its religion and its language. In a critique of biblical history, Scottish philosopher David Hume demonstrated the historical difficulties involved in tracing all human cultures to the offspring of the biblical patriarch Noah or in asserting that monotheism is the original form of religion.

C The 19th and 20th Centuries

In the mid-19th century, German scholar Friedrich Max Müller, who has been called the father of comparative religion, became the most prominent advocate of historical and linguistic analysis in the study of religion. Beginning in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the scriptures of many non-Western traditions had been translated and published, offering a view of faiths that previously had been inaccessible. In addition, archaeological excavations had revealed new features—including some scriptural texts—of previously obscure religions, such as those of the ancient Middle East. Presented with this mass of information, Müller undertook a critical, historically based investigation of world religious traditions. Although his approach emphasized the view that all traditions were the product of historical development, Müller believed comparative study would demonstrate that every religion possessed some measure of truth.

By the end of the 19th century, scholars were making religion an object of systematic inquiry. Müller’s comparative approach was adopted in many European and Japanese universities, and as a result the common features of world religions (such as gods, prayer, priesthood, and creation myths) were the subjects of sustained scholarly investigation. In addition, field anthropologists had begun to compile firsthand accounts of the religions of peoples who previously had been dismissed as savages. The study of tribal religions contributed a great deal to the general analysis of the role of religion in human societies.

By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, scholars had begun to pose basic questions about the origin and development of religious ideas. Scholars questioned how religion began and the stages of its evolution. Some maintained that it originated with a belief in spirits (animism), then evolved into the notion that there were many gods (polytheism), and ultimately emerged as the ideal of a single god (monotheism). Others held that religion began in a sense of awe at the impressive activities of nature (see Nature Worship), in a feeling of reverence for the spirits of the dead (see Ancestor Worship), or in an attempt to overcome mortality (see Immortality). Many other important questions about the nature of religion were addressed during this period: Can religion be divided into so-called primitive and higher types? Is religion a product of psychological needs and projections? Is it a function of political and social control? Such questions have continued to generate a large number of theories.


Religious life reflects an individual’s attempt to live in accordance with the precepts of a religious tradition. For example, Buddhists imitate the Buddha; Christians strive to be Christ-like (see Jesus Christ); and followers of the mystical Dao (or Tao, the Chinese term for the ultimate way of the universe) practice noninterference with the natural course of things (see Daoism). Religious experience also reflects the variety of cultural expressions in general: It can be formal or spontaneous, solemn or festive, hierarchical or egalitarian; it can emphasize submission or liberation; it can be devotional or contemplative; it can involve fear or joy; it can be comforting or disruptive; it can encourage reliance on powers outside oneself or on personal responsibility.

The idea that sacredness is an individual experience and the idea that it is influenced by environmental factors are not necessarily in conflict. Religious life is given distinctive form both by the power of a community’s social bonds and its traditional objects of veneration, and by an individual’s personal interaction with those objects. In addition, mythic language and ritual serve as a focus for religious experience. The attempt to isolate the distinctive qualities of religion can be seen in the work of a number of influential thinkers. Considered together, these approaches offer a representative picture of the ways in which modern investigators have understood the place of the sacred in human life.

A Religion as a Function of Society

In many cases, the things that people consider sacred are determined by the community to which they belong. The holiest things in the world to one group—its gods, saviors, scriptures, or sacraments—are not necessarily seen as sacred absolutes by another group. The notion that sacredness is a value that a given society places on objects, that such objects shape and generate the religious feelings of its members, and that religiousness is therefore a function of social belonging was first suggested by French sociologist Émile Durkheim. According to his classic theory, set forth in Les Formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse: Le système totemique en Australie (1912; translated as The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, 1965), the distinguishing mark of religion in its most basic form is not belief in divinity or in the supernatural but the existence of objects considered to be sacred by a group of people.

In Durkheim’s view, it is the authority and beliefs of a society that make things sacred or nonsacred (in his terminology, profane). Religion is consequently best understood neither as the result of supernatural revelation (although Durkheim recognizes that this may be a personal view held by the member of a religion), nor as an illusion or set of mistaken ideas (which might be the viewpoint of a skeptical outsider who does not accept the religious beliefs). Rather, religion is best understood as the power of a society to make things sacred or profane in the lives of its individual members. According to Durkheim, the social and religious power of sacredness are one and the same, since to hold something sacred is to demonstrate one’s commitment to and respect for the authority of one’s tradition.

Sacred things are those objects and symbols, including principles and beliefs, that must be preserved from violation because they represent all that is of most value to the community. All cultures hold something sacred. In secular Western societies, the sacred might be embodied in certain principles, such as individual rights, freedom, justice, or equality. In Durkheim’s view, therefore, religion is not a matter of claims about the universe that are either true or false, but is the normal way that a society constructs and maintains its cherished tradition and moral values.

B Religion as Numinous Experience

A very different approach, emphasizing individual experience, was developed by German theologian Rudolf Otto. In Das Heilige (1917; The Idea of the Holy, 1958), Otto argues that the experience of the numinous (Latin numen,”spiritual power”) is the distinctive core of religiousness. Such experience is marked by a sense of awe in the face of the mysterious other reality that dramatically intersects our limited, vulnerable existence. According to Otto, it is this reality that religious traditions symbolize by concepts such as God. The numinous can be experienced as something fearful and alienating, but also as something comforting with which one feels a certain communion or continuity. Religious ideas such as the wrath of God or the peace of God express these different aspects of numinous experience. In Otto’s view, the capacity for such awareness lies within each person, and it is the purpose of religious language and observance to shape and elicit this awareness. In formulating this approach, Otto followed in the tradition of earlier thinkers such as German theologian and philosopher Friedrich Schleiermacher. In his book Über die Religion: Reden an die Gebildeten unter ihren Verächtern (1799; On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers, 1893), Schleiermacher argued that religiousness is only secondarily a matter of doctrine or morality; he claimed that it is primarily a matter of intuitive feeling, an immediate experience that was prior to language itself, and a sense of the infinite.

C Religion as an Individual Phenomenon

For many people, religion is best understood at the level of individual spiritual life. An influential book employing this approach is The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), by American philosopher and psychologist William James. James attempted to study all the different forms that religious experience can take, from extreme asceticism (practice of self-denial) and mystical union with the divine, to modern techniques of positive thinking. He gave special attention to conversion experiences, or life-changing encounters with spiritual forces.

James documented his study with hundreds of cases in which individuals reported that they had experienced contact with something divine or transcendent and that their lives had been changed decisively. Many of these episodes came in the form of a sudden and unsolicited consciousness of spiritual unity or insight. They were mystical experiences and were ineffable (incapable of being described in words). James also hypothesized the existence of a wider, subconscious dimension of the self that could help account for the source of apparently supernatural visions, voices, and revelations. The notion of a creative unconscious, understood as an element of the mind surrounding the individual ego and often expressed through religious symbols, was also described by the influential Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung.

D Religion as Experience Mediated by the Sacred

Romanian scholar Mircea Eliade, who taught at the University of Chicago from 1957 to 1985, emphasized that religious people experience the ordinary world differently from nonreligious people because they view it as a sacred place. In Eliade’s view, believing in the divine foundations of life transforms the significance of natural objects and activities. He believed that for homo religiosus (Latin for “religious man,” a term used by Eliade to designate a person who lives according to a religious worldview), time, space, the earth, the sky, and the human body can all come to have a symbolic, religious meaning. Like Rudolf Otto, Eliade held that the study of religion must not reduce its subject matter to something merely social or psychological, but must take seriously the idea that in the believer’s world the experience of sacredness defines a distinctive reality.

For Eliade, myth and ritual represent the central language by means of which religious worlds are structured (see Mythology). In his approach, myth is not merely fiction or folktale but the powerful words and stories that recount the actions of gods and founders and the guidelines they set down for human life. In this sense, myth describes not what is simply fantastic but what is most real, naming the spiritual forces that established the world and that continue to permeate it. Religion has its own language to describe the spiritual order of the universe, just as science has its descriptions of the physical world. Moreover, the purpose of describing the divine time of origins is not only to provide an explanation for how the world began, but also to provide a reference point—in a sense, a script—for living in the present world. Religious people aspire to live in the time of divine origins: For observing Jews, Friday night is not only Friday night, but also the beginning of the Sabbath as instituted by the Creator at the beginning of time; and for observing Christians, Christmas becomes the time of the birth of Christ. Ritual times and places create opportunities for religious people to come into contact with the sacred and its regenerative power.


When religion is observed across many cultures, certain common themes and patterns of activity appear. Significant differences within those patterns are also evident.

A Sacred Histories

Most religious systems are organized around certain past events and models. Each religion has its own account of the history of the world—the great time when gods, creators, sages, ancestors, saviors, founders, or heroes established or revealed the essential elements of the religion. These collective memories are ordinarily preserved in carefully maintained oral traditions or in the classic accounts known as scriptures or sacred writings. In Christian histories, the key event of the past is the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, whose teachings, death, and resurrection set the model for the meaning of Christian life. In Judaism the great time was the Exodus (the flight from Egypt under Moses) and the subsequent receiving of the Law at Mount Sinai (see Ten Commandments). The enlightenment experience of the Buddha and the revelation of the Qur’an (Koran) (Islamic scripture) to the prophet Muhammad are defining events in Buddhism and Islam, respectively. The Islamic calendar begins with the birth of Islam in ad 622 (see Hegira), the Christian calendar begins with the birth of Christ, and the Jewish calendar begins with the biblical time of the Creation itself.

B Renewal Observances

Religions provide for continual renewal by setting aside special times for their adherents to recollect and demonstrate what they hold sacred. These occasions may take place annually, monthly, weekly, daily, or even hourly. Muslims are expected to pause for prayer at five different times every day, and during the holy month of Ramadan—which honors the month when the Qur’an was first revealed—they are expected to observe a fast (see Fasting) every day from sunrise to sunset. For Jews, the High Holy Days—a ten-day period in autumn celebrating the new year and concluding with the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement)—is a major time of spiritual renewal, as is Passover in the spring. Jews dedicate the seventh, or Sabbath, day to recalling the divine basis of life. Christians follow a similar seven-day cycle but give special prestige to Sunday, honoring the day of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which, according to the Christian scriptures, occurred on the first day of the week. Every religion, large or small, has regular major festivals and observances that celebrate and display its fundamental commitments and that intensify and renew the spiritual memory of its followers.

C Sacred Space

Religions not only create sacred times that define the calendar and occur throughout the year, intersecting with ordinary time, they also establish special places that localize the sacred in the midst of ordinary space. Sometimes these are places of natural beauty or imposing power, such as mountains, caves, or rivers. They may also be sites that commemorate great religious events of the past—for example, the birthplace of the Hindu god Krishna; the site of the Buddha’s enlightenment; or the spot where Muhammad is believed to have journeyed to heaven (memorialized by the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem). Sometimes they are places where miraculous spiritual appearances are believed to have occurred, as in the case of the apparitions of the Virgin Mary at Lourdes, France. They may also be shrines and temples built to house the gods or their representative symbols, such as the Parthenon in Greece, which was dedicated to Athena, patron goddess of Athens. Holy places also become objects of pilgrimage, such as the Kaaba, the holiest shrine of Islam, in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. For Muslims, the Kaaba is the symbol of true monotheistic religion and is believed to have been built by biblical patriarch Abraham. All Muslims are expected to visit it at some time in their lives. Sometimes the act of building a sacred place occurs each time the rite is performed and is thus part of the ritual itself, as in the case of the annual Native American Sun Dance ceremonies, for which a new lodge is erected each year.

The use of space reveals a great deal about a religious worldview. Some structures, such as Pueblo kivas (ceremonial chambers), are built into the ground, acknowledging the earth as the place from which human beings emerged and as the source of sustenance for the Pueblo’s agricultural society (see Native American Religions). Others, such as the European gothic cathedrals, through their delicate architecture and skyward reach, suggest the transcendence of the divine realm. Shinto shrines in Japan express reverence for nature in the harmonious way they blend with the natural environment. On the other hand, some so-called megachurches (churches with huge congregations) of modern North America have taken the form of corporate office complexes geared for efficiency of organized service. Some holy places are understood to be the actual dwelling place of the god. Others—as in certain branches of Protestant tradition—are understood to be primarily places of gathering for the faithful (see Protestantism: Beliefs and Practices). In such cases, a plain architectural style follows naturally from the desire to de-emphasize the importance of the physical building itself.

D Religion in Life

Religious cultures generally ascribe spiritual significance to all parts of their worlds. This is especially obvious in rites of passage. Through ritual, each major change in life is incorporated into the domain of the sacred. For example, birth rites might involve bestowing the blessings of the god on the child or giving the child a special religious name. Rites of entry into adulthood also connect the individual to the sacred tradition of the culture. For example, in Buddhist Thailand, young men become sons of Buddha through a ceremony in which they reenact key parts of the historical Buddha’s search for enlightenment (see Theravada Buddhism). In Jewish bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs, adolescents, having reached the age of 13, read from the Torah, the primary scripture of Judaism. Christian youths participate in First Communion, in which they take part in the Eucharist (a ceremony involving blessed bread and wine, which represent the body and blood of Christ) for the first time. Weddings and funerals are two other ceremonies of passage laden with sacred meaning.

All of life—including food, work, suffering, human relations, sexuality and marriage, education, the arts, and government—can be given religious significance. Many religions have detailed rules of purity that bear on every aspect of behavior. In this way, the religious reality—whether conceived as a divine commandment, the will of God, Buddha nature, or the Tao—is acknowledged to be the true and proper basis of all life.

E Interaction with Spiritual Beings

Religious cultures provide their members with established, patterned ways of interacting with spiritual beings. Such communication is often the center of religious practice. Perhaps the most widely practiced forms are petitionary prayer (prayer that contains a request), offerings and sacrifices, purification and penance, and worship. Sometimes these are regular events, and sometimes they are performed in times of special need, such as illness, drought, infertility, or war—times when human beings find themselves especially dependent on or subject to the forces of the universe that are beyond their control. At other times, religions have forms of communion, such as the Christian Eucharist or meditation on the presence of a supreme being. Reciting the name of the Buddha is the primary religious practice in Pure Land Buddhism, and this practice has parallels among other religious groups, such as the Sikhs.

The gods, in turn, are believed to make their will, power, or presence known to humans in a variety of ways, including prophecy, states of trance, dreams and visions, divination, healings, special signs and miracles, intuition, mystical experiences, and embodiment in the lives of special individuals. In many societies, possession (control of a person’s body by a spiritual entity) is a common form of interchange with the spirit world. Through intensive training, a shaman acquires the ability to enter trance states and negotiate with gods and spirits. In so-called possession rites, spirits are believed to enter the bodies of devotees. Divination, or techniques for reading the will and timing of the gods through the shape or significations of physical objects, is also widespread. Relationship with the divinity can also be expressed in terms of moral behavior. In this case, service to the gods means devotedly adhering to their revealed precepts for conduct and their standards of spiritual life in general. In some religions, individuals cultivate a lifelong personal relationship with their deity.

F Rituals and Symbols

Ritual is a form of communication in its own right. Rituals involve performance and symbolic bodily actions, displayed in a tangible, visible way. They have the power to focus experience and thus function to intensify the sense of the sacred. Rituals can be as simple as bowing one’s head before a meal, chanting a certain phrase, or removing footwear. At the other extreme, they can involve intricate ceremonies performed by teams of priests and lasting several days. Rituals reveal the sacred through specific, symbolic actions and objects, including processions, special clothing, special sounds—for example chanting—or silences, masks, symbolic objects, and special foods. Some religions use rituals to great effect, while others assign them a lesser role. Where ritual is central, there is usually a priesthood (see Priest). This is the case in the Catholic and Orthodox forms of Christianity (see Roman Catholic Church; Orthodox Church) as well as in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Shinto. Jews, Muslims, and many Protestant churches do not have a priesthood as such because they emphasize a direct faith and consideration of scripture (training in which is required for rabbis, imams, and ministers).

Religions differ in their use of images. Jews, Muslims, and puritanical forms of Protestantism prohibit images of God in order to preserve the transcendence and holiness of the divine. But images of holy persons or of the deity are important objects of veneration in Catholicism, in Eastern Orthodox Christianity (in which they are called icons), and in most other religions (see Idolatry).

G Holiness, Inward Transformation, and Salvation

Most major religions provide paths that deliver individuals from the bondage of sin, immorality, ignorance, and other types of impurity or disharmony and lead them toward a state of purity of soul, spiritual knowledge, wisdom, godliness, enlightenment, or even eternal life. Religions typically hold that human beings have a higher nature that exists in tension with a lower nature, and the religions offer ways to redeem the former from the latter. Even within a single religious tradition there may be different versions of this process. Some emphasize the separation of the spiritual part of the self from worldly attachments, while others emphasize living harmoniously in relation to nature, self, and divinity.

Two corresponding religious ideals can be discerned from the different ways in which religions consider salvation. On one hand, the saved or truly religious person may be one who has achieved liberation from the material world and has reached a heavenly state of afterlife (such as heaven) or a supreme state of consciousness (such as nirvana). On the other hand, this person may be one who has come to embody the virtues of holiness, however they are defined by the particular religion, while still living on earth. Monasticism arose in some religions, such as Buddhism and the classical forms of Christianity, although it has no place in others, including Judaism, Islam, and Protestantism. Many religious virtues—such as love, self-control, compassion, nonviolence, and wisdom—appear in more than one religion, but differences in belief systems can give varying significance to these virtues. All the historic religions address the need for individual holiness in some form and can point to saints, mystics, or spiritual exemplars who fully embody the ideals of their traditions.


Modernity has posed acute challenges to traditional religions. In the 1960s membership in mainstream Christian denominations began to decline, and candidates for the priesthood were less numerous. For a large number of people in modern societies, religion is neither good nor bad but simply irrelevant, given the many alternative ways to find meaning in various forms of cultural pursuits, ethical ideals, and lifestyles. These challenges to religion are partly a result of the prestige of science. The sciences describe a universe without reference to deities, the soul, or spiritual meaning. In addition, critical studies of biblical history have demonstrated that the Bible is not unique among ancient religious and historical documents (see Biblical Criticism). For example, the biblical stories of the Garden of Eden and the Deluge (universal flood) are common to other ancient Middle Eastern religions. Other factors that have contributed to a decline in religious participation in the modern world include the presentation of religion as a prescientific form of superstitious thinking, as a source of political control and divisiveness, as a confirmation of established patriarchal values, or as an emotional crutch. In addition, many families are no longer able to maintain stable religious traditions because they are disconnected from traditional, supportive religions or as a result of mixed or nonreligious marriages. Another influence has been the loss of community and social commitment that has followed in the wake of increased mobility. Frequent changes of location can result in a sense of impermanence or instability. This is particularly true of a move from town to city, which often results in the loss of stable community structure. Social uprooting can lead to religious uprooting because religious affiliation is closely related to social ties.

Despite all these factors, religion has not disappeared, and in many places it is thriving. Although secularization has had its effects, religion has been kept alive as a result, in part, of the adaptation of religion to secular values; the repositioning of conservative religion in direct opposition to secular values; and the emergence of new religious movements that meet the specific and diverse spiritual needs of people in contemporary society.

In many instances, religion has been able to adapt to modernity by accommodating the diversity of contemporary culture. Many religious traditions have broadened the concept of God to allow for the coexistence of various faiths, have acknowledged gender equality by ordaining women, and have adopted outward characteristics of modern culture in general. Many groups have benefited from the use of electronic media and networking, and some have developed religious functions for the Internet, including electronic prayer groups. Modern marketing techniques have been employed to increase membership. Many churches incorporate the latest kinds of support groups, counseling techniques, and popular music.

Evangelicalism in its various forms, including fundamentalism, offers a different response to modernity. Conservative movements, which have appeared internationally in every major religious tradition, have gained vitality by protesting what they see as the conspicuous absence of moral values in secular society. In times of anxiety and uncertainty, such movements present scripture as a source of doctrinal certainty and of moral absolutes. Against the secularism of the day, evangelical movements have succeeded in creating their own alternative cultures and have acquired considerable political influence.

For all its challenges to traditional religious identity, modernity has at the same time created new spiritual opportunities. Thousands of new religious movements emerged around the world in the 20th century, offering alternative forms of community to people otherwise removed from past associations and disenchanted with modern values. Collectively, these new religions offer a large number of options, addressing virtually every conceivable type of spiritual need. In a sense, modernity has created needs and problems for which new movements are able to present themselves as solutions. Some offer ethnic revitalization; others, techniques of meditation and self-improvement; and still others, the power of alternative or spiritual forms of healing. Buddhist- and Hindu-derived movements continue to have considerable followings among Westerners searching for truths beyond the Judeo-Christian tradition (see Zen; Hare Krishna). Further, in a world where home life has become less stable, an international movement such as the Unification Church emphasizes the holiness and divine restoration of the institution of the family.

Currently, one of the most rapidly growing religious movements is Pentecostalism, which takes its name from the festival day when the first Christian community felt the power of the Holy Spirit pour out on them (see Pentecostal Churches). Pentecostalism’s grass roots services provide direct, ecstatic spiritual experiences. A quite different but also widespread form of spirituality is that of the so-called New Age Movement, which offers individuals the opportunity to reconnect with mystical dimensions of the self and thus with the wider cosmos—relationships that are typically obscured by secular culture and often are not addressed in biblical traditions.

Contributed By: William E. Paden

Article Categories:
History of Churches


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