Why Are People Religious?

Why Are People Religious?

Within the academic study of religion, one might argue that people are religious for one of four reasons.

  • The anthropological school argues that religion functions as an early form of science, answering questions that human reason cannot yet explain.
  • The psychological school argues that people gravitate towards religion because it provides a sense of comfort and security.
  • The sociological school argues that religion provides a sense of social cohesiveness and solidarity.
  • The economic school proposes that religion functions as a means of controlling the under classes to the benefits of those in the higher social strata.

Most scholars today argue that one cannot reduce religion to one form of functionality. It is more likely that religion attracts adherents because it fulfills many of these functions in the lives of believers.

Anthropologists such as E.B. Tylor and James Frazer looked at religion from an evolutionary approach. In examining societies that they regarded as less complex, they argued that as civilizations advance, it is inevitable that their system of belief advances as well. The more complex a particular society is, the more complex the religious system. All societies demonstrate some form of religious belief, as religions function scientifically, in that they provide mythological explanations for the existential questions surrounding human origins, purpose, and afterlife. Tylor and Frazer both agreed, however, that as civilizations advanced from religious reasoning to scientific reasoning, religion would eventually die out, as science could offer more rational explanation to those existential questions. (1)

Religion and Security

With the development of the school of psychology in the early twentieth century, psychologists became interested in why people gravitated towards religion. Sigmund Freud explained that religion provided a source of security for individual by answering existential questions as why we die and suffer. He also suggested that religion provides a mechanism of personal comfort, helping people cope with uncertainty. So, for instance, the Trobriand Islanders are excellent mariners, yet perform elaborate rituals before setting sail. On 9/11 and in the days following, tens of thousands of US citizens went to church, temple, or mosque to pray and find comfort and answers to the devastation of the terrorist attack. (16)

Religion and Social Cohesion

Regarded as the founder of sociology, Emile Durkheim, argued that the attractiveness of religion is its promise of social solidarity to like-minded persons. Religion was more than simply an institution for Durkheim. Rather, he regarded it as an expression of society itself, and indeed, there is no society that does not have religion. We perceive as individuals a force greater than ourselves and give that perception a supernatural face. We then express ourselves religiously in groups, which for Durkheim makes the symbolic power greater. Religion is an expression of our collective consciousness, which is the fusion of all of our individual consciousness, which then creates a reality of its own. (18)

Religion and Social Control

Marx viewed religion as a tool of social control used by the bourgeoisie to keep the proletariat content with an unequal status quo.

The social-conflict approach is rooted in Karl Marx’s critique of capitalism. According to Marx, in a capitalist society, religion plays a critical role in maintaining an unequal status quo, in which certain groups of people have radically more resources and power than other groups of people. Marx argued that the bourgeoise used religion as a tool to keep the less powerful proletariat pacified. Marx argued that religion was able to do this by promising rewards in the after-life, instead of in this life. It was in this sense that Marx asserted the following:

“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the feeling of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless circumstances. It is the opium of the people… The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness” (p.72).

In this passage, Marx is calling for the proletariat to discard religion and its deceit about other-worldly events. Only then would this class of people be able to rise up against the bourgeoisie and gain control of the means of production, and only then would they achieve real rewards, in this life. (17)


Each of these four approaches to religion (anthropological, psychological, sociological, and economic) offer compelling explanations for determining why human beings gravitate to religion and religious beliefs. As a criticism, one can point out that an argument can be made for each of these being a relevant reason why people are religious. In short, religious belief is very complex. One cannot simply reduce religious belief to anthropological, psychological, sociological, or economic reasons. In truth, people gravitate to religion for a multiplicity of reasons. To diminish religious belief to one or even two explanations fails to appreciate the distinct reasons that each individual has for adopting a religious identity. (1)