Today we look at religion – like language, another simple way to sort and arrange cultures.

Religion is a culture complex organized around the supernatural. It can be difficult for us, accustomed as we are to our own deeply held religious beliefs, to think of religion this way. But it is impossible to have a meaningful, rational, scientific discussion about the nature of religious belief if we constrain ourselves to only our beliefs. We must learn to think of religion as a scientist would – looking at each religion as neither “true” nor “false” but simply a collection of roles and norms centered on a particular set of beliefs regarding the supernatural.

All cultures have at least one unique religion but there is much difference and diversity amongst individual religions. The classic example – Christian eat cows while Hindus revere them.

We can get some practice looking at religion like a scientist by focusing on religious dietary restrictions. For the ancient Israelites, avoiding foods that could easily spoil in a warm climate certainly gave them advantages over rival cultures that might have tried these risky foods. For the Hindus, think about the value of a cow as a long-term source of milk versus a one-time source of meat. Religious dietary restrictions make sense and confer advantages for cultures that don’t have access to refrigeration.

Sociologists from a functionalist perspective look at religion at note how important a shared religion is for group cohesion. Two strangers can meet and as soon as they find religious common ground, they are strangers no longer. Churches take care of their sick, tend to their flocks and overall, contribute to the strength and success of the individual church members. Sociologists from a conflict perspective acknowledge that religion can increase intragroup cohesion – but increases the possibility of intergroup conflicts (example; The Crusades).

Religion gives its members a ready-made belief system and a set of guidelines for navigating life. This emotional support is another advantage of religion from a functionalist perspective. From a conflict perspective, religion helps justify existing power structures and keeps those out of power content with their powerlessness. Slave owners in the Antebellum South often encouraged their slaves to adopt Christianity, in part because the Bible teaches slaves to obey their masters in this world while waiting their eternal reward in Heaven.

Note the difference between a ritual (an established pattern of behavior) and a symbol, which is a physical object. For Christians, the cross is a symbol and baptism is a ritual.

The traditional hierarchy from top to bottom is faith > denomination > sect. Some ways to distinguish the three terms – “faiths” are general and refer to a set of basic, shared beliefs and expectations. Faiths don’t have an accepted leader or a home office. Faiths contain multiple denominations. Denominations are where you find the bureaucracies and headquarters. For example, the Roman Catholic Church is a denomination in the Christian faith. The Assemblies of God is sect of the Pentecostal denomination, which is part of the Christian faith. Be careful with “cult” – it is used pejoratively. Cults tend to be led by charismatic leaders who have beliefs outside the mainstream. It’s also possible to argue that all faiths once began as cults.

America is a majority Protestant country (barely). Roman Catholics are a distant second and literally thousands of other denominations and sects compete for the remaining churchgoers. Even major world religions like Islam or Buddhism have very few formal worshippers or adherents in America.

In the wider world, Christianity only accounts for one-third of all believers with Islam right behind. A very different religious makeup when compared to the United States.

Religion has proven health benefits that seem to be related to stress reduction. Another reason why religion is universal.


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