Studying religion
Studying religion

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Studying religion

3.2 Assumptions

We are beginning to see that many of the assumptions we hold about the characteristics of ‘religion’ are given to us by the society we live in or by our immediate community, which for some people may be a religious community. Don't lose sight of your assumptions about religion. At this point, it may be that you have not thought much about them before, or you may be personally hostile to religion, or be approaching this course from the standpoint of a very specific, personal religious conviction. Later in the course I am going to argue that the study of religion should not be coloured either by personal religious conviction, or lack of it. To argue in this way, however, is not to deny that we all bring assumptions – individual, social and cultural – to any study we undertake. This is an important point that we shall discuss when we examine how to study religion in Section 7. For the moment, I want to continue looking at the way in which the word ‘religion’ is commonly used and understood.

When dealing with the signs of religion, there would probably be general agreement that Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Sikhism – all of which have many followers in Britain – are religions, if for no other reason than because this is how they are conventionally described. (Note that we have slid from talking about ‘religion’ in general to specific ‘religions’; we will come back to this in Section 5.) However, if you had imagined walking into a ‘New Age’ bookshop, you might have have found yourself juggling with words like ‘cult’, ‘mysticism’, ‘magic’, ‘superstition’ as well as ‘religion’. You might have found yourself pondering whether yoga is more akin to ‘religion’ than aerobics (Figure 5), or whether the TM (Transcendental Meditation) classes, which are being advertised at the local college, are an expression of a particular lifestyle or philosophy, a leisure activity, or part of a distinctively religious outlook and practice.

Figure 5
Photo: Popperfoto
Figure 5 Yoga relaxation class

Exercise 3

Please read Eileen Barker's brief account of TM by clicking the link below. It includes a few references to the Hindu religious tradition: a guru is a spiritual teacher and this title is given to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the founder of TM; siddhi is, roughly speaking, a power or heightened ability, and Vedic relates to the Veda, the unidentified Hindu scripture referred to at the beginning of the description. Reading A1: Eileen Barker, ‘Transcendental Meditation (TM)’ [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

Then click the link below to read the extracts from a book published from within the TM movement. Look also at Figure 6, which is reproduced from the same book. When you have done that, compare these two viewpoints on the status of TM. Simply on the basis of what these readings present to you, do you think TM is a religion?

A2: Denniston, D. and McWilliams, P. (1975) ‘What TM is Not’, The TM Book: How To Enjoy The Rest Of Your Life, Versemonger Press. Reading A2: Denise Denniston and Peter McWilliams, What TM is

Figure 6
Reproduced from D. Denniston and P. McWilliams, The TM Book: How to Enjoy the Rest of Your Life, 1975, Michigan, Versemonger Press, pp. 14, 20, 44, 48
Figure 6 TM illustrations by Barry Geller

As you think about this question, consider carefully the basis upon which you intend to make your judgement. For example, will you rely upon your own assumptions? Or will you be guided more by what TM has to say about itself? What weight will you give to the opinion of Eileen Barker, an expert on new religious movements but not writing from within TM? After answering the question, please write down the factors which most affected your decision about whether TM is a religion in your Learning Journal.


In tackling this exercise, it is unlikely that you were able to draw upon a broadly agreed view of the status of TM. If TM was unfamiliar, you may well have asked if it was anything like a religion that you were familiar with. For Barker, it would seem that the status of TM is clear; for her it is a religious movement. Its founder studied under a guru, who derived the meditation technique from the ancient Hindu tradition. For the TM writers, however, TM is not a religion and certainly not a Westernised form of the Hindu religion. Its connection with India is merely historical. It can be practised by anyone – people of different religions and atheists alike.

Could you resolve this difference in interpretation? You might have felt that the associations with the Hindu religion were too strong to be ignored, but you might also have noticed the statement from the TM leaflet, included by Barker, that says, ‘TM requires no belief or any great commitment’. I do not want to press a particular conclusion on you because the exercise is designed to make you aware of the way in which you tried to reach a conclusion. Do note, however, that TM members themselves have views on this matter. As students of religion, to what extent should we be guided by the views of those we study? Eileen Barker has set aside the opinion held within TM. Can we similarly set aside the view of Jews? Or the views of those labelled ‘religious’ when we analyse the use of the term ‘religion’? This is an important question that we shall discuss more fully in Section 7. For now, let's consider some views of other people who are described as having a ‘religion’.

Exercise 4

I would like you now to read three extracts from John Bowker's book about religion in Britain – ‘I live by faith: the religions described’: (A) Hinduism, (D) Judaism and (F) Islam. Please make thorough notes in your Learning Journal as you go, writing down the major features of the beliefs and practices described and any major points of similarity and difference that strike you. (Note: The videos you have watched covered these religions within the city of Liverpool. Try to integrate the notes you made on the video with your notes on this exercise.)

What do you learn from Bowker's account about the way in which some Hindus, Jews and Muslims react to the use of the term ‘religion’ when it is applied to their beliefs and practices?

A3: this extract is from Worlds of Faith, pp.24–48, by John Bowker, 1983, with the permission of BBC Worldwide Limited.Reading A3: John Bowker, ‘I live by faith: the religions described’ Extracts A, D and F


One Hindu interviewed by Bowker questioned whether the term ‘religion’ adequately described his faith, explaining that ‘Hinduism is a way of life rather than a religion’. Another claimed that ‘Hinduism is not a religion, in the same sense in which Christianity is a religion’. A Muslim explained that Muslims do not refer to Islam as a ‘religion’ but as a ‘way of life’. Bowker suggests that this view would be shared by many Jews when speaking of Judaism.

The videos you have watched show others who were not happy about the unqualified use of the word ‘religion’ to describe their own beliefs and practices. Some of the speakers preferred ‘way of life’ or ‘faith’ rather than ‘religion’. A Muslim pointed out that the sacred book of Islam, the Qur'an, used the Arabic din to refer to Islam which, he stated, was far better translated into English as a ‘way of life’. In the minds of some, ‘religion’ was equated too narrowly with ritual, for others with worship and/or with belief in God. It was because of these sorts of associations that the spokesperson for TM was adamant that it is not a ‘religion’. It seems, then, that the use of the familiar term ‘religion’ is not only problematic in relation to more recent styles of belief and practice (such as TM). It may be disputed even when applied to long-standing beliefs and practices that I am sure most people in Britain would unhesitatingly think of as ‘religion’.


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