Studying religion
Studying religion

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Studying religion

6.3 Setting things apart

The tendency within religious behaviour to set things apart from the everyday does not just apply to time and place but also to ideas of authority (leaders and texts), to beliefs more generally, to institutions and to aspects of behaviour as, for example, in dress and diet. In fact, the concept of ‘religion/religious’ is often set over and against the concept of the ‘temporal’ and the ‘secular’, which both suggest an outlook that is concerned solely with this world, the here and now. Yet, religions too are clearly concerned with this world. A religious attitude, however, tends to view this world in relationship to a reality that is not confined by time and space. Some people, as Bruce states, view this reality as a supernatural entity or being (God) whilst others speak of impersonal powers or processes. Both groups work out their daily behaviour in the light of their beliefs about this unseen reality.

The practice of ‘setting apart’ or ‘marking out’ is one consequence of acknowledging the existence of a reality that can in some way be experienced in the here and now and yet goes beyond the here and now. Whatever is particularly associated with this reality, however portrayed, takes on an additional quality. It becomes ‘holy’ or ‘sacred’ and is regarded and treated differently from the everyday.

The term ‘holy’ has commonly been used to describe God, the attributes of God and persons or things associated with God, and carries with it rather narrowly Christian overtones. To speak of something as ‘holy’ also tends to imply a personal affirmation on the part of the speaker. The term ‘sacred’ can be used more flexibly. The distinction between the ‘sacred’ and the ‘profane’ originally referred to the difference between what took place within the restricted area of a Roman temple (that which was walled off or set apart) and that which was open to all in the area in front of the temple. Today, ‘sacred’ is normally applied to respected or venerated objects. It describes the attitudes of human beings to these objects rather than making a claim about the reality to which these objects point: for example, sacred beliefs, sacred books, sacred places and, indeed, sacred days. To revert to Bruce, a thing may be ‘sacred’ because it is associated with a supernatural entity (or entities) or because it is associated with impersonal powers and processes (1995, p. ix).

But if devotees insist that the religious life is to be practised at all times and in all places, then what is the purpose of special gatherings in sacred places? This question was discussed by Christians, Jews and Muslims in the video clips. Some stated simply that it is a requirement of their faith that they mark the week in a certain way. For Muslim men this entailed attending midday Friday prayer at the mosque, for Jews the observance of Shabbat, and for Christians Sunday worship. A fuller answer included the idea that this special event in the week helps the individual to concentrate on the underlying reality of their faith amidst the bustle of the working week. Both Jews and Muslims suggested that men, in particular, were liable to distraction and thus in need of the routine of communal prayer to bring their minds back to God. It was also made plain that the attitudes fostered during this special time in the week should guide the individual for the whole of the week.

To conclude, our brief description of religious practices in Britain reminds us that, if we wish to understand religion, we have to bear in mind the nature of the underlying reality to which religion in its various forms points. Participating in special days, such as the ones we have considered, is held to bring the believer into closer relationship with this reality.

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