Religion, science and ideology

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  • Created by: sia sundu
  • Created on: 31-05-13 15:39

Definitions of religion

Defining religion can be divided into 3 broad categories:

1. Substantive definitions - these attempt to explain what religion actually is.

2. Functional definitions - these define religion in terms of its uses and purposes for individuals and societies.

3. Polythetic definitions - these define religion by creating a list of possible characteristics that make up a religion but accept that no one example will share them all.

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Substantive definitions

Tylor (1903) - religion is a "belief in spiritual beings". Criticised for ignoring religious practices.

Durkheim (1915) - religion is "a unified system of beleifs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden - beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church all those who adhere to them."

Durkheim focuses on religion as a group activity and the way that certain symbols are imbued with a sacred power: they're regarded with awe and are often associted with rituals - e.g. the cross as a symbol in Christianity.

Problem: which beliefs should and shouldn't be included as "religious" e.g. should the Amba's belief in magic be seen as religious, or should magic be a separate category as it may not include belief in God or gods or practices such as worships?

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Functional definitions

Religion is a product of society, it needs to be defined in terms of its contributions to society.

Yinger (1970) - "Religion is a system of beliefs and practices by means of which a group of people struggles with the ultimate problems of human life."


1. it's too broad - Scharf (1970) functional definitions are cast in such wide terms that they "allow any kind of enthusiastic purpose or strong loyalty, provided it's shared by a group, to count as religion."

2. It assumes that religion plays a useful role in society. Anything that contributes to social stability can be considered as a religion without any need for evidence.

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Polythetic definitions

To qualify as a religion, a set of beliefs needs to exhibit a number of factors but not necessarily all of them. Southwold (1978) suggests the following factors:

  • a concern with godlike beings and human relationships with them
  • a focus on salvation from the ordinary world
  • rituals and practices
  • beliefs based on faith rather than evidence
  • an ethical code based on those beliefs
  • supernatural sanctions if this code is violated
  • a mythology
  • sacred texts or oral traditions
  • priests or some other religioud elite
  • links with a moral community
  • links with an ethnic ot similar group.

Problems: it isn't clear how many of these factors need to be shared for something to be considered a religion & the decision about what to include in the list is itself a matter of judgement.

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Types of religion

Religions associated with tribal societies & smaller cultures - totemism & animism.

Totems are animals or plants that are believed to possess supernatural powers.

Animism refers to belief in ghosts or spirits.

Religions centred around belief in a sacred, higher and controlling power, this power is the source of moral codes and is worthy of great reverence - theistic

Monotheistic religions - believe in one divine power e.g. Christianity or Islam

Polytheistic religions - focus on a number of separate gods e.g. religions of ancient Greece and Rome.

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Religion, science and the Enlightenment

The Elightenment & scientific thinking: Human thinking was dominated by religious explanations for 100s of years. However, they were challenged by the emergence of scientific ways of thinking the 18th century i.e. Enlightenment.

Bilton et al (2002) - it was during the Enlightenment that humans crossed "the Great Divide" and moved from ignorance, guesswork and faith to certainty and truth.

Key aspects of a scientific approach:

  • knowledge must be based on empirical evidence - facts
  • scientists must ignore their personal feelings and remain objective at all times
  • scientific thinking should be rational and logical
  • scientists' observations anf theories must be testable by other scientists.
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The Enlightenment and religious thinking:

These scientific ideas create problems for religion: the existence of God or gods can't be proved, and religious belief relies on faith rather hard scientific evidence.

Frazer (1890) - the growth of scientific explanations of the world would cause religion to disappear. As humanity discovered more and more about the real nature of the world, religion would decline and be replaced by solid scientific knowledge.

However, religion hasn't disappeared and there's some debate about whether or not it's even decline.

Scientists cannot tell us little about things that matter a grat deal to us: values, hopes, fears, aspirations, anxieties and so on. Science isn't able to make us feel comfortable.

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Science and religion

Ideology, science and religion: ideology - set of ideas that legimate the power of a particular group.

An ideology is a set of shared views or principles that help people make sense of the world, ideologies often legiimate, or justify, the position of powerful groups in society.

Marx (1845) - "the ideas of the ruling class are... the ruling ideas". That is, the beliefs that most people accept as "normal" actually justify the power and dominance of the ruling class and the highly unequal society that they benefit from.

Science and religion as ideologies: Critics of science argue that its progress and priorities reflect the interests of powerful groups.

Harding (1986) - science reflects males assumptions and understandings about the world.

Marxists - religion justifies inequalities in society and encourages passivity and acceptance of the status quo.

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