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November 29, 2000
What is religion? “That’s easy,” I thought. Then I could not come up with an answer. For the answer I turn to my Webster’s Random House New Collegiate Dictionary only to find:
“religion (ri lij’en), n. 1. A set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature and purpose of the universe, esp. when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usu. involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code for conduct of human affairs. 2. A specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects: the Christian religion. 3. The body of persons adhering to a particular set of beliefs and practices: a world council of religions. 4. The life or state of a monk, nun, etc: to enter a religion. 5. The practice of religious beliefs: ritual observance of faith. 6. Something a person believes in and follows devotedly. 7. Archaic. Strict faithfulness: devotion.”
Simply stated religion is a set of beliefs, morals, or observances. Sociologists have studied religion and its effects on people. Sociologists hope to gain a better understanding of the need for religion in communities and singular lives. The functionalist perspective, the symbolic interationist perspective, and the conflict perspective can be applied to religion. Religion can be Christianity, Catholicism, Islam, Buddhism, Wiccan, or Greek mythology to name a few.
Emile Durkeim studied a great deal on religion. He wrote a book that identified the components of a religion. This task seems impossible in a religiously divers society. All religions separate the sacred from the profane or secular. This distinction was outlined by Durkeim in, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. He also noted that people generally congregate and form a community to practice their religion. Religion is composed of a belief structure (totem), sacred practice (ceremony), and a moral community (church). Durkeim concluded his book with these words: “A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden-beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.”
The basic function of religion is answering questions people ask to feel personal security. People generally want to know what life is and why we want to live it. People either form their own answers or turn to religion. Those who believe the same congregate and agree on guidelines and rituals of their religion. Religion also allows people to adapt to new situations and instills patriotism. Religious Dysfunction is also important. Religion has caused horrible pains and sufferings. Bloody WARS and crusades have been carried out in God’s name. Religion mixes with politics and causes countries to fight other countries and even declare civil war. In the past religion has justified religious persecution, oppression, and brutal acts.
The Symbolic Interactionist perspective looks at the symbols people use. Symbols provide identity and social solidarity. In other words, people know who they are and whom they belong with by using symbols. One such symbol is the Christian fish. The letters of the Greek word “fish” are the first letters in the phrase, “Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” Christians could use this symbol to communicate secretly and avoid persecution. A great deal of knowledge is packed behind a symbol. The rituals and religious experience are also important in this perspective. They create closeness with God and unite on a worldly scale. People attach meaning to objects and events and use representations to communicate one with another.
Karl Marx applied the Conflict Theory of religion. He was an avowed atheist and mocked those who flocked to religion to fill the void in their lives. He believed that religion allowed people to forget their misery and escape the mundane lives they live. Religions such as Hinduism support social inequality. The Egyptian pharaoh is revered as a god and demands hierarchical social structure. Civil wars develop because of different social ideas of utopia. Karl Marx said, ”it [religion] is the opiate of the people.”
Max Weber disagreed with the conflict theory of religion. Weber said ,”Religion held the key to modernization.”
Religion has four types of followings. A religion is a cult, a sect, a church, or an ecclesia. Cults are new religions generally started by one person. He or she shares ideas, gifts, or qualities, which appeal to groups. Sometimes a cult forms out of another religion. New religions grow in size and become a sect. The members of a sect become a little more respectable in society. A church differs from a sect in that a church has written prayers, formal sermons, and usually new members are the offspring of old members. An ecclesia is a merger between church and government. They work together to shape society. All citizens have membership in an ecclesia. Today the uses of an ecclesia are formal such as baptism, marriages, and funerals.
In the United States, there are many types of religion. Some religions adapt to worldly ideas and offer a God who has no contact with his followers. These types of religions have consistently lost members while religions that rely on fundamentals of religion gain members. Member gain and loss cause churches to compete and recruit people through media, missions, televangilism, and the Internet. On the Internet, there is a wealth of knowledge on religion. In fact, the Vatican has three computers online. They are called Raphael, Michael, and Gabriel. At all times of the day and night these computers collect, organize, and store enormous amounts of data.
Religion remains a major part of society. Religion answers the questions that plague people the most. People have a desire within to believe in something. Religion is way we explain that desire.
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