There are few features that all human societies share. Most of these universals are driven by what “Malinowski called a ‘biological imperative’” (Kehoe 1998:199). These imperative needs include the inherent need for sex, food, and language. Without these biological imperatives it is easy to see that humans could no longer exist; without sex there would be no reproduction, without food there would be starvation, and without language people would no longer have the cognitive thought processes that separates them from the lower species. However there is another universal feature present in all societies that at first glace does not appear to be biological in nature. This universal is the concept of religion.
Until the 19th century the universality of religion was not accepted. Sir John Lubbock sited examples of tribes that he claimed had no religion. However it is now academically accepted that Lubbock’s investigation into these tribes only proved that his own “idea of religion was not universal […] [and that] every man has language and [a] religion of some sort” (Hopkins 1904:332). This raises the question: What is religion and what is it about this cultural phenomenon that makes it universal? This paper will examine these questions, and will explore what universal conditions and needs are believed to have facilitated the human response of religion.
In examining these conditions three approaches will be considered: the evolutionary approach, the psychosocial approach, and finally the structural-functional approach (functional approach). Within each of these approaches specific theorists will be highlighted. These social scientists have been chosen due to the wide acceptance of their ideas within the social sciences. It is imperative that an understanding of the ideas these theorists present be in order so that the important roles that religion plays within all societies may be understood. Within the evolutionary approach, Edward Tylor’s need for intellectual understanding will be looked at. In the psychosocial approach the focus will be on Sigmund Freud’s practice of psychoanalysis, and his concept of the Oedipus complex. Finally within the functional approach two theorists will be studied. First consideration will be given to Bronislaw Malinowski’s belief that the need for religion finds its origins in the anxiety and uncertainty people feel. The paper will end off with an investigation of Emile Durkheim’s three major functions of religion, and study how these functions are responsible for the universality of religions. However to begin, an attempt must be made to define what is meant by religion in the context of this paper.
Academic Concept of Religion
The relationship between religion and the social sciences has traditionally been turbulent. The reason for this is that each “brings different purposes, methods, and models to bear on the same phenomenon, [therefore] its not surprising that the [social scientist] and the believer should display some mutual caution toward each other” (Kelly 1977:357). For the believer religion is a matter of faith, a belief that has more to do with conviction than facts; for the scientist religion must be definable, and measurable. To the believer religion is central to every aspect of their culture. However the scientist must suspend their personal belief and maintain a professional distance while applying scientific method to the phenomenon of religion. In his paper The Academic Study of Religion, Sam Gill outlines certain criteria that must be followed when academically dealing with the study of religion. His abridged criteria are as follows:
1. “The academic study of religion must not depend upon or require […] any specific religious belief or affiliation. […]
2. The academic study of religion must be sensitive to multiculturalism […]
3. The term religion must be understood as designating an academically constructed rubric that identifies the arena for common discourse inclusive of all religions. […] It cannot be considered to be synonymous with Christianity or […] other specific traditions. […]
4. The methods of the academic study of religion are necessarily comparative. Religion is a category whose subdivisions are categories that demand comparison” (Gill 1994:965).
Since this paper is being written from an anthropologic perspective, the theological view of faith must temporarily be put aside. The challenge now falls on the social sciences to define religion.
In the field of anthropology the term religion is defined as “a symbolic system involving beliefs and practices aimed at directing the relationship of human beings to the supernatural” (Womack 1998:422). This is not to say that every act of the supernatural is considered religious. Anthropologists apply the term sacred, to any supernatural event that is religious in nature; this term “denotes an attitude wherein the subject is entitled to reverence and respect” (Stein and Stein 2005:20). In light of this Womack’s definition then must be modified to include the sacred supernatural. (1)
The academic study of religions does not stop at a simple definition. As Sam Gill stated, it is the job of the social scientists to compare and measure the similarities of different religions. Many theorists have presented their beliefs regarding the principle components of religion. These tend to be similar in nature and repetitive, so in the interest of space only one such theory will be looked at. Ninian Smart believes that in every culture, religions share six distinct characteristics:
1) He believes they contain a formal organization.
2) He believes they all have myths.
3) He believes they all have rites of passage.
4) He believes they contain binding activities.
5) He believes they provide moral rules for life.
6) He believes they provide experiences of the sacred supernatural (Stein and Stein 2005:19).
Once it is accepted that religions share universal similarities within them, the question can be changed from why is religion universal? To what universal conditions and needs are present cross culturally that cause people to seek religion? With this question in mind the paper can turn to the three approaches the social sciences take to explain these base universal conditions and needs.
During the 19th century a flood of new ideas began to emerge. Many of these ideas challenged the existing paradigms of how the world worked. One of these new ideas was the theory of evolution. Evolution holds that populations of organisms, through the process of natural selection, acquire and pass on appealing traits from generation to generation. These new appealing traits give the organism a competitive advantage. This advantage would make the organism more desirable for reproduction, and eventually this would lead to the emergence of a new species. It was assumed at the time that humans where exempt from these evolutionary forces. However today evolution enjoys a near consensus within the scientific community, and it is generally agreed that Homo sapiens evolved from an earlier form of pre-sapiens.
At this point it is necessary to split the evolutionary approach into two types. The first branch of this approach deals with religion as it relates to the actual biological evolution of people. The second branch which is most commonly used when talking about the evolutionary approach. It is the branch that deals with the concept of cultural evolution, specifically the idea that “‘primitive’ peoples represented an early stage of cultural evolution, and that one could learn about and understand the historical roots of the religion of ‘civilized’ societies by studying living ‘primitive’ people” (Stein and Stein 2005:21).
During the course of human evolution, there was a point where our brain started to behave differently than other species. It became flexible, it had an ability to reason, dream, it had a concept of time, and arguably the most important development, a universal system of communication. (2) One of these universal components of language is called displacement, and refers to the ability to think about, and assign symbols to refer to ideas and events that are far removed. Displacement is what gives humans our conception of past and future. With this conception however, also comes a realization of our morality; “once we are aware that we exist, we become aware that we will die” (Stein and Stein 2005:26). Evolutionary biologists believe that it was at this point that our ancestors began to have a need for religion. For the first time our ancestors “became aware that their life was transient; they would die at some point in their future. This knowledge produced an intolerable emotional drain” (Robinson 2002:Online). Of course with their new cognitive abilities our ancestors would not have been limited to only thoughts of mortality; they also become aware of the changes in nature, their environment, night and day, and fertility.
The biological evolutionary approach contends that when humans suddenly became aware of certain natural processes, questions about the causes of these processes followed, particularly morality. These theorists contend that “the brain is a machine that operates according to rules that have developed through evolutionary processes” (Stein and Stein 2005:27); that the pressures stemming from the need for intellectual understanding was strong enough to cause the brain to evolve a concept of the supernatural. They believe that “people do not invent gods, and spirits; they receive information that leads them to build such concepts” (Boyer 2001:161).
Recent studies using modern technology add support to this theory. An experiment at the UC San Diego brain and perception laboratory has linked a specific location, in the left temporal lobe, near the left ear, with how strongly a person responds to religious stimuli. (3) The study stems from the experience of patients suffering from temporal lobe epilepsy. During certain seizures patients would often describe “deeply moving spiritual experiences including a feeling of divine presence and the sense that they are in direct communion with God. Everything around them is imbued with cosmic significance. They may say, ‘I finally understand what it’s all about. This is the moment I’ve been waiting for all my life. Suddenly it all makes sense.’ Or, ‘Finally I have insight into the true nature of the cosmos.’” (Ramachandran and Blakeslee 1998:179).
These reports lead to the study into the God module. Since then more studies have been conducted that include CAT scans of both Buddhist monks and Catholic nuns during prayer. The studies show that even in people without epilepsy activity is shown in that area during times of religious acts. If this area functions the same way in all humans cross culturally, it would imply that instead of shared human experiences, “the universality of spiritual experiences may be grounded in shared human biology” (Stein and Stein 2005:26).
The second branch of the evolutionary approach places a cultural twist on the theory of the first branch. During the 19th century it was believed that like everything else, culture and religion naturally progressed from simple to complex. That all cultures would go through a progression from ‘primitive’ to ‘civilized’ in a hierarchical way. The same was assumed about religions, and the belief at the time was that there “exists evidence, by means of which it is possible still to trace, in the history of man’s mental condition, an upward progress, a succession of higher intellectual processes and opinions to lower ones” (Bengtson 1979:646). These ethnocentric views were used to explain the ‘superiority’ of Christian European civilizations. With this belief in mind, many anthropologists set out to study the religions of the ‘primitive’ peoples. Anthropologists of this era are referred to as ‘arm chair’ anthropologists stemming from their lack of field study. They relied on tales told from travelers of the practices of primitive people, they would infer their theories from these stories. This would often lead to extremely misguided views of their beliefs. One 19th century evolutionist who does not fit this description was Edward Tylor.
Edward Burnett Tylor was born on October 2nd, 1832. Though he never attended University he “became connected with Oxford, both in the capacity of keeper of the University Museum and as a lecturer, being [a] ‘reader in anthropology’ (Lowie 1917:262). (4) He became a professor there in 1884, and remained their till 1909. In 1956 he took a trip to Cuba. On this trip he would meet and ethnologist named Henry Christy. Tylor became fascinated with the idea of ‘primitive man’ and in 1856 would take a trip with Christy into Mexico. Tylor wrote many books and published many papers, and will forever be remembered as the originator or the modern term culture, but for the purpose of this paper, only his ideas toward the origins of religion will be studied.
During Tylors travels and his contact with ‘primitive’ peoples, he observed a common theme. Tylor saw what he believed to be a logical progression within religions. He noticed that in some cultures, humans often did not consider themselves better than other objects, and animals. These cultures believed that like themselves, animals and other objects where animated by a spirit. This spirit during times of sickness and death leaves the body. Therefore they regarded these plants, animals, and objects with great respect. Tylor termed this belief system animism. (5)
Tylor, owing to the common believes of the time, believed that through animism the practices of these ‘primitive’ people must represent the earliest system of belief. Tylor claimed that this system arose from a need for intellectual understanding of the unknown. He wrote:
“It seems that thinking men, as yet at a low level of culture, were deeply impressed by two groups of biological problems. In the first place, what is it that makes the difference between a living body and a dead one: what causes waking, sleep trance, disease, death? In the second place, what are those human shapes which appear in dreams and visions?” (Womack 1998:49)
His theory states that spirit beings are a natural conclusion that all ignorant, but rational, people would reach during sleep. As our early ancestors slept, they like us would have had dreams of other people and other places. Tylor argued, that unable to tell these dreams from reality, people universally conclude that spirits had the ability to leave to body and travel.
In his theory Tylor believed that the component parts of religion are a necessity to provide answers or solutions to questions that people have an inability to answers otherwise. For example animistic societies often considered ritual to be “essential for survival as it wins the favor of the spirits [required for] one’s source of food, shelter and fertility, and to ward off malevolent spirits” (Wikipedia 2005:Online); or that the phenomena of religious myths were “rational attempts of ‘lower peoples’ to make sense of their environment” (Bengtson 1979:646). Tylor saw a logical progression of religion starting with animistic stage, progressing through a polytheistic stage, to the modern monotheistic religion. He eventually believed that “we should progress to a purely scientific understanding which would be atheistic” (Kehoe 1998:203).
The evolutionary theory can be split into two categories: The first dealing with biological evolution, and the second dealing with cultural/religious evolution. The first branch deals with the concept that religion originated to fulfill a need for intellectual understanding. It contends that humans biologically evolved to need religion. Support for this can be seen with new research into the god module. The second branch is deals with the concept that religions go through measurable stages, and that these stages. Taylor hypothesize that as ‘primitive’ cultures gain knowledge their religion also evolves.
Critics of the evolutionary approach are quick to attack the high level of speculation involved. They argue that inferences of the people who lived 60,000 years ago are not valid. They consider Tylor’s views to be ethnocentric, they point to the widely accepted notion that cultural progression is no longer used in the way it was in the 19th century. That one culture or religion is not better than another. Instead they each serve the needs of the people practicing them. Other critics like Durkheim, claim that the basic function of religion is not to ‘explain’ the universe, but rather to function in it.
Both the evolutionary and the functional approaches of religion deal with the needs of the society as a group. The psychosocial approach takes a different approach, it “is concerned with the relationship between culture and personality and the connection between the society and the individual” (Stein and Stein 2005:23). It asserts that humans are divided between their need for individuality, and their need of community. It stems from “older instincts: The [first] is based on our basic needs plus competition for mates and a place in the dominance hierarchy. The [second] is based on infant care, mate pairing, herd instincts, and reciprocity” (Boeree 2004:Online).
In practice it seeks to discover universal connections among the unconscious parts of peoples beliefs. For example Carl Jung believes that not only do individuals have an unconscious mind, but as a group, society shares a “collective unconscious, or inborn elements of the unconscious that are manifested in dreams and myths” (Stein and Stein 2005:45). This group unconsciousness manifests itself into a character called an archetype. These archetypes represent aspects of society; they may include the hero, the creator, the destroyer, and the trickster. These same archetypes have been found cross culturally, “they are not innate images, as is often supposed, but dynamic forms shaping perception and behavior […] and are common to all humans” (Maclennan Unknown:2). If these same myths and archetypes can be seen in all cultures, does it then imply that the collective unconscious is shaped by the same individual unconscious experiences?
The most prominent theorist within the psychosocial approach is Sigmund Freud. Freud was born May 6th, 1856 in Austria. He worked as a neurologist before becoming the founder of the psychoanalytic school of psychology. He believed that all human behavior had a base in unconscious motives. He taught that in order to treat neurosis, one first must bring out the deep-rooted unconscious issues that caused them. He is today commonly referred to as ‘the father of psychoanalysis’.
Freud believed, the “primal basis of religion [can be found] in the […] infantile helplessness which is so familiar a feature of psychoanalytic doctrine” (Turner 1931:218). He highlights that during adolescence our experiences impact our beliefs. These experiences often involve powerful figures like a parent. In adult life how those experiences were handled by the key figures will project itself on our myths, and systems of beliefs. For example the close bonds between mother and son during the first years of life, eventually manifest themselves unconsciously into myths like the Oedipus myth. Freud did not just see Oedipus as another universal archetype; he saw the “beginnings of religion, morals, society and art [converging] in the Oedipus complex ” (Freud 1950:156). (6)
The Oedipus complex has its roots in Freud’s theory of the id, the ego, and the superego. He theorized that all ‘civilized’ people underwent three stages of development. The first stage he called the id, and it represents to Freud the state all people are born into; the unconscious drive that “demands immediate satisfaction” (Gerber and Macionis 2005:111). By the time a child realizes that they cannot have everything they want, they are in the ego stage. When a person begins to conform and pattern their behavior according to cultural rules, they have reached the superego stage. The Oedipus complex emerges during a transition phase between the id and the ego. It is based on the theory that during childhood boys feel an unconscious “sexual attraction for [their] mother and jealousy toward [their] father” (Womack 1998:142). (7)
Freud was educated in the evolutionary school, and as such believed that the ‘primitive’ cultures represented earlier stages of human life. He applied his principles of the id, ego, and superego to ‘primitive’ people. From this he claimed that though revision of childhood experiences impact all societies, “only Europeans […] developed past the stage of the adolescence of the human race” (Brickman 2002:58). Freud was arguing that ‘primitive cultures’ represented the early stages of individual development, before mastery of desire was attained.
He hinted from this that the earliest religious ritual could have stemmed from an event in pre-history, where a son killed his father out of desire for his mother. As he put it, the son “then sacrificed an animal in honor of his father […] and elevated the dead father to the status of God” (Womack 1998:142). To Freud every aspect of religion was an unconscious communal wish. Myths are shared dreams that represent an unconscious desire. Our believes are “psychological maneuvers by which we distort reality in ways that help avoid conflict” (Stein and Stein 2005:24). Other research into this field shows that Oedipus-type myths are cross cultural. (8)
The psychosocial approach to religion focuses on the individuals relationship within society. The split between individuality and community causes problems that can lead to neuroses. Freud believed to religion originated in the subconscious. It was a way to fulfill deep rooted desires from childhood. The Oedipus complex to Freud can be see at the root of religion, and given as a possible origin.
Some critics of Freud proclaim all this theories utter nonsense; they believe that psychoanalysis is not testable and therefore unscientific. As well the methodology Freud used to collect his data rests on speculation and subjectivism. They charge that he is assuming that mental activity is causally determined, and that in fact the tensions between father and son, are only seen in patrilineal societies. (9)
The functional paradigm is a theory that views society and all its parts as a complex system working together to promote unity and stability. Society then becomes like an organism “in which the parts act to maintain the whole” (Stein and Stein 2005:22). The functionalist approach is quite similar to the evolutionary approach as they both focus on the social needs of the community. However instead of asking: Why did religion evolve? Functionalists ask: What structural necessities do religions fill? From there it is purposed that if common necessities can be discovered cross culturally, it would provide evidence for the structural need of religion to society.The two most important theorists in this area are Bronislaw Malinowski, and Emile Durkheim.
Bronislaw Malinowski was born April 7th, 1884 in Krakow, Poland. In 1908 he earned his doctorate from the University of Krakow in the physical sciences. After reading James Frazer’s book The Golden Bough he decided to devote himself to the science of anthropology. In 1910 he traveled to London to study under Frazer. By 1922 Malinowski had earned a doctorate in anthropology, and was influencing his many students toward the concept of field work. Malinowski is remembered for his pioneering work on ethnographic fieldwork, and the concept of participant observation.
Malinowski, conducted participant observation studies on the Trobriand Islands. He rejected the concept of social/religious evolution, and claimed that ‘primitive’ people “were just as pragmatic as any Western scientist” in many respects (Womack 1998:51). He compared the ‘primitives’ sea voyage magic to modern western sailors sailing superstition. Malinowski believed religion to be a system within society that enables certain needs to be met by removing anxiety. He is most known for his work with the religious component of magic. To Malinowski, magic is a “logical system that people turn to in times of uncertainty or emotional stress” (Stein and Stein 2005:22). If rain is needed, one only has to contact a specialist to perform magic to make it rain. These magic rituals are designed to give humans the capacity to control the uncontrollable. He viewed the ritual actions associated with particular outcomes as specialized skills, and associated them with skills like woodworking “in the sense that the religious actions were designed to accomplish a particular end” (Kehoe 1998:202).
Specifically Malinowski believed that “a sentiment which we call anxiety arises when men feel certain desires and do not possess the techniques which make them sure of satisfying the desires” (Homans 1941:166). Farmers may do their best to ensure their fields are ready, but if the rain does not come anxiety overwhelms them. They may not be able to sleep, or do other actions. Through the performance of “magical rites […] [the farmers] insure good luck. These rites give them confidence which allows them to attack their practical work with energy and determination” (Homans 1941:164). So as a result of religion the people who participated in the ritual have their anxieties lifted, and are then able to take care of their basic biological needs.
The last theorist that will be examined is Emile Durkheim. Durkheim was born April 15th, 1858 in Epinal, France. He began studies at the École Normale Supérieure in 1879. He became interested in a scientific approach to communities. He Graduated in 1882, and went on to found the first department of sociology in Europe. He is remembered known today as one of the originators of modern sociology.
Durkheim concluded, “that beliefs about the sacred are collective representations whose object is society itself” (Winter 1958:672). To him, religion is found universally because “society itself is ‘godlike’ […] [and] people in all societies transform everyday objects into sacred symbols of their social life” (Gerber and Macionis 2005:473). He viewed society itself as lacking. The concept of punishment exists everywhere to keep people in line, but to Durkheim that was not enough. Durkheims answer to this problem was the “collective conscious, a system of beliefs that act to contain natural selfishness of individuals and to promote social cooperation” (Stein and Stein 2005:22). Through this collective conscious societies create sacred and identifiable symbols called totems. To the society in question, these totems represent qualities of humanity they admire. Durkheim purposed from the collective consciousness, three fundamental functions of religion can be seen: To provide meaning and purpose, to ensure social control, and to provide social cohesion.
Durkheim first believed that since human life is frail, “religious beliefs offer the comforting sense that the vulnerable human condition serves some greater purpose” (Gerber and Macionis 2005:473). Paralleling Malinowski, Durkheim theory states that: the purpose religion provides makes it less likely that people will be debilitated by anxiety or despair when confronted by conflict. It is for these reasons that rites of passage mark major life changes. For example, birth life and death are cross culturally marked by rights of passage ceremonies. The functions of these ceremonies in Durkheim eyes, are to keep religion in the public eyes, and to “promote our spiritual awareness” (Gerber and Macionis 2005:473).
Secondly Durkheim conjectured that to push social conformity, religious imagery and teachings are used by society. He termed this social control and believed that the cultural mores of societies are influenced by the religious doctrine. Certain aspects relating to marriage, reproduction, sex, and death are always closely tied to the collective conscious. Those who do not follow these mores are labeled deviant, and those who do are right and just.
In Durkheims view, the final and most important function of religion is to provide social cohesion. During the early ears of humanity it would have been imperative for our ancestors to cooperate. Durkheim concluded that the main reason religion originated, was as a “means of maintaining the cooperating social group” (Kehoe 1998:208). This social cohesion is brought out in a number of ways. Shared symbols and communal ritual unite the community. These events allow people to see “who belongs, and [to whom] they are morally obliged to help, and from whom they can expect help” (Kehoe 1998:208). Through shared myths, morality is safe guarded, and enforced. It is interesting to note that cross culturally, “stories that seem very different on the surface may have a similar underlying structure” (Stein and Stein 2005:44).
Both Durkheim and Malinowski believe that religion serves a functional role in society. For Malinowski, that role is to reduce anxiety and pave way to the basic needs of humanity. For Durkheim the need for community, cooperation, and meaning is the function. The aspects of religious life serve to provide a need for the society. Magic gives control to the unforeseen, and worship provides a venue for intellectual, and spiritual bonding of the community.
Historians and theologians have argued against the functional approach claiming that “analyzing religion in terms of functionality implies that religion is purely illusory, existing only to fulfill those function” (Stein and Stein 2005:22). Other critics will admit that religion indeed does serve as a function; however functional purpose is secondary to the evolution of religion. One last critic of the functional argues that modern religion has been a source of conflict since time immemorial. They claim that “differenced in faith have provoked more violence in the word than have difference in social class” (Gerber and Macionis 2005:473).
This paper has examined the three approaches to the origins of religion. It looked at the question of what universal needs were the catalyst for the origin of religion. It supplied the different theorist’s beliefs as to why religion is seen cross culturally. In the end this paper makes no speculation at which approach is correct. In reality the answer to that question will be debated forever. Religion may be universal but the unanimity of the reason why is not. As for the question of science vs. theology, the verdict is still out. Did god make mans brain? Or did mans brain make God?
(1)- It now becomes, a symbolic system involving beliefs and practices aimed at directing the relationship of human beings to the sacred supernatural.
(2)- These are referred to as Hockett’s Linguistic Universals and can be found in most linguistic books.
(3)- This location is often referred to as the God module.
(4)- He received an honorary degree in 1875 from Oxford.
(5)- “The belief in a spirit essence that ‘animates’ or gives life to people, animals, plants, and sometimes geographic features” (Womack 1998: 49).
(6)- Named after the Greek hero, who killed his father and married his mother.
(7)- Freud later added an Electra complex to apply to the sexual attraction of a father from a daughter.
(8)-See Allen Johnson and Douglas Price-Williams.
(9)-See Malinowski’s discussion on Freud in Womack page 121.
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