Bill Glasheen wrote:
I'll give you that. I can embrace that point of view.
Let me ask the question(s) differently.
1) Why does religion exist?
2) What good does it do in your opinion - if any?
I imagine that one very important question for religious followers, particularly Western Judeo-Christian and Muslims should ask themselves is: how familiar are people in general with the historical scholarship about religion as a sum total? Or with the sociology and psychology of the same?
The response for most people would probably be, not very.
This is a loss, because I feel that people should learn a bit more about these topics, and about the strengths and weaknesses of the various attempts to explain what religion is and how it works. I will humbly attempt to discuss some of the ideas on the question from historic figures like Tylor, Marx, Eliade, Durkheim, Fazer, and of course Freud.
How does one explain religion - It's origin, its development, and persistence in modern society? This is a profound question which has occupied people in a myriad of fields for centuries. At one point, the answers were framed in purely theological and religious terms, assuming the truth of Christian revelations for example, and proceeding from there.
Through the 18th and 19th centuries, a more "naturalistic" approach developed. This approach was epitomized by a German scholar Friedrich Max Müller – whom, in the late 18oo’s, delivered a lecture before the prominent Royal Institution in London by which he proposed what was, even for that audience a highly radical idea: Which was developing a "science of religion."
Although early sociologists, anthropologists and philosophers had been studying religion, no one had openly proposed making a science of such studies. Müller's idea was to take a more objective and as well a less partisan approach to the study of religion. The undertaking was an attempt to search for patterns, principles, and other essentials which *could* tie together a wide variety currently present in the very human institution of religion.
As scientists, religious researchers were supposed to gather facts and put forward theories based upon those facts, as all good scientists do.
This, as it was called, “naturalistic” approach to religion possibly at the time represented a HUGE fundamental paradigm shift in how religion itself was to be viewed. Instead of requiring clergy in order to comprehend religion, the requirement became only facts, and information, and research. Instead of the need to accept as true the truth of the religion, what was required was just the opposite: intellectual detachment and a suspension of belief. This was perhaps the world’s first skeptic society!
Another early reasearchers E.B. Tylor and James Frazer, are as many of you might already know, two of the earliest researchers who endeavored to develop theories of the nature of religion itself, and everyone who has come since certainly owes them an obligation. Their work was fundamentally this: They defined religion as essentially “Being the belief in spiritual beings” - religion according to *them* is thus systematized animism, which, the definition is as such:
1. The belief in the existence of individual spirits that inhabit natural objects and phenomena.
2. The belief in the existence of spiritual beings that are separable or separate from bodies.
3. The hypothesis holding that an immaterial force animates the universe.
According to this sort of elucidation, the reason religion exists is to help people make sense of events which would otherwise be incomprehensible. We still see this sort of explanation proposed at various times and by various people, even in the face of modern day science, i.e., the recent hullabaloo over ID VS scientific reality
At least in part, to its own detriment, I suppose that it can be argued that this sort of analysis can be said to suffer from inadequately addressing the *social* aspect of religion, for the reason that according to Tylor and Frazer, religion and animism are purely intellectual moves – and as such, the social aspects are derivative. Although it may be useful to reveal that the intellectual component of religion as an attempt to explicate things, it is clear that religion as a concept involves much, much more.
According to Freud, “Religion is a form of mass neurosis and exists only as a response to deep emotional conflicts and weaknesses.” (Then again, Freud visualized phallic symbols everywhere he went.)
But to him, since it is nothing more but a by-product of psychological distress, Freud argued that it *should* be possible to eradicate the illusions of religion by alleviating that distress.
Stressing the psychological aspects of religious belief is still popular and I suppose with good reason: there's no question that unrealized psychological motivations can indeed influence a wide range of beliefs and actions. The concept of religion cannot reasonably be excluded.
Unfortunately, psychoanalysis, upon which Freud's ideas about religion rests, is not as scientific as people have assumed. I also find Freud's arguments from analogy are a bit weak and too often his position is circular in this area. Although it may be obvious that he was successful in getting people to recognize that there can be hidden psychological motives behind religion and religious beliefs, we should not stop here and make the mistake to assume that religion has been adequately explained.
Emile Durkheim is almost singularly responsible for the development of sociology as an academic discipline, championing the importance of society - social structures, social relationships, and social institutions - in understanding human nature.
This work eventually lead him to religion, and Durkheim wrote that "...religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden." His primary focus was on the importance of the concept of the "sacred" and its relevance to the welfare of the entire community.
Religious beliefs are thus symbolic expressions of social realities - and this means that without those social realities serving as a foundation, religious beliefs would have no meaning. Thus Durkheim is responsible for helping us understand that religion serves an important social function, in addition to whatever else it might do.
Many have disputed this reductionist attitude, arguing that religion is more than just an expression of social realities. Quite a bit of more recent religious scholarship has been an attempt to move away from such reductionism and explain religion on its own terms, as we shall see.
Although many people are aware of Karl Marx's critique of religion, too few really understand it. According to Marx, religion is one of those social institutions which are dependent upon the material and economic realities in a given society. It has no independent history but is instead the creature of productive forces.
As Marx wrote, "The religious world is but the reflex of the real world." Whereas Durkheim simply argued that religion was dependent upon social institutions, Marx limited religion's dependence to economic institutions. For Marx, all social institutions are dependent upon economics in the end.
Marx's opinion of religion is simple: it is an illusion whose chief purpose is to provide reasons and excuses to keep society functioning just as it is. Just as capitalism takes our productive labor and alienates us from its value, religion also takes our qualities - our highest ideals and aspirations - and alienates us from them, projecting them onto an alien and unknowable being called a god.
Marx's critique is not without problems. For example, it primarily only applies to certain religions, not all, since not all religions promise a happy afterlife in exchange for suffering in this life. Other problems include the fact that economic changes do not always precede religious changes, which would be expected if Marx were correct. Although he did a service in demonstrating that economic realities have an influence upon religion and religious beliefs, it is clear that there is more going on with religion.
Mircea Eliade is a name that is not often recognized outside of the academic study of religion, but he should be better known because he is one of the foremost researches of religion in the latter half of the twentieth century. Key to Eliade's understanding of religion are two fundamental concepts: the sacred and the profane. Religion, as you may guess, involves focusing on the sacred.
Although this sounds like Durkheim, Eliade does not assert that the concept of the sacred is simply an expression of underlying social realities. Instead, following Tylor and Frazer, he says religion is primarily about belief in the supernatural, which for him lies at the heart of the sacred.
A very important aspect of Eliade's analysis is that, unlike Freud, Durkheim and Marx, he makes no attempt to explain away religion. He does not reduce religion to something else, like economics or neurosis. On the contrary, he actively worked against reductionism.
Of course, Eliade's theories are not without their flaws. For example, Eliade only focuses on "timeless forms" of ideas which he says keep recurring in religions all over the world (a pattern followed by Joseph Campbell), but in doing so he ignores their specific historical contexts or simply dismisses them as irrelevant. At the same time, his basic concepts are often very vague - almost anything can be made to fit his format if you try hard enough.
Despite protests to the contrary, Eliade does indeed reduce religion - he attempts to eliminate as many unique and specific facets from individual religions (historical, cultural, etc.) and reduce them to a set of common themes. But at least he can be commended for attempting to make religion independent of other social systems and explain religion in a comprehensive manner.
Stewart Elliot Guthrie suggests an evolutoinary explanation about the development of religion. Guthrie argues religion can best be understood as "systematic anthropomorphism" - that is, the attribution of human characteristics to nonhuman things and events. Other writers have noted that anthropomorphism is common or even universal in religion, but Guthrie argues that it is fundamental.
According to Gutherie's theory, anthropomorphism is a strategy of perception and cognition which causes us to automatically tend towards interpreting ambiguous information about the world as whatever matters most to our survival - and although this leads to many mistakes, it also leads to enough success for the strategy to continue in genetic inheritance.
And what matters most to our survival? Living things. In the natural world, the most important things to living creatures are other living creatures - either as food or threats or both. For example, if we are in the woods and see a dark shape that might be a bear or a boulder, it is good policy to think it is a bear. If we are mistaken, we lose little, and if we are right, we gain much.
These, then, are some of the principle means of describing why religion exists: as an explanation for what we don't understand; as a psychological reaction to our lives and surroundings; as an expression of social needs; as a tool of the status quo to keep some people in power and others out; as a focus upon supernatural and "sacred" aspects of our lives; and as an evolutionary strategy for survival.
Which of these is the "right" explanation? Maybe we shouldn't try and argue that any one of them is "right" and instead recognize that religion is a complex human institution. As such, it has complex origins - all of the above would be a proper choice to the question "Why does religion exist?"
On the second question, you asked:
2) What good does it do in your opinion - if any?
This link pretty much sums up my opinion: