Is religion a universal in human culture or an academic invention?

Interesting reading from aeon 

From the article

He showed that things appearing to us as religious says less about the ideas and practices themselves than it does about the framing concepts that we bring to their interpretation. Far from a universal phenomenon with a distinctive essence, the category of ‘religion’ emerges only through second-order acts of classification and comparison.

About makagutu

As Onyango Makagutu I am Kenyan, as far as I am a man, I am a citizen of the world

19 thoughts on “Is religion a universal in human culture or an academic invention?

  1. Tish Farrell says:

    To me the word ‘religion’ denotes some kind of system of belief and practice, and in pre-colonial, pre-literate traditional communities this is clearly absent. There may be a strong, even predominating sense of the sacred/spiritual, and such communities would practise rituals of purification and offerings to set right matters that had gone badly wrong. In many African communities for instance, doing your best by properly remembering your duty towards deceased family members is a significant part of the community’s shared beliefs.

    There would also be a body of shared stories/cosmologies that sought to explain ‘in some sense’ what made people people and how they came to be on the earth.

    However, the actual whys and the wherefores of culturally important rites were not shared. They were the domain of senior elders, and more particularly the medicine man or woman who, when things went wrong, ‘divined’ the source of evil/polluting forces and prescribed the appropriate remedies. Afflicted people had to consult them and make payment of some sort.

    One notion that does seem to be fairly common to humanity is the need to explain humans’ loss of immortality. That seems to be a little psychic seed from which much else has grown – our failure to accept death.

    Liked by 2 people

    • makagutu says:

      While I am tempted to agree with you, Smith’s position and which I find agreeable is that it is scholars who ascribe to these practices a religious dimension. And the reason why the missionaries thought we had no religion is because all these things we did were a way of life. They may have been treated with some reverence or deference but I don’t think they saw it as being religion or something of that kind.

      But I also think you make a valid point on our need to explain how we came to be here.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. john zande says:

    Sounds reasonable. There has to be contemporary ‘mystery’ first, then minds to say “Hey, that’s mysterious!” and only then a need to anthropomorphise an explanation.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. renudepride says:

    At first, I though “yes.” However, after reading the “assignment,” and Tish’s and John’s comments above, I tend to agree with them both. Then, I remember my basic idea on “religion” as an explanation for living and an explanation for death. So I imagine that leaves me in the realm of “unsure” but leaning either right or left, depending on whichever direction the breeze is blowing. Naked hugs!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. We humans, as four-limbed vertebrates, evolved a cognitive process which facilitates quick conceptualization of the world around us in lieu of factual understanding. It is commonly referred to as “intuition” or “instinct.” This is a necessary survival trait because decisions of life or death typically require instantaneous reaction. The additional time it takes to comprehend the world empirically and objectively is a luxury our ancestors simply couldn’t afford.

    Spirituality was a natural consequence of our intuition, and it predates the advent of organized religion by thousands of years. When hunter-gatherers looked up in the sky and saw the sun, moon, planets, and stars, they instinctively perceived these celestial bodies in relation to themselves such as deceased members of their tribe or as supernatural beings which oversaw their lives. Much later, a few people began to recognize the social opportunities presented by institutionalizing these belief systems and religion was born.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Was a tree a tree before anyone gave it the label “tree”? The label for religion, the setting aside of particular aspects of a culture and calling them “religion”, is a western idea. But those aspects exist in virtually all traditional cultures. Thousands of years from now, historians may regard the rise of science as simply one religion replacing another.


  6. johnfaupel says:

    As Robert says (above), our ancestors lived by ‘intuition – in lieu of factual understanding’, which, in my view, has subsequently caused ‘intuition’ to become corrupted by ‘imposition’, premised on the belief that our conceptually-conscious thoughts (about religion, science &c.) are now more important to us than our sensually-conscious feelings (about nature, each other &c.) … so aren’t we putting the cart before the horse?


  7. rautakyy says:

    Superstition is – in a sense – universal to human culture, because it is a universal intuitive process to us as cognitive animals. Religion is just socially organized superstition and it is not so much universal, as it is typical to human cultures, as we are social animals who organize into societies.

    Humans are relatively capable to analyze their intuition and facts into worldviews, where cultural heritage, tradition and indoctrination have big roles. Thus, we are able to live our lives as individuals and societies without religion and even to overcome our natural superstious impulses. However, this requires for us to have the necessary skill set to recognize our superstitious behaviour models.

    Liked by 2 people

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