Religion Midterm essay

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Sir Edward Burnett Tylor defines religion as “the belief in Spiritual Beings” (Tylor 1871: 383), which appears mainly “among low races of Mankind.” (Tylor 1871: 377).

It was a long way that led to forming the religion in the modern shape. Before there existed only some primitive magic, which was later gradually substituted by religion. In Tylor’s opinion, “it cannot be positively asserted that every existing tribe recognizes the belief in spiritual beings”, but every early form of future religion had its rites and customs, which helped primitive people to find explanations to unknown facts and realities they saw in their everyday life. People worshiped to the Sun and Moon, invented myths and gods and believed they could protect them in need, to feel safer.

Tylor explored the theory of Animism, which is divided “into two great dogmas, forming parts of the consistent doctrine; first concerning souls of individual creatures, capable of continued existence after the death or destruction of the body; second, concerning other spirits, upward to the rank of powerful deities.” (Tylor 1871: 385).  Primitive people believed that every material object has soul. Some religions suggest that soul finds revival after death in the other bodies. This point of view is especially related to Buddhism and some other religions, to which the old human experience and beliefs are transferred through a number of centuries.

The prominent place in Tylor’s researches belongs to the studying of spiritual beings’ activities. For instance, he states “spiritual beings are held to affect or control the events of the material world, and man’s life here and hereafter; and it being considered that they hold intercourse with men, and receive pleasure or displeasure from human actions, the belief in their existence leads naturally…to active reverence and propitiation.” (Tylor 1871: 385). Indeed, even nowadays some people believe that their life is totally under control of some spiritual beings, or so called destiny, which take an active part in their life events, help or punish them. Religious views from our ancestors are transferred to the new generation.

Another researcher, Sir James George Frazer, suggested that human beliefs had passed a way from early primitive magic to religion, which was replaced by science.

Frazer belived that primitive tribes took care much of their friends’ soul. The researcher draw the vivid example, related to Abchases people who have a special rite of drawn people’s souls recovering. Caucasians still believe that a soul of a drawn man will wonder in the river until a special rite is done. In order to provide it, men and women come to the both banks of the river, where the accident had happened. They hold a silk ribbon, stretching it from one bank to another, and hang an opened leather bag in the middle of it. People believe that the soul would be caught into this bag, so they sing ritual songs. After a man close the bag, and after it is opened near the grave to let the soul unite with the dead body. (Frazer 1933: 29). This ancient belief of soul recovering proves that people hoped that a dead human will not disturb them anymore and sleep peacefully in their eternal dream. Frazer tells about the fear of death and dead, which was common among primitive people, and still actual is.

Unlike Tyler and Frazer, who believed that mainly religion comes naturally, Karl Marx thought that it is closely related to the social circumstances people often face with. In his work, “Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right”, Marx stated that often religion is the “sigh of the oppressed creature in a hostile world, the heart of a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions” (Marx 2009), so its understanding lies behind realizing social conditions of the people. Additionally, Marx’s line “religion is the opium of the people” became very famous, especially in the former Soviet Union, expressing the principles of the communist counter religion ideology. 

Similar to Karl Marx’s views on the nature of religion, Sigmund Freud in his work “The Future of an Illusion” states that “Religion is a system of wishful illusions together with a disavowal of reality, such as we find nowhere else but in a state of blissful hallucinatory confusion. Religion's eleventh commandment is "Thou shalt not question.” In Freud’s opinion, people just want follow illusions, instead of realizing the facts. Religious people, according to him, are similar to children, whom their parents say that new-borns are brought by large birds. Birds are just symbols that live in imagination of people from one generation to another, but children do not really understand the meaning of these symbols. Like this, the nature of religion is enigmatic as well, as all the religious doctrines are not clear, difficult to understand and in most case are hard to believe, due to their symbolic nature.

Durkheim believes that religion and its sentimental and emotional experience arose from early froms of communal leaving. Our ancestors regarded all the material objects that surrounded them as a revealing of supernatural strong power. "A religion," states Durkheim, "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 a single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them." (Durkheim 1915). The researcher develops her point view in a way of describing modern world civil rights, which are now defended like religious views were defended in the past centuries.

Geertz  finds more complex definition to religion: “A religion is a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing those conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.” (Geertz 1993). So, the researcher adds some anthropological aspects to the nature of religion. Similar to Freud, he makes sense of understanding religion as a set of symbols, illusions, which people use for creating the positive emotional aura and avoiding negative influences of civilization.

Almost all of the researchers, mentioned above, agree, that religion played more important role in the past than nowadays. Primitive people regarded it a set of symbols, intended to protect their inner world from negative emotions, grief, sorrow, unhappiness, illness. Like North America’s Indians believed in good and bad spirits who can harm or cure souls and bodies, people on the other continents regarded religion as a solution to all problems and surviving in cruel world. The attitude to religion among of the researches are rather positive than negative. Only pair Marx-Freud is regarded religion as something that should be renovated, if not excluded from human experience. The other pairs treat it as a matter of fact, which developed for numerous centuries and in the minds of some people can hardly be changed. People all across the world believe in spiritual beings, ghosts, one or many gods, - these views can hardly be changed in a minute.

Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx develop the negative attitude to religion as it forms illusory world. They think that religious views can be well substituted by science, which, in their opinion, is more relevant for modern circumstances. Undoubtedly, some researches support this point of view.

The other pairs under analysis try to provide deeper researches in the field. Tylor and Frazer follow the thought that primitive people in their trying to understand their inner and outer world, believed that religion will save them from disasters. By worshiping multiple gods, believing in revival souls in material and immaterial beings, they tried their best to please the forces of nature. Our ancestors, like Druids, believed that nature has a power of four elements – water, fire, air, earth. These elements were worshiped to, as people believed that they can punish them, if they do something wrong. The power of nature was idolized in many nations, who in the past were polytheistic. Polytheism was preceded by some primitive beliefs, mentioned above.

The reason of appearing the religion and primitive beliefs definitely lies in the field of people’s inability to explain the natural events. Primitive people wondered, why they born and die, why they can not live forever, why sun shines and wind blows. They were really like small children who always ask primitive questions about simple things. That is why Sigmund Freud compared the evolution of human beings to the process of education: primitive people knew definitely less than modern people, for the science developed a lot until the present moment. So, Freud thought that modern people can get rid of the bonds of primitive religion. In our opinion, it is hardly possible, as every one of us bears these bonds to be strongly tight to our souls. Still the science can not explain a lot of facts, at least answer the questions “How was the Universe created?”, “What lies behind the end of Universe globe?”, “Is there some expeience people face with after death?”. Some of the scientists try to answer all these questions, but all in vain.

There is even one more question – “Is there a destiny, is there God who rules the Universe?” Some people believe that there is a powerful God who sets destiny for every one of us. It’s like in a movie “Serendipity”, - everything is fixed and none can change it, everything is predetermined before people who are meant to be together are born. If so, why live, why try? This way of thinking and believing in coincidences, which are predetermined, are typical for those who want everything to be explained instantly and in the same way, but do not want to explore the things that lie much deeper.

I agree with Freud, when he says that religion should be more understandable for common people who lead their life simply. But I also think that the majority of contemporary people just do not think of religion much when they feel good and are fully satisfied with their life. If something goes wrong, they try to find answers, why it happens, so they turn to religion as a rich field of inadequate symbols, which can hardly be explained in usual way. That is why all of people are much confused when they first come to religious groups and churches. Still they are popular in the West not only for their services, but for doing volunteer activities, helping people in need. It is the main point of religion, which are applicable and quintessential for all the religions across the globe. By helping others, people’s souls renovate, they feel better by comparing their state of things to the life of the other people, who may even be more helpless, more desperate, feeling worse.

Buddhism’s teachers know very well, how bad things and states influence on people in a way to happiness. According to Buddha, suffering, dissatisfaction, anxiety are defined by the term “dukkka”. Buddhism proposes the so called Four Noble Truth, related to dukkha. They describe the noble truth, origin, cessation and the way leading to it. According to Buddha, birth, aging, illness, death, sorrow, lamentation, grief, despair are all dukkha. As we see, even a birth is dukkha. In many religions the date of birth is the date of sorrow, as people are born to suffering and possibly after death they will live better than on the Earth.

There are a lot of religions all over the world, especially nowadays. And there are various interpretations of them by numerous researchers, who try to explain their nature and role in societies. It is not possible to describe all the interpretations in one essay, as different researchers have views and approaches of their own. I hope that this essay will become the background for the further studies in this field. Religion is a subject, which gives much opportunities to understand one’s inner and outer world better, to help in investigating the process that are typical for various cultures and societies.

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