Why Does Religion Exist?

Religion is a pervasive and significant cultural phenomenon, so people who study culture and human nature have sought to explain the nature of religion, the nature of religious beliefs, and the reasons why religions exist in the first place. There have been as many theories as theorists, it seems, and while none fully captures what religion is, all offer important insights on the nature of religion and possible reasons why religion has persisted through human history.

Tylor and Frazer - Religion is Systematized Animism and Magic

E.B. Tylor and James Frazer are two of the earliest researchers to develop theories of the nature of religion. They defined religion as essentially being the belief in spiritual beings, making it systematized animism. The reason religion exists is to help people make sense of events which would otherwise be incomprehensible by relying on unseen, hidden forces. This inadequately addresses the social aspect of religion, though, depicting religion and animism are purely intellectual moves.

Sigmund Freud - Religion Is Mass Neurosis

According to Sigmund Freud, religion is a mass neurosis and exists as a response to deep emotional conflicts and weaknesses. A by-product of psychological distress, Freud argued that it should be possible to eliminate the illusions of religion by alleviating that distress. This approach is laudable for getting us to recognize that there can be hidden psychological motives behind religion and religious beliefs, but his arguments from analogy are weak and too often his position is circular.

Emile Durkheim - Religion Is a Means of Social Organization

Emile Durkheim is responsible for the development of sociology and wrote that “...religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden.” His focus was the importance of the concept of the “sacred” and its relevance to the welfare of the community.

Religious beliefs are symbolic expressions of social realities without which religious beliefs have no meaning. Durkheim reveals how religion serves in social functions.

Karl Marx - Religion Is the Opiate of the Masses

According to Karl Marx, religion is a social institution which is dependent upon material and economic realities in a given society. With no independent history, it is a creature of productive forces. Marx wrote: “The religious world is but the reflex of the real world.” Marx argued that religion is an illusion whose chief purpose is to provide reasons and excuses to keep society functioning just as it is. Religion takes our highest ideals and aspirations and alienates us from them.

Mircea Eliade - Religion Is a Focus on the Sacred

The key to Mircea Eliade’s understanding of religion is two concepts: the sacred and the profane. Eliade says religion is primarily about belief in the supernatural, which for him lies at the heart of the sacred. He does not try to explain away religion and rejects all reductionist efforts. Eliade only focuses on “timeless forms” of ideas which he says keep recurring in religions all over the world, but in doing so he ignores their specific historical contexts or dismisses them as irrelevant.

Stewart Elliot Guthrie - Religion Is Anthropomorphization Gone Awry

Stewart Guthrie argues that religion is “systematic anthropomorphism” — the attribution of human characteristics to nonhuman things or events. We interpret ambiguous information as whatever matters most to survival, which means seeing living beings. If we are in the woods and see a dark shape that might be a bear or a rock, it is smart to “see” a bear. If we are mistaken, we lose little; if we are right, we survive. This conceptual strategy leads to “seeing” spirits and gods at work around us.

E.E. Evans-Pritchard - Religion and Emotions

Rejecting most anthropological, psychological, and sociological explanations of religion, E.E. Evans-Pritchard sought a comprehensive explanation of religion that took both its intellectual and social aspects into account.

He didn’t reach any final answers, but did argue that religion should be regarded as a vital aspect of society, as its “construct of the heart.” Beyond that, it may not be possible to explain religion in general, just to explain and understand particular religions.

Clifford Geertz - Religion as Culture and Meaning

An anthropologist who describes culture as a system of symbols and actions which convey meaning, Clifford Geertz treats religion as a vital component of cultural meanings. He argues that religion carries symbols which establish especially powerful moods or feelings, help explain human existence by giving it an ultimate meaning, and purport to connect us to a reality that is “more real” than what we see every day. The religious sphere thus has a special status above and beyond regular life.

Explaining, Defining, and Understanding Religion

Here, then, are some of the principle means of explaining why religion exists: as an explanation for what we don’t understand; as a psychological reaction to our lives and surroundings; as an expression of social needs; as a tool of the status quo to keep some people in power and others out; as a focus upon supernatural and “sacred” aspects of our lives; and as an evolutionary strategy for survival.

Which of these is the “right” explanation? Maybe we shouldn’t try to argue that any one of them is “right” and instead recognize that religion is a complex human institution. Why assume that religion is any less complex and even contradictory than culture in general? Because religion has such complex origins and motivations, all of the above could serve as a valid response to the question “Why does religion exist?” None, however, can serve as an exhaustive and complete answer to that question.

We should eschew simplistic explanations of religion, religious beliefs, and religious impulses. They are unlikely to be adequate even in very individual and specific circumstances and they are certainly inadequate when addressing religion generally.

Simplistic as these purported explanations may be, though, they all offer helpful insights which can bring us a little closer to understanding what religion is all about.

Does it matter whether we can explain and understand religion, even if only a little bit? Given the importance of religion to people’s lives and culture, the answer to this should be obvious. If religion is inexplicable, then significant aspects of human behavior, belief, and motivation are also inexplicable. We need to at least try to address religion and religious belief in order to get a better handle on who we are as human beings.