Studying religion
Studying religion

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Studying religion

6 Religion in context: Special days in Britain

6.1 Introduction

Whatever else they may be, religions grow in historical and social settings. The present form of a religion has its roots in the past. Religion can exercise a strong influence upon society and the cultural forms of a society, but religion itself is no less affected by changes and pressures within society. Religion gives meaning to a pattern of living and may even be responsible for establishing a certain lifestyle or distinctive social organisation or institution. At the same time, religion often works upon symbolism, customs and ideas already to be found in society. In short, a religion exists within a context and can no more be understood adequately apart from that context than can a single line of verse ripped out of a sonnet. Clearly, some of the differences we find between religions, and in the same religion viewed over a period of time, are a result of their development within different historical and social contexts.

In looking at special days in Britain, we will undertake the first of two studies of religion. In this first study, the context I wish to examine is the place of these special days within their immediate religious setting rather than in the wider context of British society. In the second study (in Section 8) I will look more closely at the relationship between expressions of religion and their social context in the city of Calcutta.

Many religions follow weekly and annual cycles of celebration. The official British calendar is marked by both Christian and secular celebrations. In some cases, days that were once Christian celebrations have become secular public holidays; Whitsun is now the Spring Bank Holiday. The celebration of Christmas has become overlaid with customs that have grown in popularity since the Victorian period, so today Christmas trees and the figure of Father Christmas are inseparably linked in the minds of many with the celebration of the birth of Jesus. Attitudes to Sunday, once reserved by Christians as a day of rest and worship, have also changed.

Religions in Britain other than Christianity have their own cycles of celebration, although their days have no place within the list of official British holidays. The Christian day of rest has its roots in the Jewish Shabbat (the Sabbath day), the seventh day on which, according to the Bible, God rested from the labours of creation. Jews, however, celebrate Shabbat from Friday sunset to Saturday sunset. Muslims are obliged to carry out a cycle of five daily prayers of which the midday prayer on Friday is of particular communal importance to men. Some communities, such as Hindus and Sikhs, are not bound to a weekly pattern of communal worship on a particular day and so have tended to adopt Sunday in Britain. These patterns of celebration are examples of Ninian Smart's social and institutional dimension. As you read, try to find further examples of Smart's seven dimensions in addition to those I have highlighted.

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