Religion Defined


Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


The Scientific Study of Religion

It is not well known that there is a Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion and that anthropologists and sociologists have accumulated a considerable amount of information concerning human behavior as it relates to religion.

The Latin writer Cicero tells us in his book De Natura Deorum (On the Nature of the Gods) that the word religio is derived from res legare, meaning “the thing that binds.” It is of course evident that those who share the same religious practices feel bound together by common beliefs. That, then, is the first finding of Alfred Radcliffe Brown, the British anthropologist who may be considered the founder of the anthropology of religion, later joined by Bronislaw Malinowski and Emile Durkheim. Malinowski was British and Durkheim French Jewish.

As these and other scholars like Frazer (The Golden Bough) proceeded in their studies it became evident that there is only one religion. This may seem incomprehensible as we contemplate the numerous religions found everywhere. Yet, in addition to the function  of drawing religious people together, here are a number of other functions of religion found in all religion studies by anthropologists.

All religions segregate the common, everyday occurrences from the sacred. Among us it is the Sabbath and the Holy Days which are sacred. All religions seek to instill a moral form of life into the believers. Among us the “Ten Commandments” fulfill part of this function which the Buddhists call “The Tenfold Path,” which is not related to our Ten Commandments

All religions seek to make the unseen visible. This leads to rituals such as carrying a Torah scroll around the congregation or lifting up a sacred cup at Catholic mass or viewing the building of a synagogue, church, or mosque as sacred, as are languages such as Hebrew, Latin, and Arabic.

All religions read the same prayers, songs, and admonitions over and over again. Therefore Cicero, at the end of De Natura Deorum writes that religio is also related to re ligere or “to read again.”

Another function of religion is called totemism. This refers to the relationship of the believers to their ancestors, such as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as well as the great scholars of eastern Europe such as “The Chofets Chayim” whose name was Kagan, or King David, or the great Rabbi Schneerson. Among Christians the “New Testament” begins with the ancestry of the founder.

All religions seek to instill their beliefs in their children, as is visible in the “Shema,” which includes the phrase “and you shall teach them diligently to your children.” By “them” are meant the words  “and you shall love the Lord with all your heart, with all your might and with all your soul.”

Religion also divides all mankind into “in groups” and “out groups.” This leads to endless religious persecutions and wars such as the persecution of the European Jews by Christians and the Thirty Years War between Protestants and Catholics from 1618 to 1648. There were always religious wars, so that Lucretius wrote that famous dictum in his book “De Rerum Natura” or “The Nature of Things.”  Tantum relgio produit suadere malorum” or “To how much misery has religion persuaded us.”

There are a number of other universal functions of religion which also pertain to what sociologists call “secular religions.” Both Communism and Nazism are secular religions, as is American liberalism. In America, Thanksgiving is an example of the secular religion, as is the following paragraph. Study this a few minutes and you will recognize the language and its meaning. You have said it English many times:

Fidem meam obligo vuxillo, federalis civitatis Americae, et Res Publica pro stat. Uni Nationi, non dividende, cum Libertate et iusquiasque, omnibus.

Shalom u'vracha.

 Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including Gender, Sex, & Status (2019).

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