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At the simplest level religion is the belief in the power of supernatural. These beliefs are present in all the societies and variations seem endless. A belief in the supernatural almost always incorporates the idea that supernatural forces have some influence or control upon the world. The first indication of a possible belief in the supernatural dates from about 60,000 years ago. Archaeological evidences reveal that Neanderthal man buried his dead with stone tools and jewellery.Religion is often defined as people’s organized response to the supernatural although several movements which deny or ignore supernatural concerns have belief and ritual systems which resemble those based on the supernatural. However these theories about the origin of religion can only be based on speculation and debate.

Though religion is a universal phenomenon it is understood differently by different people. On religion, opinions differ from the great religious leader down to an ordinary man. There is no consensus about the nature of religion. Sociologists are yet to find a satisfactory explanation of religion.

Durkheim in his The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life defines religion as a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things that is to say things set apart and forbidden. James G Frazer in his The Golden Bough considered religion a belief in powers superior to man which are believed to direct and control the course of nature and of human life.Maclver and Page have defined religion as we understand the term, implies a relationship not merely between man and man but also between man and some higher power. According to Ogburn religion is an attitude towards superhuman powers.Max Muller defines religion as a mental faculty or disposition which enables man to apprehend the infinite.

To answer the question how did religion begin â€" two main theories animism and naturism were advanced. The early sociologists, adhering to evolutionary framework, advocated that societies passed through different stages of development and from simplicity to complexity is the nature of social progress. The scholars who have contributed to the field of magic, religion and science can broadly be divided into four different types such as

  1. evolutionary scholars
  2. fundamentalist
  3. symbolic theorists
  4. analytical functionalists.

    • Animism
    • Naturism
    • Theories of Religion
      • Marx and Religion
      • Durkheim and Religion
      • Max Weber and World Religion
      • Social functions and dysfunctions of religion
        • Sect and Cult
      • Pluralistic Religion
      • Monistic Religion
    • Religion and Science


Naturism means the belief that the forces of nature have supernatural power. Andrew Lang and Max Muller develop the theory of naturism. Max Muller, a great Sanskrit scholar, strongly advocates that the most ancient form of religious practice is naturism. Naturism, according to him, is primarily based on man's sensory experience out of which logical deductions are primarily made.

It is through sensory organism that man obtains the surfaced experience of reality on the basis of which he makes logical deductions. The sensory experience further helps man to distinguish animate from the inanimate objects. Therefore, religion is primarily a derivative of sensory experience. To them religious embodiments are seen yet unseen, observable yet unobservable.

For example, rain is visible but the caution of rain is not; sun is visible but its creation is greatly unknown to man.Therefore, out of reverence and dependency man greatly worshipped all the greatest powers of nature: sun, moon, air water without which man's life and living will is exclusively impossible. Therefore, man worships them out of fear, Out of dependency and as a token of respect. They further advocated that the first religious conception is derived from the personification of the natural phenomenon.

For primitive man nature was a vast domain of surprise, horror, miracle and unknown. But the great powers definitely hold the key to human survival and continuity. Man was so moved by the great powers of nature that he started personifying all these abstract forces and started worshipping them. Finally, they advocate that Ancestor Cult is a derived version of Nature Cult. Likewise, man was being apprehensive about his dead ancestors, started worshipping them thinking that their spirits, if worshipped, instead of being destructive can primarily be protective ones. So Ancestor Worship is a derived version of Nature Worship, according to scholars belonging to this school. Naturism is man’s response to the effect of the power and wonder of nature upon his emotions.

There was some criticism of the evolutionary approach of religion. Though Taylor and Max Mullar came up with plausible reasons for certain beliefs being held by members of particular societies they do not necessarily explain why those beliefs originated at all. Nor can it be argued that all religions necessarily originated in the same way. Furthermore the precise stages for the evolution of religion do not fit the facts. As Andrew Lang points out many of the simplest societies have religions based on monotheism which Taylor claimed was limited to modern societies.

Theories of Religion

Sociological approaches to religion are still strongly influenced by the ideas of the three classical sociological theorists Marx, Durkheim and Weber.

  • Marx and Religion
  • Durkheim and Religion
  • Max Weber and World Religion
  • Social functions and dysfunctions of religion
    • Sect and Cult
  • Pluralistic Religion
  • Monistic Religion

Marx and Religion

In spite of his influence on the subject, Karl Marx never studied religion in any detail. His ideas were mostly derived from the writings of several early 19th century theologists and philosophers. One of these was Ludwig Feuerbach who wrote The Essence of Christianity. According to Feuerbach, religion consists of ideas and values produced by human beings in the course of their cultural development but mistakenly projected on to divine forces or gods.Feuerbach uses the term alienation to refer to the establishment of Gods or divine forces as distinct from human beings.

Marx accepts the view that religion represents human self-alienation. He declared in a famous phrase that religion has been the opium of the people. Religion defers happiness and rewards to the after life, teaching the resigned acceptance of existing conditions in this life. Attention is thus diverted from inequalities and injustices in this world by the promise of what is to come in the next. Religion has a strong ideological element, religious beliefs and values often provide justifications for inequalities of wealth and power. In Marx’s view religion in its traditional form will and should disappear.

Durkheim and Religion

In contrast to Marx Durkheim spent a good part of his intellectual effort in studying religion concentrating particularly on religion in small scale traditional societies. His Elementary Forms of Religious Life first published in 1912 is perhaps the single most influential study in the sociology of religion. He based his work upon a study of totemism as practiced by Australian aboriginal societies and urged that totemism represents religion in its most elementary or simple form.A totem was originally an animal or plant considered to have a particular symbolic significance for a group. It is a sacred object regarded with veneration and surrounded by various ritual activities. Durkheim defines religion in terms of a distinction between the sacred and the profane.

Sacred : According to Durkheim sacred is ideal and transcends everyday existence; it is extra-ordinary potentially dangerous, awe-inspiring, fear inducing. The sacred refers to things set apart by man including religious beliefs, rites, duties or anything socially defined as requiring special religious treatment. The sacred has extra-ordinary, supernatural and often dangerous qualities and can usually be approached only through some form of ritual such as prayer, incantation or ceremonial cleansing. Almost anything can be sacred: a god, a rock, a cross, the moon, the earth, a king, a tree, an animal or bird. These are sacred only because some community has marked them a sacred. Once established as sacred however they become symbols of religious beliefs, sentiments and pratices.Sacred objects are symbols and are treated apart from the routine aspects if existence or the realm of profane. Eating the totemic animal or plant is usually forbidden and as a sacred object the totem is believed to have divine properties which separate it completely from other animals that might be hunted or those crops that can be gathered and consumed.

Profane :The profane is the realm of routine experience which coincides greatly with what Pareto called logico-experimental experience. The profane or ordinary or unholy embraces those ideas, persons, practices and things that are regarded with an everyday attitude of commonness, utility and familiarity. It is that which is not supposed to come into contact with or take precedence over the sacred. The unholy or the profane is also believed to contaminate the holy or sacred. It is the denial or subordination of the holy in some way. The attitudes and behavior toward it are charged with negative emotions and hedged about by strong taboos.

The sacred and profane are closely related because of the highly emotional attitude towards them. The distinction between the two is not very clear but ambiguous. As Durkheim pointed out the circle of sacred objects cannot be determined then once and for all. Its extent varies indefinitely according to different religions. The significance of the sacred lies in the fact of its distinction from the profane. The sacred thing is par excellence that which profane should not touch and cannot touch with impurity. Man always draws this distinction of two orders in different times and places. According to Durkheim totem is sacred because it is the symbol of the group itself, it stands for the values central to the group or community. The reverence which people feel for the totem actually derives from the respect they hold for central social values. In religion the object of worship is the society itself.

Durkheim strongly emphasizes the fact that religions are never just a matter of belief. All religions involve regular ceremonial and ritual activities in which a group of believers meet together. Ceremony and ritual in Durkheim’s view are essential to binding the members or groups together.

Durkheim believes that scientific thinking increasingly replaces religious explanation and ceremonial and ritual activities gradually come to occupy only a small part of an individual’s lives. Yet he says there is a sense in which religion in an altered from is likely to continue. Even modern societies depend for their cohesion upon rituals that reaffirm their values; new ceremonial activities thus may be expected to emerge to replace the old.

Social functions and dysfunctions of religion

Social scientists have analyzed religion in terms of what it does for the individual, community or society through its functions and dysfunctions. Many of these social scientists are known to belong to the tradition of functionalist thought. A famous social anthropologist of early twentieth century, Malinowski, saw religion and magic as assisting the individual to cope with situations of stress or anxiety. Religious ritual, according to him, may enable the bereaved to reassert their collective solidarity, to express their common norms and values upon which the proper functioning of the community depends. Religion can also supplement practical, empirical knowledge, offering some sense of understanding and control in areas to which such knowledge does not extent.

A more influential tradition of functionalist thought on religion derives from Durkheim, whose Elementary Forms of the Religious Life presents a theory of religion identifying religion with social cohesion: religious beliefs and rituals are understood in terms of the role they play in promoting and maintaining social solidarity. Radcliffe-Brown argues that religious ceremonies, for example in the form of communal dancing, promoted unity and harmony and functioned to enhance social solidarity and the survival of the society. Religious beliefs contained in myths and legends, he observes, express the social values of the different objects which have a major influence on social life such as food, weapons, day and night etc. They form the value consensus around which society is integrated.

Recent functionalism while retaining his notion that religion has a central role in maintaining social solidarity has rejected Durkheim’s view that religious beliefs are merely symbolic representations of society. Kingsley Davis argues that religious beliefs form the basis for socially valued goals and a justification of them. Religion provides a common focus for identity and an unlimited source of rewards and punishments for behaviour.Functionalist theories of religion face a problem in the apparent decline in religious belief and participation. What is viewed as secularization in other theories is seen as simply religious change in functionalist terms.

Functionalist theorists argue that religion takes different forms in apparently secular societies: it is more individualized, less tied to religious institutions. The character of modern industrial capitalist society, particularly its rampant individualism, is thus seen to be expressed in the differentiated character of religion in a society like the USA. Although seemingly having little basis for integration, the celebration of individualism is itself an integrating feature of such diverse religious forms. Moreover, new and distinctive forms of religion may perform latent functions for the system by deflecting adherents from critical appraisal of their society and its distribution of rewards.

In anti-religious societies such as some communist States this argument cannot hold, but here it is claimed that functional alternatives to traditional religion operate. Other systems of belief such as communism itself fulfill the same role as religion elsewhere. National ceremonial, ritual celebration of communist victories, heroes, etc., meets the same need for collective rites, which reaffirm common sentiments and promote enhanced commitment to common goals. Finally, even in highly secularized Western societies civil religion exists. This consists in abstract beliefs and rituals, which relate society to ultimate things and provide a rationale for national history, a transcendental basis for national goals and purposes. Robert King Merton, a twentieth century functionalist, introduced the concept of dysfunction. Talking about religion, for instance, he pointed out the dysfunctional features of religion in a multi-religious society. In such a society religion, instead of bringing about solidarity, could become the cause of disorganization and disunity.

Apart from Merton, many other social thinkers have highlighted the dysfunctions of religion. Marx regarded religion as a source of false consciousness among the proletariat, which prevents the ‘class for itself’ from developing. It prevents them from developing their real powers and potentialities

Sect and Cult

Pluralistic Religion

Religious pluralism is the belief that one can overcome religious differences between different religions and denominational conflicts within the same religion. For most religious traditions, religious pluralism is essentially based on a non-literal view of one's religious traditions, hence allowing for respect to be engendered between different traditions on core principles rather than more marginal issues. It is perhaps summarized as an attitude, which rejects focus on immaterial differences, and instead gives respect to those beliefs held in common.

The existence of religious pluralism depends on the existence of freedom of religion. Freedom of religion is when different religions of a particular region possess the same rights of worship and public expression. Freedom of religion is consequently weakened when one religion is given rights or privileges denied to others, as in certain European countries where Roman Catholicism or regional forms of Protestantism have special status. Religious freedom has not existed at all in some communist countries where the state restricts or prevents the public expression of religious belief and may even actively persecute individual religions.

Religious pluralism has existed in the Indian Subcontinent since the rise of Buddhism around 500 BC and has widened in the course of several Muslim settlements (Delhi Sultanate1276-1526 AD and the Mughal Empire 1526-1857 AD). In the 8th century, Zoroastrianism established in India as Zoroastrians fled from Persia to India in large numbers, where they were given refuge. The colonial phase ushered in by the British lasted until 1947 and furthered conversions to Christianity among low caste Hindus. The rise of religious pluralism in the modern West is closely associated with the Reformation and the Enlightenment.

Religions like Judaism and Islam had existed alongside Christianity in many parts of Europe, but they were not allowed the same freedoms as the established form of Christianity. Freedom of religion encompasses all religions acting within the law in a particular region, whether or not an individual religion accepts that other religions are legitimate or that freedom of religious choice and religious plurality in general are good things.

Monistic Religion

Monism is the metaphysical view that all is of one essential essence, substance or energy. Monism is to be distinguished from dualism, which holds that ultimately there are two kinds of substance, and from pluralism, which holds that ultimately there are many kinds of substance. Monism is often seen in relation to pantheism, panentheism, and an immanent God. Monism is often seen as partitioned into three different kinds:

  1. Physicalism or materialism, which holds that only the physical is real, and that the mental can be reduced to the physical
  2. Idealism or phenomenalism, which holds the converse
  3. Neutral monism, which holds that both the mental and the physical can be reduced to some sort of third substance, or energy

Functionalism, like materialism, holds that the mental can ultimately be reduced to the physical, but also holds that all critical aspects of the mind are also reducible to some substrate-neutral "functional" level. Thus something need not be made out of neurons to have mental states. This is a popular stance in cognitive science and artificial intelligence. Eliminativism, which holds that talk of the mental will eventually be proved as unscientific and completely discarded.

Just as we no longer follow the ancient Greeks in saying that all matter is composed of earth, air, water, and fire, people of the future will no longer speak of "beliefs", "desires", and other mental states. A subcategory of eliminativism is radical behaviourism, a view held by B. F. Skinner.) Anomalous monism, a position proposed by Donald Davidson in the 1970s as a way to resolve the Mind-body problem. It could be considered (by the above definitions) either physicalism or neutral monism.

Davidson holds that here is only physical matter, but that all mental objects and events are perfectly real and are identical with (some) physical matter. But physicalism retains a certain priority, inasmuch as

  1. All mental things are physical, but not all physical things are mental
  2. (As John Haugeland puts it) Once you take away all the atoms, there's nothing left.
This monism was widely considered an advance over previous identity theories of mind and body, because it does not entail that one must be able to provide an actual method for redescribing any particular kind of mental entity in purely physical terms. For some, monism may also have religious/spiritual implications. Recognizing this, some inveigh against the 'dangers of monism,' asserting that in order to resolve all things to a single substrate, one dissolves God in the process.Others say that the "single substrate is God. Theological arguments can be made for this within Christianity for example the Roman Catholic doctrine of "divine simplicity", as well as in many other religions (Hinduism, Ayyavazhi and Judaism in particular).Historically, monism has been promoted in spiritual terms on several occasions, notably by Ernst Haeckel. To the dismay of most modern observers, Haeckel's various ideas often had components of social darwinism and scientific racism.

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