What is driving us apart in America? I am very concerned about the deep cultural divide in the United States and the detrimental effects this divide is having on our psychological well-being, democracy, and sustainability efforts for a fragile planet. The warring factions are talking past each other in a frenzied effort to be right. What can be done to help stop the hemorrhaging divisions?
Of course, the divide is so complex and deep-seated that I don’t pretend to have all the answers. But I have thought of a way in which I can shed some light on the divide, through a project involving religious views that I have pieced together.
Religion, in general, has often been accused of causing and promoting divisions in our society, today and throughout history. But religion is not a stand-alone entity with its own independent consciousness and actions. It is made up of people who make decisions and perform actions in the name of religion. To give life meaning, people with different psychological outlooks, experiences, family histories, identities, and geographic locations gravitate to particular religions or other ideological associations that suit them.
In one of my yoga classes, the instructor was gingerly explaining the religious connections between Buddhism and yoga. Someone in the class indignantly piped up that Buddhism was not a religion and should not be used in a religious context. The instructor, not wanting to cause a stir, quickly demurred. Clearly they had different views on how to define religion. I wanted to say that it depends on the definition of religion, but also wanting to go on with the class, I wisely decided against it.
Since I have been throwing around the term “religion” rather freely, it is time to provide a definition. As expected, I found that there is no scholarly consensus on what precisely constitutes a religion. In fact, I would agree with some thinkers, such as Daniel Dubuisson, who have pointed out that there is a Judeo-Christian and Western bias in the definition and study of religion. Religion is a modern concept that developed from Christianity and was then applied inappropriately to non-Western cultures. Before 1800, when contact with the West was minimal among most of the world’s population, the term “religion” had no meaning. Religion was not a concept separated from everyday life. The notion of a separation of church and state was unimaginable.
For better or worse, Western ways of thinking and doing have permeated—although they have not completely transformed—cultures around the world. Some argue that regardless of the definition, it is not appropriate to apply the term “religion” to non-Western cultures, which aim mostly to give some sort of meaning to life. Despite this warning, I will go ahead with what I think is an appropriate definition for this blog project.
George Lindbeck defines religion as “a kind of cultural and/or linguistic framework or medium that shapes the entirety of life and thought … it is similar to an idiom that makes possible the description of realities, the formulation of beliefs, and the experiencing of inner attitudes, feelings, and sentiments.” The esteemed sociologist Émile Durkheim defined religion as a “unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things.” By sacred things, he meant things “set apart and forbidden—beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community.” I like the part in Lindbeck’s definition about religion making possible the description of realities. Therefore, even if one is an avowed atheist, his or her description of reality is framed through a religious lens. Durkheim’s description of religion as a set of beliefs uniting a moral community is important in defining religion. Both definitions are important for my purposes in this blog.
I have pieced together several different ideas to explain what I will be referring to as religion. It may be a cultural system of selected behaviors and practices, usually of an ethical, moral nature and as a way of seeing the world. These worldviews, texts, sacred places, or prophesies claim to connect humanity to the supernatural, transcendental, or spiritual realm. Different religions may or may not contain a supernatural being or beings.
Religious practices may include music, dance, art, festivals, feasts, trances, initiations, and rituals. On a more somber note, religious practices may include sermons, tributes to deities, sacrifices, funeral and marriage services, meditation, prayer, and acts of public service. Religions often have sacred histories and narratives, which may be preserved in sacred scriptures, symbols, and holy places. Religions may contain symbolic stories, which are sometimes thought of as literally true by followers. These stories, usually mythic in their universal tones, explain the purpose of human life, the origin of place, and our place in the universe. Traditionally, faith, in addition to reason, has been considered a source of religious beliefs.
I find that religion, used in the broadest sense, can give us a glimpse as to how people see reality very differently. As I observe, experience, study, and visit these different religious associations, and as I talk to people who have a religious connection, I hope to show that while these religions appear to be very different on the surface level, at a deep, invisible level, religious beliefs reveal similar psychological foundations and ethical understandings that undergird all human behaviors. These similar psychological foundations and ethical understandings are expressed through mythic stories and legends that can often be found in religious services, if we look beyond the superficial layer. We are taking our cultural differences too literally and driving ourselves further apart, because we are ignoring, or refusing to look deeper into, our consciousness to find the hidden reserve of universal commonalities that bind us together as a species.
In this blog series, I will be exploring some of these profound psychological reasons or mechanisms that unite us as humans. These mechanisms are often expressed in religious settings through mythic stories and legends, which may not be literally true but have an insightful significance.
Questions to Consider
- How would you define religion?
- Do you have a religious connection? Why or why not?
 George A. Lindbeck, Nature of Doctrine. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1984, 33.
 Émile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1915.
Dr. Denise R. Ames is a long-time educator and president of the nonprofit Center for Global Awareness. The Center for Global Awareness develops books and materials with a holistic, global focus for adult learners and educators. The CGA recently launched Gather, Global Awareness Through Engaged Reflection. In this unique program, adult learners form small study groups to launch conversations about pressing global issues. The simple acts of talking and listening allow us to see different perspectives, transcend deep political and cultural divides, and engage with others to create positive change. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.global-awareness.org for more information.