"You cannot believe in God until you believe in yourself."
-- Swami Vivekananda
"I would rather live my life as if there is a God and die to find out there isn't, than live as if there isn't and to die to find out that there is."
-- Albert Camus
In this essay, I will explore the religious experience in general and some of its variations around the world. The focus will be on the types of religious beliefs and religious leaders, especially in small-scale societies. An exploration of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, or any other major religion is beyond the scope of this essay. The approach taken is that of cultural relativity--religious practices or beliefs are not evaluated in terms of their "correctness" or "sophistication" but, rather, in terms of their function within the societies that have them.
What is Religion?
A religion is a system of beliefs usually involving the worship of supernatural forces or beings. Religious beliefs provide shape and meaning to one's perception of the universe. In other words, they provide a sense of order in what might otherwise be seen as a chaotic existence. Religions also provide understanding and meaning for inexplicable events such as a loved one being killed in an earthquake or some other unpredictable force of nature. For most religious people, their beliefs about the supernatural are at the very core of their world views.
Rituals in Religion
The performance of rituals is an integral part of all religions. Rituals are stylized and usually repetitive acts that take place at a set time and location. They almost always involve the use of symbolic objects, words, and actions. For example, going to church on Sunday is a common religious ritual for Christians around the world. It usually requires the wearing of somewhat different clothing and interacting with others in a particular manner in a sacred location. At the heart of this experience is a sequence of traditional ritual acts that symbolically represent aspects of the life, teachings, and death of Jesus.
Most religious rituals are performed in special places and under special conditions, such as in a dedicated temple or at a sacred spot. This is an intentional separation between the secular and the sacred. By being removed from the ordinary world, the sacred acts are enhanced for the believers. The separation makes the rituals more effective. Only allowing initiated people to participate in religious rituals also can have the same effect.
Religious ritual reinforces the basic tenets of religion. For instance, the "partaking of the host" in the Catholic mass is a symbolic participation in the "last supper" of Jesus and, by extension, an affirmation of the acceptance of his teachings. Rituals are often charged with high emotions. The exalted feelings people experience during rituals provide positive reinforcement for continuing them. When rituals make people "feel good", they reinforce the belief that their religion...