The World of Religion: An Overview of Human Spirituality
Lead Author(s): Jan Hatcher
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The World of Religion and Spirituality is an overview of the development of religious thought and practice within the context of developing and evolving humankind.
Here is where we live - on this planet, floating in space, orbiting a star, in a solar system of planets, asteroids, and moons, in a galaxy of solar systems orbiting around other stars, in a vast expanse of space about which we know very little.
- How did all of this arise?
- How did life emerge from matter?
- Is there a greater being that created everything? If so, what is its nature?
- Is there a purpose to it all, and if so, what is that purpose?
- How are we to best live together?
- How can we minimize our own suffering, and the suffering of others?
- What happens when we die? Does part of our being persist?
- How do we best live our lives? In the midst of so many options, what choices do we make?
These questions have been with us as human beings since very early in our evolution and have guided the development of religious thought and behavior around the world. The life of early humans was very different from ours in some significant ways, with daily activities focused more on physical survival than on improving quality of life. As we have evolved and our physical survival has become easier for most, we have had more time and space to turn our attention to improving life for ourselves and others, and to ponder these bigger life questions. It is out of this space, this attempt at understanding our world, life, and the purpose of our existence, that our religious traditions have arisen, developed, and evolved over thousands, tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of years. From the ritual burying of the dead in our early tribes to a current-day pilgrimage to Mecca, Jerusalem, or Bodh Gaya, our religious systems have grown to impact every aspect of life for some and many aspects for others. THESE phenomena are what we will be exploring in the following chapters.
But, why study religion? Is it relevant in today’s world? In our culture we can get the impression that the practice of religion in the world is declining, that the world is becoming more secular. Yet, according to the Pew Research Center, our world is becoming more religious. With the growing diversity and evolving demographic within our cultures around the world, we now regularly live, work, and socialize with people from very different backgrounds from our own. Instead of relying on political leaders or the media to influence our understanding of each other as human beings, it is vitally important that we seek to more accurately understand the religious thought, practice, and influences on who we are as individuals and how we perceive the meaning of life, which directly impacts how we live our lives and relate to one another, individually and on a global scale.
I am passionate about religious literacy, in service to helping promote more harmonious relations among individuals and fostering genuine, enduring world peace, which I believe is possible. As a species, we are facing critical issues related to our survival, and it is in our cooperation as human beings that we can hope to find solutions to these issues that will improve the experience of life for all of us, and for future generations. I believe a deeper and more accurate understanding of who we are as human beings and the similarities that connect us all will help foster our movement toward our cooperative, peaceful existence. I am grateful for the opportunity to play a part in this effort. I hope you enjoy the journey of this course through a brief history and understanding of religion and spirituality in our world, and that from this, you will take with you a better understanding of yourself and those around you.
Figure 2: Image created by author, Jan Hatcher-Conquest.