Theories of religion can be split up into substantive theories (focusing on what religion is) and functional or reductionist theories (focusing on what it does). Influential substantive theories have been proposed by Tylor and Frazer (focusing on the explanatory value of religion for its adherents), by the theologian Rudolf Otto (focusing on the importance of religious experience, more specifically experiences that are both fascinating and terrifying), Mircea Eliade (focusing on the longing for otherworldly perfection, the quest for meaning, and the search for patterns in mythology in various religions).
Influential functional theories have been proposed by Karl Marx (focusing on the economic background), Sigmund Freud (focusing on neurosis as a psychological origin of religious beliefs), and Émile Durkheim (focusing on the social function of religions).
In contrast to earlier theorists, the anthropologists E. E. Evans-Pritchard and Clifford Geertz performed detailed ethnographical studies of "primitive" cultures, and came to the conclusion that earlier theories had been one-sided at best. Geertz denied that it would ever be possible to propose a general theory of religion.
The rational choice theory has been applied to religions, among others by the sociologists Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge. They asserted that religion is able to function as a compensator for unobtained rewards.
Theorizing beyond mere speculation became possible after data from tribes and peoples all over the world became available in Europe and the United States in the 18th and 19th century. The founder of the scientific study of religion is generally considered to be Max Müller (1823 – 1900), who advocated comparative religion. Later serious doubts were raised, among others by Geertz about the question whether it is possible to provide a general theory of all religions.
Theories of religion can be classified into.
Other dichotomies on which theories or descriptions of religions can be classified are.
The social philosopher Karl Marx (1818 – 1883) held a strictly materialist world view and saw economics, including class distinctions, as the determining factor of society. He saw the human mind and human consciousness as part of matter. According to Marx, the dynamics of society was fueled by economics, according to Hegelian concept of theses, antitheses, and synthese False consciousness is a term used by Marx' collaborator Friedrich Engels (1820 – 1895), not by Marx. He saw religion originating from alienation and aiding the persistence of alienation. He saw religion as supportive as the status quo, in correspondence with his famous saying that religion is opium of the people. This view is however contradicted by the existence of certain religious groups, like the liberation theology. Marx saw religion as a source of happiness, though illusory and temporary, or at least a source of comfort. Marx saw religion not as a necessary part of human culture.
Marxist views strongly influenced thinking about society, among others the anthropological school of cultural materialism.
Marx' explanations for all religions, always, in all forms, and everywhere have never been taken seriously by many experts in the field, though a substantial fraction accept that Marx' views explain some aspects of some religions.
James George Frazer (1854 – 1941) followed Tylor's theories to a great extent in his book The Golden Bough, but he distinguished between magic and religion. Magic is used to influence the natural world in the primitive man's struggle for survival. He asserted that magic relied on an uncritical belief of primitive people in contact and imitation. For example, precipitation may be invoked by the primitive man by sprinkling water on the ground. He asserted that according to them magic worked through laws. In contrast religion is faith that the natural world is ruled by one of more deities with personal characteristics with whom can be pleaded, not by laws.
The method that Tylor and Frazer used was seeking similar beliefs and practices in all societies, especially the more primitive ones, more or less regardless of time and place. They relied heavily on reports made by missionaries, discoverers, and colonial civil servants.
Their theory has been criticized as one-sided for focusing on mere intellectual aspects of religions, while neglecting social aspects of religion, among others by the anthropologist E. E. Evans-Pritchard. Tylor's anthropological method has been criticized as out-of-context comparisons of practices in different cultures and times. Tylor's and Frazer's view on the origin of religion has been classified as unverifiable speculation. The view that monotheism is a more evolved than polytheism has been disconfirmed by evidence: monotheism is more prevalent in hunter societies than in agricultural societies. The view that societies' views and practices grow more evolved over time in an uniform way has been criticized as unverifiable and contradicted by data from anthropological studies, among others by the writer Andrew Lang (1844 – 1912) and E. E. Evans-Pritchard. The individualist, intellectual view of religion, as proposed by Tylor and Frazer, is still considered worthwhile by many contemporary experts of the field, among others by the anthropologist Robin Horton.
Different from most other scholars, Émile Durkheim (1858 – 1917) saw the concept of the sacred as the defining characteristic of religion, not faith in the supernatural. He saw religion as a reflection of the concern for society. He based his view on recent research regarding totemism among the Australian aboriginals. With totemism he meant that each of the many clans had a different object, plant, or animal that they held sacred and that symbolizes the clan. Durkheim saw totemism as the original and simplest form of religion.According to Durkheim, the analysis of this simple form of religion could provide the building blocks for more complex religions. He asserted that moralism cannot be separated from religion. The sacred i.e. religion reinforces group interest that clash very often with individual interests. Durkheim held the view that the function of religion is group cohesion often performed by collectively attended rituals. He asserted that these group meeting provided a special kind of energy, which he called effervescence, that made group members lose their individuality and to feel united with the gods and thus with the group. Differing from Tylor and Frazer, he saw magic not as religious, but as an individual instrument to achieve something.
Durkheim's proposed method for progress and refinement is first to carefully study religion in its simplest form in one contemporary society and then the same in another society and compare the religions then and only between societies that are the same. The empirical basis for Durkheim's view has been severely criticized when more detailed studies of the Australian aboriginals surfaced. More specifically, the definition of religion as dealing with the sacred only, regardless of the supernatural and is not supported by studies of these aboriginals. The view that religion has a social aspect, at the very least, introduced in a generalized very strong form by Durkheim has become influential and uncontested.
Durkheim's approach gave rise to functionalist school in sociology and anthropology Functionalism is a sociological paradigm that originally attempted to explain social institutions as collective means to fill individual biological needs, focusing on the ways in which social institutions fill social needs, especially social stability.
The anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski (1884-1942) was strongly influenced by the functionalist school and argued that religion originated from coping with death. He saw science as practical knowledge that every society needs abundantly to survive and magic as related to this practical knowledge, but generally dealing with phenomena that humans cannot control.
Max Weber (1864 – 1920) thought that the truth claims of religious movement were irrelevant for the scientific study of the movements. He portrayed each religion as rational and consistent in their respective societies. Weber acknowledged that religion had a strong social component, but diverged from Durkheim by arguing, for example in his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism that religion can be a force of change in society. In the book Weber wrote that modern capitalism spread quickly partially due to the Protestant wordly ascetic morale. Weber's main focus was not on developing a theory of religion but on the interaction between society and religion, while introducing concepts that are still widely used in the sociology of religion. These concept include
Somewhat differing from Marx, Weber dealt with status groups, not with class. In status groups the primary motivation is prestige and social cohesion. Status groups have differing levels of access to power and prestige and indirectly to economic resources. In his 1920 treatment of the religion in China he saw Confucianism as helping a certain status group, i.e. the educated elite to maintain access to prestige and power. He asserted that Confucianism opposition against both extravagance and thrift made it unlikely that capitalism could have originated in China.
He used the concept of "Verstehen" (German for "understanding") to describe his method of interpretation of the intention and context of human action.
Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939) saw religion as an illusion. By illusion Freud means a belief that people want very much to be true. Unlike Tylor and Frazer, Freud attempted to explain why religion persists in spite of the lack of evidence for its tenets. Freud asserted that religion is a largely unconscious neurotic response to repression. By repression Freud meant that civilized society demands that we cannot fulfill all our desires immediately, but that they have to be repressed. Rational arguments to a person holding a religious conviction will not change the neurotic response of a person. This is in contrast to Tylor and Frazer who saw religion as a rational and conscious, though primitive and mistaken, attempt to explain the natural world.
Freud not only tries to explain the origin and persistence of faith in individuals but in his 1913 book Totem and Taboo he even developed a speculative story about how all monotheist religions originated and developed. In the book he asserted that monotheist religions grew out of a homicide in a clan of a father by his sons. This incident was subconsciously remembered in human societies.
Freud's view on religion was embedded in his larger theory of psychoanalysis. Apart from theorizing, Freud's theories were developed by studying patients who were left free to talk while lying on a sofa.
Psychoanalysis has been assessed as non-scientific. Though his attempt to the historical origins of religions have not been accepted, his generalized view that all religions originate from unfulfilled psychological needs are still seen as offering a credible explanation in some cases.
The theologian Rudolf Otto (1869–1937) focused on religious experience, more specifically moments that he called numinous which means "Wholly Other". He described it as mysterium tremendum (terrifying mystery) and mysterium fascinans (awe inspiring, fascinating mystery). He saw religion as emerging from these experiences.
He asserted that these experiences arise from a special, non-rational faculty of the human mind, largely unrelated to other faculties, so religion cannot be reduced to culture or society Some of his views, among others that the experience of the numinous was caused by a transcendental reality, are untestable and hence unscientific.
Eliade's methodology was studying comparative religion of various cultures and societies more or less regardless of other aspects of these societies, often relying on second hand reports. He also used some personal knowledge of other societies and cultures for his theories, among others his knowledge of Hindu folk religion.
He has been criticized for vagueness in defining his key concepts. Like Frazer and Tylor he has also been accused of out-of-context comparisons of religious beliefs of very different societies and cultures. He has also been accused of having a pro-religious bias (Christian and Hindu), though this bias does not seem essential for his theory.
The anthropologist Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard (1902 – 1973) did extensive ethonographic studies among the Azande and Nuer peoples who were considered "primitive" by society and earlier scholars. Evans-Pritchard saw these people as different, but not primitive.
Unlike the previous scholars, Evans-Pritchard did not propose a grand universal theory and he did extensive long-term fieldwork among "primitive" peoples, studying their culture and religion, among other among the Azande. Not just passing contact, like Eliade.
He argued that the religion of the Azande (witchcraft and oracles) can not be understood without the social context and its social function. Witchcraft and oracles played a great role in solving disputes among the Azande. In this respect he agreed with Durkheim, though he acknowledged that Frazer and Tylor were right that their religion also had an intellectual explanatory aspect. The Azande's faith in witchcraft and oracles was quite logical and consistent once some fundamental tenets were accepted. Loss of faith in the fundamental tenets could not be endured because of its social importance and hence they had an elaborate system of explanations (or excuses) against disproving evidence. Besides an alternative system of terms or school of thought did not exist.
He was heavily critical about earlier theorists of primitive religion with the exception of Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, asserting that they made statements about primitive people without having enough inside knowledge to make more than a guess. In spite of his praise of Bruhl's works, Evans-Pritchard disagreed with Bruhl's statement that a member of a "primitive" tribe saying "I am the moon" is prelogical, but that this statement makes perfect sense within their culture if understood metaphorically.
Apart from the Azande, Evans-Pritchard, also studied the neighbouring, but very different Nuer people.The Nuer had had an abstract monotheistic faith, somewhat similar to Christianity and Judaism, though it included lesser spirits. They had also totemism, but this was a minor aspect of their religion and hence a corrective to Durkheim's generalizations should be made. Evans-Pritchard did not propose a theory of religions, but only a theory of the Nuer religion.
The anthropologist Clifford Geertz (1926 – 2006) made several detailed ethnography studies, but in Javanese town, a more complex and multi-religious society than Evans-Pritchard had studied. He avoided the subjective and vague concept of group attitude as used by Ruth Benedict by using the analysis of society as proposed by Talcott Parsons who in turn had adapted it from Max Weber. Parsons' adaptation distinguished all human groups on three levels i.e. 1. an individual level that is controlled by 2. a social system that is in turn controlled by 3. a cultural system. Geertz followed Weber when he wrote that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning.Geertz held the view that mere explanations to describe religions and cultures are not sufficient: interpretations are needed too. He advocated what he called thick descriptions to interpret symbols by observing them in use. Therefore the anthropologist must be both empirically rigorous and a savvy interpreter, akin to a psychoanalyst. In 1972 he wrote that “cultural analysis is (or should be) guessing at meanings, assessing the guesses and drawing explanatory conclusions from the better guesses.”
Geertz saw religion as one of the cultural systems of a society. He defined religion as
Though, he used more or less the same methodology, as Evans-Pritchard, he did not share Evans-Pritchard's hope that a theory of religion could ever be found. Geertz proposed methodology was not the scientific method of the natural science, but the method of historians studying history.
It has been observed that social or political movements that fail to achieve their goals will often transform into religions. As it becomes clear that the goals of the movement will not be achieved by natural means (at least within their lifetimes), members of the movement will look to the supernatural to achieve what cannot be achieved naturally. The new religious beliefs are compensators for the failure to achieve the original goals. Examples of this include the counterculture movement in America: the early counterculture movement was intent on changing society and removing its injustice and boredom; but as members of the movement proved unable to achieve these goals they turned to Eastern and new religions as compensators.
Most religions start out their lives as cults or sects, i.e. groups in high tension with the surrounding society. Over time, they tend to either die out, or become more established, mainstream and in less tension with society. Cults are new groups with a new novel theology, while sects are attempts to return mainstream religions to (what the sect views as) their original purity. Mainstream established groups are called denominations. The comments below about cult formation apply equally well to sect formation.
Some religions are better described by one model than another, though all apply to differing degrees to all religions.
Once a cult or sect has been founded, the next problem for the founder is to convert new members to it. Prime candidates for religious conversion are those with an openness to religion, but who do not belong or fit well in any existing religious group. Those with no religion or no interest in religion are difficult to convert, especially since the cult and sect beliefs are so extreme by the standards of the surrounding society. But those already happy members of a religious group are difficult to convert as well, since they have strong social links to their preexisting religion and are unlikely to want to sever them in order to join a new one. The best candidates for religious conversion are those who are members of or have been associated with religious groups (thereby showing an interest or openness to religion), yet exist on the fringe of these groups, without strong social ties to prevent them from joining a new group.
Potential converts vary in their level of social connection. New religions best spread through pre-existing friendship networks. Converts who are marginal with few friends are easy to convert, but having few friends to convert they cannot add much to the further growth of the organization. Converts with a large social network are harder to convert, since they tend to have more invested in mainstream society; but once converted they yield many new followers through their friendship network.
Cults initially can have quite high growth rates; but as the social networks that initially feed them are exhausted, their growth rate falls quickly. On the other hand, the rate of growth is exponential (ignoring the limited supply of potential converts): the more converts you have, the more missionaries you can have out looking for new converts. But nonetheless it can take a very long time for religions to grow to a large size by natural growth. This often leads to cult leaders giving up after several decades, and withdrawing the cult from the world.
It is difficult for cults and sects to maintain their initial enthusiasm for more than about a generation. As children are born into the cult or sect, members begin to demand a more stable life. When this happens, cults tend to lose or de-emphasise many of their more radical beliefs, and become more open to the surrounding society; they then become denominations.
The theory of religious economy sees different religious organizations competing for followers in a religious economy, much like the way businesses compete for consumers in a commercial economy. Theorists assert that a true religious economy is the result of religious pluralism, giving the population a wider variety of choices in religion. According to the theory, the more religions there are, the more likely the population is to be religious and hereby contradicting the secularization thesis.