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In this module, we look into the general characteristics of founders of religious movements.

When we look at all the different religions in our world, we may well ask the question: who started them all? In some cases we know the answers, but in others not. We know, for instance, that Jesus was the founder of Christianity, that Muhammad was the founder of Islam, that Siddhartha Gautama (or the Buddha) was the founder of Buddhism and that Baha’u’llah was the founder of the Baha’i faith. In the case of African Religion and Hinduism we simply do not know who started it all. In the case of a religion like Judaism some people may say that it was Abraham while others may say that it was Moses.

Founders, then, are people who are regarded by their followers as the initiators of their religious community. If someone has a religion named after him or her (Buddhism, Christianity), that is pretty much a give-away of who is regarded as the founder. In other cases, there is no direct link between the names of the founder and of the religion. Calling Islam Muhammadanism, for example, is simply wrong.

In this module we will firstly present a brief profile of a religious founder. This profile will outline some of the characteristics that founders of religion appear to have in common. With this profile as backdrop, we will consider four case studies which will, to greater or lesser extent reflect some of the features that the profile has presented us with.

General context

A religious founder generally operates in a multi–cultural society . In such a society population groups with culturally different backgrounds live next to each other or intermingle with each other. Over a long period of time these cultures may come into contact with each other on a permanent basis. In such a situation cultural change , that is the mutual influence between two or more cultures, may take place. Such a situation is known as acculturation.

A religious founder also operates in a crisis situation . The latter could emerge from a process of acculturation where different cultures are exerting influence on each other to such an extent that the entire society finds itself in a situation of transition. Under such circumstances cultural change cause people to feel insecure and uprooted. Another possibility is that the crisis situation is caused by or is the result of oppression or war. A country’s territory might have been invaded by hostile forces and the general population might suffer oppression and be forced into subservience to foreign powers. In the case of war, the constant or long term threat of enemy forces may cause great anxiety and uncertainty.

Religious context

In a crisis situation individuals and groups experience feelings of dissatisfaction, injustice, uncertainty, anxiety and distress . These feelings can be so strong and intense that many would believe that the end of the world is near. Founders of religion always act in circumstances and times where strong end of time expectations are alive.

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Source:  OpenStax, Learning about religion. OpenStax CNX. Apr 18, 2015 Download for free at https://legacy.cnx.org/content/col11780/1.1
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