Religion in a Changing World: Comparative Studies in Sociology

By Madeleine Cousineau | Go to book overview

PART I
INDIVIDUAL RELIGION, CHOICE, AND IDENTITY

Religion is a system of meanings. It is a way that people have of making sense of their lives, although it is not the only way. Many people have personal philosophies that are not linked to religion. Those who do choose to be religious have a set of values that they connect to something beyond the here and now. These values may shape the great and small decisions that they make. For example, prayer may be a means of discerning appropriate courses of action in various situations and a way of relieving anxiety during times of personal difficulties, such as when one faces the problem of family violence. Religious customs are used to mark the important events of a person's life--the birth of a child, the death of a loved one, marriage, and rituals to celebrate entry into adulthood, such as bar mitzvah or confirmation.

The mention of choice in religion suggests an orientation that is relatively new, historically speaking. Ancient peoples did not think of religion as a choice. Their spiritual beliefs were totally integrated into their cultures, into their ideas about nature. People did not usually question the absolute truth of those beliefs. In later times, people who did question prevailing religious beliefs suffered serious persecution and even death. This was the fate not only of Christians in ancient Rome. In the Middle Ages, when Christians were themselves in control of the political system, they persecuted those who held on to pre-Christian beliefs, including both Jews and pagans, and labeled those who came up with newer ideas as "heretics." It is interesting to note that the word "heretic" comes from the Greek hairētikos, which means "able to choose." It is only in modern societies that people have been able to take for granted that there is a choice, that one may switch between different denominations, seek a religion that affirms one's cultural or racial identity, or renew the commitment to one's original belief system.

Choices exist because modern societies are pluralistic, that is, they offer a variety of possibilities, including religious possibilities. This is a consequence of secularization. Although people often think of secularization as the end of religion,

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