RLST 001H                                                                           Philip Jenkins



This introductory class addresses the question of why a very similar range of religious patterns and practices appears in the great majority of human societies, past and present. Whether in major world faiths or "primal" religions, people tend to do the same things as part of religious behavior, regardless of the scriptures or teachings specific to that particular culture. I would in a sense be exploring the "building blocks" of religion, elements that are found in all the major world religions, though often they are dismissed as folk religion or superstition. To take an obvious example, the idea of making pilgrimage to the tombs or shrines of holy men and women is well known in the context of Christianity and Buddhism, but also appears in aspects of Islam and Judaism, in which the practice is sometimes condemned as superstitious. Similar "religious" elements also appear in secular or even anti-religious societies, though usually stripped of any obviously spiritual component. 

Generally, even the best Religious Studies textbooks in this area use approaches that I believe are misleading, or perhaps unbalanced. In order to make the complex material comprehensible to a student audience, textbook writers usually present the various religious traditions as discrete units, paying insufficient attention to common themes and patterns. In addition, they commonly place too much emphasis on texts and scriptures, rather than the actual lived experience of the religions in question. Consciously or otherwise, this approach lends support to the rather dated idea of "high" and "low" religion. In this view, those people following the approved scriptural norms are the correct practitioners of the religion, while out there in the wilds, ordinary people are pursuing strange customs that derive from folk-custom, and may represent survivals of older religions. Obviously, I am oversimplifying, but the textbooks do reflect a strong prejudice towards the textual.

As we look around the world, though, we see that certain themes occur in virtually all societies with any notion of religion (which is basically all of them), and even those that are not obviously religious use the same notions in secularized form. This commonality is not all a result of influences from one people to another, since the same basic themes appear even in newly contacted societies never before in contact with the great societies of either West or East. These ideas and practices can be seen as the building blocks of religion, which emerge most powerfully in primal faiths, but which remain as undercurrents in the great religions. In discussing these vestigial presences, these underlying survivals, I use the linguistic concept of "interference," the term for how one's original speech affects speaking patterns when a person tries and use a new language.

These kinds of interference exercise a powerful influence on religious practice, to the extent that major religions face significant problems when they try to exclude them altogether. Periodically through history, in all great religions, reformers seek to purge such fringe beliefs and practices, and demand a return to the sources of the religion, to the strict letter of the Bible, the Quran or the Vedas. Time and again, though, the underlying practices return, either within the mainstream religion itself, or else through the vehicle of new religious movements.

The concept of underlying common themes in religion is not new. This is the core idea we find in Jung's theory of archetypes, the images of the collective unconscious that appear worldwide in dreams, myths and fairy stories. More recently, new theories about the structure and workings of the brain have suggested that certain kinds of religious behavior are "hard-wired" into the human mind, that religious states are an aspect of evolutionary biology. Books and media articles have explored ideas like The Biology of Religious Experience, even The "God" Part of the Brain. [1]  These biologically determinist ideas -"NeuroTheology" - are controversial because they seem to reduce human spirituality to the interplay of neurons.

My approach, however, is different from these varieties of "universalism." I am quite comfortable with biological approaches to behavior - I have taught courses on biocriminology, and my research on designer drugs means that I am reasonably familiar with the world of neurochemistry. I would certainly incorporate some of these recent findings about the biochemical bases of mood, trance, exaltation, and so on. But I believe that many of the common religious themes arise from fairly obvious facts of human existence, and do not require any elaborate knowledge of biology or biochemistry. Arguably, one of the best ways to trace the "roots of religion" is to observe small children, with their obsessive ritualism and powerful sense of taboo, their rich awareness of places possessed of good or evil powers.

So what are these common facts that apply to human beings in virtually all times and places? Students will usually come up with their own list of "universals", so we can then explore the religious themes that arise from them. This is a clear means of introducing the reader to the basic structures of religion - the substructures, if we prefer. In each case, I point to the themes common to all of us as human beings, and indicate how they give rise to religious beliefs or practices, illustrated from various societies and cultures past and present. We might use a highly contemporary example - such as people arguing and trying to bargain with computers or ATM machines - before moving on to some more formal and overtly "religious" expression.

Throughout, we can use examples from primal religions, but also stress how these same ideas run through the "higher" faiths. To take an example, after discussing building blocks like breath and speech, I would note how they are transform in the "great" religions, how for instance breath becomes sacralized as prana, ruach, pneuma, and so on.


1.Natural Religion?

Even in an advanced post-industrial nation like the US, we can find a very large range of popular practices and behaviors that resemble those of primal religions, as well as of the underlying strata of other world religions. Though unexamined, popular religiosity has much in it that is broadly "primal". In fact, such examples are so abundant as to raise serious questions about the definition of the term "religious". Is a belief in Santa Claus religious? Is UFO belief religious? If you can "desecrate" a US flag, does that mean that it is a religious object? Just what - if anything - is the difference between "superstition" and "real" religion? Who decides?

Lots of seemingly "primal" examples can be cited here, including the ubiquitous practice of throwing coins in fountains or other convenient bodies of water. We also think of the practices of visitors to the Vietnam Memorial, which is obviously seen as a point of contact between living and dead. People reflect this belief by leaving all manner of goods and objects for the dead. [2] 

Another good example of non-specific religiosity is the kind of popular shrine that appears at the site of a great tragedy, at which people leave flowers, teddy bears and so on. Or we might take the folklore surrounding such sites, the means by which urban legends develop: September 11 produced a very rich crop of such outpourings - including beliefs about omens, psychic linkages, and so on. The suggestion is that regardless of their formal religious affiliation or belief, people share common non-rational ideas about phenomena like violent death. Though these responses are commonly listed under headings like "superstition", they are in fact very close indeed to what in other societies would be formal religious activities and myth-making. Certain forms of popular religiosity seem - to use an unfashionable word - "natural", integral to human nature.


2.Being Ourselves

We can then try to explain what we have in common as human beings that explains these very broad cross-cultural similarities. Most basic to human consciousness is the sense of self: we exist, we are. This self-consciousness encourages a belief in an absolute reality of self external to the body. That does not mean of course that all societies have a belief in personal immortality, since they do not; but the notion of a soul or souls separate from the vehicle of flesh and blood is very common.

In addition, we are born and we die. This core identity that we possess must have come from somewhere, some other realm, and it must continue somewhere in some form. Intellectually, we know that we will die, but it is literally impossible for us to imagine our own non-existence. Even when we imagine our deaths, we do so in a form that supposes we are consciously watching the proceedings, observing the mourners leaving the graveside. If we imagine the grave, we see ourselves in some kind of extended sleep. We know that our identity must continue somewhere, in some form, giving rise to widespread ideas of an afterlife, perhaps in the form of reincarnation, of varieties of heaven and hell.

Finally, humans are children for a very long portion of their existence. Compared to other mammalian species, we spend a large proportion of our lives in a state of utter physical and psychological dependency on a larger and all-powerful figure or figures. Observers have long suggested that this fact contributes mightily to our willingness to hypothesize the existence of gods, angels, or superior figures, sources of wisdom and guidance. In earlier societies - though less in the modern world - the collective assemblage of ancestors and precursors serve this function.


3.Body, Breath and Blood

Some of the "universals" arise from the nature of the human body. From earliest times, people learned to associate the fact of life with our physical characteristics. Most obviously, we bleed, and when we bleed, we lose strength and vigor. We know that our continuing identity is dependent on the survival of crucial parts of this organism, which we identify with the basic forces of life. We also recall what hundreds of thousands of Americans did in response to September 11: they gave blood. Further back in history, we might think of the response to the Chicago crowd that witnessed the death of John Dillinger, as passers by dipped their handkerchiefs in his blood, to grasp a share of his power.

When we have identified blood as the source of life and strength, we have prepared the way for many cultural associations and activities, including the symbolism as red as a color of force and power. Very early in human societies too, the connection between blood and lunar cycles offered clear evidence of the linkage between the body and the universe, macrocosm and microcosm. Survival of our families or communities depends on dealing with the powerful forces of sexuality, in which we transmit the life force no less than life itself.

In addition to blood, the obvious connection between breathing and life demonstrated the significance of air and spirit. Human forces were linked to the natural world, and sickness was connected with those outside powers. All humans fall sick, and we know that spiritual forces can effect cures. Throughout modern history, the story of new religious movements in the West is commonly the story of the quest for spiritual healing, a gift seemingly refused by the mainstream faiths. Potentially "spiritual" concepts are also built in to the facts of our existence. We all eat to live: that is, we survive by eating other things that have been living, plants or animals. The death of others gives us life. This exchange demands reciprocity and exchange, perhaps through sacrifice, but at least through gratitude to higher powers. Once again, new religious movements have often been in the vanguard of struggles for new attitudes to food and eating, expressing a "natural" concern excluded from mainstream religion.

In this section, then, we see the "universal" roots of religious or superstitious activities such as sacrifice, blood taboos, exorcism, theories of possession, and spiritual healing.


4. Altered States

We can experience altered states, which we commonly identify with supernatural or spiritual realities. As recent work on neurochemistry has reminded us, we are programmed to feel awe and exaltation, and these feelings suggest the presence of the special, dreadful and holy, qualities that are located in particular persons, events, and places. We believe that some people are intrinsically closer to the higher realms. We visit holy places to seek the powers there, to draw from the merits of holy people. Likewise, we seem to know dread as well as awe, and possess a powerful sense of the evil inherent in places, to be shunned or tabooed. [3] In insanity and personality disorders, we see other forms of "alteration", which all too plausibly indicate the presence of new and hostile spirits who have displaced the true owner of the body in question.

Just as fundamental is the universal fact of dreaming, which tells us of other states of consciousness and reality beyond the everyday world. In dreams, the boundaries of reality collapse: animals can speak, the dead walk. We see here confirmation of higher and lower realms. In terms of primal religions, these facts sustain the belief in the Otherworld, the Dreamtime, in shamanism. Depending on the society, there are many ways of knowing altered states of consciousness, including fever, trance, drunkenness, or extreme stimulation. In such states, people believe they see visions and defy time, defy the borders between life and death.

When people try to convey the truths they learn in these other states, they do it by the standard means that humans try to make sense of the incomprehensible: they tell stories, make myths and legends. As Andrew Greeley remarks, religion was "experience, symbol, story (most symbols were inherently narrative) and community before it became creed, rite and institution "

From this section, then, we see the origin of such fundamental aspects of religious thought as holiness, prophecy, and visionary experience.


5.Making Sense of the World

In our relations with the outside world, we seem naturally to think and behave in ways that seem magical and even primitive. I have already mentioned the trivial example of the computer ("Please don't wipe that data"), but time and again, we see examples of human beings projecting our own realities. We think magically and analogically. We tend to believe in rational order: that there is a proper order of things, which if disturbed must be set right.

We also look for significance, and (despite all evidences to the contrary) we find it. We believe in correspondence, in special arrangements of order, which often depend on numbers. Numerical correspondences again reflect the human body, for instance the widespread beliefs concerning the numbers five and ten. To cite the September 11 example again, it was chilling to glimpse the upsurge of legends concerning the numerical significance of the event, all of which grew out of the number eleven. The twin towers of the World Trade Center physically resembled this number; the individual figures in 9-11 add up to 11; the first aircraft to hit the WTC was American Airlines Flight 11 from Boston; and so on. People clearly felt that these correspondences were of incalculable importance. [4]We look for order, and often we find it in the natural world, the skies. Though our climate and geography varies, we share some absolutely common external realities, in the form of sun, moon and stars.

We believe in reciprocity, hence the bargaining that so often marks our irrational processes. We assume that other beings and things must operate and think and act in ways comprehensible to us - in religious terms, we observe the principles of anthropomorphism and animism. These processes are powerfully obvious from our treatment of animals. We observe and interact with animals, try to think ourselves into their powers and attributes, and know that they must somehow interact with the Otherworld in various ways. A nice example here would be the miraculous intervention attributed to the dolphins that saved young Elian Gonzalez from death in the Caribbean waters when his family was fleeing Cuba. The story became a favorite with mural artists in Florida's Cuban communities.

Similarly, we believe in rational agency. We believe that things happen to us through the action of others, conscious or otherwise. In many societies, this idea of cause and effect gives rise to notions of witchcraft and all the attendant cures and protections.


6.Looking High and Low

Finally we can look at how these "primal" themes were transformed by the impact of literacy, and observe the shift to scripture- and clergy-based religions. The Old Testament offers a lot of striking examples of this kind of transformation, as a highly text-bound book seeks to convey the experiences of an oral and primal religion, often with some jarring inconsistencies resulting from the interface. We can also draw parallels with other major religions, especially Islam and Buddhism.



As a summary, then, these are the "building blocks" I have been discussing.


1. We ARE. We exist. We are conscious of a distinct identity.

2. We are born. This identity we possess must have come from somewhere.

3. We are children. We spend a large proportion of our lives as children in a state of utter physical and psychological dependency on a larger figure or figures. (gods; God)

4. We die. We know we will die, but we cannot imagine our own non-existence. We know that this identity must continue somewhere, in some form. (afterlife; reincarnation)

5. We get sick in mind or body. We need to know the cause of these conditions, and to seek help and healing. (exorcism; possession)

6. We bleed. We know that our continuing identity is dependent on the survival of crucial parts of this organism, which we identify with the basic forces of life.

7. We dream. We know that there are other states of consciousness and reality other than the everyday world. (otherworld; dreamtime)

8. We can experience other altered states of consciousness, through fever, trance, drunkenness, or extreme stimulation. (trance; vision)

9. We tell stories. We use narrative to make sense of the world around us (myth-making)

10. We project our own realities. We assume that other beings and things must operate and think and act in ways comprehensible to us. (anthropomorphism;  animism)

11. We believe in rational agency. We believe that things that happen to us occur through the action of others, conscious or otherwise. (witchcraft)

12. We think magically and analogically. (magic)

13. We tend to believe in rational order: that there is a proper order of things, which if disturbed must be set right. We believe in reciprocity. (sacrifice)

14. We eat. We survive by eating other things that have been living. The death of others gives us life. This exchange demands reciprocity and exchange.

15. We reproduce. Survival of our families or communities depends on dealing with the powerful forces of sexuality, in which we transmit the life force no less than life itself. (fertility).

16. We feel awe. We recognize the presence of the special, dreadful and holy, qualities that are located in particular persons, events, and especially places




Thomas B. Allen Offerings at the Wall: Artifacts from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Collection Turner Pub 1995

Matthew Alper The "God" Part of the Brain Rogue Press, 2001

Sharon Begley "Religion And The Brain" Newsweek May 7 2001

T. Patrick Burke The Major Religions Blackwell 1995

Denise Lardner Carmody, Ways to the Center 5th edition Wadsworth 2001

Eugene G. D'Aquili, Andrew B. Newberg The Mystical Mind: Probing the Biology of Religious Experience Fortress Press, 1999

Robert S. Ellwood Many Peoples, Many Faiths 5th edition  Prentice Hall, 1995

John L. Esposito, Todd Thornton Lewis, Darrell J. Fasching, World Religions Today Oxford University Press 2002

Kenneth E. Foote Shadowed Ground: America's Places of Tragedy and Violence Univ of Texas Pr 1997

Joseph Giovannoli, Dan A. Wilson (Editors), The Biology of Belief: How Our Biology Biases Our Beliefs and Perceptions Rosetta Press 2001

Robert Lee Hotz, "Seeking the Biology of Spirituality" Los Angeles Times April 26, 1998

Samuel E. Karff   et al Religions of the World  3rd ed St. Martin's Press 1993

Gary E. Kessler (Editor) Ways Of Being Religious WCB/McGraw-Hill 1999

Edward T. Linenthal, Unfinished Bombing. New York: Oxford University Press 2001

Theodore M. M. Ludwig Sacred Paths Prentice Hall 1996

Warren Matthews, World Religions 3rd edn., Wadsworth, 1998

Stephanie Miles "Watching the Web: A Myth Is as Good as a Milestone on Urban-Legend Sites" Wall Street Journal Nov 29, 2001

Michael Molloy Experiencing the World's Religions  2nd edition Mayfield Publishing 2002

Andrew Newberg et al, editors, NeuroTheology: Brain, Science, Spirituality, Religious Experience  University of California Press, 2002

 Andrew Newberg, Eugene D'Aquili, Vince Rause Why God Won't Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief Ballantine Books 2002

William E. Paden Religious Worlds   2nd ed.,  Beacon Press 1990

Huston Smith The World's Religions  Harper San Francisco reprint edition 1992

Huston Smith Forgotten Truth: The Common Vision of the World's Religions Harper San Francisco Reprint edition 1993

Huston Smith, Cleansing the Doors of Perception Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam 2000











[1] Matthew Alper, The "God" Part of the Brain Rogue Press, 2001; Sharon Begley, "Religion And The Brain" Newsweek, May 7 2001; Eugene G. D'Aquili, Andrew B. Newberg The Mystical Mind Fortress Press, 1999; Joseph Giovannoli and Dan A. Wilson (Editors), The Biology of Belief Rosetta Press 2001; Robert Lee Hotz, "Seeking the Biology of Spirituality" Los Angeles Times April 26, 1998; Andrew Newberg, et al, editors, NeuroTheology University of California Press, 2002; Andrew Newberg, Eugene D'Aquili, Vince Rause, Why God Won't Go Away Ballantine Books 2002; Huston Smith, Cleansing the Doors of Perception Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam 2000.


[2] Thomas B. Allen, Offerings at the Wall Turner Publishing 1995

[3] Kenneth E. Foote Shadowed Ground University of Texas Press 1997; Edward T. Linenthal, Unfinished Bombing. Oxford University Press 2001.


[4] Stephanie Miles "Watching the Web: A Myth Is as Good as a Milestone on Urban-Legend Sites" Wall Street Journal Nov 29, 2001