An Introduction to Religion
Religion is a cultural system of beliefs, practices and ethical codes. It also involves the idea of a higher power that governs the universe and a sense of purpose in life. It often includes rituals, a belief in one or more gods and goddesses, sacred books, a clergy to lead the community, and places, days and symbols that are held holy.
Anthropologists believe that religion grew out of human curiosity about the unknown and fear of uncontrollable forces in nature. It attempts to manipulate these uncontrollable forces through magic and supplication. Magic tries to directly control parts of the environment, such as the weather and success in hunting. Religious people supplication tries to control the universe by asking for help from a deity.
A number of philosophers have attempted to define religion. German philosopher Friedrich Schleiermacher (1775-1854), for example, saw it as “the inclination of the mind to acknowledge its dependence on something beyond itself, and to worship it, and to try to acquire union with it through acts of homage.”
Philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt (1803-1859) suggested that religion was a “complex, organic whole” consisting of many elements. He believed that the concept of religion is more a general category for an entire civilization than a specific grouping such as Christianity or Islam.
Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) was a 19th century social theorist who studied the role of religion in society. He analyzed religion to find out whether it has an objective side and a subjective one. On the objective side, he found that religion makes people recognize their dependency on a superior Being. On the subjective side, it calls into play not only the will but the intellect and the imagination and stirs emotions such as love.
Karl Marx (1818-1883) was another 19th century philosopher who studied the relationship between religion and society. He saw that the concept of religion reflects and perpetuates social stratification, which in turn promotes class conflict and political upheaval. He also said that religion is the opium of the poor and working classes.
In the 20th century, scholars have continued to refine theories of religion. The modern study of religion is often comparative in approach, attempting to compare the beliefs, practices and organizational structures of different cultures. These studies are often based on the ideas of such philosophers as Hans Jonas and Rudolf Otto.
The term religion is often used as a taxon for groups of social practices that are common to a region or a population. However, it is important to distinguish this concept from the more vague notion of spirituality or worldview, which refers to a person’s overall perspective on his or her existence in the universe and how that perspective affects his or her actions. These views can be similar or contradictory, and can even be based on very different cultural traditions. These differences often make them difficult to study and compare in a meaningful way. The goal of the modern study of religion is to develop a comprehensive typology of these diverse phenomena.