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Types of Religious Systems
The evolution of religion cannot be precisely determined owing to the lack of clearly distinguishable stages, but anthropological and historical studies of isolated cultures in various periods of development have suggested a typology but not a chronology. One type is found among some Australian aborigines who practice magic and fetishism (see fetish) but consider the powers therein to be not supernatural but an aspect of the natural world. Inability or refusal to divide real from preternatural and acceptance of the idea that inanimate objects may work human good or evil are sometimes said to mark a prereligious phase of thought. This is sometimes labeled naturism or animatism. It is characterized by a belief in a life force that itself has no definite characterization (see animism).
A second type of religion, represented by many Oceanic and African tribal beliefs, includes momentary deities (a tree suddenly falling on or in front of a person is malignant, although it was not considered “possessed” before or after the incident) and special deities (a particular tree is inhabited by a malignant spirit, or the spirits of dead villagers inhabit a certain grove or particular animals). In this category one must distinguish between natural and supernatural forces. This development is related to the emergence of objects of devotion, to rituals of propitiation, to priests and shamans, and to an individual sense of group participation in which the individual or the group is protected by, or against, supernatural beings and is expected to act singly or collectively in specific ways when in the presence of these forces (see ancestor worship; totem; spiritism).
In a third class of religion—usually heavily interlaced with fetishism—magic, momentary and special deities, nature gods, and deities personifying natural functions (such as the Egyptian solar god Ra, the Babylonian goddess of fertility Ishtar, the Greek sea-god Poseidon, and the Hindu goddess of death and destruction Kali) emerge and are incorporated into a system of mythology and ritual. Sometimes they take on distinctively human characteristics (see anthropomorphism).
Beyond these more elementary forms of religious expression there are what are commonly called the “higher religions.” Theologians and philosophers of religion agree that these religions embody a principle of transcendence, i.e., a concept, sometimes a godhead, that involves humans in an experience beyond their immediate personal and social needs, an experience known as “the sacred” or “the holy.”
In the comparative study of these religions certain classifications are used. The most frequent are polytheism (as in popular Hinduism and ancient Greek religion), in which there are many gods; dualism (as in Zoroastrianism and certain Gnostic sects), which conceives of equally powerful deities of good and of evil; monotheism (as in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam), in which there is a single god; supratheism (as in Hindu Vedanta and certain Buddhist sects), in which the devotee participates in the religion through a mystical union with the godhead; and pantheism, in which the universe is identified with God.
Another frequently used classification is based on the origins of the body of knowledge held by a certain religion: some religions are revealed, as in Judaism (where God revealed the Commandments to Moses), Christianity (where Christ, the Son of God, revealed the Word of the Father), and Islam (where the angel Gabriel revealed God's will to Muhammad). Some religions are nonrevealed, or “natural,” the result of human inquiry alone. Included among these and sometimes called philosophies of eternity are Buddhist sects (where Buddha is recognized not as a god but as an enlightened leader), Brahmanism, and Taoism and other Chinese metaphysical doctrines.
See J. Wach, Comparative Study of Religions (1951, repr. 1958); J. G. Frazer, The Golden Bough (3d ed., 13 vol., 1955; repr. 1966); V. T. A. Ferm, Encyclopedia of Religion (1959); J. Hick, The Philosophy of Religion (1963); J. de Vries, The Study of Religion (tr. 1967); G. Parrinder, ed., Man and His Gods (1971); M. Eliade, ed., Encyclopedia of Religion (16 vol., 1986); E. L. Queen 2d et al., ed., The Encyclopedia of American Religious History (1996).
- the ‘belief in spiritual beings’ (Tylor, 1871) and the institutions and practices associated with these beliefs.
- ‘a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things’, things set apart and held in awe, which unites the believers into a moral community or church (DURKHEIM, 1912) (see also SACRED AND PROFANE). On this definition, in terms of social FUNCTIONS, there is no ultimate distinction between religions which involve beliefs in spiritual beings or other supernatural phenomena and many other kinds of socially unifying ideas such as nationalism. The latter can be seen as FUNCTIONAL ALTERNATIVES OR FUNCTIONAL EQUIVALENTS of religion in the more conventional sense. Furthermore, even some beliefs and practices conventionally thought of as religions, such as CONFUCIANISM or BUDDHISM, do not readily correspond to narrower standard dictionary definitions of religion which emphasize the worship of gods and spirits. Nor is a distinction between the supernatural and the empirical easy to draw uncontentiously See also FUNCTIONALIST THEORY OF RELIGION.
- any set of doctrines – ‘theories in a hurry’, according to GELLNER – providing overall answers to ultimate and existential questions for which there are no empirical answers. In comparison with definition 2 , this definition leaves open for empirical analysis the particular social effects or social functions of religion.
Religion(religion, spiritualism, and occult)
What is religion? That's a hard question to answer. And the harder you try, the more difficult it becomes.
Is "religion" simply defined as the way we think about God? If so, Buddhism is not a religion, because many Buddhists don't believe in God. Nor do some Hindus and Unitarians and Jews. Add to those a lot of liberal Catholics who don't believe in God but won't admit it, plus a whole bunch of liberal Protestants whose definition of "God" is certainly not traditional.
Does "religion" mean simply living an ethical life? If so, then many good, nice, ethical atheists are religious.
Perhaps "religion" refers to an organized institution. But that can't be, because there are many religions (such as Quaker and Hindu sects) that resist any effort to organize. And many more religions that are not organized even though they think they are!
So in order to talk about "religion," it first becomes necessary to define the term.
One definition that seems to cut across many philosophical boundaries was developed by the sociologist Joachim Wach, who lived from 1898 to 1955. His "Three Forms of Religious Expression" comes close to capturing the elusive concept of religion.
This word refers to the fact that religions teach something. They have a "theoretical" component.
Religions teach by means of myths, doctrines, traditions, and customs. Sometimes it drives religious leaders crazy to hear from congregants, over and over again, "We've always done it this way!" But customs, stemming from myths and stories, cemented by doctrine, and interpreted by longstanding traditions, teach young people in ways they never quite outgrow. How many atheists, for instance, are still afraid of going to the hell in which they no longer believe? It's because the theoretical component of their childhood religion was so strong they cannot ever fully outgrow it.
Whenever we study a new religion, we ask about its teachings. That's what religions do. They teach something. They teach how the world was made, how humans came to be, what will happen in the future, how to live in the present. They pass on values and ethics by teaching children the social standards of their religious community. That's what Sunday school, catechism classes, and confirmation classes are for. That's why religious institutions of higher learning were formed.
Religions are all about teaching.
Religions also have developed ways of worshiping. "Practical" refers to what people in various religions actually do. Jews go to synagogues or observe family religious celebrations at home. Catholics go to Mass. Protestants attend church services. Muslims fulfill the Five Pillars.
Religious communities are known for their traditions. What makes us uncomfortable when we go to a worship service different from our own tradition is that we don't always know what is expected of us. We don't know the rituals. We don't know the customs. We are afraid of bumping into a "sacred cow."
Religions have a traditional practice, a "practical" component.
Religions also attract a community. They have a sociological component. In New England, every town has a little white community church on the town common. In European cities, it's the cathedral that dominates the skyline. In Midwestern America, the "little brown church in the vale" is being replaced by the ultra-modern educational complex with an extensive bus ministry. California has its Crystal Cathedral. Jerusalem its Dome of the Rock. Mecca its Kaaba.
What kind of a community forms around a religion? The answer provides its sociological component.
So we might define "religion" in this way, using the words of Robert S. Ellwood, co-author of the textbook Many Peoples, Many Faiths:
While the essence of religion may be beyond words, the religious experience... expresses itself in human life in three ways. These three forms of religious expression (are) theoretical, practical and sociological.
a world view and perception associated with certain behavior and specific acts (cult or worship) and based on a belief in the existence of one or several gods and in the existence of the “holy,” that is, a form of the supernatural. Religion, which is essentially one of the idealist world views, is opposed to the scientific world view. The principal characteristic of religion is belief in the supernatural, but this does not mean that religion is the relationship that links man with god, as theologians usually argue. F. Engels observed: “All religion is nothing but the fantastic reflection in men’s minds of those external forces which control their daily life, a reflection in which the terrestrial forces assume the form of supernatural forces” (in K. Marx and F. Engels, Sock, 2nd ed., vol. 20, p. 328). In religion, man is enslaved by the products of his own imagination. Religion represents a specific form of social consciousness and functions as a regulator of social behavior.
According to contemporary scientific data, religion originated approximately 40,000–50,000 years ago during the late Paleolithic period (the Stone Age), when primitive society had reached a relatively high level of development. The beginnings of hunters’ magic and the worship of animals are recorded in late Paleolithic art. Additional evidence for the existence of religious beliefs is provided by late Paleolithic burial sites, which are distinguished from earlier sites by the custom of burying the dead with tools and ornaments, indicating rudimentary ideas concerning life after death, a “world of the dead,” and continued existence of the “soul” after the death of the body. Even today, there are analogous ideas and rituals.
Religion emerges when the development of the human intellect has reached a level at which the rudiments of theoretical thought appear, together with the possibility of separating thought from reality (the epistemological roots of religion). The general concept is separated from the object it designates and is transformed into a special “being,” so that reflection by the human consciousness of that which is can serve as the basis for imaginary concepts of that which, in reality, is not. These possibilities are realized only in connection with the totality of human activity and social relationships (the social roots of religion).
Religion was a product of the limitations on the practical and intellectual mastery of the world in the early stages of human history. Primitive religious beliefs are marked by a fantastical consciousness of man’s dependence on natural forces. Not having separated himself from nature, man transfers to nature the relationships that are developing in the primitive commune. The natural phenomena that affect man in his everyday activity and that are of vital importance become the object of religious perception. Human powerlessness before nature evokes terror of nature’s “mysterious” forces, as well as an endless search for means of influencing these forces. Historically, the earliest manifestations of religion were magic, totemism, soothsaying, burial cults, and shamanism. Later forms of religion in preclass society included secret associations and the worship of leaders.
The first object of religious veneration, the fetish, was a real object to which supersensory qualities were attributed. Fetishism is associated with magic, with the attempt to influence the course of events in a desired direction by means of magical rites and incantations. Later, the supersensory qualities attributed to the fetish were separated from it and transformed into independent beings, or “spirits.” Animism, the belief in a “soul” independent of the body, emerged, and it became possible to divide the world into two parts: the world of that which actually exists and the supernatural world.
With the breakdown of tribal society, clan and tribal religions were replaced by the religions of class society. As social stratification took place, a hierarchy emerged in the “world of spirits.” With the development of farming, an increasingly important role was played by spirits of the plant world, by the cults of gods who died and were resurrected, and by rituals associated with seasonal phenomena in nature (for example, winter solstice festivities). As the patriarchal family developed, the clan ancestor cult was transformed into the cult of family ancestors and domestic gods. Esoteric (secret) beliefs and cults developed. Myths were reinforced in oral tradition and later, in written religious works, or sacred books.
With the division of society into classes and with the rise of the state, the polytheistic religions of early class society appeared: the Vedic religion of ancient India, Japanese Shin-toism, and the religions of ancient Egypt, Iran (Mazdaism or Zoroastrianism), Greece, and Rome. A special social stratum of professional priests emerged, the successors to the magicians, soothsayers, sorcerers, fortune-tellers, and shamans of primitive religions. A system of sacrificial offerings developed, cult rituals became more complex and acquired greater social significance, temples were built for sacrifices and religious services, and a system of religious training and education was established. Religion became one of the institutions of class society, defending the privileges and power of the exploitative elite. With the formation of a professional priesthood, religion was increasingly used to deliberately deceive the popular masses.
In the tribal cults of preclass society most of the gods were personifications of the forces of nature or of moral precepts. In the religion of slaveholding society, most of the gods personified social authority. “The fantastic figures, which at first only reflected the mysterious forces of nature, at this point acquire social attributes, become representatives of the forces of history. At a still further stage of evolution, all the natural and social attributes of the numerous gods are transferred to one almighty god…. Such was the origin of monotheism” (K. Marx and F. Engels, ibid., p. 329).
The religion of early class society retained many of the traditional cults that had originated in tribal society, including to-temistic cults of animals and plants and the worship of ancestors and various kinds of spirits, demons, and fetishes. A rich mythology developed. The religions of early class society were at first essentially tribal religions, but they later became the religions of nation-states, in which religious ties among people coincided with ethnic and political ties (for example, Confucianism, Shintoism, Hinduism, and Judaism, which still exist).
At a later stage of historical development the world, or supranational, religions emerged: Buddhism (sixth to fifth centuries B.C.), Christianity (first century A.D.), and Islam (seventh century). The world religions unite people of the same faith, regardless of their ethnic, linguistic, or political ties. Monotheism is one of the most important distinguishing features of world religions such as Christianity and Islam. Characteristic of Christian monotheism is the cult of “abstract man” (ibid.). The cult of “abstract man” is the product of the relations of commodity production and an understanding of man in which real social characteristics, social inequality, and differences in wealth, legal rights, and other factors are discarded and “overcome,” or rejected as nonessential, from the standpoint of the most important relationship defining man’s essence: his relationship to god. In this sense, belief in god is associated with denigrating the “worldly” and with orienting man not toward social reforms but toward an ideal life emphasizing “salvation” from worldly bonds and retreat from the vanities of the world. In the supranational religions new forms of organization and relations emerged: the church, the clergy, and the laity. Theology developed, and missionary work evolved as a means of spreading the world religions. The specific features of each world religion are the product of differences in the material life and the political and cultural forms of the social milieu in which they originated and spread.
The essence of religion was most profoundly revealed by Marxism, which continued and developed the critique of religion in the tradition of progressive social thought, raising the critique to a qualitatively higher level by integrally linking it with the struggle for the revolutionary transformation of social relations that create the need for religious illusions. The gods do not create man but are created by man in his image and likeness. This was the main thesis of the atheistic critique of religion from antiquity to the time of L. Feuerbach, who asserted that man, in worshiping a god, was worshiping his own essence, which he had alienated from himself. Feuerbach reduced the religious world to its earthly foundation. However, he gave no reason for the duplication of the world or the self-alienation of man. There was not yet an answer to the question why “the secular foundation detaches itself from itself and establishes itself in the clouds as an independent realm” (K. Marx, in K. Marx and F. Engels, ibid., vol. 3, p. 2). Marxism, which is based on a materialist understanding of history, shows that this “is really only to be explained by the self-cleavage and self-contradictori-ness of this secular basis” (ibid).
Concrete sociohistorical relations are cited by Marxism to explain the existence of religion. Since the emergence of class society, these relations have been based on the exploitation of man by man. The inverted world, in which evil and injustice triumph, engenders an inverted consciousness, in which humanity, downtrodden in this world, acquires an imaginary existence in another world. By associating the realization of man’s ideals with a place beyond “this” world, religion reconciled man to social injustice. This was precisely the social function of religion to which Marx was referring when he described religion as the “opiate of the people” (ibid., vol. 1, p. 415).
In developing and critically transcending Feuerbach’s anthropological approach to religion, Marxism emphasizes that religious alienation stems from the real alienation of man in a society in which “the human essence has no true reality” and therefore achieves an illusory realization in god. “This state, this society produce religion, an inverted world consciousness, because they are an inverted world.” Religion represents “the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet found himself or has already lost himself again” (ibid., vol. 1, p. 414).
According to Marx, religion will be overcome with the revolutionary reconstruction of society in conformity with communist principles. “The religious reflex of the real world can only then finally vanish, when the practical relations of everyday life offer to man none but perfectly intelligible and reasonable relations with regard to his fellow men and to nature. The life process of society … does not strip off its mystical veil until it is treated as production by freely associated men and is consciously regulated by them in accordance with a settled plan” (ibid., vol. 23, p. 90).
As religion was subjected to scientific investigation, its earthly sources became increasingly evident. Ethnologic studies by E. Tylor, J. Frazer, R. Marett, and K. Preuss have shown that the emergence of religion was related to the low level of development of production and intellectual culture. In describing the rudimentary manifestations of religion, ethnology helped to reconstruct the history of the origins of religious beliefs. The study of the oldest religious texts provided extensive comparative material for the elucidation of similarities in the myths, beliefs, and cults of peoples in various parts of the world. Similarities in beliefs are the outgrowth of similarities in the forms of productive activity and everyday economics during the early stages of social development. Studies showed that there was a connection between religious consciousness and the development of language and culture in antiquity. For example, Judaism was linked with the cultural world of the ancient East, and Christianity was an outgrowth of eastern Hellenistic syncretism.
As an element of the social structure of class society, religion performs certain social functions, acting as one of the instruments by which the ideas of the ruling class become the ruling ideas in a particular society. Thus, religion serves as the spiritual buttress for an inverted world based on social inequality and oppression. At the same time, because religion is involved in the class struggle, it can, under certain conditions, express the interests and aspirations of the exploited masses, whose struggle against the exploiters has often taken the form of a struggle between religious ideas. In many countries, revolutionary peasant movements have based their antifeudal programs on early Christian demands for brotherhood and equality. However, the religious guise in which the ideas of progressive social movements appear at certain stages of history is evidence of the immaturity of these movements.
The concepts of god and the supernatural vary in social meaning precisely because judgments about god are always judgments about the world. Belief in the existence of god shapes different attitudes toward reality and is manifested in different kinds of social behavior fluctuating within a rather broad range between secular service and monastic renunciation of the world, between exaltation and quietism, and between reconciliation with the status quo and protest. Thus, the orientation toward earthly problems in contemporary religious ideology reflects changes in the consciousness of the broad masses of the working people who are believers and who increasingly strive for the realization of social justice on earth by participating in the struggle to change the unjust world.
Every great historical upheaval in the social order is accompanied by an upheaval in people’s religious concepts. Thus, medieval Catholicism represented the feudal variety of Christianity. Protestantism, the bourgeois variety of Christianity, emerged with the development of capitalism, as a counterweight to Catholicism. From the second half of the 19th century, Catholicism pursued a policy of adapting to the conditions of bourgeois society. Since the Renaissance, there has been a growing trend toward secularization, characterized by a steady decline in the influence of religion and by the liberation of various aspects of social and personal life from the control of religion.
Secularism is particularly widespread today. At a time of radical social transformations and scientific and technological progress, religion is experiencing a profound and irreversible crisis. Religion is acknowledged as the state ideology in fewer countries. As a result of the separation of church from state and school from church, religion controls a steadily narrowing sphere of society’s intellectual and cultural activity. Religion is no longer a dominant form of ideology. Its prestige and the number of its adherents are noticeably declining, and what remains of religiosity is increasingly superficial.
The scientific and technological revolution has undermined the religious picture of the world and strengthened man’s confidence in his capacity to use his own powers to solve the problems confronting him. In the period of transition from capitalism to socialism, it becomes increasingly obvious that religion has outlived its historical role as a form of social consciousness. Characteristic of contemporary religious consciousness is a conflict between traditional and reformed versions of faith. The opposition between religion and the scientific world view has been underlined by attempts to eliminate the conflict between science and religion and reconcile them by freeing religion of archaic elements, mythology, and naïve anthropomorphism.
The factors that undermine religion coexist with the factors that nourish and support it. The rise of state-monopoly capitalism is accompanied by an intensification of social contradictions, exploitation, and the oppression and devastation of the individual. The inverted world, of which religion is the spiritual offspring, is exemplified by state-monopoly capitalism. The achievements of science and technology do not automatically lead to the extinction of religion, the existence of which is rooted in social relations. In capitalist society the scientific and technological revolution is accompanied by a series of negative social consequences, which religious ideologies blame on science and the rational intellect. The crisis of capitalism, which is foundering in contradictions, is interpreted as the crisis of man, who has forgotten god. The proposed solution for the crisis is not politics but religion.
To modernize religion, or adapt it to a changing world, there have been attempts to interpret religion, in conformity with a “theology of revolution,” as a spiritual force that stimulates social activism. However, this approach does not radically change the social character of religion. Belief in god remains the concomitant of lack of belief in human powers, extinguishing social protest by providing illusory consolation. The longer capitalism outlives its historical role, the more the ruling classes rely on religious justifications for capitalism’s existence. In the epoch of imperialism, all means of bourgeois propaganda are used to inculcate religion in the people, since religion is considered one of the principal means for counteracting the spread of a scientific materialist world view and communist ideology.
Profoundly scientific and materialist, the Marxist-Leninist world view is opposed to religion as an expression of illusory, inverted consciousness. Communism, which has revealed scientifically sound prospects for the establishment of social justice and which has transformed socialism from a utopia into a science and into social reality, is the opposite of religion. Communism is genuine humanism, which does not recognize the humanism of consoling lies or self-deceptions. “To abolish religion as the illusory happiness of the people is to demand their real happiness” (K. Marx, ibid, vol. 1, p. 415).
The emergence of socialism was accompanied by the development of a social system fundamentally different from the “heartless world” and “soulless order” for which religion is an illusory compensation. The feeling of religious community and a tie with god serves as illusory compensation for the weakness of social ties among people, an inherent characteristic of antagonistic socioeconomic formations that is eliminated by socialist transformations.
As long as religion survives in socialist society, believers have the constitutionally guaranteed opportunity freely to participate in religious worship. The church is separate from the state, which does not interfere in the relationship of citizens to religion and religious beliefs. Thus, the state abides by the slogan of freedom of consciousness, which has been defended by Marxism-Leninism at all stages of its history. At the same time, socialist society is characterized by efforts to create the preconditions for liberating the consciousness of citizens from religious views. Scientific atheistic propaganda is conducted. The broad masses of the people were not attracted to freethinking and atheism in the historically limited forms in which they were manifested in antagonistic social formations. In a socialist society, religion confronts the opposition of mass atheism.
Marxist atheism goes beyond the limitations of the Enlightenment critique of religion, which failed to overcome idealist illusions that to change the world it was sufficient to change human consciousness. Warning against “playing up to” religion, V. I. Lenin also opposed any escapades in the “political war on religion.” In his opinion, “subordinating the struggle against religion to the struggle for socialism” was essential (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 17, pp. 417, 425).
The preconditions for a regular, lawlike evolution toward a society free from religion are established by the creation of the material and technical basis for communism, the constant improvement of socialist social relations, and the rising level of culture of the working masses. Historical experience confirms Marx’ idea that “religion will disappear to the extent that socialism develops. Its disappearance must take place as a result of social development, in which a major role belongs to education” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Ob ateizme, religii i tserkvi, Moscow, 1971, p. 470).
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