Religion is a complex phenomenon, and a thorough understanding of it requires study across disciplines. Studies of religion may range from a cross-sectional approach, looking at the various dimensions of a religious tradition (psychology, sociology, anthropology, and literary studies) to a more theoretical one, studying religion in its historical context.
The Study of Religion in the Past
In the early part of the nineteenth century, a number of scholars sought to define religion and to explain its genesis and function. For example, Edward Burnett Tylor (1871) proposed a minimal definition that would exclude many of the beliefs of primitive peoples; such beliefs were considered to be spiritualism and a discredit to the life sciences.
Several social scientists in the 19th century tried to use psychology and sociology to analyze religion. Durkheim, Weber, and Marx all believed that religion was an integral part of society and that it shaped its members’ behaviour and helped them to form cohesive bonds with others in the group.
Psychologists, for instance, view the experiences and feelings that accompany religious beliefs; sociologists and anthropologists study the institutions of a particular religious tradition and their relationship to beliefs and values. Other researchers focus on the myths and symbols that express such experiences.
The Origin of Religion
Among the early theories that tried to explain the origin of religion was James Frazer’s work in the 19th century, which suggested that human beings began with magic and progressed from magic to religion. In his major work The Golden Bough, Frazer attributed the belief in supernatural beings that required propitiation as the first phase of religious development.
This idea was echoed by Freud, who gave it the title Totem and Taboo. His conception of primordial society was based on small groups, each dominated by a father. He postulated that the father was displaced by a son, probably violently, and the son became the leader of the group, leading to a truce in which incest taboos were formed.
The Defining of Religion in the 19th Century
The social scientists in the 19th century were motivated to examine religion because of the great changes that had taken place in Europe and because they recognized that religion was a powerful force for cohesion in a society. For Durkheim, religion was a force for social cohesion that could help bind people together; for Weber, it was a force for social control that controlled people’s behaviour; and for Marx, it was an ideological force that maintained and mystified the inequalities of the society in which it lived.
Some of these studies have been criticized for ignoring the complexities of religion in their attempt to define it. Those criticisms are largely based on the fact that it is not always a fixed or universal feature of all cultures.
In the later part of the 19th century, other social scientists began to develop more sophisticated concepts and methods for analyzing religion. For example, Durkheim, Weber, and Marx were the founders of modern sociology.