The Concept of Religion
Religion is a set of beliefs and practices that provides a sense of meaning and value to people in life. It involves a belief in something that is higher than human beings and that humans cannot understand or control. It also includes a moral code that guides people in their relationships with others and with themselves. It is the primary source of faith for most people and it often influences their behavior.
Most of the world’s 6.5 billion people belong to one of the 20 or so major religions. Although the definition of religion is not widely agreed upon, there is general agreement that it consists of beliefs and practices that provide a sense of purpose and direction in life. In addition, it provides a way for people to cope with death and life’s difficulties.
The concept of Religion has long interested anthropologists because of the wide variety of customs and beliefs that exist around the globe. It was not surprising that when Europeans began to travel to tribal and primitive societies in the 19th century, they were struck by the richness of these cultures’ mythological material and their willingness to live and even die for what they valued most. It became clear that these practices and values must be studied in order to understand them.
The earliest studies of religion were descriptive. However, a number of modern scholars have tried to define religion in more analytical terms. Durkheim, for example, defined it functionally as the beliefs and practices that give people a sense of social unity and stability. Other scholars have tried to explain its genesis. For instance, Sigmund Freud, in his book Totem and Taboo, attributed its emergence to the Oedipus complex, in which a son’s hostility toward his mother and love for his father lead to incest taboos.
Scholars have debated whether or not religion has an essence. Some have argued that narrow definitions such as those offered by Edward Burnett Tylor, which included the belief in spiritual beings, are inadequate and that it would exclude many cultures from the category of religion. Others, such as Rodney Needham and J. Z. Smith, have criticized polythetic approaches that attempt to identify the characteristics of religions by looking for patterns of co-appearance.
Most scholars agree that religion performs some crucial and specific functions in society. These include providing people with a common reference point, strengthening the bonds of solidarity between them and preventing them from becoming disillusioned by experiences of inequality or injustice. They also help to reduce the emotional stress resulting from unpredictable situations such as natural disasters, war and death. According to Talcott Parsons, it also prevents people from changing their lifestyles too rapidly by giving them a stable set of beliefs. Others, such as Malinowski and Marx, have pointed out some of the negative aspects of religion. For instance, they have argued that it leads to wastes such as the spending of huge amounts of money on building temples, churches etc. and spoiling a large quantity of food articles and material things in the name of offerings to God.