In the early years of the present century, the sociologist, the anthropologist and the psychologist greatly widened his horizons and laid the net of his investigation rather wide. In the process, each investigator, irrespective of his personal attitudes, encountered the ineluctable fact that no account of human behaviour and social change is adequate which ignores the singular role and value of religious ideas and motives, dogmas and beliefs, faith and superstition in human behaviour, The primary interest of the early pioneers in the fields of social, anthropological and psychological research was to discover the origin of religion and the ideas in man rather than to describe them.

The phenomenon called religion is extremely variegated, complex, intricate and full of paradoxes. It includes such facts as celebration, despair, ethical vigour, mystery, retreat, social activism, monastic quietude, contemplation, animal sacrifice, rituals involving pain and terror, images of hope, symbols of fear, the affirmation of life and struggle against death, creative growth, unthinking superstitions, beliefs and dogmas about natural and supernatural etc.

origin of religion

At first glance, it looks pretty certain that such a protean phenomenon, such a closely knit mass of fact and imagination is intractable and cannot be studied either empirically or analytically. But of late, scholars from diverse disciplines like psychology, sociology, anthropology, history and linguistics have succeeded in bringing the unbounded phenomenon of religion under some system and order and have also evolved methods and techniques for its study which have yielded impressive results.

Accordingly, in order to understand and appreciate the phenomenon of religion in its anthropological perspective, we must briefly know the various scientific and empirical approaches to the study of religion which are being made today. Broadly, these approaches can be divided into two groups: 1. which consider the question of the origin of religion to be of paramount importance, and 2. according to which not origin but a description is important.

Intellectual Origin Theories

(i) Nature-Myth School

According to scholars subscribing to this view all the great symbols of the world’s religions were personifications of natural phenomena; the sun, moon, stars, storms, the seasons of the year. One branch of this school maintained that solar myths were most important and that primitive rituals and myths were primarily concerned with man’s relation to the sun.

(ii) Animism.

According to the great anthropologist Edward Tylor, religion had its origin in primitive man’s belief that non-physical substances like soul inhabited the physical and inanimate objects like stones, trees etc. Animism, derived from the Greek word Anima, meaning soul, is a belief in the non-physical, transempirical substance existing independent of the body.

This fact was seen confirmed by dreams in which man saw somebody talking to him, who had died recently. Thus dreams convinced the primitive man of the existence of spirits and this conviction became, according to Tylor, the basis of religious beliefs.

(iii) Ancestor-worship.

The philosopher Herbert Spencer traced the origin of religion in the respect given to ancestors combined with beliefs in ghosts and fairies caused by dream experience. According to Spencer, the ghosts of ancestors were transformed into gods.

(iv) Magic-Theory.

According to Sir James Frazer, religion developed out of an original magical stage of human culture. As the magician believes that nature can be overwhelmed and instrumentalized for personal benefit through magical spells, in the very same manner, religious man believes in the existence of spirits that must be pleased and cajoled by prayers, rather than overwhelmed by magic formulas, though religionist, like magician, seeks to understand the mechanism of nature and control it.

Emotive Theories

The above four theories are known as intellectual origin theories because they assume that the primary source and value of religion is seeking an answer to some questions. But as R.R. Marett argues, religion is not so much an intellectual endeavour as a set of profound emotional responses to various aspects or consider emotional factor to be called emotive theories and these are discussed below:

(i) Fear.

According to the celebrated psychologist Wilhelm Wundt religion is simply a projection of fear into the environment, and according to Otto religion is identical with numinous feeling. Though Otto did not call this numinous feeling an emotion, other psychologists have identified religion with the sense of mysterious, the uncanny, and the sacred and termed it as numinous emotion.

(ii) Unspecified Emotion.

Psychologist William James refutes the theory that there is in man a specific emotion which may be considered either a cause of religion or religious experience per se. But he also admits that religion has a profound emotional basis.

(iii) Fetishism.

Fetishism implies undue emotional attachment to some object. In early phases of religion, we find stones, trees and such objects given extreme reverence and worshipped. Thus according to some scholars religion is nothing but a form of fetishism.

Ordinarily, it is believed that evolution of religion takes the form of a steady decline in a number of gods that is a movement from polytheism to monotheism. However, according to Wm. Schmidt and Andrew Lang religion began with a primordial monotheism which later changed (either developed or degenerated) into polytheism, animism and magic.


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Psychological Theories

Apart from theories which seek to explain religion with reference to some stable characteristics or traits in the man, whether intellectual or emotional, there ate theories which instead of considering any particular factor or trait lay stress on laws, whether social or psychological.

According to Emile Durkheim religion is one of the ways of accomplishing socialization, that is, integration, accommodation and adjustment of social and personal needs. The symbols of religion appear to their users to be about a realm of supernatural powers and forces. They are really about society and its claims upon the man. The divine laws are as a matter of fact the most crucial laws of a given society.

According to the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, the origin of religion can be traced back to the problem of the child seeking to work out adequate relationships with his parents, particularly his father. The child regards his father as a figure of absolute power, but as he grows the supremacy of father becomes untenable.

Religion comes in as a substitute to fill up the vacuum created by displacement of the father. Religion, therefore, has its origin in man’s attempt to project into the universe a belief in a cosmic father or God to give him the support he once had from his human father.

Freud suggested that primitive man originally existed in a patriarchal society where the father had absolute right over all desirable females. At some point in history, sons rebelled against the father, killed him and distributed the females among themselves. However, this primal act and ensuing guilt are the psychological causes of belief in father-god whose wrath has to be placed through sacrifice.

This patriarchal society theory is stoutly opposed by those who consider that the original society was matriarchal and that is why mother-worship is so central to every religion.

As a matter of fact, all these theories are highly speculative and conjectural and there are no adequate methods of verifying or diversifying them. Therefore, modern scholars have abandoned the approach of tracing the origin of the religion. Instead, they prefer objective or careful observation of what men actually do while engaging themselves in various religious activities. This is the descriptive approach towards religion and this is precisely the approach being followed by modern psychologists of religion. Sociological Theories

Auguste Comte is regarded to be the father of sociology. He organised and classified the social thought prevailing before his times. Comte gave birth not only to a specific methodology of studying knowledge but also analyzed the evolution of human thinking and its various stages.

The principle evolved by Comte in the study of human thinking presumes gradual evolution and development in human thinking and is known as the law of three stages because, according to it, human thought has undergone three separate stages in its evolution and development. The main importance of this principle is that it provides the basis of sociological thinking.

According to Auguste Comte, human thinking has passed through the following three stages. There has been an evolution in the human thinking so that each succeeding stages is superior to and more evolved than the preceding stage:

1. Theological or Fictitious stage

2. Metaphysical or Abstract stage.

3. Scientific or Positive stage.

Auguste Comte has explained his classification of human thinking into various stages in the words, that each of our leading conceptions, each branch of our knowledge, passes successively through three different theoretical conditions-theological or fictitious, the metaphysical or abstract, and the scientific or positive. In the following pages we shall discuss these stages briefly:

1. Theological or Fictitious Stage

The first or primary stage of human thinking is theological or fictitious. This type of thinking of children is also at this level. At this level of thinking there is marked lack of logical and orderly thinking. The primitive man and children do not have the scientific outlook. Therefore, theological thinking is characterized by non-scientific or unscientific outlook.

The main subject matter of theological thinking is natural events. The usual and unintelligible events of nature tend man towards the theological or fictitious interpretation of these events. Unable to discover the natural causes of the various happenings the primitive man attributes them to imaginary or divine forces.

The explanation of natural events in non-natural, divine, or imaginary conditions is known as theological or fictitious thinking. For example, if we explain and understand the excess or deficiency of rain due to godly wrath, such a causai explanation would be in terms of theological or fictitious explanation.

The theological thinking implies belief in another world wherein resides the divine forces which control the events in this world. Thus it is clear that theological thinking implies a belief in the divine and extra-terrestrial forces. Comte has classified the theological stage further into three loud stages. These are:

(i) Fetishism, (ii) Polytheism and (iii) Monotheism.

(i) Fetishism.

The first and primary stage in theological thinking is that of fetishism. Fetishism is a belief that there is some living spirit in the non-living objects. This is also known as animism. As the very term animism signifies it means that the so-called inanimate objects are not dead and lifeless but are informed by a living spirit.

The examples of fetishistic thinking can be seen from the widespread belief among rural people in India that some deities reside in trees. They are, therefore, seen to engage in the worship of trees etc.

(ii) Polytheism.

With the gradual development of human thinking, there occurred a change in the form of thinking. The more evolved and developed form than that of Fetishism is known as Polytheism. At this stage, a man had classified gods as well as natural and human forces. Each natural or human force had a presiding deity. Each god had some definite function and his scope and area of action were determined.

(iii) Monotheism.

The last and most developed form of theological thinking is seen as manifested in monotheism. As the very term monotheism implies, at this level of human thinking a belief in one God had replaced the earlier belief in many gods.

The monotheistic thinking symbolizes the victory of human intellect and reason over non-intellectual and irrational thinking. In monotheism it is believed that one God is Supreme and that he is responsible for the maintenance of order and system in the world.

2. Metaphysical or Abstract Stage.

The metaphysical or abstract thinking marks the second stage in the evolution of human thinking. According to Comte each successive stage is an improvement upon the earlier stage. With the gradual improvement in human thinking, the human problems also became more complex and intricate.

The theological thinking was not adequate to tackle these efficiently. The appearance of conflicting and opposite forces in the world presented problems which could not be successfully tackled by monotheism.

It was difficult to believe that the same God was responsible for primordial creation as well as destruction. A personal and concrete God could not account for the simultaneous creation and annihilation.

In order to resolve this intellectual puzzle or riddle metaphysical thinking was invented. Under metaphysical thinking, belief in an abstract transcendental entity or Absolute replaces the belief in personal concrete God. Under metaphysical thinking, it is believed that an abstract power or force guides and determines the events in the world. Metaphysical thinking discards belief in concrete God.

3. Scientific or Positive Stage.

After theological and metaphysical thinking comes to the next stage known as a scientific or positive stage. All metaphysical knowledge is based upon speculation and is at best inferential knowledge.

There are no direct means to confirm the metaphysical knowledge. In the last analysis, it is a matter of belief or temperament. The modern temper of man is such that it cannot remain satisfied with mere guesswork; it craves positive knowledge which can be scientifically confirmed. The positive or scientific knowledge is based on facts, and these facts are gathered by observation and experience.

The observation and classification of facts are the beginning of the scientific knowledge. From the facts, we generalize and draw conclusions. These conclusions, in turn, are subjected to verification and once verified these become established laws, which can be relied upon in gathering and classifying the facts. The scientific thinking is thoroughly rational and in it, there is no place for any belief on superstition.

Auguste Comte is of the opinion that all human thinking before reaching the stage of positivism must have passed through the two earlier stages of theological and metaphysical thinking. Even in scientific thinking some traces of earlier types are to be usually found.

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