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1: About Religion

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    candle in handsReligion describes the beliefs, values, and practices related to sacred or spiritual concerns.

    Definition: Religion

    The Latin origins of the word “religion”–In Latin religiō originally meant ‘obligation, bond’. It was probably derived from the verb religāre ‘tie back, tie tight’ (source of the English word rely), a compound formed from the prefix re- ‘back’ and ligāre ‘tie’ (source of the English words liable, ligament, etc). It developed the specialized sense ‘bond between human beings and the gods’, and from the 5th century it came to be used for ‘monastic life’ – the sense in which English originally acquired it via Old French religion. ‘Religious practices’ emerged from this, but the word’s standard modern meaning did not develop until as recently as the 16th century.

    In J. Ayto, Word origins (2nd ed.). London, UK: A&C Black.

    More Definitions

    Émile Durkheim

    Émile Durkheim

    Social theorist Émile Durkheim defined religion as a “unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things.” To him, sacred meant extraordinary—something that inspired wonder and that seemed connected to the concept of “the divine.” Durkheim argued that “religion happens” in society when there is a separation between the profane (ordinary life) and the sacred. A rock, for example, isn’t sacred or profane as it exists. But if someone makes it into a headstone, or another person uses it for landscaping, it takes on different meanings—one sacred, one profane (secular).

    Max Weber, 1918
    Max Weber, 1918

    Max Weber believed religion could be a force for social change. He examined the effects of religion on economic activities and noticed that heavily Protestant societies—such as those in the Netherlands, England, Scotland, and Germany—were the most highly developed capitalist societies and that their most successful business leaders were Protestant. In his writing The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, he contends that the Protestant work ethic influenced the development of capitalism. Weber noted that certain kinds of Protestantism supported the pursuit of material gain by motivating believers to work hard, be successful, and not spend their profits on frivolous things. (The modern use of “work ethic” comes directly from Weber’s Protestant ethic, although it has now lost its religious connotations.)

    Portrait of Karl Marx (1818–1883)
    Karl Marx (1818-1883)

    Karl Marx viewed religion as a tool used by capitalist societies to perpetuate inequality. He believed religion reflects the social stratification of society and that it maintains inequality and perpetuates the status quo. For him, religion was just an extension of working-class (proletariat) economic suffering. He famously argued that religion “is the opium of the people” .

    These definitions come from a singularly masculine approach to the study of religions in our world, and some very different approaches will come from female scholars, leaders, and writers.

    It may be useful to read this article about the place of women in religion – Women’s Studies in Religion. Much of the field of religious studies was considered a male field of study, and yet women have been key parts of religions across the globe for all of human history.

    English: This is the photo used by those creating events with the 1000 Women in Religion Project to identify our project Date1 November 2018 Source Parliament of the World's Religions
    This is the photo used by those creating events with the 1000 Women in Religion Project 1 November 2018 Parliament of the World’s Religions

    To quote the article,

    “Although most religions are male-dominated in terms of power structures, female adherents are the majority participants in many religions, and a small number of religious movements and sects—such as Afro-Brazilian healing cults, Japanese Ryūkyū religion, Christian Science, and Black Carib religion—can be described as women’s religions to the extent that the leaders and most of the adherents are female (see Sered, 1994).

    Women’s sacral power is honored cross-culturally through specialist roles as ascetics, diviners, healers, mystics, prophets, shamans, and witches. Frequently women are leading organizers and participants in purification, fertility, birth, and funerary rites and carry the burden of preserving oral traditions. Within many religions women prepare ritual food and observe low-profile and often private rites within the household (e.g., praying, fasting, chanting) as a means of protecting their families and their livelihoods from harm.

    Although leadership positions are more associated with male religious roles, women share with men authority and leadership positions in many religions,

    Swearing-in ceremony of the first ever GwètòDe's for the Haitian diaspora by Konfederasyon Nasyonal Vodouyizan Ayisyen (KNVA) held 2/25/2017 at National Black Theatre in Harlem NYC. GwètòDe's are the clergy of Haitian Vodou, representing the interests of Haitian vodouyizan in a specific geographic region. In this ceremony GwètòDe's were sworn in for the state of New York (Manbo Florence Jean-Joseph, pictured center), the state of Massachusetts (pictured left) and for Canada (Manbo Fabiola Abelard, pictured right). KNVA is a Haiti-based organization that designates the Ati National, the head of Haitian Vodou and all of the vodou clergy, for certification by the Haitian government. The Haitian Constitution of 1987 gave Vodouyizan the same rights as practitioners of other faiths.
    Swearing-in ceremony of the first ever GwètòDe held 2/25/2017 at National Black Theatre in Harlem NYC. GwètòDe’s are the clergy of Haitian Vodou, representing the interests of Haitian vodouyizan in a specific geographic region. The Haitian Constitution of 1987 gave Vodouyizan the same rights as practitioners of other faiths.

    whether as bishops, priests, and preachers in certain Christian denominations, as priestesses in traditional African religion and Haitian Vodou, as Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist Jewish rabbis, as Buddhist teachers, and in the rare but not unheard of cases of Hindu gurūs and Daoist priests.

    Some religions offer females certain roles and communities that allow them to be independent from the conventional domestic arrangements of marriage and childbearing, as in women’s religious orders in Buddhism and Christianity.

    Stories of powerful female heroes, teachers, and saints are preserved in many traditions. Women have been active as founders of new religious movements, including Mother Ann Lee, the eighteenth-century founder of the Shakers in North

    Depiction of Nakayama Kokan in Osaka doing missionary work. The banner behind her reads Tenri-O-no-Mikoto (天理王命).
    Depiction of Nakayama Kokan in Osaka doing missionary work.

    America, and Nakayama Miki, the nineteenth-century founder of Japanese Tenrikyō. In the late twentieth century women-dominated goddess-based feminist spiritualties became popular. Amid this colorful diversity it is clear that the reasons women become involved with and remain in religions are many and complex and are subject to the influence of various social, political, and economic factors that inform women’s needs and desires.”

    According to the MacMillan Encyclopedia of Religions, there is an experiential aspect to religion which can be found in almost every culture:

    […] almost every known culture [has] a depth dimension in cultural experiences […] toward some sort of ultimacy and transcendence that will provide norms and power for the rest of life. When more or less distinct patterns of behavior are built around this depth dimension in a culture, this structure constitutes religion in its historically recognizable form. Religion is the organization of life around the depth dimensions of experience—varied in form, completeness, and clarity in accordance with the environing culture.

    Religion is a social institution, because it includes beliefs and practices that serve the needs of society. Religion is also an example of a cultural universal, because it is found in all societies in one form or another. While some people think of religion as something individual because religious beliefs can be highly personal, religion is also a social institution. Social scientists recognize that religion exists as an organized and integrated set of beliefs, behaviors, and norms centered on basic social needs and values. Moreover, religion is a cultural universal found in all social groups. For instance, in every culture, funeral rites are practiced in some way, although these customs vary between cultures and within religious affiliations. Despite differences, there are common elements in a ceremony marking a person’s death, such as announcement of the death, care of the deceased, disposition, and ceremony or ritual.

    • Religious experience refers to the conviction or sensation that we are connected to “the divine.” This type of communion might be experienced when people are pray or meditate.
    • Religious beliefs are specific ideas members of a particular faith hold to be true, such as that Jesus Christ was the son of God, or that reincarnation exists. Another illustration of religious beliefs is the creation stories we find in different religions.
    • Religious rituals are behaviors or practices that are either required or expected of the members of a particular group, such as bar mitzvah or confession of sins.
    Interesting Interview

    In this show, you will hear about and explore the connotations of the word “faith” in four traditions and lives: Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. You will hear Krista Tippet speak with Sharon Salzberg, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, Anne Lamott, and Omid Safi.

    Types of Religious Organizations

    Religions organize themselves—their institutions, practitioners, and structures—in a variety of fashions. For instance, when the Roman Catholic Church emerged, it borrowed many of its organizational principles from the ancient Roman military and turned senators into cardinals, for example. Sociologists use different terms, like ecclesia, denomination, and sect, to define these types of organizations. Scholars are also aware that these definitions are not static. Most religions transition through different organizational phases. For example, Christianity began as a cult, transformed into a sect, and today exists as an ecclesia.

    Cults, like sects, are new religious groups. In the United States today this term often carries pejorative connotations. However, almost all religions began as cults and gradually progressed to levels of greater size and organization. The term cult is sometimes used interchangeably with the term new religious movement (NRM). In its pejorative use, these groups are often disparaged as being secretive, highly controlling of members’ lives, and dominated by a single, charismatic leader.


    Listen to this account of Diane Benscoter as she describes being a Moonie. She shares an insider’s perspective on the mind of a cult member, and proposes a new way to think about today’s most troubling conflicts and extremist movements.

    Controversy exists over whether some groups are cults, perhaps due in part to media sensationalism over groups like polygamous fundamentalist Mormons or the Peoples Temple followers who died at Jonestown, Guyana. Some groups that are controversially labeled as cults today include the Church of Scientology and the Hare Krishna movement.

    A sect is a small and relatively new group. Most of the well-known Christian denominations in the United States today began as sects. For example, the Methodists and Baptists protested against their parent Anglican Church in England, just as Henry VIII protested against the Catholic Church by forming the Anglican Church. From “protest” comes the term Protestant.

    Occasionally, a sect is a breakaway group that may be in tension with larger society. They sometimes claim to be returning to “the fundamentals” or to contest the veracity of a particular doctrine. When membership in a sect increases over time, it may grow into a denomination. Often a sect begins as an offshoot of a denomination, when a group of members believes they should separate from the larger group.

    Some sects do not grow into denominations. Sociologists call these established sects. Established sects, such as the Amish or Jehovah’s Witnesses fall halfway between sect and denomination on the ecclesia–cult continuum because they have a mixture of sect-like and denomination-like characteristics.

    A denomination is a large, mainstream religious organization, but it does not claim to be official or state sponsored. It is one religion among many. For example, Baptist, African Methodist Episcopal, Catholic, and Seventh-day Adventist are all Christian denominations. Sunni, Shia and Sufi are all Muslim denominations. Mahayana, Vajrayana and Theravada are Buddhist denominations.

    An ecclesia, originally referring to a political assembly of citizens in ancient Athens, Greece, now refers to a congregation. In sociology, the term is used to refer to a religious group that most all members of a society belong to. It is considered a nationally recognized, or official, religion that holds a religious monopoly and is closely allied with state and secular powers. The United States does not have an ecclesia by this standard; in fact, this is the type of religious organization that many of the first colonists came to America to escape. There are countries that have an official state religion, and these do then have an ecclesia. You might find the chart (it’s on page 7 of the link) in this article interesting: Which Countries Have State Religions?

    pie chart of global religious distribution: Christian 31.2, Muslim 24.1, Hindu 15.1, Buddhist6.9, Folk religion 5.7, Other .9, Jewish .2%

    “In 2010, the Pew Research Center conducted a demographic study of more than 230 countries and territories. The results showed that an estimated 5.8 billion adults and children around the globe are affiliated with a religious group, representing 84% of the 2010 world population—which at the time was 6.9 billion. Following is the breakdown of groups based on the total population of followers:

    • Christians—2.2 billion followers (representing 31.5% of the world’s population)
    • Muslims—1.6 billion (23.2%)
    • Non-religious people—1.1 billion (16.3%)
    • Hindus—1 billion (15.0%)
    • Buddhists—500 million (7.1%)
    • Indigenous religions—400 million (5.9%)
    • Other religions—58 million (0.8%)
    • Jews—14 million (0.2%)

    Check out this interactive map of World Religions from PBS Learning Media

    Source of this Data
    The data presented in this interactive map was drawn from the results of a 2010 Pew Research Center demographic study of more than 230 countries and territories. The study relied on more than 2,500 censuses, surveys, and population registers. This addendum lays information out in text format, country by country, for those countries not appearing on the interactive map.

    Some of these groupings, including Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism, are relatively easy to define because they are organized around a central figure and a sacred text or texts. While interpretations may differ concerning the figure or texts, followers around the world share certain fundamental beliefs. Other groupings demand further information.”

    Indigenous Religions, which include folk religions, are closely tied to a particular people, ethnicity, or tribe. In some cases, elements of other world religions are blended with local beliefs and customs. Examples of folk religions include traditional religions from tribes in the Americas, Australian aboriginal religions, South Asian, and African tribal traditions.

    Non-Religious People refer to people who are unaffiliated with a religion. This includes atheists (who believe there is no God or gods), agnostics (who claim neither faith nor disbelief in God), and people who do not identify with any particular religion.

    The Other Religions category is diverse and consists of groups not classified elsewhere—often because surveys do not include them by name. Examples include Bahá’í, Jainism, Paganism, Shintoism, Sikhism, Taoism, Unitarianism, and Zoroastrianism. Because many countries do not collect the data, the Pew Research Center did not estimate the size of individual religions within this category.”

    Religious syncretism exhibits the blending of two or more religious belief systems into a new system, or the incorporation of beliefs from unrelated traditions into a religious tradition. Examples would include Candomble, Rastafarian, Vodou, etc.


    Take a few minutes to try Pew Research Center’s Religious Typology Quiz

    Key Terms for the Study of Religion:

    a belief in many gods

    a belief in one god

    a belief that everything is god

    a belief that no god or gods exist

    a belief that no one can really know about the existence of god

    a belief that reality is good and evil in conflict

    the concept that the sacred is beyond this world

    the concept that the sacred is within this world


    the religion that believes in the divinity of nonhuman beings, like animals, plants, and objects of the natural world
    religious groups that are small, secretive, and highly controlling of members and have a charismatic leader
    a large, mainstream religion that is not sponsored by the state
    a religion that is considered the state religion
    Established sects
    sects that last but do not become denominations
    a small, new offshoot of a denomination
    the belief in a divine connection between humans and other natural beings

    blending of multiple religious systems into a new system


    J. Ayto, Word origins (2nd ed.). London, UK: A&C Black.

    Durkheim, Émile. 1947 [1915]. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Translated by J. Swain. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.

    Marx, Karl. 1973 [1844]. Contribution to Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

    Weber, Max. 2002 [1905]. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism and Other Writings, translated by Peter R. Baehr and Gordon C. Wells. New York: Penguin.

    “Religion and Public Life.” Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, 16 Feb. 2021,

    “Introduction to Sociology 2e”. Authored by: OpenStax CNX. Located at: License: CC BY: Attribution. License Terms: Download for free at

    Women’s Studies in Religion .Encyclopedia of Religion. . 15 Mar. 2021 <>.

    Gbh. “World Religions Map.” PBS LearningMedia, GBH, 24 Feb. 2021,

    Barro, Robert J., and Rachel M. McCleary. 2005. Which countries have state religions? Quarterly Journal of Economics 120 (4):1331-1370.

    This page titled 1: About Religion is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Jody Ondich via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform.

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