Common Characteristics/ Features of Religious Traditions


Common Characteristics/Features of Religious Traditions

When we talk about religion, there are certain basic elements and characteristics or features that we cannot avoid to mention. These are what we refer to as the common characteristics of religion. 

These are present in all religions regardless of whether they are primitive or modern, monotheistic or polytheistic. We will be concerning ourselves with these elements of religion that can be said to be common denominators of religion.

By the end of this article, you should be able to Discuss what is meant by belief in the supernatural, Define myth, Explain the role of myths in religion, Discuss the place of ritual in religion and Evaluate the concept of life after life (eternity).


Characteristics/Features of Religious Traditions

1. Belief in the Supernatural

One basic and central feature of religion is the fact that they all hold to the existence of a supernatural being or beings as the case may be. This truth can be seen in the example of many religions in the world be they ancient or modern.

The Babylonian Pantheon: The Babylonians believed in a pantheon consisting of beings; human in form but superhuman in power and immortal; each of whom, although invisible to the human eye, ruled a particular component of the cosmos, however small, and controlled it in accordance with well-laid plans and duly prescribed laws.

Each was in charge of one of the great realms of heaven, earth, sea, and air; or of one of the major astral bodies the sun, moon, and planets; or, in the realm of the Earth, of such natural entities as river, mountain, and plain, and of such social entities as city and state.

Even tools and implements, such as the pickaxe, brick mould, and plough, were under the charge of specially appointed deities.

Finally, each Babylonian had a personal god, a kind of good angel, to whom prayers were addressed and through whom salvation could be found.

Judaism/Islam/Christianity: Even in Judaism, Islam and Christianity which are the three major strictly monotheistic religions of the world, there is the belief in the existence of the only one God that created the heavens and the earth.

Hinduism and Buddhism: In Hinduism and Buddhism which are the examples of Oriental religion there is also the belief in the supernatural as seen in the concept of the many manifestations of Vishnu.

The African Traditional Religion: In most of the religions of Africa there is the belief in the Supreme Being who created the heavens and the earth even though he is believed to have been assisted by other countless divine beings referred to as divinities.

These are also more powerful than humans; hence they are part of the supernatural. From the few above examples, you can conclude that belief in the supernatural is so central to religion because it helps humans to look outside themselves for the solution to the problems facing them. Without a supernatural being, there can be no religion.

2. The Sacred and the Profane

The belief in the supernatural naturally leads to the concept of the sacred and the profane.

3. Myth

Myth is a narrative that describes and portrays in symbolic language the origin of the basic elements and assumptions of a culture and in most times it is embedded in a religion.

Mythic narrative relates, for example, how the world began, how humans and animals were created, and how certain customs, gestures, or forms of human activities originated.

Almost all cultures possess or at one time possessed and lived in terms of myths. Though myths look like tales, they differ from fairy tales in that they refer to a time that is different from ordinary time. 

The time sequence of a myth is extraordinary—an “other” time—the time before the conventional world came into being. Because myths refer to an extraordinary time and place and to gods and other supernatural beings and processes, they have usually been seen as aspects of religion.

Because of the all-encompassing nature of myth, however, it can illuminate many aspects of individual and cultural life. Myths may be classified according to the dominant theme they portray.

The following are the types of myths that exist.

a. Cosmogonic Myths: Cosmogonic myths are usually the most important myth in a culture or religion and are the ones that become the exemplary models for all other myths.

It relates how the entire world came into being. In some narratives, as in the first chapter of the Book of Genesis, the creation of the world proceeds from nothing (creatio ex nihilo). Egyptian, Australian, Greek, and Mayan myths also speak of creation from nothing. In most cases the deity in these myths is all-powerful.

The deity may remain at the forefront and become the centre of religious life, as with the Hebrews, or may withdraw and become a distant or peripheral deity, as in the myths of the Australian Aborigines, Greeks, and Mayans.

Other cosmogonic myths describe creation as an emergence from the lower worlds.

Among the Navajo and Hopi, for example, creation is the result of a progression upwards from lower worlds, and the emergence from the last world is the final progression into the world of humanity.

A Polynesian myth places the various layers of emergence in a coconut shell.

Similar in form to such myths are myths of the world egg, known in Africa, China, India, the South Pacific, Greece, and Japan. In these myths, creation is symbolized as breaking forth from the fertile egg.

The egg is the potential for all life, and sometimes, as in the myth of the Dogon people of West Africa, it is referred to as the “placenta of the world”.

b. Eschatological Myths: Eschatological myths are closely related to cosmogonic myths. However, they exist at the other extreme, because they are myths describing the end of the world or the coming of death into the world.

Myths of the end of the world are usually products of urban traditions. They presuppose the creation of the world by a moral divine being that in the end destroys the world. At this time human beings are judged and prepared for a paradisiacal existence or one of eternal torments.

Such myths are present among Hebrews, Christians, Muslims, and Zoroastrians. A universal conflagration and a final battle of the gods are part of Indo European mythology and are most fully described in Germanic branches of this mythology.

In Aztec mythology, several worlds are created and destroyed by the gods before the creation of the human world. Myths of the origin of death describe how death entered the world. 

In these myths death is not present in the world for a long period of time, but enters it through an accident or because someone simply forgets the message of the gods concerning human life.

For example, in Genesis, death enters when human beings overstep the proper limits of their knowledge.

c. Culture Heroes Myth: These are the myths that describe the actions and character of beings who are responsible for the discovery of a particular cultural artifact or technological process. These are the myths of the culture hero.

In Greek mythology Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods, is a prototype of this kind of figure. 

In the Dogon culture, the blacksmith who steals seeds for the human community from the granary of the gods is similar to Prometheus.

In Seram, in Indonesia, Hainuwele is also such a figure; from the orifices of her body she provides the community with a host of necessary and luxury goods.

In Yorubaland of Nigeria there are myths concerning Sango, the third king of the kingdom and who doubles as the god of thunder.

4. Ritual Practices

Rituals are particular types of formal performance in which the participants carry out a series of relatively stereotyped actions and make a series of relatively standardized statements largely prescribed by custom and sanctioned by precedent.

Historical evidence suggests that rituals tend to be much more stable and invariable than most human customary activity. The capacity of the participants to modify the form and content of ritual activities is usually much less than would be the case if the activities were primarily focused on political, economic, or recreational concerns.


Types of Rituals

a. Rituals of initiation: These are the rituals used to mark transition from childhood through adolescence into adulthood. In these rituals the initiates are first dramatically separated from their mothers, from the households in which they have been brought up, and symbolically from their childhood.

They enter a luminal or threshold phase of the ritual in which their joint equality, their separation from normal society, and their lack of status are stressed. They are subject to various tests of endurance, often including circumcision or other painful operations, which may stress in a most dramatic way their subjection to those organizing the ritual, who represent the force of politically organized society.

At the same time such ordeals give opportunities to the initiates to stress their bravery and their ability to take on the responsibilities of adult life.

It is not accidental that the ordeals at initiation often involve the genitals, as initiation is commonly specified as a qualification for marriage, and locally defined responsible sexuality.

In the final phase of the ritual the initiated are formally welcomed back into society and reincorporated into normal productive activities as adults.

At initiation, initiates are also commonly inducted into shared new knowledge, labeled as a privilege of adulthood, marked as important by the pain of the associated ordeals and “sacralized” by association with invisible beings or powers.

b. Political Rituals: These are rituals that seem to carry political connotations. Such rituals tend to act to maintain the status quo, to perpetuate social differentiation, to invest the powers that be with sanctified legitimacy.

Examples of political rituals are coronations and other installation rituals which in the real sense sanctify, define, and legitimize transfers of power and authority.

c. Life-Cycle Rituals: Apart from initiation rituals, these are rituals that are used to mark out the life-cycle period in the religious community. A major example is marriage and other life-cycle rituals that are designed to bless, mark out, or sanction significant transitions in the lives of individuals. 

Calendar Rituals Calendar rituals are the rituals that are used to provide an established, ordered, and meaningful pattern for the changing seasons, and the productive and other activities associated with them.

An example of this is the yam festival in most African societies which is mainly used to celebrate the harvest and to declare farming closed for some time.

We have to note however that in the face of increasingly secularized societies of the modern urbanized and industrialized world, elaborate rituals now seem strange to many people.

However, this is a relatively recent phenomenon, which has gathered pace in the last generation or two.

Until then almost everybody in the world, from members of non-literate nomadic hunter-gatherer societies to highly literate members of societies with access to complex technologies, participated from time to time in elaborate ritual activities that were in general regarded as meaningful and important. Such activities are among the most universal of all human social activities. They remain extraordinarily widespread and remarkably persistent.

5. Doctrines/Ethical Principles/Moral Codes

Doctrine is a belief system that forms a part of every religion. Although the word doctrine is sometimes used for such a system as a whole as in the term “Christian doctrine”; it is more commonly used for particular items of belief as in the terms “the Judaeo-Christian doctrine of creation” and “the Buddhist doctrine of reincarnation”.

The particular beliefs constitute a more or less coherent whole, however, and it is in the context of the whole that each doctrine should be understood and evaluated.

The Latin word doctrina means “teaching” and religious beliefs are often first specifically formulated in the process of instructing initiates.

Although religious doctrines have sometimes been regarded as unchanging truths, today it is generally recognized that even if a doctrine contains some permanent core of truth, its expression will always reflect the relativities of a particular age and culture, so that new expressions are constantly needed if doctrines are to remain intelligible and persuasive.

Although in some religions, doctrines have not been precisely formulated, in many others they have been the subject of sharp controversy, even to the point of disrupting the community of believers.

Most of the world religions do, in fact, exhibit doctrinal divisions. When a religious authority proposes one expression of a doctrine to the exclusion of other possible ones, it becomes known as a dogma.

6. Life-After-Life

Most, if not all religions of the world has the concept of life after life. The belief in most religions is that after the death of human beings, they live the physical realm and continue to live in the spiritual realm where they will live forever.

Most of the doctrines of life after life also teach that at this time there will be eternal judgment, and the good ones will go to paradise which is called by many names in the many religions. The wicked, on the other hand, would be destroyed in the end.

7. Propagation

One feature of religion that is becoming sharper by the day is propagation. Even the traditional religion and the Oriental religion that hitherto have been passive when it comes to the issue of propagation are now becoming volatile. Propagation is the means by which every religion tries to gain adherents from the unbelievers or from the people of other religions in other to continue to exist as a religion.

8. Religious Experience/Expression

Devotees of all religions pass through what is called a religious experience. This varies from religion to religion but there are certain experiences that cut across all religions.

Examples of these are trances, visions and dreams. On the other hand, religious expressions are such expressions that have to do with the verbalization of religious experiences.

In Christianity, speaking in tongues is an example of such religious expression.

Also read: Etymology and the Study of Religion

Conclusion on Common Characteristics/Features of Religious Traditions

You have studied about the characteristic features of all religions in the world whether they are the primitive ancient polytheistic religions or the more modern refined monotheistic religions.

These features are: Belief in the Supernatural, The Sacred and the Profane, Myths, Ritual Practices, Doctrines/Ethical Principles/Moral Codes, Life- After-Life, Propagation and Religious Experience/Expression. 

The following are the major points that you have studied in this article Belief in the supernatural is the core feature of any religion. Places and materials consecrated to the divine are regarded as sacred. 

Myths are narratives in symbolic language that describes the origin of the basic elements. There are three major types of myths, namely: cosmogonic myths, eschatological myths and culture heroes’ myths.

There are four types of rituals: initiation ritual, political ritual, lifecycle ritual and calendar ritual. Doctrines are belief systems that form a part of every religion.

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