Summer Study Review – Part 1

One of the joys of retirement is having the time to explore new things (and the freedom to post a blog when you want).  As I have previously done with my deep learning explorations, this post begins a series of blogs on the topic.

Last summer, I had prepared for the oppressive Florida heat with an ambitious summer reading program. My original study focus was learning more about global religions, but then I took a turn into history in general.  I did not complete reading all the books I have purchased, so I do have more to explore. This blog post focuses on my insights into religion in general and some of the ah-ha’s I have, so far.

Books read to date: The History of God by Karen Armstrong; God is Not One by Stephen Prothero; The Tao of Inner Peace by Diane Dreher; Rediscover Catholicism by Mathew Kelly; Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari; The 1619 Project by Nikole Hannah-Jones; and a great (long) article on race (link here for the scientific debate over race).

Religion is an attempt to find meaning and value in life, to explain why we are here, and to help us relate to the natural world around us. It is a metaphorical attempt to describe the complex reality of human existence, to explain the powerful but unseen forces (mysteries) that surround us, to provide significance to historical events/stories, to provide comfort/hope in the harsh reality of living, and to lay down rules for society. 

Just like there are many economic systems and political regimes, there are many different religions…. an estimated 10,000 worldwide, counting sects. (Wow!) But there are a smaller number of dominant religions and each major global religion also has a number of significant sects. Sects (branches) of a religion form as offshoots, often following a different charismatic leader; they are often originally viewed as atheist or heretical cults (and persecuted). Sects within a single religion can hold strong differing beliefs and ethics/morals.

The range of religions and religious beliefs is fascinating: Religions differ in what they perceive as “wrong” with the world and therefore what the “solution” is. Only religions that see “God is good” are concerned with existence of evil. Only religions that believe “humans have souls” wonder about life after death. Not everyone believes there is any God, nor does everyone believe there is just one God (monotheism). To some religions words, doctrine, and contemplation are more important; to other religions deeds, actions, and rituals are more important. Religion to many is a way of life.  Some religions are inherited (you are born that way), while others are about conversion (missionary evangelical).

Most religions have consistent themes (social justice, love thy neighbor, harmony with nature) but differ in adapting the concepts to pragmatically work for their culture. The three major monotheist religions believe they alone have the one and only “God message” and only their beliefs and dogmas are the “right” ones. Therefore they also tend to discredit all other religions, be intolerant of other beliefs, and violently repress other religions to the point of attempting to exterminate them. Religions have been both a great force of good and great force of evil in world history (often within same religion).

While not all recognized religions believe in a god, it is generally agreed that a religion includes the belief in existence of supernatural (science-defying) powers or divinity entitled to worship, obedience, service, and/or honor, and has faith in that entity that goes beyond the capacities of reason and logic.

My Ah-ha’s:

  • Most authors write within their assumed beliefs. For example, if an author believes in monotheism, they will not acknowledge polytheism. 
  • Not all authors will fact check; that means you cannot believe everything you read in a book.
  • Even though I was “raised Catholic” I do not really know the Roman Catholic religion’s doctrines. I understand some of the core beliefs, but not the Pillars of the Church.
  • Understanding the differences in religious beliefs made me realize some of my own beliefs, and that they are not “universal truths”.
  • Islam is actually the largest religion in the world, and faster growing than Catholicism (which is number 2 in the world & the largest sect of Christianity).  However, Christianity has had a stronger impact on global culture because of European Imperialism. Mormon is the fastest growing Christian sect.
  • Hinduism is considered the oldest religion and third largest globally with most practitioners living in India. Hindu traditions give us karma, reincarnation, and yoga.
  • Confucianism is the root of Chinese mores and shaped Chinese thinking, politics, economy, and culture… as well as much of Southeast Asia culture. It has core values of industriousness/hard work, thrift, family, loyalty, duty, respect for authority, and learning.  Confucianism does not have a belief in any god and so some would say it is not a religion but “merely an ideology”.
  • When you look at history, there really is not a “separation of Church and State” (no matter what we believe in the USA).
  • So many religions have the same premise: The life and teachings of Fill-in-The-Blank (Jesus Christ, Buddha, Lao Tzu, Confucius, and Mohammad) are the personification of truth, sincerity, and authenticity and show us the best way to live life.

Many of core differences in religions challenge my own beliefs (as in which side do I fall on):

  • Are doctrines/writings figurative language, creative imagery, and mystical intuition or are they intellectual, analytical, literal, logical interpretations?
  • Should social justice be more about an “eye for an eye” vengefulness or “turn the other cheek” forgiveness?
  • Is God-connection (Divine Spirit connection) a direct communication or dialogue for the masses (i.e. anyone can talk to God) or a centralized connection through an intellectual elite?
  • Is community harmony with beliefs that value etiquette/manners, rituals/traditions, propriety/courtesy, altruism, respect for authority, and duty more important? Or is individual freedom to do “what you want, when you want”, that values questioning authority, encourages freethinking & new ways of doing things, and focuses on flow (be in present moment) more important?  This is the difference between the collective formal community of Confucianism and the individuality of Taoism, and also the shift from older to modern America. How do you find the balance of acceptance of individual uniqueness and respect for community?

It has been fascinating to explore different belief systems to help clarify my own beliefs.  Is there a book about religion you recommend I add to my reading?

Picture – a sunrise this week being enjoyed by Taylor

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16 thoughts on “Summer Study Review – Part 1

  1. Hi Pat, I love how thoroughly you pursue topics! Thanks for sharing your insights. I’m not a part of any organized religion however I do believe in a ‘higher power’ and talk to that power often, sometimes just to thank them for what I have, other times to ask for protection or guidance.

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    1. I’m coming to that conclusion about myself as well. [Belief in a higher power.] What has been fascinating in this was the range of beliefs… things I thought were universal human beliefs actually are not. This idea made me push to clarify my own beliefs.

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  2. Hi Pat – I always admire how thoroughly you investigate something once you decide to look into it. I hope your research brings you to a deeper understanding of the spiritual side of yourself. I’ve always believed in God from as far back as I can remember – that belief is one of the cornerstones of my life and has sustained me through many difficult times – I like the idea that there is a bigger picture and a purpose for all the growth we go through (and for the accumulation of wisdom throughout our life).

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    1. Leanne, I know your beliefs are strong (a cornerstone as you say). As I was writing this, I was thinking about those with strong belief systems and didn’t want to offend them at all. I think because I’m a lapsed Catholic, this has been an interesting exploration to push me to clarify what I do believe… a higher power, an afterlife, a moral code. [And yes, the Bible (a full read through) is on my list of books to read. I expected you to recco it!]

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    1. It was interesting to read about the way some religions evolved. Most of the major religions today have a fundamentalist sect that raises the question about interpretation of the doctrines/tenets…at least to me. There’s also the difference between religions who focus on words (preach) and those that focus on action (practice what they preach) – yeah, it’s actually part of their religious belief system. And then there are those who claim a religion but really don’t practice it at all. So yeah, lots of muddy waters.

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  3. I had no idea there were more than 10,000 different religions. I was born and raised in an LDS (Mormon) family, not too surprising considering I live in Utah. I do not now participate in any organized religion. Still, I consider myself a spiritual person. I am drawn to many of the tenets of Buddhism, and I feel most spiritual in nature.

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    1. Christie, Buddhism is one I still need to explore more in depth (and yes, it’s one of the books on the shelf!). Many religions as they evolved took aspects of other religions. In fact, as I was reading some of the Catholic literature, I found myself thinking “this is so close to Tao tenets”. So I’ m thinking my own spirituality might be a mishmash of a few.

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  4. A boyfriend once dumped me because he said my spiritual attributes were nil. As he may have noticed, I’m not into religions of any kind, but I found this to be an informative, interesting and well-written post. Thank you!

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    1. I’m finding with this that I do have spiritual beliefs, but not necessarily aligned with any specific religion. I’m still trying to figure out what that looks like going forward.

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  5. Great blog. I look forward to your addition observations. The death of my nephew has me realizing that the belief in afterlife is probably a human response to grief. It is unbearable to think of a child as dead. Why in the heck would I wake up in the morning with such unbearable grief? One needs to believe the dead are united with grandparents, happy. We need to believe that we will see that person again. It doesn’t make it real but it’s what the living need in order to continue living.

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    1. I don’t disagree with you as I do believe in some type of afterlife. But it was fascinating to learn that it is not a universal human belief. For me, those differences in what I would have thought were universal “truths” was really eye opening. And made me clarify some of my own beliefs.

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