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Revision as of 22:55, 1 May 2007 by Robert H. Stockman (Talk | contribs) (Origin and Purpose of Religion)

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A religion is an apparently-universal human social phenomenon involving some or all of the following:

  • a distinctive worldview
  • doctrines, beliefs, or traditions
  • the supernatural
  • subjects of "ultimate concern" (such as birth and death)
  • the concept of "the sacred"
  • group identity
  • social institutions
  • practices, rituals, rules, other behavioral expectations
  • the claim to be a religion

Some religions are implicit, and consist of inherited ancestral traditions (a "way of life"). Others are organized, and promote themselves in conscious contrast to alternatives within the wider society. We may also distinguish between personal religious beliefs and experiences, and those which may be socially prescribed.

In the case of religions which are divided into sects or denominations, the word "religion" is generally reserved for the most fundamental level of spiritual identity. For example, Methodists generally do not describe Methodism as a "religion" in its own right, but as a denomination within the religion of Christianity. Sikhs, however, insist that they are a "religion," and not, for example, merely a sect of Hinduism (despite their many similarities).

There is a wide variety of religions, listed on Citizendium at catalog of religions. This article concerns the topic of religion in general.

Defining "Religion"

The word religion comes from the Latin religion which originally designated "a power outside man obligating him to certain behaviour under pain of threatened awesome retribution, a kind of tabu, or the feeling in man vis-a-vis such powers."[1] Equivalent terms in other cultures derive from very different ideas. In Sanskrit, dharma (often nowadays used to translate "religion") refers to duties, including etiquette, morality, ritual, caste obligations, and law; in Buddhism it evolved to refer to the Buddha's teachings.[2] The Arabic din was similar, referring to "usages, customs, standard behavior," even "conformity, propriety, obedience."[3] Classical Chinese and ancient Greek wholly lacked a word meaning "religion." The modern use the word to refer to a system of beliefs and practices (as in "the Christian religion") is only a few centuries old in European languages, prompting the renowned scholar of religion, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, to question the precision and usefulness of the noun (though not of the adjective "religious").

Even though religious phenomena have been contemplated and studied for millennia, modern scholars of religion do not agree on a single definition of the term. Before the nineteenth century, most people tended to define religion in terms of "true religion," meaning the understandings and actions of own religious tradition. With the spread of a scientific approach to history and social phenomena in the nineteenth century, religion began to be approached secularly and skeptically. The result was a series of hostile understandings of religion. The ideas of Karl Marx and later, Sigmund Freud, are illustrative:

"Religion is the sign of the oppressed creature. . . It is the opium of the people . . . Religion is only the illusory sun which revolves around man as long as he does not revolve around himself." (Karl Marx)
"Religion is comparable to a childhood neurosis" (Sigmund Freud)[4]

Marx and Freud's "definitions" of religion reduced it to negative manifestation of another phenomenon, socioeconomic and psychological respectively. But subsequently, religion scholars began to view religion more neutrally. The sociologist Milton Yinger offered a "functional" definition: "religion can be defined as a system of beliefs and practices by means of which a group of people struggles with the ultimate problems of human life."[5] Besides the problem whether an individual can be religious apart from "a group of people," Yinger’s definition is so broad that it could include Marxism, patriotism, or even science. Emile Durkheim, one of the founders of the sociology of religion, offered a more specific definition: "a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things."[6] James Livingston, a phenomenologist of religion, offers the following "working definition": "religion is that system of activities and beliefs directed toward that which is perceived to be of sacred value and transforming power."[7]

One of the difficulties in defining religion is defining the "thing" to which humans are relating: God, the transcendent, the Ultimate, the Sacred, Ultimate Reality, the Holy. The terms reflect the multitude of ways humans experience ultimacy. For members of monotheistic traditions, the "thing" is a transcendent, personal God, creator of the cosmos. But for some Hindus "it" is one god among many, a high god among many, or even a sacred power pervading everything (humans, nature, and the gods). For Buddhists the ultimate experience is of nirvana, sometimes described as an ultimate state, but even then any description of nirvana is "empty." In the Chinese religious traditions, "it" is often called the dao, the way or order of all things.

Approaches to the study of religion

Because religion has many elements or dimensions to it, there are many ways to study it. A scientific analogy might be oceanography; one must know biology to study sea life, chemistry to study sea water, physics to study the water's movements, and geology to study the marine bottom. Similarly, religion is made up of different elements:

Narrative. Ultimately, all religions tell a story. In some traditions the story is expressed in scripture; in others it is an oral tradition. Sometimes the "story" is called myth, not in the sense of "make believe," but in the sense of "sacred story." The story a religion tells conveys the other elements of that religious tradition: its history, metaphysical teachings, practices, its concept of the nature of human society, its understanding of how religious community should be organized and should function, its experience of the sacred, and its ethics. In addition to sacred narratives, all religions have stories offering moral and spiritual examples or dealing with controversial issues. Some religious narratives are fairly literal, while others rely heavily on symbolism and metaphor to convey their meaning. Many narratives are expressed in painting and sculpture as well. Religious narrative can be studied via narrative or textual analysis, hermeneutics (the interpretation of texts), linguistics, semiotics, art criticism, and other methods.
Teachings or doctrines. All religions convey beliefs, explanations why things are the way they are, descriptions of the sacred and any ultimate state of being the adherent can achieve, boundaries on membership and behavior, and many other matters. Some types of teachings can be arrayed into a systematic explanation or theology, which can be studied logically, philosophically, or theologically.
Rituals and practices. All religions expect their adherents to conform to or utilize certain rituals, whether they are practices of prayer, fasting, rituals for transitions in the life cycle (coming of age, marriage, death), or seasonal rituals (planting and harvesting in particular in agricultural societies). Annual religious festivals often have specific rituals associated with them. In some cases, festivals may combine practices from a number of religious traditions (thus Easter, a Christian holy day commemorating Christ's resurrection from the dead, incorporates popular fertility symbols involving eggs and rabbits originally from pagan spring fertility rituals). An important practice found in most religious traditions is pilgrimage. Ritual studies and phenomenology provide methods of studying this element of religion.
Society. All religions offer critiques of contemporary society based on concepts of an ideal society and must incorporate an understanding of the relationship between sacred and secular power and the religious and politicial institutions embodying each. Anthropology and sociology have developed many ways to study the societal aspects of religion.
Community. All religions have a concept of what it means to be a member of that religious community, how the community is to be organized and function, and how the community relates to the outside world. Inevitably, this includes the issues of conversion to and away from the religious community. The main exception would be religions in small, pre-urban societies, where everyone is simultaneously a member of the religious community and the greater society and no clear distinction between the two can be made. In such societies, religion can pervade all or much of the culture and be hard to distinguish from culture. Sociology and anthropology are used to study this aspect as well.
Experience. All religions have a notion of the personal, psychological dimension of religion, the inner spiritual life of the person, and the felt relation of the individual to the sacred. Psychology and mysticism (as a systematic field of study) provide ways to understand religious experience.
Ethics. All religions offer an understanding of the moral life because they are centrally concerned with the problem of how human beings are to live together peacefully and reciprocally. Because of the immense importance of families and their continuity throughout history, the regulation of sexuality has been an important aspect of religious morality. The fields of ethics and moral theology provide ways to study this element of religious experience.

Origin and Purpose of Religion

The question of the origin of religion has produced a range of explanations, many of which get back to the definition of religion and its uses, both to help people and to deceive them. The earliest evidence of religious beliefs and practices are intentional burials of human beings, sometimes with grave goods, which may imply the existence of beliefs about an afterlife. Cave art, some of which portrays beings that are part human and part animal, may imply belief in spiritual or divine beings or in the transformation of human beings into something else. Elaborate arrangements of the skulls and bones of bears in caverns may imply the existence of rituals. In all these cases, material objects or images have been preserved; their uses and any beliefs and practices they might imply are inferences. To date, all evidence is confined to the last hundred thousand years and usually to the last fifty or even thirty thousand years.

The question of whether religion predates language has been debated. Essentially, the issue boils down whether ritual predates myth, whether people acted out religious feelings before they talked about them. Not enough is yet known about the origin of language to answer the matter definitively. Nicholas Wade, in Before the Dawn, notes that with the rise of language, lying became a serious issue, hence religion in the form of a set of common beliefs, stories, and rituals was needed to create group solidarity and enforce group behavioral norms and expectations.

Criteria Shaping the Influence of a Religion

What makes a religion important, or worth studying? Common criteria include

  • Size, i.e. number of followers. Major problems include definitional ones (e.g., are we to count "Catholics" according to the number of people baptized as Catholics, the number who say they are Catholics, or the number who attend mass at least occasionally?) as well as practical problems of enumeration. is a well-known site which compiles population estimates for various religions.
  • Antiquity, i.e. the age of a religion (with older ones generally being regarded as more venerable). This is not always easily calculated. For example, to many it seems obvious that Judaism is older than Christianity, which in turn is older than Islam; yet all three emerged from (and lay claim to) much the same prophetic tradition. Moreover, the basic features of (rabbinic) Judaism and Christianity as we know them coalesced at about the same time, during the second-to-fourth centuries AD. And should the International Society for Krishna Consciousness be traced back to the 1960's activity of A.C. Bhaktivedanta Prabhupada; to the career of the fifteenth-century Bengali saint Caitanya; to the composition of the Bhagavadgita some two thousand years ago; or to Krishna himself (if he in fact existed as a historical figure)?
  • Influence. While this is difficult to quantify with anything like objectivity, several religions have clearly influenced the world beyond what their numbers would suggest. For example, many of the characteristic features of the Abrahamic religions seem to have originated with Zoroastrianism, whose presence is now much reduced. And Jews have never been very numerous, but an intellectual history of the world could hardly be written without reference to them.
  • Intrinsic interest. Often interest in a religion is inspired by some noteworthy event or attribute, whether good or bad.

Common Classifications of Religions

Religions are often grouped together because they share certain common features or heritages. The following terms are examples:

"Dharmic religions". Includes the several Indic religions which conceive of their teachings in terms of dharma (a word variously meaning "religion" or "duty"): Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism.

"Abrahamic religions". This category includes the three religions which recognize Abraham as a part of their sacred histories: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The Baha'i religion also fits this description, but is more frequently overlooked on account of its small size and recent appearance.

"Monotheistic religions". Religious which affirm belief in one God include Zoroastrianism, Sikhism, and the Abrahamic religions (listed above). Some strains of Hindu or ancient Egyptian religion arguably qualify. The concept becomes somewhat murky in view of the many theologies in which God or his equivalent boasts a heavenly retinue, or changes form. The concept of "henotheism" (in which any one of various deities may be singled out for worship as the Supreme Being) has been proposed to describe Hinduism.

"Eastern religions". Any of the traditional, indigenous religions of India, Tibet, or East Asia--especially Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. Older material often includes Islam in this category; today it is more likely to be grouped with the "Western" (now usually conceived as identical with Abrahamic) religions.

Taoic religions. A family of East Asian religions which make use of the name / concept of Tao (or Dao): Taoism, Confucianism, Shinto, Yiguandao, Chondogyo, Caodaism, and others. Chinese Buddhism arguably qualifies.

Pagan / Heathen religions. These represent a Christian religious category encompassing all non-Christians except Jews, and perhaps also Muslims. "Pagan" comes from the Latin paganus ("country bumpkin"); "heathen" ("heath-dweller") has much the same set of connotations. The terms recall a time when Christianity was making inroads in European cities, while rustics often continued to follow the old religions. For centuries the terms were assumed to be negative; however, "neo-pagan" groups began reclaiming them in the twentieth century.

"People of the Book" (Ahl al-Kitab). An Islamic term for other monotheistic religions founded by prophets who revealed holy books. The Qur'an recognizes Judaism, Christianity, and "Sabeanism." (Scholars are unsure as to what a Sabean was.) Muslim theologians debated the status of Zoroastrianism and Hinduism.

"Tribal religions / Indigenous religions / Primitive religions / Primal religions." Include a wide variety of small-scale religions found in pre-modern societies. These terms are problematic: "tribe" is not a term recognized in anthropology (its origin lies in Roman history); "indigenous" begs many questions; while "primitive" may be perceived as insulting. "Shamanism" describes one common religious-specialist role within many such societies (but neither exhausts the categeory, nor is limited to it). Animism (after Tylor) names a type of belief system which is common within such societies.

"New Religious Movements" (NRM's) An umbrella term which encompasses groups which arose (at the very earliest) in the nineteenth century or later. Some scholars prefer World War II as a cutoff date. Scientology is an example, it recognizes the existence of a supreme being but has no doctrine about a practitioner's relationship with same, leaving that up to the individual. Not all NRM's claim to be religions per se; some say they are "spirtual movements," while others see themselves as part of another religion such as Christianity.


  1. Wilfred Cantwell Smith, The Meaning and End of Religion (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1978), 20.
  2. Smith, Meaning and End of Religion, 56-57.
  3. Smith, Meaning and End of Religion, 102.
  4. James C. Livingston, Anatomy of the Sacred: An Introduction to Religion (New York City: Macmillan, 1993) 6.
  5. Livingston, 9.
  6. Livingston, 11.
  7. Livingston, 11.

See also