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Religion and the Individual

Religion and the Individual

Author: Ted Fairchild

This lesson will discuss how religion informs various notions of individuality, and the relationship of the individual with the divine and/or otherworldly.

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Religion & the Individual

Source: Music by Edie Murphy, Public Domain,

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[MUSIC PLAYING] Hello, welcome. So religion involves the beliefs and practices of groups and individuals, and it reaches far back into history. But religion also involves the life of the individual, and there is a rich history as to how religions have supported the individual's relationship to the questions and the predicaments that life seems to present.

In this tutorial, we're going to talk about the fact that every individual is confronted with these questions on some level, to some degree. And religion supports the individual search for meaning and for understand.

Martin Heidegger, the 20th century German philosopher who in fact studied theology for a good portion of the early part of his career, he had a term to describe the existential moment in an individual's questioning life. To the extent that we desire to understand our place in the world, we have to come to terms with a few things, and one of them is the fact that I am thrown into the world, thrown passively into the world. But it's a world that sincerely matters to me and this idea of thrown-ness, is contrasted-- Heidegger contrasted it-- with the idea of freedom, the freedom to act.

Well, knowing what and how to act is a question that everyone has to face. Some find religion to be a path toward understanding, and other find a route without reference to God or gods. The world as it appears might be explainable, but built into our human sensibility there is also this itching suspicion that the unseen is also there somehow.

The problem is that it's not so easily explainable. So God, divinity, the transcendent, these are terms and methods that we used to try and understand and approach this mystery, to present it, so to speak, to our understanding. And religion and the sacred texts, the traditions, and holidays and customs, et cetera, they function to link the world as it appears with the belief that the unseen is also somehow real, in some sense real and therefore also a vital part of our human experience.

So whether the individual chooses to follow a religious path when asking these questions or not, the questions are still there, for everyone as we said, in some way with some degree of urgency and importance. For example, the question of death. What happens? Where do we go? Why? What is the meaning of my life? What should I do? What is the purpose? Is there such a thing as eternity? What is forever? What is that? If all we seem to know is time and space limited to our movements on this earth, what does it all mean? The little day to day stuff, the quibbles, the psychological, social and political quibbles, even, as well as the overwhelming existential questions that we come into contact with, perhaps when we're a bit more quiet and receptive.

So whether one chooses to explore religion and the theism that involves, in other words the belief that God or gods or supernatural being, beings, are somehow responsible for are being in the world, for our thrown-ness-- well whether one chooses a non-theistic or even atheistic approach the questions are still there. Question marks like stop signs pop up at different intersections along the way.

The difference between a theistic in a non-theistic or an atheistic approach has to do with how important these ultimate questions are to the individual. For example, whether they're answerable in any way, whether they're worth pursuing, and if so, how much?

So individually, the holidays that are celebrated, customs and the daily routines, in other words individual daily life, is often very different for practitioners of different faiths, or for a non-practitioner, like an atheist for example. One difference is holidays, food commitments or food restrictions, et cetera.

Another good example is Sundays. Generally, it's a day without work. It's a day of rest. Well, this is an example of a social custom that is inherited from religious tradition. So even an atheist or a non-theistic person is affected by religion, possibly without even noticing it. For observant Jews, this day without work is called the Sabbath and it extends from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. It is a traditional day of worship and rest without working. A strictly observant Jewish individual will not even use electricity because of the prohibition in the Torah against lighting a fire, and thus generating heat and light.

And for Christians, Sunday is this Sabbath day of worship, when one generally rests and refrains from work. And the third Abrahamic faith that's also follows this weekly full day of pause from productivity and worldly affairs is Islam. And for Muslims, Friday is the holy day of worship, in addition to of course the Salah, which is worship and prayer five times a day for many who follow that tradition.

So now let's review. So we started by acknowledging that probably almost every individual is confronted with life's ultimate questions at some point, somehow to some degree and that there are different ways of engaging with those questions, either a religious way, a theistic way, or a non-theistic way, which rejects the idea that there's a God behind it. Atheism is another route, and that would be a firm belief that there really is no God.

And we used Martin Heidegger's term thrown-ness to demonstrate this contrast between the passively being thrown into the world and confronted with the questions, and the freedom to act. And the freedom to act would be to choose one of those three ways or some other path of engaging with the questions. And again, one's decision to choose a path is going to depend upon the level of urgency and importance one gives to these questions.

And we talked about the daily life and how individuals might have different experiences of daily life depending on their religion or their non-religion. And we used the example of Sunday. And finally we used the metaphor of the stop sign popping up at different intersections with question marks and regardless of one's path, whether it's religious or not, these question marks pop up at different points in our lives.


Terms to Know

Rejecting belief in the existence of god.


Rejecting the doctrine and philosophy of theism.

The Divine

That which is other than, superior to, and prior in existence to humanity.