Mezquita interior: Cordoba, Spain

Mezquita interior: Cordoba, Spain


Begin this unit of inquiry by reminding the class of two of the interesting conclusions of Kwame Appiah’s 2014 TED talk, Is Religion Good or Bad? in Introduction to the varieties of religious experience.  Appiah stated that the Dalai Lama is an atheist. He also mentioned a Rabbi who said the great thing about being Jewish is that you do not have to believe in God; you have to believe in being Jewish.

For many religions: belonging can be more important than belief.

Next, revisit the succinct definition for religion offered at the interactive BBC site in the same unit:

Religion can be explained as a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.

Jared Diamond offers a broader and more detailed distillation. He offers a constellation of five sets of attributes, which vary in strength amongst the world’s religions (including the traditional religions found in Indigenous Knowledge Systems):

  1. Religion is the belief in a postulated supernatural agent for whose existence our senses can’t give us evidence, but which is invoked to explain things of which our senses do give us evidence.

  2. They are social movements of people who identify themselves as sharing deeply held beliefs.

  3. Their adherents make costly or painful sacrifices that convincingly display to others the adherents’ commitment to the group.

  4. Belief has practical consequences for how people should behave.

  5. Many religions teach that supernatural agents not only reward virtuous rule-obeying people and punish evil-doers and rule-breakers, but also can be induced by prayers, donations and sacrifices to intervene on behalf of mortal petitioners.

Diamond, Jared (2012: 329-331) The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies?Penguin, New York.

religion/religiosity VS. personal faith

Here is a perspective from author, broadcaster, comparative religion guru, and former Catholic nun, Karen Armstrong: 

Karen Armstrong declares that “belief is only a recent religious enthusiasm.” For Armstrong being religious is more about adopting certain behaviors, than accepting dogmatic propositions. She refers to leaping in, committing to the behaviors of a chosen religion conscientiously, trusting that understanding will emerge soon enough through the process itself. Armstrong agrees with the Koranic idea that any attempt to pin down metaphysical questions precisely is “self-indulgent guesswork!”

Armstrong champions the fact that all major religions include a version of the Golden Rule. For fun, and to bookmark students' newly acquired appreciation of a range of religions, as we approach the end of our Religious Knowledge Systems Unit of Inquiry, challenge students to identify the seven religions by their symbols in the Golden Rule graphic above.


  • Armstrong tends to treat as anomalous or marginal the blood-soaked history of many of the world’s major religions. She also downplays specific religious dogmata, most fundamentalism and even belief in God itself. In your view, this too narrow a view of religion? According to Armstrong what remains?

  • Is Armstrong's perspective compatible with the following “working definition” of religion by philosopher, Daniel Dennett:

    "Social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent whose approval is to be sought."

Dennett, D. (2006: 9) Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. Viking, New York. 

The Dennett encapsulation is a foreshadowing of our final unit in Religious Knowledge Systems: Encounter with radical atheism.

Printable pdf. of the various definitions and questions.

Peter Paul Rubens (c. 1629)   Fall of the Damned.  Oil on canvas. Alte Pinakothek, Munich.

Peter Paul Rubens (c. 1629) Fall of the Damned. Oil on canvas. Alte Pinakothek, Munich.