The Nature of Religion

The Nature of Religion

Religion is a collection of cultural systems, belief systems, and worldviews that relate humanity to spirituality and to moral values.

Learning Objectives

Define religion and its essential features

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The sociologist Emile Durkheim defined religion as a “unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things. ” By sacred things he meant things “set apart and forbidden — beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them”.
  • The development of religion has taken different forms in different cultures. Some religions emphasize belief while others emphasize practice. Some religions focus on subjective experience of the religious individual while others consider activities of the religious community to be most important.
  • Social constructionism says that religion is a modern concept that suggests all spiritual practice and worship follows a model similar to the Abrahamic religions and thus religion, as a concept, has been applied inappropriately to non-Western cultures.

Key Terms

  • belief system: The basis of a set of beliefs
  • hierarchy: Any group of objects ranked so that everyone but the topmost is subordinate to a specified group above it.
  • sacred: Set apart by solemn religious ceremony; especially, in a good sense, made holy; set apart to religious use; consecrated; not profane or common; as, a sacred place; a sacred day; sacred service

Religion is a collection of cultural systems, belief systems, and worldviews that relate humanity to spirituality and, sometimes, to moral values. Many religions have narratives, symbols, traditions, and sacred histories that are intended to give meaning to life or to explain the origin of life or the universe.

Many languages have words that can be translated as “religion,” but they may use them in a very different way, and some have no word for religion at all. For example, the Sanskrit word “dharma,” sometimes translated as “religion,” also means law. Throughout classical South Asia, the study of law consisted of concepts such as penance through piety and ceremonial and practical traditions. Medieval Japan at first had a similar union between “imperial law” and universal or “Buddha law,” but these later became independent sources of power.

The typical dictionary definition of religion refers to a “belief in, or the worship of, a god or gods” or the “service and worship of God or the supernatural. ” However, many writers and scholars have noted that this basic “belief in god” definition fails to capture the diversity of religious thought and experience. Edward Burnett Tylor defined religion as simply “the belief in spiritual beings. ” He argued, in 1871, that narrowing the definition to mean the belief in a supreme deity or judgment after death would exclude many peoples from the category of religious and thus “has the fault of identifying religion rather with particular developments than with the deeper motive which underlies them. ” He also argued that the belief in spiritual beings exists in all known societies.

The sociologist Emile Durkheim, in his seminal book The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, defined religion as a “unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things. ” By sacred things he meant things “set apart and forbidden — beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them. ” Sacred things are not, however, limited to gods or spirits. On the contrary, a sacred thing can be “a rock, a tree, a spring, a pebble, a piece of wood, a house, in a word, anything can be sacred. ” Religious beliefs, myths, dogmas, and legends are the representations that express the nature of these sacred things and the virtues and powers that are attributed to them.

The development of religion has taken different forms in different cultures. Some religions place an emphasis on belief while others emphasize practice. Some religions focus on the subjective experience of the religious individual while others consider the activities of the religious community to be most important. Some religions claim to be universal, believing their laws and cosmology to be binding for everyone, while others are intended to be practiced only by a closely-defined or localized group. In many places religion has been associated with public institutions such as education, hospitals, the family, government, and political hierarchy.

One modern academic theory of religion, social constructionism, says that religion is a modern concept that has been defined relative to the Abrahamic religions and that thus, religion as a concept has been applied inappropriately to non-Western cultures that are not based upon such systems.

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Sacred Buddhist Ritual in Nepal: His Holiness Jigdal Dagchen Sakya leading the empowerment into practice at Tharlam Monastery, Boudha, Kathmandu, Nepal.

The Elements of Religion

A conventional social scientific view understands religion as a group’s collective beliefs and rituals relating to the supernatural.

Learning Objectives

Identify the different elements that comprise religion

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Sacred refers to collective interests within different religious practices. Profane acts include individual concerns that are not part of religious rituals.
  • Emile Durkheim argues that religion is composed of the sacred elements of social life. However, many see this definition as too broad, since there are many collective interests that most do not consider religious.
  • Ritual is an everyday practice that resembles symbolic meaning in different religions.
  • Other social scientists view religion as any attempt to answer existential questions. Many also consider this too broad a definition.
  • A third social scientific perspective views religion as the collective beliefs and rituals of a group relating to the supernatural. Though not without criticisms, this categorization most closely adheres to the traditional and popular view of what constitutes a religion.

Key Terms

  • supernatural: Above nature; that which is beyond or added to nature, often so considered because it is given by God or some force beyond that which humans are born with. In Roman Catholic theology, sanctifying grace is considered to be a supernatural addition to human nature.
  • profane: Not sacred or holy, unconsecrated; relating to non-religious matters, secular.
  • sacred: Set apart by solemn religious ceremony; especially, in a good sense, made holy; set apart to religious use; consecrated; not profane or common; as, a sacred place; a sacred day; sacred service

Emile Durkheim argues that religion is comprised of the sacred elements of social life. Durkheim also identifies collective interests and group unity as part of the sacred, whereas individual concerns fall into the profane category. This distinction makes sense when we think about western religious traditions where, for example, the Torah and Bible are considered holy books treated with reverence and respect. Problems quickly emerge, however, when we think about nationalism or consumerism. Under Durkheim’s distinction, both nationalism and consumerism would be considered sacred practices.

The reverence afforded to the U.S. constitution, cars, shoes and former presidents clearly constitutes the sacred and thus religious, though the vast majority of U.S. religious practitioners would disagree that they are members of multiple faith traditions. As a result, some have argued Durkheim’s distinction is not sufficiently narrow to capture the essence of religion. If we want to examine the difference between collective and individual interests, Durkheim’s distinction steers us in the right direction.

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Religious Symbols: Symbols for Major Religions of the World

Other social scientists view religion as any attempt to answer existential questions, i.e. “is there life after death” and “how does the universe work and what’s my role in it.” This categorization of religion highlights its functional role as serving specific social ends. In doing so, however, this perspective also attracts criticisms for being overly encompassing. Many branches of scientific investigation, for instance, would be considered religious, and even atheism would fit into the frame of attempting to answer existential questions.

A third social scientific perspective views religion as the collective beliefs and rituals of a group relating to the supernatural. If we simply focus on beliefs relating to the supernatural, this too may be broad enough to include atheism. However, when belief and rituals of a group relating to the supernatural are coupled together, the scope seems appropriately narrowed. Though not without criticisms, this categorization most closely adheres to the traditional and popular view of what constitutes a religion.

Hindu Rituals in a Kashmiri Wedding: The Joyful Rhythms of a Kashmiri Wedding

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Islamic Text: BookTauzeeh ul Masail