7 Major Theories of the Origin of Religion


7 Major Theories of the Origin of Religion

Religion is a phenomenon that resides wherever people are found. We have noted that it is difficult to have a precise definition for religion. But religion is found both in great metropolitan capitals as well as in rural villages. It manifests in western and traditional societies.

In most human communities around the world, there are temples, shrines, churches, mosques, pyramids, monuments, etc.

Most of these express human religion in a great intensity. Even in most industrialiser cities, some natural phenomena have been reconstructed to tourist centres, and indeed old burial sites and caves point to the religious nature of some particular people who once lived in some particular communities.

Images and symbols of community significance are erected, reflecting religious founders and leaders which are now treated with utmost reverence and sacredness. However, we need to inquire into the evolution of religion.

The very basic question into our evolutionary inquiry is: “where do religions come from?” The question may be further put in the following ways:

(a) What is the source of religion? How did religion evolve? How did religion begin? Who began religion?

(b) What is the earliest form in which religion began? That is, when or what time did religion begin?

(c) What is responsible for the religious nature of humans?

Our answers to these questions will be given by examining different theories that have been offered by different minds on the origins of religion.

Basically, we shall discuss such theories along the categories of anthropology, sociology, psychology and revelation.

It is hoped that at the end of this article, you should be able to mention the different theories of the origin of religion, explain the different theories and critically assess each theory as it explains the origin of religion.


7 Major Theories of the Origin of Religions

We can classify the theories of the origin of religion into different categories.

The categories focus on two concepts in understanding religion: experience and expression.

The two concepts are valuable in understanding from which source scholars developed their theories of the origin of religion.

Religion operates within these two dimensions. Religious experience can be explained as those moments of great realization, awakening, and emotional power attributed to direct encounter with the divine or transcendent reality.

It is intense in character and in some cases it is personal; an encounter which transforms the person or a group into a new being or group. Religious experience is used as the basis for determining the truth in religion. It gives shapes and forms to religious expressions.

Religious expression could be expressed in three forms: the theoretical, the practical and the sociological. The theoretical is the expression of religion in words and ideas, as in religious doctrines, philosophies, myths and lore. The practical is the expression of religion in practices such as in worship, rite, prayer, meditation, pilgrimage, and costume.

The sociological is the expression of religion in groups, institutions, social relations, as between spiritual leader and follower; and relation of the religion to the larger social order.

The theories can be classified broadly:

(1) Historical theories of religion l

(2) Revelatory theories of religion

(3) Anthropological theories of religion

(4) Sociological theories of religion

(5) Psychological theories of religion

(6) Monotheistic theories of religion

(7) Philosophical theories of religion


1. Historical Theories of religion


Charles Darwin’s theory is fundamental in evolutionary theory. He postulated that everything in the world has its origin in rudimentary beginning. To him, there is the process of evolution through which all things in the world pass in order to arrive at the present form. 

This could be applied to religion as religion is like any other phenomenon, developing from a very lowly, not quite well structured beginning.

The development will be affected by changing historical conditions. Darwin’s theory is in direct contest with creationism, a theory that expresses the view that the universe and all things in it were created directly by God. 

One effect of Darwin’s evolutionary theory is that it stimulates researchers to examine and study the history of the ‘indigenous’ peoples of the world. It is believed that it is in indigenous societies that the past religious life of the people could be uncovered.

A reflection on Darwin’s evolutionary theory is necessary. The theory provides us with information that all things in the world including religion have beginnings. 

However, although Darwin’s theory seems to show a rationalistic approach to explaining religion, his theory has often been criticized as not capable of revealing the fact that human beings could have revelatory encounter with a divine being.

It also does not explain that human beings have the capacity of creating some symbols and rituals around which a society may construct their reality as we encounter in the cases of the sociologists and psychologists.

The theory fails to account for the progression of the various religious traditions; it also does not explain the development of monotheism which is fundamental to such religious traditions as Islam and Christianity.


Euhemerism is a theory that was attributed to Euhemerism. He argued that the concept of gods developed out of elaborate legends concerned originally with historical people.

To him, gods are nothing but mortals who were raised to the rank of gods because of their merits. He came about this generalization during his voyages on the island of Panchaia which he visited. He saw a golden pillar bearing a golden engraving.

From there, he read about the biography of Zeus, who was the king of the island at a time. This king travelled throughout the world and established the worship of gods everywhere. Zeus built a temple for himself and was adored by a cult as Zeus Triphylios.

Euhemerism seemed to have shared in the skepticism of his contemporaries such as Hecataeus who also held the view that the gods of Egypt were just deified benefactors of humankind.

According to him, it would be idle to seek for the origin of religion elsewhere than in the deification of benefactors and heroes after their death. Such heroes gained recognition and they were accorded divine statuses as divine beings even before their death.

It is important to note that Euhemerism fails to really deal with the origin of religion. In most world religious traditions, there are distinctions between deified beings and gods or spirits.

The theory does not explain the structural development of polytheism and monotheism neither does it provide explanation for the experiential knowledge which people of religious traditions claim to have.


2. Revelatory Theories of religion

Revelation is a religious concept and has a strong theological connotation. Revelation means self-disclosure of the divine. That is, God revealing himself to human beings.

Revelatory theory, therefore, implies divine communication of the sacred to human being. We shall examine three scholars who are noted for their contributions in the area of revelatory theories. These are Rudolf Otto, Mircea Eliade and Emil Brunner.

Rudolf Otto

Rudolf Otto was a philosophical theologian and professor of systematic theology at the University of Marburg. His work synthesised the philosophical, phenomenological and theological concerns in explaining the experience of human beings with the divine. His popular book The Idea of the Holy explains his revelatory theory. He describes the divine as the numinous or numen praesens (divine presence).

In his book, The Idea of the Holy, he explained that human being encounters the numinous with fear and trembling. He describes this encounter with the Latin expression mysterium tremendum et fascinans, that is, a mystery that is terrifying and at the same time fascinating. The two-sided effect of this encounter could be explained thus.

First, when human being encounters the numinous, he or she feels a sense of self-abasement, a sense of inadequacy and a feeling of awesomeness.

Second, human beings are attracted and magnetized by the numinous. They wish and try to escape but they cannot escape; they want the numinous.

Otto’s theory can be explained using the Old Testament biblical story of Moses who encountered the divine in the wilderness. It was in the wilderness where he saw a bush that was burning, but did not burn. It was a mystery to him, an exciting one, but at the same time frightening.

At the site, he heard a voice that told him to remove his shoes because where he was approaching was a holy ground. Another notable example was the experience of Isaiah the prophet. He saw God with his glory in a temple. The sight of God was so imposing that he gave such a wonderful description of God’s majesty.

 This wonder was at the same time frightening as he saw himself incapable of beholding the Lord. This made him to proclaim woe on himself.

The divine had to do some spiritual operation on him when an angel took a coal of fire from the altar of God and used it to touch the lips of Isaiah. It was a perfect purification for Isaiah.

This theory is highly revealing of the essence of religion as manifested in human being’s experiential capacity of the divine. It also shows the intrinsic qualities of the experience of the sacred.

However, it fails to provide explanations to the real origin of religion as illustrations given explain a transition from a religious state to a more deeply religious state.

Secondly, Otto turns the divine into a fearful and unapproachable Supreme Being who you have to go to though some intermediaries.

Mircea Eliade

Mircea Eliade is famous for his attempt to discern elemental, timeless, patterns of religious life. He took a comparative approach which combines history and phenomenology to present a model of the human as homo religiosus.

To him, human beings are usually motivated by the way the divine manifested itself in nature. Drawing his materials from archaic cultures, Eliade discovered that traditional humanity finds meaning and value of its existence in basic archetypes.

According to Eliade, the world of human beings presents the supernatural valence. That is, the world reveals a modality of the sacred. As human beings encounter the sacred or the divine in his or her own world, the divine shows itself to be of different standing from natural realities.

This attitude creates in human beings to differentiate between the sacred and the profane, the divine and the material. This manifestation of the sacred is called hierophant.

In his book The Sacred and the Profane, he noted certain basic phenomenon through which the sacred and the profane like space, time and nature are differentiated.

Read on: Religious Studies as an Academic Discipline

3. Anthropological Theories of religion

In its broad sense, anthropologists engage in the study of human culture. They look at aspects of the culture and how human beings interact with them over time.

Animism and E.B. Tylor

Animism is derived from the Latin word, anima, which means “breath” or “soul”. Technically in religion, it means belief in spiritual beings. As a philosophical theory, animism, usually called panpsychism, is the doctrine that all objects in the world have an inner or psychological being.

The 18th-century German doctor and chemist Georg Ernst Stahl coined the word animism to describe his theory that the soul is the vital principle responsible for organic development.

Since the late 19th century, however, the term has been mainly associated with anthropology and the British anthropologist Sir Edward Burnett Tylor, who described the origin of religion and primitive beliefs in terms of animism.

In Primitive Culture (1871) Tylor defined animism as the general belief in spiritual beings and considered it “a minimum definition of religion”. He asserted that all religions, from the simplest to the most complex, involve some form of animism.

According to Tylor, primitive peoples, defined as those without written traditions, believe that spirits or souls are the cause of life in human beings; they picture souls as phantoms, resembling vapours or shadows, which can transmigrate from person to person, from the dead to the living, and from and into plants, animals, and lifeless objects.

In deriving his theory, Tylor assumed that an animistic philosophy developed in an attempt to explain the causes of sleep, dreams, trances, and death; the difference between a living body and a dead one; and the nature of the images that one sees in dreams and trances.

Tylor's theories were criticized by the British anthropologist Robert R. Marett, who claimed that primitives could not have been so intellectual and that religion must have had a more emotional, intuitional origin. He rejected Tylor's theory that all objects were regarded as being alive.

Marett opined that primitive peoples must have recognized some lifeless objects and probably regarded only those objects that had unusual qualities or that behaved in some seemingly unpredictable or mysterious way as being alive. He held, moreover, that the ancient concept of vitality was not sophisticated enough to include the notion of a soul or spirit residing in the object.

Primitive peoples treated the objects they considered animate as if these things had life, feeling, and a will of their own, but did not make a distinction between the body of an object and a soul that could enter or leave it.

Marett called this view “animatism” or “preanimism”, and he claimed that animism had to arise out of animatism, which may even continue to exist alongside more highly developed animistic beliefs.

Totemism and Emile Durkheim

Totemism can be defined as a complex system of ideas, symbols, and practices based on an assumed relationship between an individual or a social group and a natural object known as a totem.

The totem may be a particular species of bird, animal, or plant; or it may be a natural phenomenon or feature of the landscape with which a group believes itself linked in some way. The term totem is derived from the language of the Ojibwa, a Native North American people.

The totemic relationship is widespread and has been observed in, for example, Malaysia, Africa, and Guinea. It is especially strong among some Native Americans and the Australian Aborigines. In these societies, the totem is often regarded as a companion and helper with supernatural powers, and, as such, is respected and occasionally venerated.

The individuals of a totemic group see themselves as partially identified with or assimilated to the totem, which may be referred to by special names or symbols. Descent may be traced to an original totemic ancestor, which becomes the symbol of the group. With the exception of some totemic rituals, killing, eating, or touching the totem is prohibited.

Individual shamans have been known to cultivate a personal friendship with a particular totemic animal or plant. The basis of totemism seems to lie in the world-view of some societies that assume a specific relationship between human beings and the powers of nature, a relationship that serves as the foundation for a classificatory scheme. Totemism may thus be interpreted as a conceptual device for sorting out social groups by means of natural emblems.

Furthermore, some scholars point out that when different social groups within the same society draw their names and identities from plants or animals, these totems serve as symbolic devices showing that society, although divided into many groups, still remains a whole.

Totems identify and symbolize a group that shares common interests— particularly an interest in the protection of kin members—in societies that have no other agency or mechanism for performing this function.

Recently, some anthropologists have argued that Australian totemism, because of its taboos against killing and eating one's totem, has acted as a device for conservation, helping people adapt to their natural environment. Totemism would, in this interpretation, have an ecological significance and would thus have played an important role in the development and survival of those societies in which it flourished.

Emile Durhkeim’s teachings on totemism can be seen in his work, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. In this book, he used examples from totemic religions among Australian and American Aborigines to show how the most fundamental “collective representations” (concepts, symbols, and beliefs) reflect past and present social organization.

Certain “sacred” collective representations, such as the totem, serve the function of giving members of society a common identity and excite allegiance.

Magic and G.J. Frazer

Magic, in the concept of religion is the art of influencing the course of events or gaining knowledge by supernatural means. Magic is linked to alchemy, occultism, spiritualism, superstition, and witchcraft. 

The term is derived from the ancient Persian magi, whose priestly occupations included dealing with the occult. The ancient Greeks and Romans also practised magic.

According to anthropologists, magical beliefs and practices exist in all cultures. In western cultures, we can see these beliefs in practices such as fortune-telling, communication with the dead, astrology, and belief in lucky numbers and charms.

Magic in simple societies utilizes nearly all knowledge, including scientific and medical knowledge and practices. The modern sciences trace their origins from practices and beliefs that were originally magical.

Thus, medieval alchemy led to the development of modern chemistry and physics, and astrology led to modern astronomy. 

Magic is divided into two main categories: white (or good) magic and black (or evil) magic. White magic is used to heal and to counteract the effects of black magic; the latter is invoked to kill or to injure, or for selfish gain.

During the Middle Ages, black magic consisted of witchcraft, sorcery, and the invocation of demons; white magic consisted of the tolerated forms, such as astrology, hypnosis, and herbalism. Magical practices may be grouped under four headings.

The first, called sympathetic magic, is based on symbolism and wish fulfillment. Desired effects are accomplished by imitation or by making use of associated objects.

Thus, it is thought, one may injure enemies by sticking pins into images of them, by mentioning their names in a spell, or by burning hair or nail parings from their bodies. 

Similarly, the strength, fleetness, or skill of an animal may be acquired by eating its flesh or by using tools made from its skin, horns, or bones.

A second major magical practice is divination, the acquisition of secret knowledge by sortilege (casting lots), augury (interpreting omens or portents), astrology (interpreting the positions and conjunctions of the stars and planets), and tongues (inspired utterances by people in a state of trance, by oracular priests, or by mediums).

The third form of magic is thaumaturgy, or wonder- working, which includes alchemy, witchcraft, and sorcery. The fourth form of magic is incantation, or the chanting of spells, verses, or formulas that contain the names of supernatural beings or of people who are to be helped or injured.

Magic rituals are generally a combination of these forms. Frazer's work covered a wide area of anthropological research, but he was especially interested in the study of myth and religion. He is best known for his book The Golden Bough (1890), a study of ancient cults, rites, and myths, and their parallels with early Christianity.

This book, which established Frazer's reputation as a distinguished scholar, was expanded to 13 volumes in 1915.

4. Sociological Theories of Religion

The ideas of three early sociological theorists continue to strongly influence the sociology of religion: Durkheim, Weber, and Marx.

Even though none of these three men was particularly religious, the power that religion holds over people and societies interested them all. They believed that religion is essentially an illusion; because culture and location influence religion to such a degree, the idea that religion presents a fundamental truth of existence seemed rather improbable to them. They also speculated that, in time, the appeal and influence of religion on the modern mind would lessen.

Durkheim and functionalism

Emile Durkheim, the founder of functionalism, spent much of his academic career studying religions, especially those of small societies. The totetism, or primitive kinship system of Australian aborigines as an “elementary” form of religion, primarily interested him.

This research formed the basis of Durkheim's 1921 book, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, which is certainly the bestknown study on the sociology of religion. Durkheim viewed religion within the context of the entire society and acknowledged its place in influencing the thinking and behavior of the members of society.

Durkheim found that people tend to separate religious symbols, objects, and rituals, which are sacred, from the daily symbols, objects, and routines of existence referred to as the profane. Sacred objects are often believed to have divine properties that separate them from profane objects.

Even in moreadvanced cultures, people still view sacred objects with a sense of reverence and awe, even if they do not believe that the objects have some special power.

Durkheim also argued that religion never concerns only belief, but also encompasses regular rituals and ceremonies on the part of a group of believers, who then develop and strengthen a sense of group solidarity.

Rituals are necessary to bind together the members of a religious group, and they allow individuals to escape from the mundane aspects of daily life into higher realms of experience. Sacred rituals and ceremonies are especially important for marking occasions such as births, marriages, times of crisis, and deaths.

Durkheim's theory of religion exemplifies how functionalists examine sociological phenomena. According to Durkheim, people see religion as contributing to the health and continuation of society in general.

Thus, religion functions to bind society's members by prompting them to affirm their common values and beliefs on a regular basis.

Durkheim predicted that religion's influence would decrease as society modernizes. He believed that scientific thinking would likely replace religious thinking, with people giving only minimal attention to rituals and ceremonies. He also considered the concept of “God” to be on the verge of extinction.

Instead, he envisioned society as promoting civil religion, in which, for example, civic celebrations, parades, and patriotism take the place of church services. If traditional religion were to continue, however, he believed it would do so only as a means to preserve social cohesion and order.

Weber and social change
Durkheim claimed that his theory applied to religion in general, yet he based his conclusions on a limited set of examples.

Max Weber, on the other hand, initiated a largescale study of religions around the globe. His principal interest was in large, global religions with millions of believers. He conducted indepth studies of Ancient Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism. In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904/1958), Weber examined the impact of Christianity on Western thinking and culture.

The fundamental purpose of Weber's research was to discover religion's impact on social change. For example, in Protestantism, especially the “Protestant Work Ethic,” Weber saw the roots of capitalism.

In the Eastern religions, Weber saw barriers to capitalism. For example, Hinduism stresses attaining higher levels of spirituality by escaping from the toils of the mundane physical world. Such a perspective does not easily lend itself to making and spending money.

To Weber, Christianity was a salvation religion that claims people can be “saved” when they convert to certain beliefs and moral codes.

In Christianity, the idea of “sin” and its atonement by God's grace plays a fundamental role. Unlike the Eastern religions' passive approach, salvation religions like Christianity are active, demanding continuous struggles against sin and the negative aspects of society.


5. Psychological theories of religion

Sigmund Freud is most famous for his psychoanalytic school of thought, but he also took a keen interest in religion. As an adult, Freud considered him an atheist, but his Jewish background and upbringing and background played an important role in the development of his ideas. He even wrote several books focused on the topic of religion.

Learn more about Freud's complicated relationship with religion as well as some of his thoughts on religion and spirituality.

Early Religious Influences

Sigmund Freud was born to Jewish parents in the heavily Roman Catholic town of Freiburg, Moravia. Throughout his life, Freud endeavored to understand religion and spirituality and wrote several books devoted to the subject, including "Totem and Taboo" (1913), "The Future of an Illusion" (1927), "Civilization and Its Discontents" (1930), and "Moses and Monotheism" (1939).

Religion, Freud believed, was an expression of underlying psychological neuroses and distress.2 At various points in his writings, he suggested that religion was an attempt to control the Oedipal complex (as opposed to the Electra complex), a means of giving structure to social groups, wish fulfillment, an infantile delusion, and an attempt to control the outside world.

Jewish Heritage

While he was very upfront about his atheism and believed that religion was something to overcome, he was aware of the powerful influence of religion on identity. He acknowledged that his Jewish heritage, as well as the antisemitism he frequently encountered, had shaped his own personality.

"My language is German. My culture, my attainments are German. I considered myself German intellectually until I noticed the growth of anti-Semitic prejudice in Germany and German Austria. Since that time, I prefer to call myself a Jew," he wrote in 1925.

Religion According to Freud

So how did Freud feel about religion? In some of his best-known writings, he suggested that it was an "illusion," a form of neurosis, and even an attempt to gain control over the external world.

Among some of Freud's most famous quotes on religion, in his book "New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis" (1933), he suggested that "religion is an illusion and it derives its strength from its readiness to fit in with our instinctual wishful impulses."

In the book "New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis," he suggested that "Religion is an attempt to master the sensory world in which we are situated by means of the wishful world which we have developed within us as a result of biological and psychological necessities. [...] If we attempt to assign the place of religion in the evolution of mankind, it appears not as a permanent acquisition but as a counterpart to the neurosis which individual civilized men have to go through in their passage from childhood to maturity."

Psychoanalytic View

Freud's psychoanalytic perspective viewed religion as the unconscious mind's need for wish fulfillment. Because people need to feel secure and absolve themselves of their own guilt, Freud believed that they choose to believe in God, who represents a powerful father-figure.

Also read: Common Characteristics/ Features of Religious Traditions

6. Monotheistic theories of religion

Monotheism, belief in the existence of one god, or in the oneness of God. As such, it is distinguished from polytheism, the belief in the existence of many gods, from atheism, the belief that there is no god, and from agnosticism, the belief that the existence or nonexistence of a god or of gods is unknown or unknowable.

Monotheism characterizes the traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and elements of the belief are discernible in numerous other religions.

Monotheism and polytheism are often thought of in rather simple terms—e.g., as merely a numerical contrast between the one and the many.

The history of religions, however, indicates many phenomena and concepts that should warn against oversimplification in this matter.

There is no valid reason to assume, for example, that monotheism is a later development in the history of religions than polytheism. There exists no historical material to prove that one system of belief is older than the other, although many scholars hold that monotheism is a higher form of religion and therefore must be a later development, assuming that what is higher came later. Moreover, it is not the oneness but the uniqueness of God that counts in monotheism; one god is not affirmed as the logical opposite of many gods but as an expression of divine might and power.

The choice of either monotheism or polytheism, however, leads to problems, because neither can give a satisfactory answer to all questions that may reasonably be put.

The weakness of polytheism is especially revealed in the realm of questions about the ultimate origin of things, whereas monotheism runs into difficulties in trying to answer the question concerning the origin of evil in a universe under the government of one god.

There remains always an antithesis between the multiplicity of forms of the divine manifestations and the unity that can be thought or posited behind them.

The one and the many form no static contradistinction; there is, rather, a polarity and a dialectic tension between them.

The history of religions shows various efforts to combine unity and multiplicity in the conception of the divine. Because Judaism and Christianity are monotheistic religions, the monotheistic conception of the divine has assumed for Western culture the value of a self-evident axiom.

This unquestioned assumption becomes clear when it is realized that for Western culture there is no longer an acceptable choice between monotheism and polytheism but only a choice between monotheism, atheism, and agnosticism.

The basic monotheistic view

The God of monotheism is the one real god that is believed to exist or, in any case, that is acknowledged as such. God’s essence and character are believed to be unique and fundamentally different from all other beings that can be considered more or less comparable—e.g., the gods of other religions.

The religious term monotheism is not synonymous with the philosophical term monism. The latter refers to the view that the universe has its origin in one basic principle (e.g., mind, matter) and that its structure is one unitary whole in accordance with this principle—that is, that there is only a single kind of reality. For monotheism there are two basically different realities: God and the universe.

God in monotheism is conceived of as the creator of the world and of humanity. God has created not only the natural world and the order existing therein but also the ethical order to which humanity ought to conform and, implicit in the ethical order, the social order.

Everything is in the hands of God. God is holy—supreme and unique in being and worth, essentially other than humanity—and can be experienced as a mysterium tremendum (“a fearful mystery”) but at the same time as a mysterium fascinans (“a fascinating mystery”), as a mystery approached by human beings with attitudes of both repulsion and attraction, of both fear and love.

The God of monotheism, as exemplified by the great monotheistic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—is a personal god.

In this respect, the one god of monotheism is contrasted with the conception in some nonmonotheistic religions of an impersonal divinity or divine unity that permeates the whole world, including humanity itself.

For example, the Upanishads, part of the Vedic literature of Hinduism, can proclaim tat tvam asi, literally “you are that,” where “that” refers to the single, supreme reality or principle.

In monotheistic religions the belief system, the value system, and the action system are all three determined in a significant way by the conception of God as one unique and personal being. Negatively considered, the monotheistic conviction results in the rejection of all other belief systems as false religions, and this rejection partly explains the exceptionally aggressive or intolerant stance of the monotheistic religions in the history of the world.

The conception of all other religions as “idolatry” (i.e., as rendering absolute devotion or trust to what is less than divine) has often served to justify the destructive and fanatical action of the religion that is considered to be the only true one.

The symbolic language of the monotheistic belief system has no proper terms of its own in speaking of God that cannot be found elsewhere also. God as Creator, Lord, King, Father, and other descriptive names are expressions found in many religions to characterize the various divine beings; the names do not belong exclusively to the religious language of monotheism.

This common language is understandable because the monotheistic conception of God differs essentially only in one respect from that of other religions: in the belief that God is one and absolutely unique. Consequently, God is regarded as the one and only Creator, Lord, King, or Father.

The conception of a divine Word is also to be found in a large number of religions, in accordance with the widespread belief that creation takes place through the word, or speech, of a god.


7. Philosophical theories of religion

Philosophical theories of religion grow out of the inheritance of the Enlightenment. In certain philosophers this inheritance shows itself in a commitment to the following combination of ideas: the unity of science, skepticism about the rationality of religious belief and the reality of the sacred. 

Philosophy of religion is the philosophical examination of the themes and concepts involved in religious traditions as well as the broader philosophical task of reflecting on matters of religious significance including the nature of religion itself, alternative concepts of God or ultimate reality, and the religious significance of general features of the cosmos (e.g., the laws of nature, the emergence of consciousness) and of historical events (e.g., the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake, the Holocaust).

Philosophy of religion also includes the investigation and assessment of worldviews (such as secular naturalism) that are alternatives to religious worldviews.

Philosophy of religion involves all the main areas of philosophy: metaphysics, epistemology, value theory (including moral theory and applied ethics), and philosophy of language, science, history, politics, art, and so on.

Ideally, a guide to the nature and history of philosophy of religion would begin with an analysis or definition of religion. Unfortunately, there is no current consensus on a precise identification of the necessary and sufficient conditions of what counts as a religion.

We therefore currently lack a decisive criterion that would enable clear rulings whether some movements should count as religions (e.g., Scientology or Cargo cults of the Pacific islands). But while consensus in precise details is elusive, the following general depiction of what counts as a religion may be helpful:

A religion involves a communal, transmittable body of teachings and prescribed practices about an ultimate, sacred reality or state of being that calls for reverence or awe, a body which guides its practitioners into what it describes as a saving, illuminating or emancipatory relationship to this reality through a personally transformative life of prayer, ritualized meditation, and/or moral practices like repentance and personal regeneration.

This definition does not involve some obvious shortcomings such as only counting a tradition as religious if it involves belief in God or gods, as some recognized religions such as Buddhism (in its main forms) does not involve a belief in God or gods.

Although controversial, the definition provides some reason for thinking Scientology and the Cargo cults are proto-religious insofar as these movements do not have a robust communal, transmittable body of teachings and meet the other conditions for being a religion. 

(So, while both examples are not decisively ruled out as religions, it is perhaps understandable that in Germany, Scientology is labeled a “sect”, whereas in France it is classified as “a cult”.)

Religion and Science”. But rather than devoting more space to definitions at the outset, a pragmatic policy will be adopted: for the purpose of this entry, it will be assumed that those traditions that are widely recognized today as religions are, indeed, religions.

It will be assumed, then, that religions include (at least) Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and those traditions that are like them. This way of delimiting a domain is sometimes described as employing a definition by examples (an ostensive definition) or making an appeal to a family resemblance between things.

It will also be assumed that Greco-Roman views of gods, rituals, the afterlife, the soul, are broadly “religious” or “religiously significant”. Given the pragmatic, open-ended use of the term “religion” the hope is to avoid beginning our inquiry with a procrustean bed.

Given the above, broad perspective of what counts as religion, the roots of what we call philosophy of religion stretch back to the earliest forms of philosophy.

From the outset, philosophers in Asia, the Near and Middle East, North Africa, and Europe reflected on the gods or God, duties to the divine, the origin and nature of the cosmos, an afterlife, the nature of happiness and obligations, whether there are sacred duties to family or rulers, and so on.

As with each of what would come to be considered sub-fields of philosophy today (like philosophy of science, philosophy of art), philosophers in the Ancient world addressed religiously significant themes (just as they took up reflections on what we call science and art) in the course of their overall practice of philosophy.

While from time to time in the Medieval era, some Jewish, Christian, and Islamic philosophers sought to demarcate philosophy from theology or religion, the evident role of philosophy of religion as a distinct field of philosophy does not seem apparent until the mid-twentieth century.

A case can be made, however, that there is some hint of the emergence of philosophy of religion in the seventeenth century philosophical movement Cambridge Platonism.

Ralph Cudworth (1617–1688), Henry More (1614–1687), and other members of this movement were the first philosophers to practice philosophy in English; they introduced in English many of the terms that are frequently employed in philosophy of religion today, including the term “philosophy of religion”, as well as “theism”, “consciousness”,and “materialism”.

The Cambridge Platonists provided the first English versions of the cosmological, ontological, and teleological arguments, reflections on the relationship of faith and reason, and the case for tolerating different religions.

While the Cambridge Platonists might have been the first explicit philosophers of religion, for the most part, their contemporaries and successors addressed religion as part of their overall work. There is reason, therefore, to believe that philosophy of religion only gradually emerged as a distinct sub-field of philosophy in the mid-twentieth century

Today, philosophy of religion is one of the most vibrant areas of philosophy. Articles in philosophy of religion appear in virtually all the main philosophical journals, while some journals (such as the International Journal for Philosophy of ReligionReligious StudiesSophiaFaith and Philosophy, and others) are dedicated especially to philosophy of religion. Philosophy of religion is in evidence at institutional meetings of philosophers (such as the meetings of the American Philosophical Association and of the Royal Society of Philosophy).

There are societies dedicated to the field such as the Society for Philosophy of Religion (USA) and the British Society for Philosophy of Religion and the field is supported by multiple centers such as the Center for Philosophy of Religion at the University of Notre Dame, the Rutgers Center for Philosophy of Religion, the Centre for the Philosophy of Religion at Glasgow University, The John Hick Centre for Philosophy of Religion at the University of Birmingham, and other sites (such as the University of Roehampton and Nottingham University).

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