Religion today: Themes and issues
Religion today: Themes and issues

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Religion today: Themes and issues

1.10 Religion and the individual

How formal or informal, how personal or impersonal, how loose or how tight, how casual or demanding the religious community is will depend on the form of religion, the extent to which it is enforced and the level of the individual's commitment to it. It is worth remembering that just as people have certain expectations of religion, religions tend to have certain expectations of adherents. The sociologists Rodney Stark and Charles Glock (1968) have argued that although religious organizations differ, they all expect adherents to display some commitment in the following ways: belief, practice, experience, knowledge and consequences (Stark and Bainbridge, 1985, pp.9–10). Briefly, the belief dimension of commitment consists of the expectation that the religious person will accept certain doctrines as true, while the practice dimension includes acts of worship and devotion directed towards the supernatural/object of belief. Practice is subdivided into ritual practices (formal ceremonies, rites etc., often done in public) and devotional practices (informal, often spontaneous, frequently done in private). The experience dimension involves contact with, or experience of, the supernatural/object of belief, while the knowledge dimension indicates that people are expected to know and understand central elements of their religious culture. The final category here relates to the consequences of commitment, the way in which religious commitment must affect and be expressed in everyday life, or even, we might say, the demand that the whole of everyday life is lived in a particular way as a consequence of religious commitment.

I have lost count of how many times converts or adherents to such varied belief systems as Paganism, Islam, Buddhism and Jehovah's Witnesses have said to me, ‘It isn't a religion, it's a way of life.’ That speaks volumes about a previously very impoverished understanding of religion – but a very common, modern western one – which regarded religion purely as an added extra, something somehow divorced from ‘real life’. It is perfectly natural (many believers would say necessary) for religion to permeate every aspect of the individual's life, as religion can have an impact on what people eat, how they dress, with whom they socialize, what is owned and how resources are used, how the individual acts in and interacts with the world. Although these dimensions may apply more easily to more traditional, ‘pre-packaged’ forms of religion, as opposed to the looser, ‘pick your own’ varieties, it is worth bearing them in mind as you watch the upcoming video. This course is very much concerned with individuals as well as institutions, and we trust you will get a feel for the impact that religion has on the lives of adherents, while remembering that individuals shape religion as well as being shaped by it.

Let us now turn to consider practical examples of differing perspectives on religion.

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