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Course Content

Religion in society

Different religious traditions interact with specific cultures in complex and dynamic ways. These interactions influence how religion is perceived and understood within society, particularly around matters of concern to religion.

Religion in Australian society
In a multicultural and multi-faith society, such as Australia, there is a rich diversity of religious traditions. This diversity of religious traditions reflects many aspects of religion and society throughout the world.

Australia itself is a diverse society which includes a number of religious traditions. About two-thirds of Australians claim affiliation with a religion and about 10% of these regularly practise their faith.

At the same time Australia can be characterised as a generally secular society.

The Australian constitution indicates that government should not interfere with religion and vice-versa although there are a number of ways they interact. Regular religious practice has declined in the last half century, religious days and holidays are mostly not observed as they once were and religion is usually not prominent in public affairs.

Nevertheless, religion is a very visible part of Australian society. Religious buildings, such as churches, schools and hospitals are features of the Australian built landscape. Some people wear distinctively religious symbols and clothing in public.

Religion also participates in society through the activities of religious agencies and the day-to-day influence of individuals who follow religious teachings. Religious leaders and members of particular religions also participate in public debates and discussions about issues in society. In the field of education about one-third of Australian children attend Catholic or independent schools, the majority of which are religious based.

Different views about religion in society

When investigating a social or natural phenomenon, categorisation is a useful exercise. The following categories can be used when inquiring into how religion is viewed in society:

Religion as a belief system
Assumes that ultimate reality exists and religions have a basis for their beliefs. Aspects of this category include:
• religions meet the spiritual needs of people
• religions answer questions of meaning and purpose in life
• religious transformation brings about fundamental change in people

Religion as a human invention
Assumes religions have no basis for their beliefs but are creations entirely of human origin. Aspects of this category include:
• religion is used to manipulate people
• religion is used to subjugate people
• religion is a human construct to give comfort in times of distress

Religion as a functional agency
Assumes that religions, whether of human origin or not, are a universal phenomenon and therefore must serve a useful purpose. Aspects of this category include:
• religions are organised systems that promote the stability of society
• religions are good for health and wellbeing
• religious ideals fulfil the need for a stable frame of reference

Religion as a political entity
Assumes that religions, whether of human origin or not, represent groups of people with common interests. Aspects of this category include:
• religions are influential
• religions have values
• religions have traditions

Other sets of categories can be used. For instance: religion as an authority; religion as a guardian of society’s morals; religion as a custodian of culture, tradition or ethnicity; etc.

Ways religion is viewed in Australian society
Religion is a part of Australian society. For some, it is an active, transformative agent for the individual and for society. For others, it is a quaint but harmless leftover from a bygone era. For yet others, it is a malevolent, reactionary force that needs to be excluded from society or at least curtailed.

Census figures from a century ago indicate that Australia had almost an entirely Christian population with very few belonging to other faith traditions and very few indicating they had no religious belief. However, this did not mean it was a harmonious society. Sectarianism gave rise to sharp divisions between Christian denominations, particularly between Catholics and Anglicans.

Note: Like other statistics, census figures require close scrutiny. Before 1971 Australians who were more than 50% Aboriginal were not counted in the census. Also from 1971 the instruction 'If no religion, write none' was introduced to the census. Both these changes would affect census statistics on religion.

A survey taken today would still see the majority of Australians claiming to be Christian but there has been a significant increase in those who belong to non-Christian religions and very large increases in those who claim no religious affiliation. There has also been a decrease in regular church attendance by those claiming to be Christian. Coincidently, those who claim to be Christian usually have a more inclusive approach than a century ago, both to other denominations and to other religions generally. In regard to religion, Australian society could now be described as ‘pluralist’.

Due to the changes in attendance it can be concluded that most Christian churches in Australia have a diminished role in meeting the spiritual needs of people. For many Australians religion is a private matter; spirituality is for personal experience. Evidence of this, other than church attendance figures, can be seen in fewer marriages and funerals being conducted by churches.
The Christian high feast days of Christmas and Easter still see churches full of worshippers. These religious holy days are still observed in the Australian calendar but for most Australians the religious aspect is secondary to the family/communal aspect and non-religious cultural observance.

At times of national crises religious leaders are often still called upon to offer words of solace or lead rituals that in some way ritualise the community’s need to express concern or grief. This religious sense within the community recognises that religious ritual can express what is beyond words to express and help give meaning to events outside the control of rational action.

Whether or not Australians attended religious services, in earlier decades religious organisations were held in high regard and were seen as upholders of morality. However, whatever trust people had in religion has been severely compromised by the recent exposure of past and current misconduct by some church officials, and in particular, with regard to the abuse of children. Churches have been further implicated in scandal by the response of some of their leaders to these matters.

On the other hand, church schools have shown significant growth in Australia. Catholic schools have long been part of the education landscape in Australia. In recent years other school systems with a religious heritage that is not Catholic have also expanded greatly. The popularity of religious schools indicates that people find certain features of these schools desirable but this does not mean that the religious element is uppermost in their thinking.

The social welfare outreach of religious organisations is an area that many Australians view as a positive aspect of religion in society. Agencies such as the Society of St Vincent de Paul, The Salvation Army, World Vision and the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation are well supported by Australians in their work with the poor and disadvantaged. The religious nature of the agency may not be relevant for many people as non-religious charitable agencies such as the Smith Family Foundation also receive support from the Australian public.

Although the Australian constitution states that Government and Religions are to remain separate, there is significant interaction between the two. Religions have lobbied government on issues ranging from medical ethics to Indigenous rights. On some important issues such as abortion, refugees and marriage the influence of the religion has not held sway. On the other hand, government has refrained from taxing religious organisations and religious schools are largely supported by government funds.

Changes in Australia’s religious profile
How change in Australia’s religious profile came about is a subject for investigation. For instance, Aboriginal culture and spirituality that has existed in Australia for many thousands of years has undergone much change and, in many cases, almost disappeared. Aboriginal spirituality is strongly connected to the land.

Starting in the late Eighteenth Century, European colonisation resulted in Indigenous Australians being dislocated from their lands and led to serious disruption in their life and culture. Under the influence of missionaries from the various Christian denominations, many Aborigines converted to Christianity.
Most Australians today are of European descent, mainly from the British Isles.

This explains the strong Christian presence in Australia from the time of colonisation. However, it could be argued that Australia was never a strongly Christian country. Being a transplanted religion, Australian Christianity did not develop its own identity. It never possessed the ancient Christian roots and visible symbolism of Europe or the open religious intentions of the founding of the USA.

For almost all of the first two centuries Anglicanism was the predominant denomination. The Anglican Church was (and is) the established church of England but some of the colonial authorities were anti-establishment. They had been influenced by the philosophy of the Enlightenment which emphasised reason and individualism against tradition. A new society in a distant land was fertile ground in which these ideas took root.

Immigration has continued to have an important role in the changing religious profile of Australia. Immigration from Europe was encouraged following World War II and this helped boost Catholic numbers and was the main factor in the existence of a large Greek Orthodox community, particularly in Melbourne.
Immigration from Vietnam as a result of the war there brought a number of Vietnamese Catholics and Buddhists to Australia. By 1980 the Catholic Church had become the most numerous in Australia. Since then, further immigration from non-European countries has resulted in a rapid increase in non-Christian believers. The 2011 census statistics on changes in the religious population indicate that, Hindus, though a small proportion of Australians, have shown the greatest relative increase but Buddhism and Islam have also shown significant growth.

Australia is a western, democratic and capitalist country. Following the Reformation a philosophy developed known as ‘the protestant work-ethic.’ This emphasised hard work and frugality rather than religious practice and is credited with being the force behind modern capitalism. This philosophy in turn contributed to the growth of individualism and materialism which became a feature of western societies. Australia has benefited economically from capitalism but some would argue that materialism and individualism are blamed in part for the decline in interest in organised religion in Australia.

Another factor contributing to the changing profile of religion in Australia is the effect of a more liberal lifestyle. Following the horrors of two World Wars, many people saw religion as not only powerless to protect society but in fact a threat to peace and stability. Many, particularly in Europe, discarded religion for a more secular lifestyle and thus a more radical secularism was introduced into Australia. The 1960s are seen as a watershed period when many of the conservative traditions were replaced with a liberal outlook but the decline ‘took off’ following World War II.

Why different religions are viewed differently in Australian society
A common accusation about religion in Australia is, ‘If there are all these religions, how can they all be right?’ This accusation is also levelled at the many denominations of Christianity and even at the various factions within a denomination. Religious harmony, the ecumenical movement and inter-faith dialogue has helped to moderate this charge but religious disputes are one reason why religious beliefs and teachings are ignored by some Australians.
However, a better understanding of religion has led to a wider acceptance of the variety of religions. In the Australian Survey of Social Attitudes (2009), 1718 Australian adults were asked whether they respected all religions. Sixty-four per cent of them agreed that they did.

Buddhism is the most populous non-Christian religion in Australia. Its growth is mostly due to immigration but it also holds a particular attraction for many Westerners. This can be due not only to local influence but also the ease of travel to Asian countries where Buddhism predominates. High profile Buddhist devotees are also an influence. The Dalai Lama enjoys popular acclaim for his role as an exiled leader and his simply expressed message of peace and harmony. His frequent public talks in Australia are always well patronised.
Amongst Christian denominations, those that are experiencing the biggest growth are the Pentecostal churches. Pentecostalism is an import from America and features exhortative preaching, lively worship formats with popular music and well organised outreach programs. Experiential Christianity has an appeal to many Australians, particularly the young.

A range of issues in society also impact on how people view different religions. For example, global terrorism in the name of Islam contributes to a fear of Islam and a mistrust of Muslims, both in Australia and abroad. Child abuse by Christian ministers, including Catholic priests and abuse within institutions run by Christian churches, including the Catholic Church, also contribute to a mistrust of religious leaders and anger towards particular Christian churches.
Countering these negative views are constructive efforts by particular religions and their leaders to engage with the community and address concerns that arise in the community. These include holding events such as mosque open days, participating in interreligious dialogue and cooperation, setting up and supporting redress schemes, publicly acknowledging past wrongs or working directly with those affected or concerned about a religion.

A case study on the view of Catholic involvement in society
The Catholic Church sees itself as a part of society and responsive to the needs of society. The Church has something to say about those things that matter to society. Consequently, the Church wants a place ‘in the public square’ and to contribute to any debate about what is good for society as a whole.

The Second Vatican Council’s document, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes #1), begins with the words,
The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts.

In his 2015 encyclical (Laudato Si #3), Pope Francis reiterates that view with regard to the issue of climate change. He says, ‘Nothing in this world is indifferent to us’, and goes on to say, More than fifty years ago, with the world teetering on the brink of nuclear crisis, Pope Saint John XXIII wrote an Encyclical which not only rejected war but offered a proposal for peace. He addressed his message Pacem in Terris to the entire “Catholic world” and indeed “to all men and women of good will”. Now, faced as we are with global environmental deterioration, I wish to address every person living on this planet. In my Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, I wrote to all the members of the Church with the aim of encouraging ongoing missionary renewal. In this Encyclical, I would like to enter into dialogue with all people about our common home.

The pope’s encyclical met with both high praise and strong criticism from within the Church and from outside the Church. The encyclical was promulgated prior to a UN debate on climate change and has been subject to further close scrutiny from others. Because it is effectively a political statement (the pope calls for states to act on this issue) some of the strongest reactions have come from politicians. In Australia, the prime minister at the time was asked whether or not his views on how to respond to the issue have been influenced by the call to action from the head of his church. While the pope’s arguments may be in tune with the sentiments of many, others argue that the economic ramifications of such action are significant.

Further, many commentators have argued that the Church should concern itself only with spiritual matters and not engage in debate on scientific or political matters. Even senior members of the Church have said the Church has no expertise in this particular issue. The interplay between religion and society seldom has clear-cut boundaries.


Course Content

How people interact with religion

Each religion offers a way of life that seeks to provide people with meaning and purpose in life. How each person responds to what is offered by religion varies and is influenced by how they encounter and interact with religion in general, as well as with particular religions.

Further, how people respond to and interact with religion varies throughout life.

This process is dynamic and complex. A variety of factors influence how a person throughout their life interacts with religion. Such factors include the context of a person’s life, the experiences each person has in life and the world in which they live.

For some, religion does not register as anything important, with little known or understood about religion or particular religions. Some may be immersed in a culture or way of life rich in religion without ever having consciously reflected upon the merits of the deeper meanings offered by a religion.

For others, there may be a much more conscious approach of either accepting or rejecting religion. A person’s awareness of religion, interest in or reaction to religion may change throughout their life. How a person responds to religion will be influenced by the circumstance of their life, how they encounter religion and religious matters, and the context of the world in which they are living.

Social factors - What accounts for the different ways different religions are viewed in Australian Society.

The world in which a person lives creates a range of social factors that have the potential to either support, hinder or obstruct how a person and religion interact. Some examples include:

· A culture that focuses on material possessions and/or consumption of goods

· Historical issues and events that inform and colour how people view religion

· The presence of social disadvantage or hardship such as poverty, poor health conditions or even war

· Social attitudes and philosophies that promote, marginalise or reject religion and/or religious matters; these can include, for example, some forms of secularism, militant atheism, and Christian humanism

· Political ideologies and administrations; for instance in a theocracy or in a communist society

· People that inspire, motivate or direct how people should act and even think in relation to a religion (the leadership of such people, individually or collectively, could be conscious or unconscious).

Such factors create a climate in which ideas and/or actions have the potential to colour or influence how people and religion interact. In contemporary Australian society there are many social factors that impact on how people interact with religion in general as well as with particular religions.

Surveying, describing and analysing these factors requires the use of good analytical skills and make use of a variety of source documents that identify, illustrate and comment on the social factors that impact on how people interact with religion.

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