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What Is Religion? Susan Ackerman What is religion? Every time I teach my college’s “Introduction to Religion” course, I ask my students this question on the first day. Perhaps most often, their answers focus on belief: “Religion is about a belief in God or in gods,” or “Religion is about believing in something superhuman/transcendent/otherworldly ,” or “Religion means to believe in higher powers.” My students also often describe religion as having some explanatory power: “Religion explains things that humans can’t know or don’t understand”—things like where the world came from, why we humans are here, and what happens after we die. Relatedly, students suggest that in the past, before the advent of scientific worldviews, religion explained natural phenomena that otherwise mystified and more often than not terrified human beings: famine, floods, pestilence, disease. Frequently, students propose that religion in addition has some connection to ethics and morality: “Religion provides a rulebook, or guidelines on how to live one’s life”; “Religion furnishes a system of laws for human behavior”; “Religion articulates the values for living a moral life.” When I listen to these answers, I hear two things. First, I hear my students telling me that religion is hard to define: it is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon that means different things to different people. Indeed, according to one scholar, trying to answer the question “What is religion?”is a little like the traditional Indian story of the six blind men who are asked to define an elephant by feeling different parts of its body. For the blind man who feels the leg, the elephant is like a pillar; for the blind man who feels the ear, the elephant is like a fan; for the blind man who feels the tail, the elephant is like a rope, and so on. The moral of the story is that no one of the blind men is right, but that when they put all their impressions of the elephant together,they do have a definition of an elephant. 298 Susan Ackerman But note that to get to an accurate definition of an elephant, it takes six blind men touching the elephant all over (head, tail, legs, side, tusk, trunk), and this brings me to the second thing I hear when I listen to my students try to answer the question “What is religion?”on the first day of class: these students usually haven’t learned enough at that point to talk about religion all over the globe. Rather, the parts of religion they tend to describe come very much out of what they have “touched” or been touched by in their lives, which is to say: their answers to the question “What is religion?” overwhelmingly reflect their own experience and the worldview of the communities they live in. Because most of my students are American, this means they tend to describe religion based on their experience of Christianity,the religious tradition that dominates in the United States. Indeed, according to the Pew Research Center “Religious Landscape Study,” about 71 percent of Americans identify as Christians, while only 6 percent identify as members of other religious traditions—the rest identify as unaffiliated.What’s more, the Pew “Religious Landscape Study”tells us that about two-thirds of these American Christians are a part of Christianity’s many different Protestant denominations. This helps me understand why my students,when I ask them to define religion, respond most often with answers that focus on belief (“religion means believing in higher powers” or the like): it is because principles regarding belief are cornerstones of the Protestant Christian traditions that my students as Americans (whether they themselves are Protestants or not) know best.In fact,according to the founder of Protestantism,the German theologian Martin Luther (1483–1546), the “doctrine by which the church stands or falls”is the conviction that salvation comes to Protestants “when they believe that they are received into [God’s] favor and that their sins are forgiven” (emphasis mine). Luther called this precept sola fide,or the doctrine of salvation through “faith alone”; also foundational for Luther was the doctrine he called sola scriptura, or the doctrine that maintains all Christian dogma and teaching must be derived from “scripture alone.” By scripture,Luther means the Christian Bible,both the Christian Old Testament and New Testament, but for him the New Testament, with its focus on Jesus, Christianity’s founder and savior, clearly has priority. Jesus’s teachings in...


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