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Is religion transactional or is it inherent remains a hotly debated question

Religion demystified: Did Societies Create Religions in Their Own Image, or is There Something More to it?

English evolutionist and cultural anthropologist, Edward Tylor in his book “primitive culture” argued that religion emerges out of the intellectual curiosity of primitive man. That primitive man was faced with a certain conundrum and existential puzzle for which they needed to find an answer.

For instance, they were stuck by the phenomenon of death and they needed to understand what happens, when death occurs. They discover that the body was theirs but the person no longer acted the way it used to. They needed to explain this but they did not have modern ‘biological science’ to help them out.

Primitive man saw dream too. The world they observe in the dream, as they woke up, they found that the dream world had disappeared. But they didn’t have a Freud to tell them it was all the ‘subconscious’ mind at play. The primitive man lived in caves and in the caves, they too heard the echoes of their voices. But they did not have the knowledge of ‘acoustics’ to tell them what an echo is. When they said a word, the cave seemed to be talking back to them.

They would also go to the pond to drink water, they see their own images but they have not studied ‘optics’ in physics to account for the phenomena of reflection. Hence, how did they answer all these conundrums?

Tylor says that the primitive man hit upon a brilliant idea of “spirits”. They believe that life exists at two levels, a body and spirit, and the two are separable. Sometimes the spirit can leave the body. This explains death. Hence, by inventing the concept of “spirits” or “soul”, primitive men were able to account for so many questions.

Such as, when they saw their acquaintance in a dream, who are not physically present in the same place, they said that their spirits had visited them. Likewise, when they see reflection in the water, they say, this is our spirit. Thus, Tylor believes, by inventing the idea of ‘spirits’, primitive man was able to explain so many puzzles. That was when they started worshipping spirits.

The Latin word for spirit is “anima” and therefore Tylor says “animism” is the first religion. Hence, Tylor said religion is the belief in spiritual beings.

However, French sociologist Emili Durkheim criticised Tylor theory on various accounts. Durkheim begins first by criticising the definition itself. He says religion is not only belief, it also involves practices. The belief and practices are mutually connected. The nature of practices depends on belief. And it is through practices that the beliefs are concretized.

Secondly, he said that if “spirit” or “soul” worship was the source of religion, then all simple societies should have had so-called ‘ancestor worship’. Because when people worship ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’, it is obvious that they may first likely worship people whom they love, their ancestors. Hence Durkheim says if spirit worship was to be the origin of religion, ‘ancestor worship’ should have been universal. But in reality, ancestor worship was found only in India and to a lesser extent in China.

For instance, in India, there is something called ‘Pitru Paksha’ where various rituals are performed to pay homage to the deceased ancestor. Rituals like ‘tarpan’ and ‘shraddha’ are carried out to pay respect to deceased ancestors.

Durkheim’s more fundamental critique of Taylor’s theory is that, according to Taylor, the idea of ‘spirit’ is a human invention and it does not have reality on its own. People just presumed that there is spirit. As the idea of ‘spirit’ helps in explaining so many questions. This according to Durkheim means, the source of religion is only ‘human imagination’ or ‘human invention’.  Hence, religion is purely an illusion and nothing is real.

German Indologist Max Muller, after having studied Indian culture, was greatly impressed by  the development of ideas in India in the ancient time when Europe and other societies were extremely primitive.

Max Muller found that in the “Rig Veda” the Aryan worship forces of “nature”. Impressed by this, he went on to say that the earliest religion was the worship of the forces of nature. Max Muller said, people started worshiping nature when the available technology were very simple. They had no way of controlling nature and feel completely helpless before nature. Hence, out of fear, “nature” was transfigured into “supernature” and associated with the idea of God and came to be worshipped.

Like Aryans in India, worships thunder. Or lord Indra, as they call it. In India, when it rains, it rains torrentially and it floods everywhere. And if it doesn’t rain, there is drought and people starve. Hence, people are totally dependent on rain. And there is lot of fear about rain. And they thought, there was a supernatural agency which caused rain. Similarly they worshipped other forces of nature such as fire, wind etc. Hence in the beginning, religion started with the worship of “nature” and this worship was rooted in the “fear” of nature.

Durkheim criticised this theory also by stating that such an explanation reduces religion to a mere hallucination. That is, we are imagining there is a God out of fear. But fear is something which cannot persist forever. Religion according to Durkheim is a permanent phenomena. All societies have some form of religion or other and religion is a very powerful force in people’s lives. People turn to religion to find meaning in life and people live and die for their religion. And religion is something real as it produces real consequences. If religion is real then its sources must also be real. And it cannot be rooted in illusion or hallucination.

Many scholars including British evolutionist Herbert Spencer said religion is the worship of “supernatural power”. However, Durkheim also criticised the idea of the supernatural. Durkheim pointed out that this idea of ‘nature’ versus ‘supernature’, is purely a European idea. It developed only in European thinking. People all over the world don’t see this dichotomy as certain things, they call it ‘nature’ and certain things as ‘supernature’. Durkheim argued, how can we draw such a line that separates ‘nature’ from ‘supernatural’. And in any case if we say that religion is about supernature, then we cannot understand religion scientifically because science can only study nature.

Furthermore, Durkheim pointed out that religion does not deal with supernatural things. He said that religion is concerned with day-to-day life and the problems of real life in society. Religion is about changes of season, religion is associated with diseases and the cure of epidemic and religion is associated with the growth of vegetation, growth of harvest, religion is about prosperity in day-to-day life. Durkheim says there is nothing supernatural about these things. And religion is also not about God because there are many religions which are atheist. Jainism, Buddhism and Confucianism are godless religions. Hence, the idea of God is not a universal phenomenon and only some religion believe in God. So, none of these definitions correctly define religion.

Durkheim maintained that given the nature of religious phenomena, the sources of religion have to be “real”, “permanent” and “transcendental” which symbolises superior forces. With this, Durkheim explores the basis of religion.

Durkheim says, given the dual nature of life experiences, all of our social lives have a duality. We have always made a distinction between good and bad, living and death, life supporting and life negating, healthy and unhealthy etc. This dichotomy is fundamental to our social life. And because of this dichotomous nature of this life experience, in our mind we develop a dichotomous thought category. These dichotomous thought categories consist of “sacred” versus “profane”.

Everywhere human life has a duality, hence every society has this dichotomy. He said, the essence of religion lies in this division of the world around us, into two categories: “sacred” and “profane”.

Sacred is what is set apart and forbidden. That is, it is separated from other things which are profane. And it is treated with “awe” and “reverence” and it is protected from profane because profane is supposed to defile the sacred. Like they say, people should approach the sacred in a particular way. For instance, people are supposed to take bath before entering the temple or remove their shoes. Hence, sacred has to be protected from profane things. And sacred demands an attitude of ‘awe’ and ‘reverence’.

In other words, the sacred enjoy special prestige and special treatment, that is, religious treatment carried out through ritual. But the nature of this special treatment may vary from society to society. And sacred must be separated from profane because profane destroys or defiles the sacred. It is the belief about the sacred which tells us what treatment or behaviour has to be adopted towards the sacred.

Durkheim further says that sacredness is “superimposed”. In reality, nothing is sacred. Sacredness is not an empirical characteristic and we cannot observe and verify and say that something is sacred. The idea of sacredness is ‘imposed’ upon ‘things’ by society.

For instance, the water of Ganges is considered sacred by Hindus but it is not because of any chemical characteristics of the water. They may also realise that the Ganges is highly polluted these days. There are so many sewage discharges in the Ganges but still during the Kumbh mela, crores of people converge on the banks of Ganges to take the holy dip. Hence, sacredness is only a matter of belief. Something is sacred because we believe it is sacred.

Muslims regard pigs as highly profane but certain tribes in Polynesia considered pigs as sacred. They regard pigs with great reverence and respect. Pig is also associated with many religious ritual amongst the Hawaiians and even represented by a god called Kamapua’a. It is not because their breed of pig is better than other breeds of pig elsewhere. It is simply a matter of belief.

During the Iranian revolution, a religious priest, Ayatollah Khomeini, led the revolution. When he died, his body was wrapped in a white burial shroud. And when his body was carried for a burial, a lot of people pounced on the body and tried to tear apart a piece of that shroud to carry them as relics or memento, considering it to be very sacred clothes. But that cloth was not made up of any special material but just because it was wrapped around the body of Ayatollah, people believe that it was sacred. Had it not been used as a shroud for Ayatollah’s body, it would have remained a mere piece of cloth.

Thus, sacredness is a quality super imposed by society only. Hence, whatever people believe as sacred, is sacred. There is nothing empirical about it and things don’t become sacred by themselves.

Sacred is also non utilitarian. We don’t consider something as sacred just because it is beneficial. But these days people try to add a utilitarian dimension to what is sacred. But Durkheim doesn’t think it is true. Hindus do not worship cows because of the medicinal qualities of its urine as some claimed. But we find people claiming that cow urine can cure certain diseases.

There is also a lot of ambiguity which surrounds the sacred. People don’t question the sacred rationally. For instance, when people die prematurely, some say that those whom God loves die young. They also say, when an old man dies, it is by the grace of God that he has achieved the lotus feet of the lord at the ripe age of 90 years. With the former logic, the old person must be hated by gods but it turns out that whether we die young or old, it is the grace of god. Hence, there is a lot of ambiguity and it is not logically sound.

The sacred is supposed to have a superior power. Sacred doesn’t have superior power but it is believed by people to have superior power. And furthermore, it is believed that sacredness makes ethical demands on the people. And when people fulfil this demand, this sacred reciprocates.

Profane is the opposite of sacred. According to Durkheim, this dichotomy is the essence of religion because he says religion is about the sacred. With this he starts to build his definition of religion. A definition which he thinks is “positivistic” or “scientific” definition of religion.

Durkheim says that “religion is a unified set of beliefs and practices related to sacred things, that is to say, things which are set apart and forbidden”.

But in this definition, he finds that even “magic” has a similar character to religion. There are sacred things in magic also. To find the difference between “magic” and “religion”, he looked at “totem” worship amongst the Australian tribe. Durkheim found that “magic” is individualistic, utilitarian and it is potentially harmful for society. Unlike magic, religion is collectivistic and non-utilitarian. For instance, in the worship of the totem, the entire clan assembled together and participated in the worship. Religion also does not address purely practical goals as they have the idea of salvation etc.

Durkheim gained knowledge about the “totem” worship which was common among the tribe of Australia particularly one tribe called “Arunta’s”. These tribes practice totem worship.  He believed that totem worship was the simplest religion because totem worship was found in a society which had the simplest social structure.

Very simple tribal society believed in the existence of “mythical ancestors” but these ancestors are not the real ancestors. It can be “animate” or “inanimate” objects. People trace their descent from a tree, bird, animal, human figure and sometimes even inanimate figures. These tribes had a reverential attitude towards that object which they claim their descent.

For instance, in India, most of the royal lineage claim their descent from “sun” (Suryavansh) or “moon” (Chandravansh) respectively. Or a brahmin traces their descent from certain sages and no one knows for sure whether those sages really existed.


Even in Manipur, there seems to be many within the Meitei’s who believe the mythical serpentine dragon god “Pakhangba” gave birth to seven clans. Hence this is a case of a mythical ancestor. Such a group that results on the basis of common mythical ancestors in India is called “gotra”. Otherwise in sociology and social anthropology, it is called clan. Members of these clans believe that they have descended from common ancestors.

The Arunta’s tribes were purely based on kinship ties. Durkheim used the term single segmental structure for the social structure of this tribe. The social structure being the simplest, Durkheim said the religious practices in that social structure would also be simplest and the earliest religion. Hence, totemism represents religion in its pristine forms and by observing totemism therefore we can understand the essence of religion. It is like saying that by looking at the new born child or baby infant, we can understand the true nature of man.

Durkheim believed that the essence of religion is the same whether it is the simple religion or modern complex religion. In others words, major religion like Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, they have a same essence as a simple religion like totemism.

Therefore, Durkheim justified the study of a simple religion because he believed that the true nature of religion is camouflaged by the complexities that are introduced by religious specialists like priests and prophets.

Totem worship does not have religious specialists. It has neither a ceremonialist like a priest nor a prophet. So the true nature of religion or the essence of religion would be most evident if we look at the simplest religion. That is how Durkheim justified his choice of a simple religion to understand the nature of religion.

Durkheim, on the basis of studying the ethnographic account, found that people who worship the totem often carry the same name and they always considered themselves as one. Though they were not blood relatives, they recognized obligations towards each other on the level of blood relatives like reciprocal aid in times of crisis, vengeance, mourning etc. because they think they are all one. This worship of the totem created a sense of unity among the clan members.

Then totemic belief also involves a system of prohibition and taboo. It also makes a prescription on what ought to be done. And members of the society ensure that people follow this prescription and proscription. In this way Durkheim found that totemism acts as an agency of “social control”.

Totem worship also acts as a causal force. If there was an epidemic and any disaster struck society, they believed that this is because their ancestor is angry because they violated a taboo. So, the totem was also seen as causal forces. It was a religious force. And Durkheim says this force is real and has real consequences.

For instance, sometimes we find strict vegans mistakenly served with non-vegetables Momo’s in hotels or restaurants. After they realised it was non-vegetables stuff, they felt very sick even to the point of vomiting. So, it produces real effects. Hence, if that person is vegan because of religion, then religion has real forces and consequences.

After having observed totem worship in this way, Durkheim goes back to complete his definition. He continued, “this belief and practices, unite people into a moral community called church” (not the cathedral but the community).

In this way, Durkheim demonstrates the function of religions: that religion is an agency of “social control” and “solidarity”.

Durkheim further developed on it. He says, sacred is nothing but a “symbolization” of “society”. In other words, religion is not only a social creation but is in fact a society’s divinized. Durkheim stated that the deities which men worship together are only a projection of the power of society. And religion is essentially a transcendental representation of the power of society. The attitudes of reverence and respects which are expressed, through religious belief and rituals, towards the sacred objects are in fact an indirect expression of reverence for the society.

It is society only, which creates and defines something as ‘sacred’ and ‘profane’. And when we worship sacred, we are indirectly worshipping society only. In other words, Man does not worship anything but only his or her society. Hence, the source of religion is society and religion is real so is its source, is also real.

Participation in religious worship builds respect for society’s values and norms, hence acting as an agency of social control. In fact, there were empirical studies in which many of them supported the claim of Emili Durkheim that sacred symbolised society.

Society is permanent, man cannot live without society. Society is transcendent, it is superior to man and man should live by subordinating himself to society by following the norms of societies which are given respect by religion. Religion provides sanctity to the norms of society. Worship of sacred builds respects for norms and values of society. Hence, sacred is nothing but society personified. And the religious forces that we experience are actually the moral forces of society.

To put it another way, Christianity believes that God created man in his own image. But Durkheim was saying, society created god, of course, in its own image.

With this, Durkheim also resolved the moral dilemma of the modern man. In his study of “division of labour” and elsewhere also, he admitted that with industrialization, religion is likely to decline. It will not be able to perform its role as an agency of social control and solidarity. In that case, it does not mean that society will collapse or crumble. After all, religion is nothing but an indirect way of demonstrating man’s dependence on society. All that religion tells us is, we cannot live without society. That we must follow the norms of society because we are fundamentally dependent on society and society is superior to us.

Durkheim said that if religious belief declines the same task can be performed by “secular ideology”. Hence, in modern industrial society, “secular ideology” can perform the same role. For instance, nationalism is the substitute for religion which will perform the same role that religion did earlier. In nationalism, we treat the national community as sacred. We worship its symbols like flags etc. It will be the basis of solidarity and social control. And this would be the more direct way to express man’s dependency on society.

Durkheim theory has been criticised at the same time, but one that I believe is particularly relevant to third world societies comes from American sociologist Robert K Merton.

Durkheim believed that the essence of religion is the same whether it is a simple primitive society or advanced modern society. But this had been questioned by Merton. Because in modern society there are multiple religions. And Merton pointed out that in a plural society, religion is a divisive force also. Religion not only unites but it also divides. At the intra religious level it may create unity but at the intra societal level it creates disunity.

Afterall it was because of religion India got partition and now it exists as three countries. Similarly, communal riots occur from time to time among people who belong to different religions.

Durkheim studied a society with a single religion that is totem worship. Therefore he went on to conclude that religion is always the source of solidarity which is wrong.

Even European history is full of crusades and war among people based on their religion. Even Christian fought among themselves based on their sects. Protestants were persecuted by Catholics.  Hence, what Durkheim said about religion in a simple society is not true in modern industrial society.

Merton in this regard pointed out, to identify the existence of such dysfunctional elements and to look for functional alternatives. For instance, nationalism is a secular ideology which binds  all people together irrespective of their religion. When a dysfunctional item is replaced by a functional alternative, it leads to change in society. Merton says if we acknowledge this, we can account for change in society.

Hence,  if certain political or religious ideology inhibit the very idea of unity and create a socio-pathological conditions that induces malicious spasms, the option is to explore other alternatives but Merton’s stated that the new alternative should not produce the identical consequence like the former item but should see that it produces more positive function with less dysfunctional consequence.


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