Religions involve faith and obedience to a system of beliefs, usually including worship of a supreme deity or gods. Some people believe that religion can be a source of strength and unity in societies but others argue that it can cause division, stress and conflict. Whatever its impact, there is no doubt that religion has a profound effect on the world in which we live and it is important to understand how religion works to help us make sense of this fascinating aspect of human society.
There are several different theories about the origin of religion. Some people, such as anthropologists (scientists who study human societies and human origins), believe that religion developed out of a biological need. They argue that humans became self-aware as a result of their evolution and when they did, they realized they would eventually die. This led them to create religion in order to deal with this fact and to give themselves a chance to go on to a better place.
Other scholars, such as Emile Durkheim, argue that religion develops out of a social need. He suggests that a religious society is one in which the members share a common moral code and a sense of community. These values are usually derived from the teachings of the church and the group’s rituals, habits and physical culture. These beliefs are often incompatible with each other but the sense of community is strong enough to overcome the differences.
The most controversial issue about religion is the definition of the term itself. Many scholars have attempted to define religion in terms of its belief in a supernatural being or gods but there is no consensus on this point. Some, such as Wilfred Cantwell Smith, have suggested that the word religion has a universal meaning that transcends cultures and is independent of any specific beliefs. This is known as a “substantive” definition of religion.
Others, such as Emile Durkheim, have taken a more functional approach and have defined religion as the way in which groups of people organize their lives into a moral community. This is a “functional” definition of religion and is sometimes known as a “categorical” or “polythetic” approach to the concept.
Polythetic approaches use the idea that every instance of a class of objects, such as religions, can be described in terms of a set of properties which they all share. This allows for the discovery of patterns which may lead to explanatory theories. A number of scientists are now using the concepts of polythetic analysis in their work and have found that the methods they employ can be applied to a wide range of areas including biology, physics, economics and politics. This has led to a resurgence of interest in the study of religion. The article below takes a look at this interesting and complex subject.