Religion is a cultural system of behaviors and practices, world views, sacred texts, holy places, ethics, and societal organisation that relate humanity to what an anthropologist has called “an order of existence“. Different religions may or may not contain various elements, ranging from the “divine“, “sacred things”, “faith“,a “supernatural being or supernatural beings” or “…some sort of ultimacy and transcendence that will provide norms and power for the rest of life.”
Religious practices may include rituals, sermons, commemoration or veneration (of God or deities), sacrifices, festivals, feasts, trances, initiations, funerary services,matrimonial services, meditation, prayer, music, art, dance, public service, or other aspects of human culture. Religions have sacred histories and narratives, which may be preserved in sacred scriptures, and symbols and holy places, that aim mostly to give a meaning to life. Religions may contain symbolic stories, which are sometimes said by followers to be true, that have the side purpose of explaining the origin of life, the Universe, and other things. Traditionally, faith, in addition to reason, has been considered a source of religious beliefs. There are an estimated 10,000 distinct religions worldwid About 84% of the world’s population is affiliated with one of the five largest religions, namely Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism or forms of folk religion.
With the onset of the modernisation of and the scientific revolution in the western world, some aspects of religion have cumulatively been criticized. Though the religiously unaffliated, including atheism (the rejection of belief in the existence of deities) and agnosticism (the belief that the truth of certain claims – especially metaphysical and religious claims such as whether God, the divine or the supernatural exist – are unknown and perhaps unknowable), have grown globally, many of the unaffiliated still have various religious beliefs. About 16% of the world’s population is religiously unaffiliated.
The study of religion encompasses a wide variety of academic disciplines, including theology, comparative religion and social scientific studies. Theories of religion offer various explanations for the origins and workings of religion.
The word religion is sometimes used interchangeably with faith or set of duties; however, in the words of Émile Durkheim, religion differs from private belief in that it is “something eminently social”.
The use of other terms, such as obedience to God or Islam are likewise grounded in particular histories and vocabularies.
The word myth has several meanings.
- A traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon;
- A person or thing having only an imaginary or unverifiable existence; or
- A metaphor for the spiritual potentiality in the human being.
Ancient polytheistic religions, such as those of Greece, Rome, and Scandinavia, are usually categorized under the heading of mythology. Religions of pre-industrial peoples, or cultures in development, are similarly called “myths” in the anthropology of religion. The term “myth” can be used pejoratively by both religious and non-religious people. By defining another person’s religious stories and beliefs as mythology, one implies that they are less real or true than one’s own religious stories and beliefs. Joseph Campbell remarked, “Mythology is often thought of as other people’s religions, and religion can be defined as mis-interpreted mythology.”
In sociology, however, the term myth has a non-pejorative meaning. There, myth is defined as a story that is important for the group whether or not it is objectively or provably true. Examples include theresurrection of their real-life founder Jesus, which, to Christians, explains the means by which they are freed from sin, is symbolic of the power of life over death, and is also said to be a historical event. But from a mythological outlook, whether or not the event actually occurred is unimportant. Instead, the symbolism of the death of an old “life” and the start of a new “life” is what is most significant. Religious believers may or may not accept such symbolic interpretations.
Types of religion
In the 19th and 20th centuries, the academic practice of comparative religion divided religious belief into philosophically defined categories called “world religions.” Some academics studying the subject have divided religions into three broad categories:
- world religions, a term which refers to transcultural, international faiths;
- indigenous religions, which refers to smaller, culture-specific or nation-specific religious groups; and
- new religious movements, which refers to recently developed faiths.
Some recent scholarship has argued that not all types of religion are necessarily separated by mutually exclusive philosophies, and furthermore that the utility of ascribing a practice to a certain philosophy, or even calling a given practice religious, rather than cultural, political, or social in nature, is limited. The current state of psychological study about the nature of religiousness suggests that it is better to refer to religion as a largely invariant phenomenon that should be distinguished from cultural norms (i.e. “religions”).
Some scholars classify religions as either universal religions that seek worldwide acceptance and actively look for new converts, or ethnic religions that are identified with a particular ethnic group and do not seek converts. Others reject the distinction, pointing out that all religious practices, whatever their philosophical origin, are ethnic because they come from a particular culture.
Nature of Religion:
In sociology, the word religion is used in a wider sense than that used in religious books. A common characteristic found among all religions is that they represent a complex of emotional feelings and attitudes towards mysterious and perplexities of life.
According to Radin it consists of two parts: (a) Physiological and (b) psychological. The physiological part expresses itself in such acts as kneeling, closing the eyes, touching the feet. The psychological part consists of supernormal sensitivity to certain traditions and beliefs. While belief in supernatural powers may be considered basic to all religion, equally fundamental is the presence of a deeply emotional feeling which Golden Weiber called the “religion thrill”.
If we analyse the great religions of the world, we shall find that each of them contains, five basic elements: (1) belief in supernatural powers, (2) belief in the holy, (3) ritual, (4) acts defined as sinful and (5) some method of salvation.
1. Belief in Supernatural Powers:
The first basic element of religion is the belief that there are supernatural powers. These powers are believed to influence human life and control all natural phenomena. Some call these supernatural forces God, other call them Gods. There are even others who do not call them by any name. They simply consider them as forces in their universe. Thus, belief in the non-sensory, super-empirical world is the first element of religion.
2. Belief in the Holy:
There are certain holy or sacred elements of religion. These constitute the heart of the religion. There are certain things which are regarded as holy or sacred. But a thing is holy or sacred not because of a peculiar quality of thing. An attitude makes a thing holy. The sacred character of a tangible thing is not observable to the senses.
Sacred things are symbols. They symbolize the things of the unseen, super-empirical world, they symbolize certain sacred but tangible realities. When a Hindu worships a cow, he worships it not because of the kind of animal the cow is, but because of a host of super-empirical characteristics which this animal is imagined to represent.
Religious ritual is “the active side of religion. It is behaviour with reference to super empirical entities and sacred- objects”. It includes any kind of behavior (such as the wearing of special clothing and the immersion in certain rivers, in the Ganga for instance), prayers, hymns, creedal recitations, and other forms of reverence, usually performed with other people and in public. It can include singing, dancing, weeping, crawling, starving, feasting, etc. Failure to perform these acts is considered a sin.
4. Acts defined as Sinful:
Each religion defines certain acts as sinful and profane (unholy). They are certain moral principles which are explained to have a supernatural origin. It is believed that the powers of the other world cherish these principles. The violation of these principles creates man’s sense of guilty. It may also bring upon him the disfavour of the supernatural powers. If the behaviour is not in accordance with the religions code, the behaviour or act is considered as sinful.
5. Some Method of Salvation:
A method of salvation is the fifth basic element of religion. Man needs some method by which he can regain harmony with the Gods through removal of guilt. In Hindu religion Moksha or Salvation represents the end of life, the realisation of an inner spirituality in man.
The Hindu seeks release from the bondage of Karma, which is the joy or suffering he undergoes as a result of his actions in his life. The ultimate end of life is to attain Moksha. The Buddhist hopes to attain Salvation by being absorbed in the Godhead and entering Nirvana. The Christian has a redeemer in Christ who gave his life for man’s sins.
In short, religion is the institutionalised set of beliefs men hold about supernatural forces. It is more or less coherent system of beliefs and practices concerning a supernatural order of beings, forces, places or other entities.