17 April 2009

Some theories of religion

Excerpt from Theological Incorrectness: Why Religious People Believe What They Shouldn't by D. Jason Slone:

Edward Tylor and James Frazer:
religion had evolved from simple to complex in form and substance. They theorized that it must have originated as ¡§animism¡¨ or ¡§magic¡¨ and then morphed progressively into polytheism, monotheism, and agnosticism. Agnosticism in turn, they theorized, would eventually be replaced by pure scientific atheism. Using data about primitive religions gathered from travel writings, folk tales, oral stories, and so forth, these scholars argued that religion was something like a "folk science." Primitive men and women appealed to religious agents as a way to explain why otherwise unexplainable things happened in their world.

Sigmund Freud:
religion was nothing but the by-product of deeply rooted psychological conflicts between individual desires (what we want to do) and social rules (what we are allowed to do). Using data gathered from clinical psychotherapy, Freud hypothesized that religion soothes psychological discomforts such as the dissonance one feels about human mortality, about our powerlessness over the forces of nature, about repressed sexual desires, and so forth. Religion, he claimed, fulfills psychological needs such as the desire for a permanent father figure to protect us from bad things, the desire to be relieved of guilt, and so forth.

Karl Marx:
religion fulfilled the function of maintaining the socioeconomic status quo for the wealthy and powerful people (the ¡§bourgeoisie¡¨), such as the owners of businesses, land, money, and other forms of capital, by "naturalizing" (i.e., explaining) economic differences through religious myths. Religion was, according to Marx, an important pillar of the cultural "superstructure" (the non-economic aspects of society) because it helped to maintain the basic economic disparities inherent in capitalism itself. Religion is very popular, he theorized, because it makes oppressed people feel better about their harsh lives by promising them rewards in an afterlife. "Religious distress", Marx wrote famously, "is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people."

Emile Durkheim:
Durkheim studied religious primitives, like the Australian Aborigines and the American Indians, because he believed they offered scholars a clear example of the earliest and therefore most basic form of religion, which he called "totemism". According to Durkheim¡¦s theory, human beings from birth live in social groups that constantly face the threat of internal disintegration (a la Freuds internal conflict). To prevent disintegration, the groups invent something to "cohere" them. One way that humans achieve group cohesion is to establish a group identity marker, a "totem", which represents the clan itself (e.g., the "coyote" clan, or the ¡§fox¡¨ clan, or, to use a more recent example, Russia is represented by the bear and the United States by the eagle). Then they elevate the totem to the level of a deity in icons and in rituals, and construct prohibitive rules, "taboos", against its desecration. The group worships the totem (hence "totemism"), which for all practical purposes means that the group worships itself. This enhances an individual's identification with the group and thereby creates group cohesion.

Max Weber:
among other things, that religious ideas function as "ideal types", and ideal types motivate human action in the world (toward the achievement of the ideal). For example, Jesus established an ethical ideal type in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1 - 7:27). Today, ideally, Christians strive to live up to this ideal.

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