A Brief History of Religion


Religion is a complex and varied phenomenon. It involves devotion to someone or something sacred and a code of moral behavior. It often deals with what might be called the supernatural, about forces and powers beyond human control. It sometimes provides a sense of community and connection to tradition. It may even encourage healthy behaviors. In addition, it may be a source of comfort and guidance, of hope and optimism.

With the Renaissance and the discovery of other cultures, there grew a greater awareness of the richness and variety of human customs and beliefs. This prepared the way for more modern developments. It was around this time that the British folklorist Sir James Frazer began to develop a theory of religion, based on a comparative study of mythology and other data. His major work, The Golden Bough, argued that early humans must have begun with magic and then progressed to religion as they learned that some supernatural beings have to be propitiated.

Other social scientists followed suit with theories of religion. Sociological functionalists, like Emile Durkheim (see Durkheim, Emile), viewed religion as any system of beliefs and practices that bring people together in a moral community, and provide them with meaning and purpose in life. Others, influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche (see Nietzsche, Friedrich), viewed religion as an expression of a particular worldview or ethos. This approach to religion was further developed by Clifford Geertz (see Geertz, Clifford).