Religion 101

Once again, a new semester has begun at the community college system where I teach courses about the religions of the world. (And please note that I specifically said “about.” I don’t “teach religion”; rather, I teach about religion. There’s a huge difference between the two activities. One involves personal faith commitments; the other is strictly an academic activity. I practice the latter sort of activity. Just to be clear, I’m a teacher, not a preacher.)

In some of the classes I teach every semester, we begin the term by studying indigenous religions. That somewhat unwieldy term really just means “native,” and is used as a handy (if not entirely satisfactory) label for the broad category of traditional religious or spiritual paths practiced by localized, relatively small-scale, often tribal cultures around the globe: Native American, traditional African, Australian aboriginal, Inuit (Eskimo), and many others.

Each of these quite diverse forms of religion grew up in isolation from each other, and each of them is actually a broad subcategory masking an immense amount of even greater diversity (there are actually many different kinds of Native American religions, many different African traditional religions, etc.).

Nevertheless, there are also a number of common themes and elements which many of them seem to share with each other (which in itself is rather remarkable and interesting, if you think about it, given their independent origins and development in parts of the world quite distant from each other).

We often start the semester by studying some of these characteristic features shared in common by so many otherwise seemingly unrelated indigenous religions.

Students learn about animism (the belief that everything in nature — even seemingly “inanimate” objects — is in some sense alive, often possessing an indwelling spirit of its own), polytheism (the belief in multiple gods, often constituting a pantheon of deities, each in charge of various aspects of nature or natural forces), ancestor veneration (or “ancestor worship,” essential for keeping the potentially troublesome spirits of the deceased at peace), rites of passage (ceremonies marking entry into important new phases of an individual’s life cycle), and various other key elements frequently featured among indigenous religions worldwide.

I suspect that sometimes, some students may start thinking: well, this is all very interesting, and perhaps good to know; but how, if at all, does any of it relate to me?

They may begin to wonder: what, if anything, do any of these common features of such frankly strange and faraway “indigenous religions” have to do with, say, my own religion?

So, in class, I often try to make some interesting (if not downright tantalizing) “interfaith” connections for them. I attempt to point out some occasionally rather striking similarities that seem to exist between some of the unfamiliar indigenous religions which we’re currently studying, and some other religions which may be much more personally familiar to them.

Certain prominent features found among representative religions of some rather remote and rather alien indigenous cultures, it turns out, actually have some pretty notable parallels which can be found (if you look for them) within certain equally prominent features of some of the world’s largest and most popular religions — including some which happen to be among the predominant faiths within our own modern Western culture.

Some of these areas of seeming overlap between such initially strange-seeming indigenous religions on the one hand, and several major world religions (which some students in my classes may personally belong to) might be the sorts of things which many newcomers to the study of religion might not necessarily notice right away, or think of on their own.

However, once pointed out, they can be quite eye-opening — and can also underscore the possibility that, in at least some ways, our own religious sensibilities and those found among many indigenous cultures may not be so very different after all (let alone literally “worlds apart”).

(To be continued, in Part Two.)