Introduction to Religion for 21st Century
by Stephen Gislason.
When we look at some of the more obvious religious traditions on the
planet we note some similarities and differences. Above all, we need
to understand that the category” world religion’ is misleading. At best, the
idea of religion implies more coherence than can be found in the real world.
I am writing brief descriptions as if I was a tour guide introducing a
stranger to the history, real and imagined, of the more obvious religious
The mythic traditions of human civilization are as complex
as they are fascinating. You might characterize the development of
human stories as an evolutionary process driven by the constant migrations
and intermixing of peoples from different regions. Genetic diversity
increased along with mythic diversity. This evolution of myth continues
This book , Religion for the 21st Century, provides a fresh perspective on world religions. I describe some of
the more obvious religious traditions on the planet and note similarities and
differences. I am writing brief descriptions as if I were a tour guide
introducing a stranger to the history, real and imagined, of five of the more
obvious religions. My wish is that even people who live in the cognitive box
created by one group will take a vacation, fly outside of your container and
enjoy an overview of humans – past, present, and future. If you can go beyond
beliefs, faith, claims, arguments and the narcissism that afflicts all of us, then you
ask: does membership in any religious group bring us closer to living in a
peaceful, constructive, sustainable society?
From the Preface
Any discussion of religion invites misunderstanding and conflict. Humans have
convened in small groups for thousands of years to celebrate, to appease evil
spirits and to encourage good spirits to offer more privileges and benefits.
Humans continue to dress up in costumes, beat drums, chant, sing, and dance and
make offerings to innumerable gods. These celebrations help to maintain group
unity and often induce euphoric feelings in the participants. While there has
always been an archetypal form to these group activities, each local group
develops its own version of myths, rituals and celebrations.
The belief in spirits is the universal form. The names, number and
idiosyncratic expressions of the spirits is the local content. If you consider
“religious” expressions around the world and throughout, history, you would
notice that there a number of basic themes with thousands of imaginative
variations. You also notice that in every tribe, village or city, people believe
they have special relationships with gods and spirits not enjoyed elsewhere.
No discussion of religion will make sense until the importance of group
identity is understood. Humans may sometimes look like individuals, but the
truth is that all humans are members of local groups that determine what they
know, how they communicate and how they treat other humans. Each local group
develops stories, beliefs and rules. Collections of local groups with special
beliefs into larger organizations are often described as “religion.” Members of
local groups are described as “religious” if they recite group slogans, attend
meetings and celebrations. Religions often claim special privileges for their
members so that the term “religious” is used to claim advantages and superior
moral authority where none actually exists.
The tendency for selective, even exclusive, group membership is deeply
embedded in the human mind and shows up everywhere and at all times. The key
elements of group identity are recognizable appearance enhanced by costumes,
common language, common beliefs and common behaviors, especially ritualistic
I hope to introduce some news in the form of 21st century perspectives on
human nature. The 21st century philosopher's task is to update our descriptions
of ourselves to accommodate burgeoning scientific knowledge and an increasingly
sophisticated understanding of human behavior, the brain and complex systems in
general. We have new and revolutionary knowledge about human beings, their
languages, arts and culture; about information gathering, storage and retrieval;
about computation, communication; about the transformation of energy and
materials; about molecular biology, genetics and the evolution of life on earth.
We have to re-examine what we care about and advance new vocabularies that
allow us to proceed into new domains of thought and understanding. There seems a
critical lag in the assimilation of new knowledge into the culture and a rapidly
widening schism separates the few who know how things work and the majority who