Introducing World Religions:
The eBook

Introducing World Religions Online:
Class Discussion Questions

This area contains "Discussion Questions" that call for students to think about textbook material in class after chapters have been read. Student discussions can be enhanced by inclusion of prior knowledge, experiences, and reasoned opinions. Questions are provided for each textbook chapter.


  1. Chapter 1: Approaching religious traditions
    1. If you were making a list of "world religions" which traditions would you include? What would be your criteria for choosing religions to go on the list?
    2. What are several connotations of the terms "world religions" and "world's religions"? Which do you prefer? Why?
    3. Identify some religious symbols you see every day in your culture. Discuss the message they convey. Is it positive? Negative? Might different people interpret the message in different ways? Why?
  2. Chapter 2: Expressive traditions of Oceania, America and Africa

    (This chapter has discussion questions to cover the issue of colonialism as well as the ten elements of performance. The entire class might discuss the first question. Beyond that, a division of the class into smaller groups for the remainder might be practical. Students can discuss one question in each group, and then summarize their insights for the class.)

    1. In what ways might colonization by a foreign power affect an indigenous people? What are some examples from chapter 2 that show the impact of colonialism on self-image, religious practices, or worldview?
    2. Think about "lived time." How does gardening among the Boyowans (Trobriand Islanders) make time meaningful? Do you see how gardening might be considered a religious activity? If so, what would make it religious?
    3. Think about "lived place." How does the concept of the Dreaming (Altjeringa) affect the Australian aboriginal people's sense of where they live? What are some examples of "lived places" in your experience that have been made meaningful through stories?
    4. Think about "lived objects." How might getting a tattoo affect a person's sense of his or her body? What goes into choice of a tattoo? How might the Maori people's identity have been affected by the fact that Christian missionaries forbade them to practice ta moko in New Zealand?
    5. Think about the expressive function of "donation." In what ways does the Lakota Sun Dance involve "giving"? What is the purpose of the physical sacrifice made by initiated Native American Sun Dancers? Does their "donation" have a spiritual value? Why do you think so, or think not?
    6. Think about the expressive function of "restoration." What acts are included in the Native American Navajo healing rituals? How is the sandpainting supposed to restore a person to good health? Can you think of another case where healing is done in a similar manner? If so, explain. If not, say what seems to be unique in Diné (Navajo) healing ritual.
    7. Think about the expressive function of "enactment." Do you think that the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs could be considered as a kratophany? (Recall the definition of kratophany as a manifestation of great power whose sacredness has yet to be determined or understood.) Typically in religions, people tend to re-enact sacred events. In what way does the Mexican machismo or identification with La Chingada function as a re-enactment?
    8. Think about the expressive function of "symbolization." What do you learn about religious symbols from the example of the activities of Candomblé practitioners in Brazil? On the basis of how the orishas are represented in Candomblé, how would you define a religious symbol?
    9. Think about the expressive function of "transformation." In what ways do you think Malidoma Somé may have been changed by his experience of initiation among the Dagara people of West Africa? Have you had any experience of transformation that you might consider initiatory? If so, how did that experience transform your outlook on life? In any case, what kind of experience of transformation would you like to have?
    10. Think about the expressive function of "accession." What are the kinds of divination practiced among the Fon people of West Africa? How do their divination practices give access to what they consider as divine? Does this "accession" come through seeing, hearing, or some other means?
    11. Think about the expressive function of "transmission." What kind of cultural information, values, or attitudes have been transmitted through the story of Sundiata among the native people of Mali? Think of some other instances where cultural information, values, or attitudes are passed along through stories.
  3. Chapter 3: Zoroastrian tradition
    1. How do Mazdeans (Zoroastrians) understand the relationship between fire, light, and Truth? Can you think of other cases in the history of religions where fire or light and Truth are associated in ritual or philosophy?
    2. What is the role of free will and Good Thought in the Mazdean (Zoroastrian) tradition? How does the Mazdean understanding of thinking good thoughts compare with your own views?
    3. What are some key features of the sacred biography of Zarathushtra? What similarities and differences do you find between his story and other stories of religious founders or culture heroes? How would you account for these similarities and differences?
  4. Chapter 4: Judaic tradition
    1. What is the significance of the divine name YHVH in Judaic tradition? Why is this name not spoken aloud? How is the word Adonai (Lord) used in reading of the Hebrew Bible?
    2. Compare and contrast these two lists: (1) the Ten Commandments of the Torah, and (2) the Thirteen Principles outlined by Maimonides in terms of their relationship to action and/or belief. Consider which items refer to actions and which refer to beliefs. How do you think the Jewish understanding of the Lord may have been challenged in the face of the catastrophe of the Nazi Holocaust? Explain.
    3. What are some connections between Jewish rituals and specific hierophanic events reported in the Hebrew scriptures in which the divine interacted with the Hebrew people. (For example, explore the symbolism of the Sabbath day, or the Pesach Seder meal.) What ritual responses might be appropriate to the kratophany of the Sho'ah?
  5. Chapter 5: Christian Tradition
    1. Name a few occasions when angels are said to have communicated with human beings. What difference would it make to the meaning of these events if a Christian believed or did not believe in angels?
    2. What did Emperor Constantine do in the 4th century CE to help establish Christian tradition in the Roman Empire? Do you think that such kinds of activities would be effective for any religious tradition at any point in history? Why or why not?
    3. Do you tend to be an "iconoclast"? Why or why or not? Discuss what you consider to be positive and negative aspects of using visual representations of divine subjects.
  6. Chapter 6: Islamic tradition
    1. How might the life story of Prophet Muḥammad inspire Muslims? (For example, think about the prophet's encounters with the angel Gabriel, the Night Journey, the Hijrah, and the Farewell Speech.)
    2. How might Farīd al-Dīn ٔAṭṭār's Ṣūfī path of seven valleys be applied to the live of ordinary contemporary people -- Muslims and non-Muslims alike?
    3. How do the Five Pillars of Islam shape the experience of Muslims in their everyday lives? Are any of these Five Pillars similar to rituals found in other religious traditions? Which ones? In what ways?
  7. Chapter 7: Bahá’í tradition
    1. Compare and contrast Bahá'ulláh's mystic teaching on the four valleys (Box 7.2) with Farīd al-Dīn ٔAṭṭār's teaching on the seven valleys (Box 6.3). What similarities and differences do you find? Does the image of "valley" seem to be used in a similar way? Explain.
    2. In the Bahá’í view, intermarriage among people of different cultural backgrounds and ethnic groups is seen as a key to creating harmony among people of the world. What do you see as the pros and cons of this approach to world peace?
    3. Compare and contrast a few Bahá’í teachings with those of Christians and Muslims. Consider these two questions, and think of one more comparative question to answer: (1) What similarities and differences do you see between the Bahá’í teaching on the Most Great Peace and the Christian or the Muslim teaching on the end of the world, which involve an apocalypse and Last Judgment? (2) How are Manifestations similar and different from prophets in the Abrahamic traditions?
  8. Chapter 8: Jain tradition
    1. The Abrahamic traditions place much emphasis on the existence of a creator God. Talk about how one's understanding of the world might be influenced by the Jain belief in endless cosmic cycles with no mention of a creator deity. Also consider the Jain belief in the numerous kinds of jīvas that exist in the world, which -- though not created by a God -- have the potential for ending their cycle of rebirths.
    2. Review some differences between the Śvetāmbara and Digambara versions of Mahāvīra's traditional life story. What issues are raised by the fact that the two main branches of Jain tradition have sometimes-contradictory versions of Mahāvīra's sacred biography? This "problem" of differing "versions" of a sacred biography occurs in many religious traditions. What bearing might such differences have on the development of a religious tradition?
    3. What do you consider the true meaning of renunciation? What meaning do you find in Gurudev Shree Chitrabhanu's renunciation of the monk's life? Debate the pros and cons of renouncing worldly life as a basis for religious practice.
  9. Chapter 9: Buddhist tradition
    1. Discuss the positive and negative mental states named in Buddhist psychology. Do you think there is any value in identifying these within one's own mind, as the Buddhists try to do in meditation? The five hindrances to an enlightened mind are:
      • unwholesome attachment to sense objects (lust, craving pleasure)
      • ill will (resentment, anger, fear, anxiety)
      • sloth and torpor (physical fatigue, boredom, mental sluggishness)
      • restlessness and worry (lack of concentration, guilt)
      • doubts (uncertainties that are not resolved)

      The seven factors of enlightenment are:

      • mindfulness (going deep into an object through awareness)
      • investigation (discerning objects clearly, penetrating their essence)
      • effort (meaningful activity based on mental energy that does not collapse)
      • zest (joyful, intense interest in what is happening)
      • calm (coolness or mind without fatigue or strain)
      • concentration (mind does not wander)
      • equanimity (balanced, without deficiency or excess -- but not neutrality)
    2. If Buddha said that ultimate reality is really non-self (anātman), or empty of inherent existence (śunya) why do you think he bothered to talk about human beings, and other "provisional" things?
    3. Discuss the "eight special rules" for nuns in Buddhist tradition, and Gautama's apparent reluctance to form a spiritual community for women. Judging from the extra rules and Buddha's initial refusals to form a nun's saṃgha, does it appear that Buddha was a misogynist? Why or why not? What obstacles do religions face in attempting to reconcile their "social" and "doctrinal" dimensions?
  10. Chapter 10: Hindu tradition
    1. How do you suppose the everyday life of Vaiṣṇava Hindus is affected by their belief that Viṣṇu has many avatāras? In general, how do you suppose Hindus feel about the existence of numerous forms of God -- not all of whom they worship? Can you think of any parallels to the notion of iṣṭadevatā (chosen deity) in other religions?
    2. What do you notice about the Hindu the portrayals of the divine from the examples of Viṣṇu, Śiva, and Śākti (i.e., Devī)? How do these figures compare with divine figures in other traditions about which you have read?
    3. In the Bhagavadgītā, what seems to be Arjuna's main problem on the battlefield as he dropped his bow and refused to fight? Do you find Kṛṣṇa's arguments in favor of fighting persuasive? Do you think Arjuna would have been persuaded to fight if his divine eye had not opened? Do you tend to favor Gāndhī's or Tilak's understanding of the text (see pages 245-6)?
  11. Chapter 11: Sikh tradition
    1. Describe the Sikh practice of reciting God's Name. Compare the Sikh practice to methods of prayer found in other religious traditions you have studied, or with which you are familiar.
    2. Review the symbolic meanings of the 5 Ks worn by members of the Khālsā. List some symbolic articles worn or used by members of other religions, and explore similarities and differences in their meanings.
    3. What do you see as the most important or interesting act done by each of the ten Sikh Gurūs? Explain your choices. What sense of their personalities can you get from the stories of their lives?
  12. Chapter 12: Chinese traditions
    1. What kind of character traits do you see evidenced in this "self-assessment" made by Confucius? Explain.

      At fifteen my mind was set on learning. At thirty my character had been formed. At forty I had no more perplexities. At fifty I knew the Mandate of Heaven (Tian ming). At sixty I was at ease with whatever I heard. At seventy I could follow my heart's desire without transgressing moral principles. (Analects 2:4: Chan, Wing-tsit (trans. and comp.) (1963) A Sourcebook in Chinese Philosophy, Princeton: NJ: Princeton University Press, page 22)

    2. Given what you know about Confucius, why do you think he "made" the Spring and Autumn Annals so "boring?" What meaning might he wanted scholars to have gotten from studying the classic (see BOX 12.2)? Compare and contrast the modern "western" concept of history with the ancient Confucian sense of what makes a good document.
    3. Discuss these two anecdotes from Confucian tradition: (1) What meaning do you take from the story of Confucius in his time of mourning? After he mourned the death of his mother as a filial son for three years, he did not play the lute for three more days. (2) This fable about Mencius and Xun-zi illustrates two views of human nature: Two men were trying to get a donkey to move forward. One beat the donkey with a stick. The other tied a carrot to a stick so that the carrot dangled in front of the donkey's nose. Which one is Mencius? Why you think so?
  13. Chapter 13: Shintō tradition
    1. What sense do you get about the kami from each of these various words used to define them: Mysterious, Nature, Life, Creative Energy? Compare and contrast this Japanese sense of the divine with the portrayal of the deity in other religions, such as the Hindu, Judaic, Christian, Muslim, or Zoroastrian traditions.
    2. Notoori Norinaga identified mono no aware (the pathos of things, the sorrow of human existence) as a key element of the Japanese worldview. How do you see it expressed in Japanese poetry (as in various poems presented in the "Cross-over Texture" section of chapter 13).
    3. What has been the condition of Shintō in Japan since the end of World War II? Where do you think Shintō is headed in Japan? In coming to your answer, think about the rise and fall of State Shintō, the emergence of the Japanese New Religions, and the uneven development of Christianity in Japan.
  14. Chapter 14: The challenge of religion
    1. Your textbook author lists three areas of religion that sometimes disturb people: (1) exclusivity, (2) lack of meaning, and (3) systemic internal prejudice. Which of these three do you find most disturbing in a religion? Why?
    2. Think of examples beyond those suggested in chapter 14 to fill in the Wheel of Faiths. Do you agree or disagree with the various suggestions put forward by your textbook author to start off the analysis? Explain.
    3. Discuss the "stereotypical" attitudes reported by the Pew Global Attitudes Project about "Westerners" and "Muslims." Can you detect any bias or cultural insensitivity in the name of the Pew study, which was entitled: "The Great Divide: How Westerners and Muslims view each other"? Explain.

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