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Vermilion Parish Schools
Activity 1: Introduction to the Study of World Religions (GLE: 17)

As a class, define the words “religion” and “philosophy.”  Analyze the difference between the two.  Tell the class that this unit will focus on the history of some of the oldest and major religions and philosophies of the world.

Remind students that even the earliest civilizations had complex religious practices (e.g.  the ziggurat in Mesopotamia, the after-life beliefs of Egyptians, the mythology of the Greeks and Romans).  Most of those early religions were “polytheistic”, which means belief in many gods.  The very first “monotheistic” religion (belief in one God) was Zoroastrianism in the Persian Empire.  In fact, one of the lasting legacies of the Persian Empire was its conception of monotheism.  Tell them that they will be studying the origin and spread of the major religions in the world today.  Their roots go back to empires that no longer exist, but they have continued their distinct beliefs and traditions as outlined by their sacred texts or writings and through their long-standing worship rituals.

Explain to the students that, perhaps, religion is the most significant element that binds a cultural group together. Religions have shaped cultures, especially in their defining of moral standards, religious holidays, and the literature, art, and architecture which pervade those societies.  From how people dress to how people greet one another, from what people eat to how people get married, from how people decide on a career to how people spend their money, religion is a formative player in cultures around the world.

At the same time, religion can be the most divisive element within and among groups.  The ever-present struggle for power does not just plague governments, but religions, too.  One group of leaders or set of beliefs seeks to establish itself above all others.  This has led to divisions within the same basic religions.  Give students examples.  Furthermore, religions have fought among one another for power and influence.  In seemingly unending wars, religions continue to this day to fight in an effort to dominate in different regions of the world.  Religious differences have also led to some of the most egregious moments of human degradation and annihilation. 

Challenge students to learn about the history and basic beliefs of the major religions in the world today.  Challenge them to be able to describe how those religions have influenced world history.  Challenge them to analyze religion in their own society and the role that the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution has played in guaranteeing freedom of religion in American society.  Challenge them to be able to identify conflicts in the world today that reflect religious power struggles and to analyze possible solutions to those problems.

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