Religion 101

Sermon copyright (c) 2023 Dan Harper. Delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. The sermon text may contain typographical errors. The sermon as preached included a significant amount of improvisation.


The first reading is from Introduction to World Religions, a college textbook on religion edited by Christopher Partridge.

“The word ‘religion’ likely tells us more about the user of the word than it does about the thing being classified. For instance, a Freudian psychologist will not conclude that religion functions to oppress the masses, since the Freudian theory precludes this Marxist conclusion. … As for those who adopt an essentialist approach, it is likely no coincidence that only those institutions with which one agrees are thought to be expressions of some authentic inner experience … whereas the traditions of others are criticized as being shallow and derivative.”

The second reading comes from the book The Ideology of Religious Studies by Timothy Fitzgerald.

“It is sometimes claimed that there is a common-sense use of the word ‘religion’ that refers loosely to belief in gods or the supernatural. No doubt this use will remain with us in common parlance, for example in connection with churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples. This is really an extension of the traditional European usage: religion was traditionally used to mean something like faith in God or faith in Jesus Christs and in the church and priesthood who serve him. However, … various writers such as the deists at least since the eighteenth century have self-consciously attempted to transform the meaning of religion, reduce its specifically Christian elements, and extend it as a cross-cultural category. This has stretched the meaning of ‘God’ and related biblical Jewish and Christian notions … to include a vast range of notions about unseen powers. This has given rise to intractable problems…. For example, are ghosts, witches, emperors, and ancestors gods? How about film stars? What is the difference between a superhuman being and a superior person? Why should Benares, Mount Fuji, or the Vatican be considered sacred places, and not the White House, the Koshien Baseball Stadium in Osaka, or the Bastille?”

Sermon: “Religion 101”

Everyone in the United States seems to think they know all there is to be known about religion. Many people like to make very definite pronouncements about religion: “The United States is a Christian nation!” “Religion is the cause of most of the evil in the United States!” — and so on.

But the American Academy of Religion, a professional organization for scholars of religion, tells us that religious illiteracy is widespread in the United States today, adding: “There are several consequences that stem from this illiteracy, including the ways it fuels prejudice and antagonism, thereby hindering efforts aimed at promoting respect for diversity, peaceful coexistence, and cooperative endeavors in local, national, and global arenas.” They say this specifically about religious literacy in grades K-12. These scholars are telling us there are basic things that every high school graduate should know about religion, because to know these things will promote peaceful coexistence. They are telling us that these are things we need to know to participate effectively in democracy. I would add that a significant part of the intolerance and prejudice and antagonism we see in American politics today is a direct result of religious illiteracy. Thus, this become a topic of serious concern for those of us who would like to strengthen democracy, while reducing intolerance and prejudice and antagonism.

There are three basic elements to religious literacy. First, someone who religiously literate has basic knowledge about the core values and practices of at least some of the world’s major religious traditions. Second, someone who is religiously literate knows that within any given religion, we will find diverse practices and beliefs and ways of expressing that religious tradition. Third, someone who is religiously literate recognizes how religion plays a “profound role” in the world’s cultures, in politics, and in human society in general.

So the American Academy of Religion says a high school graduate can be considered religiously literate if you know something about the basics of half a dozen or so religious traditions, the practices and worldviews of those religious traditions today, and how those religious traditions have been shaped the wider human context in which they exist. Here at First Parish, religious literacy is one of our key educational goals for our children.

I believe we adults also need basic religious literacy. Because religious literacy promotes tolerance and peaceful coexistence, it is actually an important part of democracy.

For the purposes of maintaining our fragile democracy, we should know who our religious neighbors are, not just in our town, but in the surrounding region — the people we see at work, at the shopping mall, on the beach, and so on. Then we should know some basic facts about our religious neighbors, enough so that we can be good neighbors. And of course we need to understand that every religious tradition has a great deal of internal diversity, so our local religious neighbors may be different from whatever Wikipedia says about their broad religious tradition.

I’ve been researching the religious diversity here in southeastern Massachusetts, and it is simply amazing the diversity we can find near us. Within an hour’s drive of here, we have Baha’i, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, and Muslim religious communities. Then if you drive a little further, say two hours, there are Daoist, Humanist, Jain, Sikh, and Zoroastrian religious communities. This means we are very likely to run into people, co-workers or acquaintances, who belong to one or more of these religious traditions.

Mind you, these are just the religious groups that are willing to go public with their religion. There are other religious groups that prefer to stay out of the public eye, either because they like having a low profile, or because they are avoiding potential prejudice and discrimination. Thus there are also Santeria, Pagan, and Native or Indigenous religious groups within a forty-five minute drive of us. We may not see much evidence of them, but they’re here, too.

For the sake of democracy, we should know something about our religious neighbors, just as a matter of politeness and basic intercultural competence. Learning about these religious groups, however, can be a challenge for those of us who grew up in the United States. Those of us who grew up in the United States have been shaped by Protestant Christianity. Because of this, we have some assumptions about religion, assumptions that work well for Protestantism, but that don’t work so well for other religious groups. For example, most people in the United states assume that religion is mostly about belief — because Protestant Christians believe that religion is about belief. When we meet someone from another religion, one of the first questions we’re likely to ask them is, “What do you believe?” (I find myself asking this question, even though as a Unitarian Universalist I should know better, since we Unitarian Universalists don’t have any required beliefs.)

A less biased question would be to simply ask, “What is your religious (or spiritual) identity?” This is also a better question because there is diversity within every religious tradition. If you know someone who is Christian, and you ask them, “What do you believe?” they might reply, “I believe in God.” But while most Christians believe in God, there are major differences between different Christian groups. If we just look at the Christian groups within about an hour’s drive of us, we see evidence of this.

Take, for example, the difference between Roman Catholics on the one hand, and the Latter Day Saints, or Mormons. Roman Catholics typically have daily and weekly meetings where they have a ritual known as the eucharist, or holy communion; they have dedicated clergy who wear special clothing and who officiate at their rituals; they meet in buildings that typically feature sculpture and paintings with subjects taken from their religion. By contrast, Mormons typically meet weekly (but not daily) with a worship service that features communion; Mormons do not have paid clergy, they have volunteers who rotate clergy duties among them; local Mormon buildings are typically fairly simple inside. So you can see that Roman Catholics differ quite substantially from the Latter Day Saints. There are other significant differences, too: the Latter Day Saints have an additional book of scripture, called the book of Mormon, which they venerate along with the Hebrew Bible and Christian scriptures they share with Roman Catholics; nearly all Latter Day Saints wear special clothing; they have a prophet named Joseph Smith who is not recognized by other Christians; and so on. In fact, the Church of the Latter Day Saints are so different from Catholics and Protestants, that some Catholics in the United States insist that Mormons aren’t really Christians.

Catholics and Latter Day Saints are just two of hundreds of Christian groups n the United States. These two groups differ significantly from each other, but they also differ significantly from other Christians: from Ethiopian Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Pentecostals, Seventh Day Adventists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses — to name just a few of the Christian groups with established groups not too far from Cohasset. How do they differ from these other groups? Ethiopian Orthodox churches divided from the rest of Christianity in the fifth century of the common era, so both their beliefs and practices differ significantly from both Catholics and Mormons. Russian Orthodox services last up to three hours, and you stand up the whole time. Pentecostal services may feature things like speaking in tongues or faith healing or other workings of the Holy Spirit. Seventh day Adventists say that Saturday is the correct sabbath day, not Sunday. Jehovah’s Witnesses reject the doctrine of the Trinity and the concept of hell, and are well-known for their door-to-door proselytizing. There is an astonish amount of diversity within Christianity.

There are other religious traditions that also contain a wide range of internal diversity. As one example, take the other great proselytizing religious tradition in our area, Buddhism. Like Christianity, Buddhism has adapted itself to a wide range of cultures. Like Christianity, Buddhism has divided into many different sub-groups. If we just look at the Buddhists near us, we find Insight Meditation groups and Zen practice groups and a Buddhist humanist group, all types of Buddhism which have adapted in various ways to Western culture. We also find Cantonese speaking Pure Land Buddhists in the Mahayana tradition in the Thousand Buddhas Temple that our religious education program visited a few weeks ago. We find both Thai and Vietnamese Therevada Buddhist temples near us; Therevada Buddhists interest me because they are not theists, they have almost no supernatural element in their tradition. We find Tibetan Buddhists nearby, and there’s even a Sokka Gokai group outside Boston; just as the Latter Day Saints differ greatly from other Christian groups, Sokka Gokai differs so much from traditional types of Buddhism that it is sometimes called a new religious movement. In short, there is a great diversity among Buddhist groups near us.

So you can see, we have all this amazing religious diversity right here in eastern Massachusetts. We have all these different religious traditions living in close proximity. This is why we need religious literacy. We need people to know that “religion” means more than just Protestant Christianity and Catholic Christianity. We need people to stop defining religion in terms of Protestant or Catholic Christianity. We need people to know just how diverse our religious landscape is.

The religious illiteracy in our country has led directly to the rise of Christian nationalism. A lack of religious literacy allows people to define “religion” any way they want, which means they can use “religion” to promote their own destructive ideology. Many of the people who promote Christian nationalism have no clue about the wild diversity within Christianity; in their lack of knowledge, they mistakenly believe that “Christian” means “white Protestant evangelical Christian,” and maybe includes anti-abortion Catholics. They also have little accurate knowledge about non-Christian traditions, so some of them attack Sikh men wearing turbans in the mistaken belief that Sikhs are Muslim. Religious illiteracy fosters the growth of intolerance and hatred.

To become religiously literate, on the other hand, means opening ourselves to learning about the religions and the cultures and the worldviews of neighbors who are different from us. In fact, to become religiously literate is to further develop your intercultural competence. In our increasingly multicultural democracy, we all need to work on our intercultural competence; we need to improve our skill at talking with people who have very different worldviews from ours; we need to learn how to understand each other better so we can work together towards common goals.

I suppose the Christian nationalists would way that we define religion to promote our own ideology. We define religion as being a part of the cultural identity of an individual or a group. This definition promotes our ideology of tolerance and mutual respect. This promotes our worldview in which we remain always open to and curious about the people around us.

Three Hundred and One

Sermon copyright (c) 2022 Dan Harper. Delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. The sermon text may contain typographical errors. The sermon as preached included a significant amount of improvisation.


The first reading is from the book Work Pray Code: When Work Becomes Religion in Silicon Valley, by sociologist Carolyn Chen (Princeton Univ. Press, 2022, p. 209). In this book, Chen shows how work has become religion in Silicon Valley, and she documents how destructive the worship of work can be. She then says:

“How do we break the theocracy of work? The late writer David Foster Wallace observed, ‘In the day-to-day trenches of adult life there is actually no such thing as atheism. Everybody worship. The only choice is what we get to worship.’ We can stop worshipping work, Wallace suggests, by choosing to worship something else. But we cannot do it alone, in the private sanctuary of our personal prayers and devotions. Since worshipping work is a social enterprise, choosing not to worship work must also be a collective endeavor. We can do this by intentionally building shared places of worship, fulfillment, and belonging that attract our time, energy, and devotion. These are our families, neighborhoods, clubs, and civic associations, as well as our faith communities. We need to recharge these ‘magnets’ that have grown weak. Contrary to what time management pundits tell us, we do this by letting these magnets attract more and not less of our time, energy, and passion. This is not a call to end work; it’s a call to energize non-workplaces. It’s an invitation to reflect on how we as a society expend out collective energy.”

The second reading comes from Rabbi Howard I Bogot, from his 1979 essay “Why Jewishness?” in the Journal of Jewish Communal Service (vol. 56, no. 1, 1979, p. 108).

“For many years I have carried with me an Emerson-like quote which reads as follows: ‘The gods will write their names on our faces, be sure of that; and man will worship something, have no doubt of that either. He may think that his tribute is paid in secret, in the deep recesses of his heart but it will out. That which dominates his imagination and his thought will determine his life and character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming.’”

Sermon: “Three hundred and One”

On Tuesday, December 13, First Parish will celebrate its three hundred and first birthday. This past fall, I’ve given a few sermons looking back at the past three hundred years. So today, just before the end of our three hundredth birthday year, I thought I’d give a sermon about the future.

I am not, however, going to try to predict what the next three hundred years will hold for our congregation. I’m willing to try to look ahead for a dozen years, or at most for twenty years — in other words, look ahead for another generation. Think of the youngest child in our Sunday school, and think ahead to when that child heads off to college or to a job: what will First Parish look like then? I’m not willing to look ahead for the next three hundred years, but I’m willing to try one generation.

But even trying to look ahead one generation is difficult. We are in the midst of a major change in American religion. When I started out working in Unitarian Universalist congregations, back in 1994, we could feel pretty confident that in 2014 our congregations would look much like they did in 1994. During the teens, though, we started seeing an increasing number of people who had no religious affiliation at all. Sociologists began to call these people the “Nones,” as in when you asked them what their religion was, they’d respond, “None.”

In the past decade and a half, the number of Nones in America has just kept increasing. Many people assume this is a trend towards increasing secularization, but I don’t think that’s a good assumption. Surveys show that a large percentage of Americans continue to believe in God or in some higher power. (1) It’s not that religious belief is going away; rather, it’s a matter of people not affiliating with religious organizations.

This is partly due to another demographic trend. Since the 1960s, Americans have been disengaging with all forms of community and organizations. Political scientist Robert Putnam popularized this idea back in the year 2000 in his book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. (2) Putnam blamed much of the disengagement on individualized entertainment that was first delivered through television, and later through the internet. Think about it this way: on Sunday morning, it’s easier to stay home and look at NetFlix or TikTok than it is to drive to Cohasset center, find parking, and walk over to this Meeting House. Maybe the quality of interaction is better here in the Meeting House than what you’ll find on TikTok, but for many people the convenience and the ability to individualize one’s interaction makes up for the lower quality of interaction.

Interestingly, right after Donald Trump’s election in 2016, the authors Thomas E. Mann, Norm Ornstein and E. J. Dionne, pointed out that many people “rallied to [Donald Trump] out of a yearning for forms of community and solidarity that they sense have been lost.” (3) I think there’s a lot of truth to that. Whether you agree or disagree with Donald Trump’s politics, there is no doubt he was adept at bringing a crowd of his supporters together, making them feel a part of something larger than themselves. In fact, his rallies look to me more like religious revivals than political rallies. Nor is it only Republican candidates who create that feeling: recently, we’ve seen how Raphael Warnock uses that feeling of a religious revival to rally people to vote for him.

Indeed, both the Republican party and the Democratic party have begun to resemble religions. Each party has doctrines and dogmas that they promote; and they are eager to denigrate the doctrines and dogmas of the other religion — sorry, of the other party. Each party has a mythological dimension, myths that they tell about heroic figures. There are rituals specific to each group, including things like chanting and pilgrimages. Adherents of each party can have strong emotional experiences, akin to traditional religious experiences like praying or worshipping in a church. There’s even material culture associated with each party, objects that take on almost religious significance, like MAGA hats or Barack Obama posters. All this looks a lot like religion to me. (4)

But it’s not just political parties that have taken on religious dimensions. Other forms of social interaction are also taking the place of traditional religious congregations. Think about sports events. The World Cup, with the special fan clothing, the fans making long pilgrimages to a distant land, the chanting and sense of identity — this all looks like religion. Or, closer to home, as someone who grew up in the Boston area, I can tell you that around here, baseball often feels like a religion. I found it difficult to explain to people in California how belonging to Red Sox nation was more like a religious affiliation than simply rooting for the home team. I’m told Red Sox fans are quite similar in this regard to Green Bay Packers fans. So you can see that for the true believers, sports looks like religion to outsiders, and from the inside, to true believers, sports feels like religion. (5)

And then there’s work. Over the past few years, sociologist Carolyn Chen of the University of California at Berkeley has focused her research on Silicon Valley workers. She finds that these workers “point to their jobs and careers” when they are asked “what brings meaning to their lives.” That’s the ultimate purpose of religion, isn’t it? — to help us bring meaning into our lives. Instead of turning to sports or politics, many Silicon Valley workers are finding the ultimate meaning and purpose of their lives through their work.

I could go on, and tell you about other social and cultural phenomena look a lot like religion — celebrity worship, humanistic psychology, network Christianity, yoga, and so on. But you get the point. Religion is taking on new forms. No longer is religion confined to local churches and synagogues. Religion can no longer be neatly categorized into denominations and world religions. American religion now includes sports, and politics, and work.

So where does that leave First Parish? How can we compete with a Raphael Warnock rally, or a Donald Trump rally? How can we compete with Red Sox baseball, or with downhill skiing? How can we compete with the jobs of knowledge workers? What we can do is we can offer an alternative.

For there’s a problem with sports, politics, or work as religion. Each of these things asks our devotion, not for our own sake, but for the sake of another. Donald Trump and Raphael Warnock ask us to participate in the religious rituals of their political rallies, not to make us better people, but so that they can win an election. There’s nothing wrong with supporting a political candidate, there’s nothing wrong with helping someone get elected. But when our support of them starts looking like religion — when we start getting our personal meaning and fulfillment out of it — then someone else is using our fulfillment to meet their own ends and goals.

Similarly, there’s nothing wrong with sports. I sometimes worship at the altar of the Red Sox, and will happily tell you about the time I got seats four rows back from the visitor’s dugout when the legendary knuckleballer Tim Wakefield was pitching against the New York Yankees. But we have to remember that professional sports is a business. If when I get my personal meaning and fulfillment in life by boosting someone else’s profit, I’m no longer an end in myself; someone else is using me as a means to their own ends.

Perhaps most troubling to me is when knowledge workers find their entire life’s meaning in their jobs. When you work for a corporation, you are a means to an end. You may get something out of your job, but the ultimate end of your job is to create profits for the company. As important as your work may be, you are more than your job. To be fully human is to be an end in yourself.

In the second reading this morning, Rabbi Howard Bogot talks about a quote he carried around with him for many years, a quote from an anonymous twentieth century source. That anonymous but wise person pointed out that those things which dominate our imaginations and our thoughts have a tendency to determine the course of our lives and our characters. Therefore, concludes this wise anonymous source, “it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming.”

This anonymous quote helps us understand the big change in American religion that’s going on right now. People are leaving the old religious organizations, the churches and the synagogues — leaving the traditional religious groups like denominations. But that doesn’t mean that religion is going away; religion is simply taking new forms.

Theoretically, there’s nothing wrong with religion taking on new forms. But there is problem with some of these new forms of religion: they have the capacity to tear our society apart. When politics becomes religion, it can take the relatively benign form of political rallies. In a more extreme, more toxic form, it can turn into something like Christian militias and Christian nationalism. And Christian nationalism has gotten to the point where one proponent is calling for the United States to be governed by a Christian Taliban. (6) Thus, in an extreme form, politics as religion can wind up being dangerous to democracy.

When work becomes religion, it can take the relatively benign form of someone absolutely loving their job, so much so that they’re willing to work more than 80 hours a week and sleep on a couch at their workplace. In an extreme form, as in Silicon Valley where workers are expected to spend most of their lives at work, sociologist Carolyn Chen has documented the the destructive side effects of excessive devotion to jobs: destruction of families, destruction of civic organizations, and disinvestment in public government. Thus, in its extreme form, work as religion can become dangerous to our society. (7)

As I gaze into my crystal ball and try to catch sight of what next ten or twenty years will look like here at First Parish, I spend a lot of time thinking about this big change in American religion. How should we here in First Parish respond to this drift away from organized religion?

First of all, our kind of religion is no longer the norm. We cannot automatically assume that when someone walks into our Meeting House, they will know what we’re doing, what’s going on here. We now have to explain what organized religion is like, what it does. We now have to explain that religious congregations like First Parish are civic organizations, places where we join together both to help ourselves and our families, and to make our communities stronger. Religious congregations like First Parish are cornerstones of democracy. Religious congregations like First Parish exist, not for the sake of the congregation, but for the sake of each person in the congregation. We come here, not to profit someone else, but to profit ourselves.

We used to spend a lot of time explaining to newcomers what we believed. We would tell people that we didn’t have a creed or a dogma, that we search together for truth and goodness. In the past, that was how we differentiated ourselves from other religious congregations. But now, I’ve been finding newcomers are more interested in learning what it is that we do. When I try to explain what it is that we do here at First Parish, a few things come immediately to mind.

First of all, each week in our worship services, we affirm our highest values. We recall ourselves to our deepest humanity. We strengthen ourselves for the week ahead.

Next, we are the leaders of our congregation. While we do have paid staff, leadership is shared among all who are part of our community. We all make the decisions together, we all staff the committees, we are the volunteers.

Next, we join together to make the world a better place. We support charitable causes, we volunteer together, we help bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice.

Perhaps most importantly, we raise the next generation to become moral, joyful, humane people. And this is yet another way in which we help bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice.

As you can see, what we do is quite different from what the new forms of religion do. Again, the new forms of religion — work and politics and sports and so on — are mostly done for someone else’s profit. No one is making a profit from what we do here in First Parish. What we do benefits each one of us, and all of us collectively. What we do benefits the wider community, and ultimately the whole world.

In addition to telling people what we believe and showing them what it is that we do, there’s another way we should be explaining ourselves to curious newcomers. We need to show people that we have a different way of being in the world. Our kind of being is not a selfish kind of being. Our kind of being is being-with-others. As an old prophet once put it, we strive to love our neighbors as we love our selves. (8) Sometimes I like to call this inter-being, or or sometime we might use the phrase “the interdependent web of all life.” When others sense within us this love for neighbor and love for self, they may find that they want to be a part of this community. They may want to feel part of the interdependent web of life.

When I look ahead to the next ten or twenty years at First Parish, this is what I hope we put at the center of our community: loving our neighbor as we love ourselves. Or if you prefer, living as if the interdependent web of life truly mattered. These are the permanent center of our religious community. And if we can keep these at our center, if we can show in our lives and in our being that these are of greatest importance to us, we will continue to be a force for good in the next ten years, in the next twenty years, indeed for the next three hundred years of our existence.


(1) See e.g., Pew Research Center, “Nones on the Rise,” 9 October 2012, accessed 10 December 2022.
(2) Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000).
(3) E. J. Dionne Jr., Norman J. Ornstein, Thomas E. Mann, One Nation After Trump: A Guide for the Perplexed, the Disillusioned, the Desperate, and the Not-Yet Deported (St. Martin’s Publishing Group, 2018).
(4) To help define define religion, I’m using Ninian Smart’s seven dimensions of religion from his book Dimensions of the Sacred: An Anatomy of the World’s Beliefs (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1998). Smart’s seven dimensions of religion are: Ritual; Narrative and Mythic; Experiential and emotional; Social and Institutional; Ethical and legal; Doctrinal and philosophical; Material (i.e., objects that symbolize the sacred). According to Smart, different religions emphasize different dimensions of the sacred.
(5) There is a great deal of scholarly writing about sport as religion. For just one example, the book From Season to Season: Sports as American Religion (Mercer University Press, 2001), ed. Joseph L. Price, contains a collection of essays on this topic, with titles like “The Final Four as Final Judgement,” “The Super Bowl as Religious Festival,” and “The Pitcher’s Mound as Cosmic Mountain.”
(6) Christian nationalist Nick Fuentes has called for this, according to “Who Is Trump’s Dinner Companion, Nick Fuentes?,” Religion News Service, 27 November 2022, accessed10 December 2022.
(7) For more about the destructive side effects of work as religion, see the final chapter of Chen’s book Work Pray Code: When Work Becomes Religion in Silicon Valley (Princeton Univ. Press, 2022).
(8) Jesus of Nazareth, as reported in the Gospel according to Mark, 12:31.