Studying religion
Studying religion

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Studying religion

3.3 Religions in Britain

I would like you to continue your reading of the extracts from John Bowker's account of religions in Britain as it is important that you build up your general knowledge of those beliefs and practices commonly labelled as ‘religion’.

Exercise 5

Please read the remainder of ‘I live by faith: the religions described’: (B) Buddhism, (C) Sikhism and (E) Christianity. Again, I suggest that you make notes on the major features of the beliefs and practices described, and also jot down any major points of similarity and difference that strike you.

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’ [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] Extracts B, C and E


All the traditions covered by Bowker and the videos are referred to as ‘religions’. I am sure that you will find both similarities – for example, all of them encourage communal practices such as worship in a special place – and also differences. You might feel that some of these differences are quite minor – merely differences in detail. For example, Sikhs adhere to the visible symbolism of the ‘Five Ks’, including uncut hair and the wearing of a steel bangle and symbolic dagger; Jews have a dietary practice; and Muslims a pattern of daily prayer at set times.

These practices make a person's religious identity immediately apparent and mark the followers of these religions apart from each other. It is much harder to spot a Christian simply on the basis of outward behaviour and dress. But are these differences in belief simply differences in detail – variations on the same underlying theme?

Exercise 6

I would like you now to look more closely at two of the ‘religions’ discussed by Bowker and consider whether there are points of difference so great as to make you question how these examples could both be categorised as ‘religion’. Refer to sections (B) and (F) by clicking the link below and then compare and contrast the summaries of Buddhist and Islamic beliefs.

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 B and F’


Islam anticipates the final divine judgement of the individual. Buddhism regards belief in a personal soul as something to be eradicated. Existence, according to the Buddhist, is a process controlled by strict laws and not presided over by a God upon whom humans depend for their ‘salvation’. This seems like a profound difference and not simply a difference in detail.

If Bowker's treatment of both Buddhism and Islam as ‘religions’ is justified, it also challenges another assumption about religion that is popularly made, at least by many in Europe. This is that all religions, in spite of their differences, share a belief in a God or gods. As you have seen, the Buddhist tradition, which has been influential throughout much of south-east and east Asia, has often been described as ‘atheistic’ (lacking belief in the existence of an eternal God) and has appealed to many people in Britain and elsewhere for precisely this reason.

Once again we see that the popular conventional use of the term ‘religion’ is far from straightforward. It refers to a widely differing range of beliefs held by people in Britain. Its popular use implies that there is sufficient in common between Islam and Buddhism to place them within this same overall category of ‘religion’. Yet, Islam speaks uncompromisingly about the divine will of Allah (God), the creator of all, and Buddhism certainly does not speak of all things coming into being as a result of acts of creation. The popular use of ‘religion’ nevertheless implies that there is more in common between them than, say, between Christianity and Marxism. We shall have more to say about this in Section 5 when we examine some of the ways in which scholars have responded to the question, ‘what is religion?’.

Remember that at the beginning of this course I challenged the view that establishing a boundary line around ‘religion’ would be straightforward. Anybody can express a view about what kind of a thing religion is, whether they like it or not, and about the extent to which they believe that religion is true. People do this in reacting to news stories, whether about pronouncements from the Archbishop of Canterbury, the veiling of Muslim women, or some little-known sect. One of the purposes of this course is to introduce you to skills that will enable you to test judgements passed by others and encourage you to become aware of the way in which you arrive at your own judgements. I would call the kind of study that made use of such skills a ‘critical study’. This doesn't mean approaching a subject in a negative and destructive spirit. Rather, critical students are those who are led by a spirit of free enquiry and who seek to test their own conclusions, and the claims made by others, in the light of reliable evidence and sound argument. You have already done this in the exercise on TM.

Life is short and yet academics still seem to find the time to take a commonplace term or assumption and turn it into a ‘problem’! Why should you want to take on board another ‘problem’ – that of the use of the term ‘religion’? Why study religion in the first place?


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