4.2.2.1 Religions and Religious Diversity

(This is a current page, from the Patterns of Power Edition 3 book contents.  An archived copy of this page is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/4221.htm)

The monotheistic Abrahamic religions divided into the three main streams of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.[1]  Each of these has then further divided into sects.  And there are other, non-Abrahamic, religions: Buddhism, Hinduism and others.  It is not relevant in this book to analyse why there are so many religions and sects, only to take account of the fact that they exist, that many of their followers are sincere, and that some are passionate.  They each believe that they are right, and it is clearly unrealistic for any of them to expect to convert the whole world to their way of thinking.  They illustrate people’s inherent diversity (2.2).

Each religion has a sacred narrative, which is documented in religious texts which illustrate and explain its doctrines: mythos and logos.[2]  Each prescribes rituals which symbolise important parts of its narrative and uses them in collective worship as an act of obedience which strongly binds the group together.  The narratives, doctrines and rituals are visible signs of differences between religious groups, but these groups also have a lot in common: notably in their objective of providing moral leadership to instruct people how to behave towards others.

There is a history of confrontation, both between the main streams and between the sects in each of them.  A sect defines itself in relation to other sects by highlighting the differences between them; members of a sect may resist assimilation into wider society as a way of preserving their sense of identity and self-respect.  The schism between Sunni and Shi’a was described by the BBC as being caused by a leadership dispute, for example, and Martin Luther launched The Protestant Reformation by challenging the authority of the Pope.  Both these divisions led to war between religious groups whose authoritative texts urged them to be peaceful.

Religion is not a ‘zero-sum game’, where there can be only one ‘winner’.  For a Southern Baptist to be right, it is not necessary for a Sunni Muslim to be wrong in terms of their beliefs: they both believe in (the same) God, but express their beliefs in different words; they have different religious practices and quote different religious texts.  They might both have faith and a strong sense of morality.  One could say that different religious groups believe many of the same things but, through circumstances of time, place and upbringing, they are using different language to legitimise their beliefs.  They all take their religious beliefs as authority for the behaviour that they preach.  As noted in the next sub-section (4.2.2.2), religions all agree on the Golden Rule – despite their diversity in other matters.

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[1] Karen Armstrong describes the separation of the Abrahamic religions in The Great Transformation, pp.  379-390.

[2] The term mythos should not be confused with a popular use of the word “myth” to mean something that is widely believed but false.  Mythos is used here in the scholarly sense of the word: to refer to a collection of sacred stories that represent the truth of existence, as perceived and experienced by the people who believe in them.  A mythos is a narrative which is axiomatically true to those who have faith in it.  The term logos is used to describe doctrinal instruction and reasoning.

Karen Armstrong describes the role of religious texts, and the concepts of mythos and logos, in the introduction to her book The Battle for God.