Origins and Functions of Religion
The word religion refers to a vast collection of beliefs and practices that are common to many cultures around the world. Those that are most often associated with the term are Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism. But the concept of religion also encompasses forms of life not predicated on belief in a supreme deity, such as the way ancient Athenians and Navajos connect with their gods, or the practice that Malagasy people use to commune with their ancestors. In the past, scholars have used the concept of religion to distinguish a broad range of social formations from philosophical or purely ethical systems. Today, however, it is more common to think of religion as a taxon for a set of diverse, but interrelated, practices that are common to certain cultural groups.
The study of religion has largely developed in parallel with the growth of anthropology, archaeology and other social sciences that provide systematic knowledge of cultures worldwide. This has led to an explosion of theories about the origins and functions of religion.
One popular theory is that religion arose as a result of human curiosity about the big questions of existence, and fear of powerful, uncontrollable forces. Religion evolved to satisfy this need by giving believers a sense of hope, such as the promise of eternal life or that a good creator would watch over humans.
Other theories hold that religion developed as a result of a combination of biological and cultural needs. For example, anthropologists who have studied tribal or “primitive” societies suggest that religion is a result of the fact that human beings became self-aware and realized they will die someday. They created spirituality to deal with this fact by giving them a hope for life after death and a belief in a benevolent god who will see humanity through the coming apocalypse.
Psychoanalysts have also been important contributors to theories about the genesis of religion. Freud interpreted the Oedipus complex (involving unresolved feelings of a son toward his mother and hostility toward his father) as the root of religious beliefs in sacrifice and taboos against incest.
Anthropologists have also developed a number of functionalist approaches to religion, with Emile Durkheim, for example, stressing the function that religion serves for a society regardless of what specific religious beliefs it espouses. Another variation on this theme was developed by Paul Tillich, who defined religion as whatever dominant concern a person carries out in his or her life, even if that concern does not involve belief in any unusual realities.