Studying religion
Studying religion

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Studying religion

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Transcript: What is Religion? part 1

This used to be a church. The Welsh Prestatyn Church in the Wavertree area of Liverpool. But no longer.
It's now a Hindu temple and cultural centre.
When the building changed hands from Christians to Hindus. Did it become a different kind of place, or are the Christians who once used this buildings, and the Hindus who now come here, engaged in the same kind of activity? Something we can call religion?
For two hundred years Liverpool has been one of Britain's major seaports, with a mosaic of communities marked by different beliefs and practices.
It has two Christian cathedrals, one Anglican, and the other Catholic, and numerous churches and chapels of different denominations.
A Muslim population attends the mosque in the Toxteth area, and the Jews of Liverpool have a large Jewish Centre and several synagogues.
The Hindu temple acts as a locus of activity for Hindus across Merseyside. All of these communities have popularly been regarded as religions.
This is a center for transcendental meditation, or TM, in Skelmersdale. Those who practice TM don't consider it to be a religion, although some outside TM have seen some broad similarities.
This is a dictionary definition of religion, but we will see that many groups labelled religions either accept the word with qualifications, or, like TM, reject it outright.
I think the word religion is often both misused and misunderstood.
People talk about different religions, new age religions, all sorts of different definitions, but Christianity is a religion and world religion at that. By which I understand it to be a community which holds certain beliefs in common, in other words it is a faith community, and therefore I preferred the term Christian faith, rather than the Christian religion, but I don't think essentially they're saying different things because both words imply belief, and it is a set of beliefs which both draws the Christian community together and informs the way in which we try to live our lives.
And of course at the heart of the Christian faith is the assertion that although Jesus, this God made man was put to death, yet in a way which we can't possibly fully understand, but which was attested so powerfully by the earliest followers of Jesus, that he was raised from the dead and that just as he promised through his spirit, the holy spirit, he is with the community of faith, active in the world now, in a way which is even more remarkable than when he was alive in his flesh, because it's universal and not just in a small country in the Middle East.
I suppose one has to say there is a reaching out by humankind to try to find something which is beyond the ordinary human experience and say, you know, what is there that holds this whole business together.
And so, one uses the shorthand word God and I think it's important to say it's shorthand word, to say whatever it is that holds the whole of this in being, that is God.
But the great thing about Christianity is that God is revealed to us in Christ, so that revelation of God in Christ then brings us into the liturgical cycle of holy week, Palm Sunday, those events which are talking about the life of the church and that is all expressing the centrality of Christ who calls us together to be one with him and therefore one with one another.
Hinduism is not a religion it's a way of life, because it has a fair Federation of faiths and beliefs, there are so many of us, diversity is the essence; harmony and diversity.
A person who can experience harmony in diversity adds to richness and beauty of life, and he can experience a unity with himself and with others.
We celebrate life. During the year we have so many festivals: Lord Krishna's birthday, Janamashtami, Ramanavami, Lord Rama's day, Ganesh's day - I can go on describing it's unending.
I remember I was one of the happiest people when I saw the noticeboard here 'For Sale'. I said oh, this is a call for me to take action, that was a great experience of practising Hinduism.
I met nicest people, those who were holding the church in those days. I said God's place must remain God's place, you can sell it at a higher price to anyone but we will also worship the same God which you've been worshipping for so long, and it was marvellous, and we have retained whatever they left for us.
They have left a wonderful vibration, and we can feel it, that they have been worshipping the same God which we worship with different names, in different languages, the same prayers - the prayers which have the same meaning and they go to the same God.
The term Jewish, Judaism, refer to a religion. Judaism, I would say, was with the religion. Being Jewish is how you're born.
Religion is a belief in God and having faith in him. And the belief in a God and the and the Torah that God gave to us is the heart of Judaism. The Torah was given to Moses on Mount Sinai, and in it are the laws guiding the way that we want to live. So, the Torah's the way that one lives, this is a law for living.
Judaism affects every single aspect of your life, from the very mo- the most basic physical acts, needs, to the most spiritual.
It affects your bus- can affect your business life, the laws of the bible of the Torah affect all aspects of your life - there are very strict laws about how you deal with people in business, how you deal with your neighbour, and your animals, and people you work for, or who work for you, and how you deal with yourself as well as your family and so on, so it's all pervading in a very positive sense of that word. So it does affect every aspect of your life.
Labelling Islam as a religion is not the appropriate word. People view Islam as being something that consists of rituals, but when a person enters into Islam, when he declares that there is no god worthy of worship except Allah, except the only one God, then he has to put them back into his practice for the entire of his life.
It's like going shopping and, er, you say, oh I'll choose this and I'll leave that. I'll choose this and I leave that. Islam is not like that. When we embrace Islam we embrace Islam all together. Tt's not pick and choose.
This way of life in Arabic 'Din'. It is not religion, it's a 'Din', a way of life, which is in accordance to the divine will.
Islam means purity and piety, but most of all it is based on belief in one God. Allah we call him in Arabic, and this is very important, and this is where the community, who actually believes in one god, unite together in belief.
Transcendental meditation is a very simple, natural, and effortless technique, and you practice it for twenty minutes morning and evening, sitting in an ordinary chair with your eyes closed, comfortably and quietly, and I found that it didn't require any belief to make it work, that it was very easy - it's actually quite a pleasant thing to do as well.
Transcendental meditation isn't religion, because it doesn't involve faith. It works even for the most hard bitten sceptic as long as they do it correctly, and it doesn't involve the worship of some higher being, and so I think by any normal definition, there's no religious content there.
I think that TM does have a relevance for religion. Maharishi actually said that transcendental meditation is like cleaning the floor of a church, so you have somewhere nice to pray. It's a technique for releasing stress, making a more balanced individual, and I think I'm more balanced individual will tend to become more appreciative of the religion and the ethics of their religious background.
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What is Religion? part 1
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Although TM distances itself from the kinds of beliefs and experiences of which other groups speak, one common feature of all these groups is their sense of community.
The church of England, like other organised faith communities, has at its heart, usually, a building or a place where the Christian community gathers for worship.
A holy place, or if you like, a sacred space, in which the Christian family can meet for worship is a very important part of its life, and it's usual for the Christian community in a local place to attach great importance to its Church and to lavish care upon it.
I have a very deep sense whenever I stand at the altar here, there's a tremendous privilege in standing where faithful priests and people have stood for all those centuries, proclaiming a gospel, perhaps in new ways, but which is forever the same.
The notion of community is quite central to Christian faith because there's a real sense in which the human dimension of community requires expression within a faith, and I speak, of course, specifically for the Christian faith and Roman Catholic tradition, that says 'yes coming together is important, both to express what we are, and to inspire what we hope to be'.
So the Eucharist has that power of gathering the community and there celebrating. Celebrating is a keyword because it's saying that the person who is a Christian should not, I think, see himself or herself as having been given a hotline to heaven, an easy ride, a free ticket. It's a responsibility that says 'if you have heard and understood that it is in Christ that God is revealed, then you have the obligation to celebrate that', that is to say to proclaim it with joy, and in so doing one hopes that others will want to join that celebration, will want to say, 'yes that makes sense, that this is something we take part in'.
Most people who learn transcendental meditation, they just do it in their home, or on the train, whatever, and they don't really become associated with the organisation that teaches transcendental meditation.
However for those who are enthusiastic, especially about creating coherence in collective consciousness, then it's more powerful to do that by coming together in a group.
The understanding of consciousness is very central to the understanding of TM. Consciousness is actually a field that is throughout the universe. It's a field of energy and intelligence, and it's permeating the entire range of creation.
The meditator, when he mediates, produces a very orderly influence from his own individual consciousness into that field of consciousness, and this affects people around him.
Typically, all the negative social indicators start to improve when there's a sufficient concentration of mediators in the area. Not only does crime rate down, but also accident rates, suicide rates, divorce rates, a whole range of those kind of indicators, and on the positive side we find that economic confidence grows, very typically the stock market will boom if you introduce a group into an area.
It's this field effect of creating coherence in the field of consciousness.
To be a Muslim, one is not only concerned about the affairs of herself or himself, we have to be concerned about others, we have to be part of the community, and this is what makes Islam beautiful.
When I go to the mosque I feel very peaceful. It's something very hard to describe, especially when I meet other Muslims coming in. Everybody's come to the mosque to gain something, to seek something, to seek the pleasure of God, to come and learn, to greet each other, and it's, the won- the most wonderful feeling is, soon as I enter the mosque it's so peaceful.
Coming to the mosque is very crucial because it stresses on the need to be together, to unite, and to live peacefully together, and build bridges, and to forget about the differences and the prejudices that might disunite the community.
One of the daily practices of the Muslim is to perform five time daily prayers, Salat. Salat means a constant reminder, that constant communication with God, so five times we are reminded of this unity, of this brotherhood, of this community, which have to live together in a peaceful manner.
Hindu cultural organisation fulfils many needs. One of them is sharing, caring, and giving to each other.
Now when we come to the temple, it is social, it is cultural, it is religious. So we come in our own individual families, forming a big family community, and community for me is common unity. So it becomes a bigger family. So, and then we discuss a number of problems which we share, common experiences, common needs, and common values.
This centre is being used by ninety percent of Hindus in north-west. People come all across the Mersey, and also from North Wales, and all the suburbs. They come here, this is a nucleus, nucleus of hope and harmony.
The Hebrew word for synagogue is Beth Ha Kenesset, which means meeting place. The synagogue is not only a place of prayer, but also is a place to meet, so the social aspect is also very important.
Coel is my grandson, and he's got all his friends, all men in their seventies (laughs) that he goes to meet.
My life revolves initially around Friday, getting ready for the Sabbath, for Shabbat. Shabbat starts on Friday night, it's from sunset to sunset. There is a Friday night service, and then we'll go to that.
Shabbat is described as the Queen, sort of the queen of the week, and so the congregation turn to welcome the queen into the synagogue, to welcome Shabbat into our week.
End transcript: What is Religion? part 2
What is Religion? part 2
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Transcript: What is Religion? part 3

Special days are important to many, but not all, of these communities. Shabbat is celebrated not just in a synagogue, but also at home.
I think most homes will have some sort of gathering, some sort of special way of observing Friday night.
We will say special Kiddushes, blessings before you eat, and break bread, and so on.
Sabbath Shabbat is a day of rest, so you won't, erm, you won't do any form of work, food will be prepared beforehand, we'll all sit down and have a friday night meal together, and the family or with friends, discuss the week, tell a funny story you heard, or whatever it is, it's a time of, sort of, physical and spiritual rejuvenation really.
And the restrictions, I mean lot's of people see the Sabbath as a time when you can't do this, you can't do that, you can't do the other, you can't shop, you can't drive your car, you can't, but on the other hand by being- by not doing those things you're freed then to enjoy your family, to sit and read a book, to do things quetly together, enjoy the company of your friends and family.
And, I think it's a wonderful thing - it's a blessing that God gave to us, because the Sabbath is the day of rest after God created the world in six days, and so his day of rest and that, and that's Shabbat.
Coming together on Friday makes it possible for the community to be together and united.
It is very important because on this particular day in a week, during the afternoon, all the prayer, which is supposed to be said during the afternoon, is substituted and the Imam, of the leader, would normally give a sermon, a short sermon, and sermon in Arabic is called hutbah.
Hutbah means a reminder, a reminder to the community of their duties and obligations to their fellow human beings and to their families and so and so forth.
For Hindus, each day is a holy day. There is no time when God is not, and there's no place where God is not, and there's no being in which God is not. So everything, every time, every place, is a sacred place.
We generally get together on Sunday especially, because it is a convenient time, not for any religious reasons, but because it is so convenient to all of us.
It was very important for the earliest Christians to have a day which was set apart for God, and specifically set apart, to do that which the Lord commanded them to do, to meet together, to break bread, to take wine in remembrance of him. Not as a nostalgic ceremony, or just because he said so, but because in act act of remembrance, we believe that in a very particular way, we are making present in the here and now, the love which he mediated at that Last Supper.
But the people who maintain these special days live in the same world as everybody else, a world where the marketplace is sometimes reluctant to stop.
The shop is Kosher delicatessen and primarily deals with Jewish customers.
Our weekly trading is from Sunday, throughout, to Friday. We are closed on the whole of Saturday, as it is the Sabbath. Friday we have normal trading hours, except for in the winter when we have to shut an hour before dusk.
Sunday, of course, is out predominantly busiest morning of the week, and we do our main business on a Sunday morning, where we sell a vast quantity of bagels - they're the most popular product.
Running a Muslim shop, it's no problem at all. In terms of Friday prayer, there are enough women to man the shop while the brothers go to the mosque to do their Friday prayer, and then we have our break when they come back.
Yes, we have about ten or twelve volunteers who come here on a regular basis, so there's a good turnaround of people in here, the regular fresh faces each day sort of thing.
The traditional Sunday is very seriously under threat, in fact I'd go so far as to say that it's virtually disappeared in this city.
I've been in Liverpool for about 13 years, and when I was first here the only shops that would have been open anywhere near the city centre were perhaps, food shops run by Muslims, or perhaps those of other faiths. Nowadays, all but one Department store is open. The supermarkets are open. Clothes shops, all sorts of things which are not concerned with the basic necessities of life, but luxuries and the whole range of shopping, are now available on Sundays as on any other day, and I do think that's a loss.
But I think there is a more than religious reason for keeping Sunday special. I think it's part of the rhythm of life. I think it's part of the essence of family life, that there should be at least one day when parents can be together, go out together, go and see friends, have relatives round, eat round a table together, which is now becoming increasingly unusual, almost unheard of in some families.
Most people go shopping on Sunday. Most probably will go on Sunday because we don't have time in the week, all of us have things to do, so it's the most popular day to go out shopping.
Well, I work all week, and I find that it's nice to come out on Sunday and stroll around.
Well, I just enjoy coming out, it gives a break on Sunday afternoon, like you'll be sitting there, you wouldn't be doing very much, and it's just get out for a few hours.
I realise that we live in an increasingly secular society, and that it is not for people like me to impose my belief systems on anybody else. I'll fight to the death my right to proclaim them and to live them for myself.
I make no apology at all for saying that it's very much more healthy to regard at least part of Sunday as special, and a time when people of faith can unashamedly set that aside both to give honour to God, and more importantly to listen to what he may have to say. To inspire them to go out and work in the world to his praise and glory for the rest of the week.
So, the term religion would seem to imply belief and practice which flow from an experience that is concealed, or denied by the secular world. This understanding may provide a way of distinguishing between on the one hand, Christians, Hindus, Jews, and Muslims, and on the other groups like TM.
Any effective answer to the question 'what is religion?' must enable us to made distinctions of this sort.
End transcript: What is Religion? part 3
What is Religion? part 3
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