Theories of religion

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Theories of religions can be classified into substantive (focusing on what it is) theories and functional or reductionist (focusing on what religions does) theories.

Influential susbtantive theories have been proposed by Tylor and Frazer (treating explanatory value for its adherents), the theologian Rudolf Otto (treating the importance of religious experience, more specifically experiences that are both fascinating and terrifying), Mircea Eliade (treating the longing for otherwordly perfection, quest for meaning, and seeking patterns in mythology in various religions)

Influential functional theories have been proposed by Karl Marx (focusing on the economic background) , Sigmund Freud (focusing on neurosis as a pscychological origin of religious beliefs), and Émile Durkheim (focusing on the social function of religions).

Max Weber did not so much a propose a general theory of religion, but focused on the interaction between society and religion. He also introduced a number of key concepts in the sociology of religion.

In contrast to earlier theorists, the anthropologists E. E. Evans-Pritchard and Clifford Geertz performed detailed ethnographical studies of ("primitive") cultures and came to the conclusion that earlier theories were one-sided at best. Geertz denied that it would ever be possible to propose a general theory of religion

The rational choice theory has been applied to religions, among others by the sociologists Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge. They asserted that religion is able to function as compensators for unobtained rewards.

Prescientific theories have been proposed since presocratic times. [1]Herodotus (484 – 425 BCE) stated that the gods of Greece were the same as the gods of Egypt.[2]Euhemerus (appr. 330– 264 BCE) wrote that gods were excellent historical persons who eventually became worshiped.[3]

Theorizing beyond mere specualtion became possible after data from tribes and peoples all over the world became available in Europe and the United States in the 18th and 19th century. [4]The founder of the scientific study of religion is generally considered to be Max Müller (1823 – 1900), who advocated comparative religion.[5]Later serious doubts were raised about the question whether it possible to provide a general theory of all religions.[6]

Scope and classifications

This article only treats influential theories about religion that are open for empirical verification or falsifications i.e (attempts to) scientific theories. This means that most religious views will not be treated here.

Theories of religion can be classified into. [7]

Other dichotomies on which theories or descriptions of religions can be classified are. [11]


Template:Sect-stub Most sociologists and anthropologists, who tend to see religion, as inseparable from and determined by the social context, resort to what is called 'methodological atheism'. This means that when explaining religion they reject divine or supernatural explanations for the status or origins of religions, because they are not testable. [12]

The anthropologist E. E. Evans-Pritchard preferred detailed ethnographical study of a tribe and their religion to form a theory about the tribe's religion over untestable speculation over the origins of religions by e.g. Müller, Tylor, and Durkheim, and what he termed 'armchair anthropologist'.[13][14]

Karl Marx

For more information, see: Sociology_of_religion#Karl_Marx, Marx's theory of alienation, and Opium of the People.

Karl Marx (1818 – 1883) held a strictly materialist world view and saw economics, including class distinctions (including class struggle), as the determining factor of society. According to Marx, the human mind and human consciousness as part of matter. [15]The dynamics of society was fueled by economics, according to Hegelian concept of theses, antitheses, and synthese[16] False consciousness is a term used by Marx' collaborator Friedrich Engels (1820 – 1895), not by Marx.[17]He saw religion originating from alienation and aiding the persistence of alienation. [18]He saw religion as supportive as the status quo, in correspondence with his famous saying that religion is opium of the people. This view is however contradicted by the existence of certain religious groups, like the liberation theology.[19] [20]Religion can be a source of happiness, though illusory and temporary, or at least a source of comfort.[21] Religion is not a necessary part of human culture.[22] Marxist views strongly influenced thinking about society, among others the anthropological school of cultural materialism.

Marx' explanations for all religions, always, in all forms, and everywhere have never been taken seriously by many experts in the field, though a substantial fraction accept that Marx' views explain some aspects of some religions.[23]

Edward Burnett Tylor and James George Frazer

For more information, see: E._B._Tylor#Ideology and "Primitive Culture" and The Golden Bough.

The anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor (1832 – 1917) defined religion as belief in supernatural beings and stated that this belief originated as explanations to the world. Belief in supernatural being grew out of attempts to explain life and death. Primitive people used human dreams in which spirits seemed to appear as an indication that the human mind could exist independent of a body. They used this by extension to explain life and death, and belief in the after life. Myths and deities to explain natural phenomena originated out of an analogy and an extension of these explanations. His theory assumed that the psyche of all peoples of all times are more or less the same and that explanations in cultures and religions tend to grow more sophisticated via monotheist religions, like Christianity and eventually to science.[24] Tylor saw backwards practices and beliefs in modern societies as survivals, but he did not explain why they survived.

James George Frazer (1854 – 1941) followed Tylor's theories to a great extent in his book The Golden Bough, but he distinguished between magic and religion. Magic is used to influence the natural world in the primitive man's struggle for survival. He asserted that magic relied on an uncritical belief of primitive people in contact and imitation. For example, precipitation may be invoked by the primitive man by sprinkling water on the ground. He asserted that according to them magic worked through laws. In contrast religion is faith that the natural world is ruled by one of more deities with personal characteristics with whom can be pleaded, not by laws.[25]

The method that Tylor and Frazer used was seeking similar beliefs and practices in all societies, especially the more primitive ones, more or less regardless of time and place.[26]They relied heavily on reports made by missionaries, discoverers, and colonial civil servants.

Their theory has been criticized as one-sided for focusing on mere intellectual aspects of religions, while neglecting social aspects of religion, among others by the anthropologist E. E. Evans-Pritchard.[27][28]Tylor's anthropological method has been criticized as out-of-context comparisons of practices in different cultures and times. Tylor's and Frazer's view on the origin of religion has been classified as unverifiable speculation.[29] The view that monotheism is a more evolved than polytheism has been disconfirmed by evidence: monotheism is more prevalent in hunter societies than in agricultural societies. The view that societies' views and practices grow more evolved over time in an uniform way has been criticized as unverifiable and contradicted by data from anthropological studies, among others by the writer Andrew Lang (1844 – 1912) and E. E. Evans-Pritchard.[30][31][32] The individualist, intellectual view of religion, as proposed by Tylor and Frazer, is still considered worthwhile by many contemporary experts of the field, among others by the anthropologist Robin Horton.[33]

Émile Durkheim

For more information, see: Émile_Durkheim#Religion, Sacred-profane dichotomy, and Collective effervescence.

Different from most other scholars, Émile Durkheim (1858 – 1917) saw the concept of the sacred as the defining characteristic of religion, not faith in the supernatural.[34] He saw religion as a reflection of the concern for society. He based his view on recent research regarding totemism among the Australian aboriginals. With totemism he meant that each of the many clans had a different object, plant, or animal that they held sacred and that symbolizes the clan. Durkheim saw totemism as the original and simplest form of religion. [35]The analysis of this simple form of religion could provide the building blocks for more complex religions. He asserted that moralism cannot be separated from religion. The sacred i.e. religion reinforces group interest that clash very often with individual interests. The function of religion is group cohesion often performed by collectively attended rituals. He asserted that these group meeting provided a special kind of energy, which he called effervescence, that made group members lose their individuality and to feel united with the gods and thus with the group.[36] Differing from Tylor and Frazer, he saw magic not as religious, but as an individual instrument to achieve something.

Durkheim's proposed method for progress and refinement is first to carefully study religion in its simplest form in one contemporary society and then the same in another society and compare the religions then and only between societies that are the same.[37] [38] The empirical basis for Durkheim's view has been severely criticized when more detailed studies of the Australian aboriginals surfaced. More specifically, the definition of religion as dealing with the sacred only, regardless of the supernatural and is not supported by studies of these aboriginals. The view that religion has a social aspect, at the very least, introduced in a generalized very strong form by Durkheim has become influential and uncontested.[39]

Max Weber

For more information, see: Sociological_classifications_of_religious_movements#The_church-sect_typology, Sociology_of_religion#Max_Weber, Sociology of Religion (book), Charismatic authority, and The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (too many parameters in {{main}}).

Max Weber (1864 – 1920) thought that the truth claims of religious movement were irrelevant for the scientific study of the movements.[40]He portrayed each religion as rational and consistent in their respective societies. [41] Weber acknowledged that religion had a strong social component, but diverged from Durkheim by arguing, for example in his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism that religion can be a force of change in society. In the book Weber wrote that modern capitalism spread quickly partially due to the protestant wordly ascetic morale. [42][43] Weber's main focus was not on developing a theory of religion but on the interaction between society and religion, while introducing concepts that are still widely used in the sociology of religion. These concept include

  • Church sect typology, [44] Weber distinguished between sects and churches by stating that membership of the former is a choice while the latter is determined by birth. The typology later developed more extensively by his friend Ernst Troeltsch and others. [45]According to the typlogy, churches, ecclesia, denomination, and sects form a continuum with decreasing influence on society. Sects are protest break away groups and tend to be in tension with society.
  • Ideal type, a hypothetical "pure" or "clear" form, used in typologies
  • Charismatic authority Weber saw charisma as a volatile form or authority that depends on the acceptance of unique quality of a person by this person's followers. Charisma can be a revolutionary force and the authority can either be routinized (change into other forms of authority) or disappear upon the death of the charismatic person.[46]

Somewhat differing from Marx, Weber dealt with status groups, not with class. In status groups the primary motivation is prestige and social cohesion.[47] Status groups have differing levels of access to power and prestige and indirectly to economic resources. In his 1920 treatment of the religion in China he saw Confucianism as helping a certain status group, i.e. the educated elite to maintain access to prestige and power. He asserted that Confucianism opposition against both extravagance and thrift made it unlikely that capitalism could have originated in China.

He used the concept of "Verstehen" (German for "understanding") to describe his method of interpretation of the intention and context of human action.[48]

Sigmund Freud

For more information, see: Psychology_of_religion#Sigmund_Freud, Future of an Illusion, Totem and Taboo, Moses_and_Monotheism, and Oedipus complex.

Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939) saw religion as an illusion. With illusion Freud means a belief that people want very much to be true. Unlike Tylor and Frazer, Freud attempted to explain why religion persists in spite of the lack of evidence for its tenets. Freud asserted that religion is a largely unconscious neurotical response to repression. With repression Freud meant that civilized society demands that we cannot fulfill all our desires immediately, but that they have to be repressed. Rational arguments to a person holding a religious conviction will not change the neurotic response of a person, in contrast to Tylor and Frazer who saw religion as rational conscious, but primitive and mistaken attempt to explain the natural world.

Not only tries Freud to explain the origin and persistence of faith in individuals but in his 1913 book Totem and Taboo he even developed a speculative story how all monotheist religions itself originated and developed. [49]In the book he asserted that monotheist religions grew out of a homicide in a clan of a father by his sons. This incident was subconsciously remembered in human societies.

In his 1939 book Moses and Monotheism Freud proposed that Moses' monotheism derived from Akhenaten. This view is not supported by biblical accounts and differs from scholarly theories.

Freud's view on religion was embedded in his larger theory of psychoanalysis. Apart from theorizing, Freud's theories were developed by studying patients who were left free to talk while lying on a sofa.

Psychoanalysis has been assessed as non-scientific. Though his attempt to the historical origins of religions have not been accepted, his generalized view that all religions originate from unfulfilled psychological needs are still seen as offering a credible explanation in some cases. [50]

Rudolf Otto

For more information, see: Psychology_of_religion#Rudolf_Otto, Religious_experience#The_numinous, and Numinous.

The theologian Rudolf Otto (1869–1937) focused on religious experience, more specifically moments that he called numinous which means "Wholly Other". He described it as mysterium tremendum (terrifying mystery) and mysterium fascinans (awe inspiring, fascinating mystery). He saw religion as emerging from these expierences.[51]

He asserted that these experiences arise from a special, non-rational faculty of the human mind, largely unrelated to other faculties, so religion cannot be reduced to culture or society [52] Some of his views, among others that the experience of the numinous was caused by a transcendental reality, are untestable and hence unscientific.[53]

His ideas strongly influenced phenomenologists and Mircea Eliade.[54]

Mircea Eliade

For more information, see: Eternal return (Eliade), Sacred-profane dichotomy, Hierophany, Mircea_Eliade#Philosopher_of_religion, and Mircea_Eliade#The_scholar.

Mircea Eliade's (1907 – 1986) approach grew out of the phenomenology of religion. Like Otto, he saw religion as something special and autonomous, that cannot be reduced to the social, economical or psychological alone.[55][56] Like Durkheim, he saw the sacred as central to religion, but differing from Durkheim, he views the sacred as often dealing with the supernatural, not with the clan or society. [57]The daily life of an ordinary person is connected to the sacred by the appearance of the sacred, called hierophany. Theophany (an appearance of a god) is a special case of it. [58]Eliade wrote that archaic men wish to participate in the sacred. Archaic men long to return to lost paradise, outside the historic time, as explained in Eliade's book Eternal return (Eliade) to escape meaninglessness.[59] The primitive man could not endure that his struggle to survive had no meaning.[60] He wrote than man had a nostalgia (longing) for an otherworldly perfection. Archaic man wishes to escape the terror of time and saw time as cyclic.[61] Historical religions, like Christianity, Judaism revolted against this older concept of cyclic time. They provided meaning and contact with the sacred in history through the God of Israel. [62]

Eliade sought and found patterns in myth in various cultures, e.g. sky god. Zeus is an example of a sky god.[63][64]

Eliade's methodology was studying comparative religion of various cultures and societies more or less regardless of other aspects of these societies, often relying on second hand reports. He also used some personal knowledge of other societies and cultures for his theories, among others his knowledge of Hindu folk religion.[65]

He has been criticized for vagueness in defining his key concepts.[66] Like Frazer and Tylor he has also been accused of out-of-context comparisons of religious beliefs of very different societies and cultures. [67] He has also been accused of having a pro-religious bias (Christian and Hindu), though this bias does not seem essential for his theory.[68]

E. E. Evans-Pritchard

For more information, see: E._E._Evans-Pritchard#Later_theories.

The anthropologist Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard (1902 – 1973) did extensive ethonographic studies among the Azande and Nuer peoples who were considered "primitive" by society and earlier scholars. Evans-Pritchard saw these people as different, but not primitive.

Unlike the previous scholars, Evans-Pritchard did not propose a grand universal theory and he did extensive long-term fieldwork among primitive peoples, studying their culture and religion, among other among the Azande. [69]Not just passing contact, like Eliade.

He argued that the religion of the Azande (witchcraft and oracles) can not be understood without the social context and its social function. Witchcraft and oracles played a great role in solving disputes among the Azande. In this respect he agreed with Durkheim, though he acknowledged that Frazer and Tylor were right that their religion also had an intellectual explanatory aspect. The Azande's faith in witchcraft and oracles was quite logical and consistent once some fundamental tenets were accepted. Loss of faith in the fundamental tenets could not be endured because of its social importance and hence they had an elaborate system of explanations (or excuses) against disproving evidence. Besides an alternative system of terms or school of thought did not exist.[70]

He was heavily critical about earlier theorists of primitive religion with the exception of Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, asserting that they made statements about primitive people without having enough inside knowledge to make more than a guess. In spite of his praise of Bruhl's works, Evans-Pritchard disagreed with Bruhl's statement that a member of a "primitive" tribe saying "I am the moon" is prelogical, but that this statement makes perfect sense within their culture if understood metaphorically.[71][72]

Apart from the Azande, Evans-Pritchard, also studied the neighbouring, but very different Nuer people.The Nuer had had an abstract monotheistic faith, somewhat similar to Christianity and Judaism, though it included lesser spirits. They had also totemism, but this was a minor aspect of their religion and hence a corrective to Durkheim's generalizations should be made. Evans-Pritchard did not propose a theory of religions, but only a theory of the Nuer religion.

Clifford Geertz

For more information, see: Clifford_Geertz#Thought_and_works and Thick description.

The anthropologist Clifford Geertz (1926 – 2006) made several detailed ethnographic studies, but in Javanese town, a more complex and multi-religious society than Evans-Pritchard had studied. He avoided the subjective and vague concept of group attitude as used by Ruth Benedict by using the analysis of society as proposed by Talcott Parsons who in turn had adapted it from Max Weber.[73]Parsons' adaptation Weber's consisted of distinguished all human groups on three levels i.e. 1. an individual level that is controlled by 2. a social system that is in turn controlled by 3. a cultural system. [74]Geertz followed Weber when he wrote that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning. [75] Mere explanations to describe religions and cultures are not sufficient. Interpretations are needed too. [76]He advocated what he called thick descriptions to interpret symbols by observing them in use. Therefore the anthropologist must be both empirically rigorous and a savvy interpreter, akin to a psychoanalyst. In 1972 he wrote that “cultural analysis is (or should be) guessing at meanings, assessing the guesses and drawing explanatory conclusions from the better guesses.” [77]

Geertz saw religion as one of the cultural systems of a society. He defined religion as

(1) a system of symbols
(2) which acts to establish powerful, pervasive and long-lasting moods and motivations in men
(3) by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and
(4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that
(5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.[78]

With symbols Geertz meant a carrier that embodies a conception, because he saw religion and culture as systems of communication.[79]

This definition emphasizes the mutual reinforcement between world view and ethics.

Though, he used more or less the same methodology, as Evans-Pritchard, he did not share Evans-Pritchard's hope that a theory of religion could ever be found. Geertz proposed methodology was not the scientific method of the natural science, but the method of historians studying history.[80]

Rational choice theory

The rational choice theory has been applied to religions, among others by the sociologists Rodney Stark (1934 – ) and William Sims Bainbridge (1940 – ).[81]They see religions as systems of "compensators". [82] Compensators are a body of language and practices that compensate for some physical lack or frustrated goal. They can be divided into specific compensators (compensators for the failure to achieve specific goals), and general compensators (compensators for failure to achieve any goal). [83][84]They define religion as a system of compensator that relies on the supernatural. [85] They assert that only a supernatural compensator can explain death or the meaning of life. [86]


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