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Theories of Religion

I have found that many people who study religion and religious history don't also spend enough time reading about the theories of religion - why religion exists, how it developed, what needs it serves, etc. Most of what people know about Freud's or Marx's ideas seem to stem from crass popularizations and this leads to errors. Daniel L. Pals, in this recent book Seven Theories of Religion, gives us a book which will fill that knowledge gap for many people. He does an excellent job of not only presenting the theories of many important scholars, but also the basic objections which have been raised.

For the sake of readers, I'll run through a brief summary of the sort of information you can find in Pals' book. E.B. Tylor and James Frazer are two of the earliest researchers who tried to develop theories of the nature of religion and everyone who has come since owes them a debt. They defined religion as essentially being the belief in spiritual beings - religion is thus systematized animism, and it exists to help people explain events which would otherwise be incomprehensible if it weren't for invisible spirits behind everything.

At least in part, this analysis suffers from not adequately addressing the social aspect of religion because according to Tylor and Frazer, religion and animism are purely intellectual moves with the social aspects being simply secondary. Although they reveal the intellectual component of religion as an attempt to explain things, it is clear that religion involves much more.

Sigmund Freud is a name familiar to anyone who has studied cultural, intellectual and scientific history. According to him, religion is a form of mass neurosis. It exists only as a response to deep emotional conflicts and weaknesses. Since it is nothing more but a by-produce of psychological distress, it should be possible to eliminate the illusion of religion by alleviating that distress.

Unfortunately, psychoanalysis, upon which Freud's ideas about religion rests, is not as scientific as people have assumed. Feud's arguments from analogy are furthermore rather weak and too often his position is circular. Although he was successful in getting people to recognize that there can be hidden psychological motives behind religion and religious beliefs, it is clear that religion involves much more.

Emile Durkheim is a name known to many in the humanities and academic fields, but it is not as widely known as it should be. He 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 lead him to religion, and according to Durkheim "...religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden." He focused 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 - without those social realities serving as a foundation, religious beliefs would have no meaning. Many have disputed this reductionist attitude, arguing that religion is more than just an expression of social realities. Although Durkheim has helped us understand that religion has a social function, it is clear that more is going on.

Karl Marx is another name which is widely known - and although many people are aware of his 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.

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. His critique is not without problems. For example, it primarily only applies to certain religions, not all, since not all religions promise a happy afterlife inexchange for suffering in this life. Other problems inlcude 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 well known 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 second half of the twentieth century. Key to Eliade's understanding of religion are two fundamental concepts: the sacred and the profane. Religion is how the two are divided and the focusing on the first, 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, like Tylor and Frazer, he says religion is primarily about belief in the supernatural and give this the "sacred" label.

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 and indeed actively works 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.

E.E Evans-Pritchard is another name important in the field of religious studies, but he's even less well known.

This fair and even-handed approach makes his book an excellent addition to a class reading list and an important part of the library of anyone interested in studying religion. This is definitely a book I will be using regularly.

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