Religion 101

In my previous blog entry, we looked at some of the similarities and parallels that seem to exist between the shamans of many indigenous religions, and the prophets, priests, and faith-healers of the Judeo-Christian religious tradition.

But what about some of the other highly prominent features of indigenous religions? Do such exotic things as rites of passage, tribal taboos, or even blood sacrifices have any relation or connection to the contemporary beliefs and practices of such major mainstream Western faiths as Judaism or Christianity?

Sure, they do!

Let’s start with rites of passage. These are ceremonial rites or rituals that mark significant transitional moments or phases within an individual’s life cycle. For instance, birth, marriage, and death are commonly accompanied by appropriate ceremonies in many indigenous cultures. These certainly have their analogues within modern Western culture, which typically celebrates birthdays, solemnizes marriages, and conducts funeral or memorial services.

Birthdays, marriages, and funerals can, of course, be entirely secular affairs. But they also can, and often do, have an explicitly religious character or dimension.

Among Catholics, Orthodox, and those Protestant denominations who practice infant baptism, birth is often soon followed by the Christian sacrament of baptism; religiously observant Jews, for their part, are to ritually circumcise male newborns eight days after birth. For Catholic and Orthodox Christians, marriage is not just marriage, but also an actual sacrament (“holy matrimony”). And of course funerals are often occasions when thoughts turn to the possibility of (or faith in) an afterlife, or a post-mortem realm of continuing personal existence, which Jews and Christians have long traditionally conceptualized as “heaven” (or, in Judaism specifically, as Olam Ha-Ba, “the World to Come”).

Many indigenous religions also observe additional rites of passage of various sorts. One common such rite is a kind of “coming of age” ceremony, or a formal initiation rite into adulthood. And this sort of thing also has its own contemporary Western analogues. Consider, for example, Judaism’s tradition of the bar mitzvah (“son of the commandment”) for Jewish boys at age 13, and of the bat mitzvah (“daughter of the commandment”) for Jewish girls at age 12, both of which celebrate the attaining of the age of religious maturity, when one is deemed old enough to assume adult responsibilities in adhering to Judaism’s religious commandments. And many Catholic young people undergo the sacrament of confirmation during their adolescent years, often experiencing it not only as a holy Church sacrament but also as a kind of coming-of-age ceremony.

So much for religious rites of passage. Now, what about such matters as religious taboos, religious sacrificial offerings, and the like? What role, if any, might they play within such major world religions of the modern Western world as Judaism or Christianity?


(To be continued, in Part Four.)