6.1: religion and myth toolbox discussion topic


Read through the article from Russell McHutcheon on religion in the Week 6 Learning Resources and sections 1-3 of this article on myth (Defining myth, Some background on mythology, Characteristics of myth). Then, relying on these resources, answer the following questions in your own words. Make sure to cite any of the learning resources you use in your answer in MLA format.

  1. List two problems encountered when studying religion according to Hutcheon.
  2. In one sentence, define myth as it is used in the study of religion. In another sentence or two, describe how this is different from the definition of myth you already know?

Sample post

  1. One problem encountered when studying religion is….XXX
  2. Another problem encountered when studying religion is…XXX

In the study of religion myth is…XXX. I always understood myth to be (one sentence). (Optional second sentence)

Citations, as needed. 








Religion and Myth

1“Whether religion is man-made is a question for philosophers or theologians. But the forms are man-made. They are a human response to something. As a historian of religions, I am interested in those expressions.” —Mircea Eliade

Qur’an of Ibrahim Sultan 
Metropolitan Museum of Art Open Access “The Met Collection” 

Religion is a large part of many people’s lives. When you stand within a specific religious tradition, you participate in expressions of belief rooted in that religion. For instance, Christians often testify about how they have found salvation from sin through Jesus Christ. Buddhists might chant the Vandana Ti-sarana, where they claim to take refuge in the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha. And Muslims recite the shahada, which professes that there is no god but God and that Muhammad is his prophet. All of these are examples of the language of faith, which provide an insider’s perspective on a religious tradition.

However, when you study religion from an academic point of view, you do not use the language of faith, because academics do not look at a tradition from the inside. Instead, they look at it from the outside. Thus, we must adopt an approach suitable to the accepted norms of the field of religious studies, norms which more closely align with issues of history and anthropology, rather than those of faith.

In general, one way of talking about religion is not more “right” than another. However, one way of talking about religion can be more “right” within a specific religious context; likewise, another way of talking about religion can be more “right” within an academic classroom setting, such as the discussions we will undertake this week. So, before studying religious traditions from an academic perspective, you must learn how to talk about them academically.

In academic religious studies, scholars have developed four general approaches used in thinking and talking about religion:

  • Exclusivism: There is only one true religion, and other religions are false.
  • Inclusivism or relativism: Only one religion is true, but other religions could also have some truths.
  • Pluralism: All religions have equal validity or truth value.
  • Empathetic interest in other people: All religions are interesting and important; questions of truth are not considered.

A number of religious perspectives take the exclusivist or inclusivist position. These are considered to be insider positions, and these are not the perspectives that scholars take. Instead, they most often take an outsider point of view, which most closely resembles the fourth option above—an empathetic interest in other people that seeks to discover what is interesting and important about a religious tradition without making a judgment about the truth claims of that religion.

When studying religious traditions, you will certainly come across things you have never heard of. An academic point of view is important to cultivate when confronted with the unfamiliar because it helps you learn more about it without the distortions of personal bias. If you are not concerned with figuring out whether a religion is true or not, then you are able to maintain a perspective that readily allows you to discover things that are compelling and significant in that religion.

Every religious tradition offers a rich tapestry of cultural elements to study. In his classic 1998 book Dimensions of the Sacred: An Anatomy of the World’s Beliefs, religious studies scholar Ninian Smart has divided these elements into seven dimensions:

  1. Doctrinal and philosophical: the explanations for practices, beliefs, and concepts
  2. Ethical and legal: the rules—the 10 commandments, the eightfold path
  3. Social and institutional: the organization—church, sangha, synagogue
  4. Material: the stuff believers produce—music, art, dance, literature, architecture, etc.
  5. Narrative and mythic: the stories from the religion that explain and inspire
  6. Experiential and emotional: the personal reactions to the profound or divine
  7. Practical and ritual: the things believers do that are often related to the material dimension—puja, the Eucharist, prayer, etc.

In this module, we will look at a brief overview of the five major world religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Then, for each of these religions, we will look at examples related to three of the dimensions above: (1) the narrative and mythic; (2) the practical and ritual; and (3) the material. The examples in the learning resources will allow you to see how these dimensions are closely related, and they will also demonstrate how religion is a multidimensional phenomenon that can include all of the fields already covered in this course: philosophy, visual arts, music, dance, literature, theater, and architecture.

Learning Outcomes

Following is a list of the Week 6 outcomes, mapped to the corresponding course outcome. The course outcomes give “the big picture,” and the weekly outcomes provide more detailed information that will help you achieve the course outcomes.

Week 6 Outcomes

  • Identify and describe an academic approach to the study of religion (1, 2).
  • Identify basic information about the five major world religious traditions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (2, 3).
  • Analyze the connections that myth and ritual have with visual art, dance, music, and literature in world religious traditions (3, 4).

Course Outcomes Met in Week 6

  1. Describe and analyze the way human culture is expressed through works of literature, performing and visual arts, philosophy, and religion in order to appreciate the depth and breadth of the humanities disciplines.
  2. Use basic vocabulary, concepts, methods, and theories of the humanities disciplines in order to describe and analyze cultural and artistic expressions.
  3. Identify and apply criteria in order to evaluate individual and collective cultural accomplishments.
  4. Examine individual and cultural perspectives in the field of humanities in order to recognize and assess cultural diversity and the individual’s place in the world.