The Origins of Religion


Religion is the worldview, set of beliefs, and practices that people share that deal with ultimate concerns such as death and what comes afterward. Religious beliefs are usually considered to be of a supernatural nature. In addition, religious beliefs often have a social dimension, with moral/ethical and economic principles that serve as the foundations for human conduct.

Sociologists and other academics often view religion in terms of how it serves various functions for people. Emile Durkheim, for example, argued that people need something to believe in to help them feel part of a group. In this sense, religion provides them with meaning and identity. Durkheim also emphasized that religion serves as a counterbalance to society’s harsher realities, helping to keep people from getting too depressed or downcast by the hardships they may face in their lives.

Anthropologists and other scientists who study the origins of religion often see it as a response to a biological or cultural need. Some of the earliest theories about the origins of religion suggest that early humans created spirituality because they recognized that they could not control all of the elements of their environment, such as the weather or the success of their hunt. Others suggest that religion was a result of humans’ recognition that they would eventually die and a desire to find ways to avoid death or to go on to a better place after it had occurred.

Psychologists and neuroscientists, who study the human brain and nervous system, also take an approach to understanding the origins of religion. Some of them suggest that religion is a result of an evolutionary process by which certain parts of the brain developed to facilitate spiritual experience. Other scholars argue that the term “religion” is an invented word that evolved to describe a broad spectrum of human beliefs and practices, from those of primitive cultures to modern Christian denominations.

Most scholars today, however, agree that religion is more than just the views and behaviors of individuals. It is a community of believers who share a common vision and a degree of mutual accountability and care. They are unified by their commitment to a belief in an Ultimate Reality that they think impinges on the lives of human beings. This broader definition of religion is sometimes referred to as the fourth C, for community. This addition to Ninian Smart’s classic three-dimensional model of religion adds a crucial component that distinguishes it from all other activities in which human beings engage. It is this community dimension that makes religion different from agnosticism, atheism, and materialism.