W is for…
As you saw in yesterday’s post V is for…Vampires I have a fascination for the supernatural and as such coming into contact with shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Charmed and films such as The Worst Witch, Practical Magic and The Craft etc has also introduced me to Wicca. This is a topic that I have and will no doubt write about within my creative writings.
I have recently discovered one of my friends is Wiccan and conversations I have had with her reminded me of this essay on religion I wrote in 2004 when studying the now discontinued Open University (S is for…Studying) course A103 – An Introduction to the Humanities (Please do not use this work as your own, I have acknowledged my sources – plus I’m not telling you what grade I got so this may well be a load of rubbish!). It actually only mentions Wicca very briefly and references one quite nice basic introduction text for any readers interested in starting their own academic study into this fascinating religion.
This post also links to U is for…Understanding as one of the things that inspired me to pick Wicca as the religion to examine for this was the news story I reference where the cliché and incorrect image of the actions of Wiccans was represented. I hope you find the essay interesting for examining any unfamiliar religion.
In an essay of no more than 1200 words explain how a student of religion who may or may not have religious convictions would set about examining a religion with which they are unfamiliar. (Open University, A103, TMA 06 question, 2004)
Study of religion should be academic in the sense that it is not of practical relevance to the individual but only of theoretical interest (The Oxford Dictionary of English, 2003). Study of an unfamiliar religion should be undertaken following the same methodologies that for example a student of an unfamiliar period of history would utilise.
Objectivity and careful examination of the textual evidence must guide their approach, whether these texts are sacred books, accounts from followers of the religion, works of art or observation of festivals and ceremonies.
The student of religion will undoubtedly face a number of difficulties when examining an unfamiliar religion. It may be complicated for them to view certain values and beliefs without judgement, and this may be compounded with comparisons to their own religious beliefs. A student may use study to ‘find a religion in which to believe’ (Block 4, p. 27), but this type of study is not likely to be academic in approach due to its practical, subjective aim and is therefore not advised in this instance.
Further problems may arise when viewing religions in cultures and societies alien to those that were around at their inception, and therefore care should be taken to place religion within its historical, social and cultural contexts (Block 4, p. 9).
Initially great importance should be placed on setting a definition of religion which is to guide study. Without a definition how is the student to know what and how to study?
Religion as a concept is a relatively new and Western term and most dictionary definitions emphasise those characteristics of religion that only Christianity embraces but these definitions often exclude other religions (Block 4, p. 32-34). Followers of ‘religions’ such as Hinduism actually refute this term preferring to consider their faith as more of a way of life or in their own language dharma (Block 4, p. 56). However a student of religion has to have a definition on which to base study and this definition should be specific, flexible and free from prejudice (Block 4, p. 33).
Many different definitions have been offered, each with their own strengths and limitations and on balance a combination of two different definitions appears to provide the religious studies student a broad enough basis for study, enabling them to identify the particular characteristics of religion they need to study.
Firstly we will utilise the substantive definition (pointing to distinguishing characteristics) supplied by Steve Bruce (1995, p. xi in Block 4, p. 37),
Religion, then, consists of beliefs, actions, and institutions which assume the existence of supernatural entities with powers of action, or impersonal powers or processes possessed of moral purpose.
This combined with Ninian Smart’s seven-dimensional model of religion will assist the student to expand on their knowledge of religion and hopefully direct them in their approach. The seven dimensions are the, practical and ritual, experiential and emotional, narrative or mythical, doctrinal and philosophical, ethical and legal, social and institutional and finally the material (Resource Book 3, A5, p. 34-45).
The Arts Good Study Guide (2002, p. 219) suggests that Religious Studies is an inter-disciplinary subject in which many different types of texts are analysed. Religion is complex and encompasses many aspects of human life and because of this a student of religion will use elements of historical, psychological, sociological, anthropological and linguistic research as well as examining religious texts, works of art, philosophies and places of worship (Block 4, p. 48). The use of such varied academic disciplines, as Art History, Psychology, Literature and Architecture brings with them certain principles of methodological research for the student to adhere to.
The academic discipline of Sociology is used to study Religion in relation to society as a whole and looks at the origin and evolution of Religion in relation to this (Haralambos, 1991). It examines the development of religion in response to humans trying to make sense of the world around them. Malinowski (in Haralambos, 1991, p. 649) identified that religious ritual tends to centre on ‘life crises’ such as birth, puberty, marriage and death. It would therefore be necessary for the student to investigate these ceremonies and their relationship to religion.
Anthropological studies have identified that in all known societies there is some sort of belief in the supernatural (substantive definition) and certain rituals related to this, whether in worship or to placate spirits (Haralambos, 1991, p. 645).
Historically new religious movements and sects have developed around the time of great social change (Haralambos, 1991) and it would be necessary to discover what needs (emotional, social and psychological) developed at these times that would drive people to look for new forms of religious expression.
An ideal place for the student to start their research would be by investigating the written texts surrounding a religion. This could involve reading a generalised book to garner a basic knowledge of the religion which may in turn help with the formulation of questions and aims for further study.
It would most certainly involve study of the sacred texts of the religion and in some cases this may involve use of copies translated into the student’s own language. Specialised terminology would need elucidation in order for the student to understand testimonies from the religions followers.
Methodologies utilised in Sociology would be particularly relevant to apply to the study of religion. Questionnaires and Interviews (Haralambos, 1991) could be carried out with leaders and followers of religions allowing comparison between ideologies in different geographical areas without the costs involved in travel to these areas. The student would have to be careful to account for differences in experiences presented and would have to be aware of other factors for that diversity such as, in the Hindu tradition, differing social status provided under the caste system (Resource Book 3, A6, p. 46-52).
Study of religion through written sources alone may however provide the student with a stilted, one-dimensional view of the religion and would not allow complete understanding of the functional benefits of the religion claimed by its followers.
Scientific methods may be used for example to test the benefits of Transcendental Meditation (Block 4, p. 53).
In an ideal situation then, a student of religion, in order to truly understand a religion would have to participate actively in it. It has been identified that this act of participation is the only way for an ‘outsider’ to truly understand what a religious ceremony or ritual ‘feels’ like. Observation and testimony gives only generalised accounts. The student has to become an ‘insider’. There have also been debates about whether a student who holds no religious beliefs of their own can even, in becoming an ‘insider’, understand that religious experience with nothing to compare it to (Block 4, p. 48-50).
A benefit of participant observation (Haralambos, 1991, p. 741) is that a student is less likely to impose their reality on it; they have to gain the trust of other participants in order to be allowed to share in their rituals. A student who clearly doesn’t respect them will not be allowed to participate. There is one clear difficulty that a student may have in arranging this participation. Gender issues could exclude women from participating in male dominated religious ceremonies and this exclusion in turn could lead to the student developing negative views of such a dividing religion.
The student themselves would then have to demonstrate personal values of open-mindedness, respect, objectivity, impartiality and subscribe to being non-judgemental in approaching unfamiliar religions (Block 4, p. 46). Humans are fallible and despite all attempts to follow the proceeding guidelines there may be elements in the religion in question that are in direct contrast with their own moral beliefs and therefore difficult to accept.
One example of an ethical difficulty a student may face could be in observing a Sikh who carries the kirpan, or dagger. The student may because of moral/legal guidelines in Britain regarding a dagger as an offensive weapon may believe that the Sikh is demonstrating anti-social tendencies and is incorrect in their belief.
However if they were to objectively study the reason behind this, they would be able to identify that this is symbolic of the time when Sikhs were under threat from Muslims and had to wear the kirpan as protection (Resource Book 3, A3, p. 20). Even with this information the student may still disagree with this aspect of the religion but they should be able to offer more understanding of the importance of this aspect of faith to the Sikh based on the cultural/originating traditions behind this action.
Another problem that may be experienced is when study starts in response to a sensationalised representation. Portrayal of minority religions in the media can present the student with a biased and often negative view of the religion creating a negative approach to study. Fear of the unknown often leads to a negative portrayal and wish to dismiss the claims of the religion as false. An article in The Sunday Mail (27th June 2004) describing the inclusion of followers of Wiccan and pagan religions in the development in government policy was presented in clearly negative terms. The article was presented alongside a picture of a semi naked woman on a pentagram with a dagger and littered with phrases such as ‘costing the taxpayer’, ‘fears that young people might convert to the ‘faith’’ and ‘this Government seems prepared to take any religion seriously, except Christianity’.
This narrow-minded view of the Wiccan faith marred by negative connotations would need, in an academic study, to be reviewed with caution. When critically analysing this as a source for evidence of the acceptability of Wicca as a religion hopefully it would be in parts disregarded as political propaganda. For example the fact that the inclusion of Wiccans in government policy is ‘costing the taxpayer’ should be irrelevant as Wiccans are also taxpayers.
When simply examining an introductory guide to Wicca enough evidence could be found to fit all seven dimensions of Smart’s definition and Bruce’s substantive definition (Crowley, 2000). Wicca shares a belief in Gods and Goddess’ (supernatural belief, substantive definition and narrative/mythical dimension), practitioners celebrate annual events through worship and ritual (practical/ritual and social/institutional dimension). They have a respect for all life and nature (doctrinal/philosophical and ethical/legal dimension) and the ultimate goal of achieving a personal tranformatory experience of the Divine (experiential/emotional dimension). The use of daggers (material dimension) is like in Sikhism symbolic rather for the sacrificial reasons most people associate with Satanism (which is nothing to do with the Wiccan tradition). Academic study of religion clearly helps to refute some of the negative preconceptions people may hold about these religions.
To conclude a student of religion despite having or not having their own religious convictions would be expected to set about examining an unfamiliar religion in the same way as they would any other academic subject. They would be expected to use methodologies from all relevant humanities and scientific disciplines in order to give them an all encompassing view of the religion which they are studying. A definition of religion and its characteristics needs to be identified as a guide to this study. As well as studying the religion in the students own society they would also need to attempt to understand the religion in context, historically and geographically, for example TV14 and TV15 clearly show that the Hindu religion as manifested in Liverpool and Calcutta is diverse, despite coming from the same mythical tradition.
It has been shown, in relation to Wicca that even when approaching a religion from a negatively biased stance that by applying an appropriate definition of religion to guide study an objective, respectful view of that religion can result.
Religions naturally evolve over time and between societies and the student needs to demonstrate an awareness of this when making judgements especially in the controversial area of truth and falsity.
They will need to accept that even if they are not on a religious quest any beliefs/non-beliefs they have may be challenged.
In Block 4 (p. 52) when looking at how the student may come across evidence that demonstrates the truth or falsity of religion it was noted that,
… religious conviction, even when it appeals to reason and logic, more often that not assigns a greater importance to acts of faith, to personal experience and/or to the authority of a religious teacher or sacred book.
I would class myself as a Christian and I also believe I am able to approach other religions with objectivity and respect. I find myself drawn to certain practices from many different religions and also accept the scientific explanation of evolution (which disputes the Christian story of creation). However I still find myself in challenging times praying to the Christian God for guidance. Religion, in whatever form appears necessary to all societies and therefore the Academic Study of Religion remains vital.
Chambers, E. and Northedge, A. (1997) The Arts Good Study Guide, Milton Keynes, The Open University.
Crowley, V (2000) Thorsens First Directions: Wicca, London, Thorsens (Harper Collins Publishers)
Haralambos, M. and Holborn, M (1991) Sociology: Themes and Perspectives, (3rd ed), London, CollinsEducational (Harper Collins Publishers)
Lewis, J (2004), Blair Witch Project, The Mail on Sunday (27th June) p. 15
The Open University (2003) An Introduction to the Humanities: Religion & Science in context (Block 4), Milton Keynes, The Open University
A3: John Bowker, ‘I live by faith: the religions described’
A5: Ninian Smart, ‘The nature of a religion and the nature of secular worldviews’
A6: David R. Kinsley, ‘Introduction: Benares’
The Open University (2003) An Introduction to the Humanities: Resource Book 3, Milton Keynes, The Open University.
The Open University (2004) An Introduction to the Humanities: TV14: What Is Religion, BBC2.
The Open University (2004) An Introduction to the Humanities: TV15: Looking For Hinduism In Calcutta, BBC2.
Soanes, C. and Stevenson, A (ed.) (2003) Oxford Dictionary of English, (2nd ed), Oxford, Oxford University Press
Living TV (2004) Joan of Arcadia, Living TV
Sears, N (2004), Girl of 15 fights for her ‘human right’ to go to school in this dress, The Daily Mail (Friday 28th May) p. 11
The Open University (2003) An Introduction to the Humanities: Audio-visual Notes 1, Milton Keynes, The Open University.
The Open University (2003) An Introduction to the Humanities: Resource Book 3, Milton Keynes, The Open University.