Practice Question – State the reasons for the various religious beliefs and practices in pre-modern societies. [UPSC 2020]

Approach – Introduction, What paved way for religious beliefs and rituals in pre-modern societies?, Give reasons specifically mentioned in some of the theories regarding origin of religion, Quote thinkers, Criticism and Conclusion. 



From the Latin religio (respect for what is sacred) and religare (to bind, in the sense of an obligation), the term religion describes various systems of belief and practice concerning what people determine to be sacred or spiritual. Throughout history, and in societies across the world, leaders have used religious narratives, symbols, and traditions in an attempt to give more meaning to life and understand the universe. Some form of religion is found in every known culture, and it is usually practised in a public way by a group. The practice of religion can include feasts and festivals, God or gods, marriage and funeral services, music and art, meditation or initiation, sacrifice or service, and other aspects of culture. 



In the wake of nineteenth century European industrialization and secularization, three social theorists attempted to examine the relationship between religion and society: Émile Durkheim, Max Weber, and Karl Marx. They are among the founding thinkers of modern sociology. 

French sociologist Émile Durkheim defined religion as a “unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things” . To him, sacred meant extraordinary—something that inspired wonder and that seemed connected to the concept of “the divine.” Durkheim argued that “religion happens” in society when there is a separation between the profane (ordinary life) and the sacred. A rock, for example, isn’t sacred or profane as it exists. But if someone makes it into a headstone, or another person uses it for landscaping, it takes on different meanings—one sacred, one profane. Taking totemism as the type of religion he concludes that religion is to be understood as a social phenomenon. 

Whereas Durkheim saw religion as a source of social stability, German sociologist and political economist Max Weber  believed it was a precipitator of social change. He examined the effects of religion on economic activities and noticed that heavily Protestant societies—such as those in the Netherlands, England, Scotland, and Germany—were the most highly developed capitalist societies and that their most successful business leaders were Protestant. In his writing The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,  he contends that the Protestant work ethic influenced the development of capitalism.

German philosopher, journalist, and revolutionary socialist Karl Marx also studied the social impact of religion. He believed religion reflects the social stratification of society and that it maintains inequality and perpetuates the status quo. For him, religion was just an extension of working-class (proletariat) economic suffering. He famously argued that religion “is the opium of the people”.



The pioneer of naturalistic theory of the origin of religion is Ernst Haeckel, a scientist turned philosopher. He expressed his conviction that the discoveries of nineteenth century science bring the solution of the enigmas which have perplexed mankind through the centuries. He calls his system “monism” in opposition to all dualisms which differentiates God and nature, soul and body, spirit and matter. There is only a single substance and it manifests itself both as matter and energy or body and spirit. Monism implies that there is no matter without spirit or energy, and no spirit without matter.



The naturalistic interpretation of religion gained support from the developing science of anthropology. The ideas of Edward Burnett Tylor, inspired other thinkers like
James George Frazer and Salomon Reinach to formulate the anthropological theory of the origin of religion.

Edward Tylor makes two assumptions. (1) human culture – including knowledge, art, religion, customs and the like – has its laws which can be studied scientifically. Like in nature, in culture too we can find the uniform action of uniform causes. (2) the various grades of culture found in the human race can be exhibited as stages in a process of development or evolution. Another idea to which he draws our attention is the phenomenon of ‘survival’. An idea or a custom, once it has got established, tends to persist, and it may continue on into later stages of culture where it has become meaningless. His main contribution was his theory of “animism’ i.e. the belief in spiritual beings. Confronted with the phenomena such as death, sleep, dreams etc., primitive man accounted for them in terms of a spirit separable from the body. He believed in other spirits throughout all nature, some of these spirits having the rank of powerful deities. 

According to James George Frazer we can distinguish three stages in the mental development of man-kind magic, religion and science and each of these do not follow one another in a clear-cut succession. At the magical level man depends on his own strength to overcome the difficulties that trouble him in his attempt to gain the ends. He believes that there exists a certain order of nature which he thinks he can learn and manipulate by occult means. But experience teaches him that he is mistaken and there he turns to religion. In religion man no longer relies on himself but seeks the help of invisible beings. He believes that these beings possess that power to control natural events which magic failed to gain.



According to James Henry Leuba the reason for the existence of religion is not the objective truth of its conceptions, but its biological value. He clarifies this idea with the example of the belief in a personal God. Earlier time theologians had put forward metaphysical arguments for the existence of such a God for example the argument from design. The progress of the physical sciences has destroyed the strength of such arguments. Now the theologians have changed their arguments: they appeal to inner experience. Here, thinks Leuba, they have to agree with psychology, which applies the scientific method into the inmost experiences of the soul. The inner experience instead of establishing the existence of a personal God show how belief in such a God has arisen from the gratification it provides for affective and moral needs. He pays special attention to mystical experience which is considered as the pinnacle of religious experience of God.

Sigmund Freud, the originator of psychoanalysis, regarded religious beliefs as illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest, and most insistent wishes of mankind. He considered religion as a mental defense against the more threatening aspects of nature – earthquake, flood storm, disease and inevitable death. With these forces nature rises up against us, majestic, cruel and inexorable. However, human imagination transforms these forces into mysterious personal powers. Impersonal forces remain eternally remote. But if the elements have passions that rage as they do in our souls, if everywhere in nature there are beings around us of a kind that we know in our own society, then we can breathe freely, can feel at home in the uncanny and can deal by psychical means with our senseless anxiety. We are still defenseless but we are no longer helplessly paralyzed.



The naturalists, anthropologists and psychologists whom we have considered do have something to suggest in their interpretation of religion. The strength of their claim rests on the claim that it is based on verifiable facts brought to light by scientific investigation. However a thorough examination of this claim shows to us that these claims are extremely shaky one. The facts must be interpreted and that almost all the thinkers whom we have considered were scientists of one kind or another by training. In so far as they move from the findings of their particular sciences into the sphere of philosophical interpretation introduced presuppositions, speculations and even prejudices which need to be brought into the open and examined. Some of the thinkers’ idea of God illustrates their ow misunderstanding of the idea of God. The abstract idea presented by the naturalists as the whole reality ignores some facts and exaggerates others, so giving a distorted picture.

The psychology is a most valuable study, but it does not and indeed cannot be determinative for the validity of religion. We tend to believe what we want to believe. Yet psychological criticism of belief can be carried only so far or it ends up in skepticism which engulfs the psychologists himself, and makes rational arguments impossible. Freud commits the fallacy of psycho-mechanistic parallelism. This is the fallacy of assuming that because two behaviour patterns are observed to exhibit that same constituents or are reducible to the same component elements, they are to be attributed to the same psychological mechanism. Religious beliefs display some marks of infantile regression. From this one cannot conclude that
religion is reducible to infantile regression similarity is not sameness.






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