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Role of Religion in Modern Life

Role of Religion in Modern Life

Author: Ted Fairchild

This lesson will discuss the often subtle ways in which religion influences and impacts our daily lives.

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The Role of Religion in Modern Life

Source: Music by Brian Boyko; "Born Barnstormers".

Video Transcription

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Hello and welcome to The Role of Religion in Modern Life.

In this tutorial, we're going to see that religion is something that is alive and present in the modern world. It's not just a bunch of old ideas to be looked at from one perspective or another. It's not a relic.

We're also going to understand that religion unifies in ways that political institutions often can't, and that this unity, in addition to being used for peaceful, beneficial ends, is often used for destruction and violence. It's therefore very important in the study of religions to understand objectively, without judgement, what a religion is all about, putting aside all of the images from the TV, the newspaper, the words that shout, and the fire that shoots in the name of this or that religion.

All around us we're likely to see and hear images of religion, evidence of religion. Religious music, religious symbols, the Christian cross, a Buddhist or Hindu mandala, an Islamic prayer rug, the Jewish Star of David, a nativity scene. These are not mere relics of religion or things left over from another time, artifacts or relics to be studied from another perspective, a historical, anthropological, or sociological perspective.

Surely these disciplines that study the behavior and customs of society are beneficial and helpful in understanding religion in people's lives, yesterday and today. And the point is that these are living traditions and practices which are carried forward and provide meaning in people's lives and influence their behavior.

And in our modern world, religion plays a big role in shaping our global society and the way we think about it. So not only its structure of beliefs, but also its geopolitical structure, socioeconomic structure, and the way we communicate across the globe.

For this tutorial, we're going to use one modern example of geopolitical activity that's strongly associated with religion, the Israeli-Palestine, Arab-Israeli conflict, the conflict between the Muslims and the Jews.

Most of us are familiar with certain aspects of this historical struggle. It dominates the news either directly or indirectly, and it has great significance geopolitically across borders, something we usually think of in terms of geography and politics.

And speaking of borders, most of us know that the Arab-Israeli conflict is largely related to the religious struggle between Muslims and Jews, the dispute and the claim to territories in and around Jerusalem and Israel, referred to often as Canaan, the Promised Land, Palestine, the Holy Land, the Promised Land.

The conflict today reaches back through history to biblical times and the words from history that are interpreted in conflicting ways.

A central point of conflict between Jews and Muslims, if not the actual origin, revolves around the genealogy of Abraham, the patriarch, and his two sons Ishmael and Isaac. As descendants of Isaac, Jews claim the rights to the land promised to the heirs of Isaac as interpreted in their texts. As descended from Ishmael, Abraham's firstborn son, many Arabs stake claim to the Holy Land and the surrounding territories.

So what is the role, then, of objectivity in understanding this? How to remain neutral when thinking about it, if not interacting with it, to avoid judging the different parties and the different religions?

We'll be looking at this a little more closely in a definition of religion. But for now we can consider the principal of charity, which might act as a guide: withholding judgment and attempting to step into the shoes of the religion being studied and the beliefs and experiences of its proponents.

So let's review.

We started by saying that religion is not a relic from the past, but that it has a real place in people's lives in the modern world. People refer to it for meaning. Sometimes it unifies people in a productive, constructive way. And sometimes religion is used in a destructive way.

It was pointed out that religion unifies in a way that nationalism and secular politics often can't, and we saw how people's actions are guided by their interpretations of religion and the language and history that surround it. We used the example of a historical conflict that is still present in modern life and has many direct and indirect consequences.

We concluded that objectivity has a big role to play in understanding and studying religions, and that the principal of charity, trying to view a situation from the perspective of the religious advocate, might provide a useful angle for studying the religion itself.

And so that's it for today. I hope you learned what you wanted to learn. I'll see you next time.

Terms to Know

Relating to the combination and interaction of the disciplines of anthropology (the observational study of humankind) and sociology (the scientific study of humankind).


The belief that either a particular nation merits a higher position than other nations or that citizens’ lives should be structured around the needs of the state or society.


A leftover belief or object from past times.