The Essence of Religion


As a social category, Religion covers a wide variety of beliefs and practices. It is often thought that a social taxon like Religion has an essential nature, and that the scholarly study of religion should be concerned with discovering what this essence is.

In the 19th century, with the rise of formal disciplines such as history, philology, literary criticism, psychology, sociology, and anthropology, many scholars tried to explain what it is about Religion that makes it a Religion. But no consensus developed. In part, this is because of the fundamental differences in intellectual approaches: each discipline tries to understand Religion through its own methods and problems.

Some scholars, such as Emile Durkheim, took a functional approach, stressing the various functions that a religion performs for societies (for example, creating solidarity). Others have attempted to define Religion in terms of the ultimate concerns of human beings. This way of thinking about Religion makes it possible to include modern political ideologies in the category, even though they are not religious in nature.

Other scholars have argued that there is a biological origin for Religion, arising from humans’ becoming self-aware and realizing that they would ultimately die. A religious response is to search for a way to avoid death or, alternatively, a chance to continue life in a new world. The belief that the soul can be preserved through a ritual act of purification is the essence of religion, in this view.

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