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For many centuries religious beliefs and practices were studied only by theologians, priests and other servants of religion. However, from the mid 19th century, with rising secularism and the decline of the role of church in Europe, academic study of religion became possible. From the scholarly point of view, religion is a complex anthropological, sociological and cultural phenomenon. A few prominent theories of religion expressed by the 19th and early 20th century scholars still shape our views of it today, even though we realize that they are too simplistic. Let us review some of the most interesting and important explanations of what religion is and how it came into existence.
One of the earliest comprehensive theories of religion was coined by famous British anthropologist and ethnographer James Fraser. He believed that primitive magic and ritual are the key to understanding religion as a whole. Fraser thought that observing “uncivilized” tribes can explain the emergence of religious beliefs. Fraser’s main idea was that primitive magic was the preparatory stage of religion. By performing a magical ritual a believer assumes that it will trigger things to evolve in the desired direction in real life. For example, piercing a figurine of an animal with a toy arrow would lead to luck in hunting. Religion, in its turn, was a huge leap forward from magic. Fraser taught that at some point a more developed part of the humankind recognized the fact that magic did not work. The next step was the belief that it was not the ritualistic imitation, but spiritual realities that were behind such things as good and bad luck, or health and well-being. These spiritual realities became known as gods and goddesses.
The Austrian Sigmund Freud was the author of another creative and provocative theory. In accordance with his overall views on human psychology, Freud saw religion as a “neurosis” of humankind, typical of childhood or adolescence. Just as kids outgrow their neurotic condition, humankind is set to outgrow religion and leave it behind. Freud also greatly contributed to the understanding of such notions as totem (a sacred symbol of a tribe, clan, or family) and taboo (a forbidden object).
Karl Marx, a German economist and philosopher and the pioneer of Marxism, attempted to explain religion from the viewpoint of economics. For him, religion was secondary compared to class struggle, power struggle or accumulation of wealth. Marx pictured the whole history of humankind as a chain of economic formations (slave-holding, feudalism, capitalism) where members of wealthier classes exploit and oppress the poor and disadvantaged. Religion in this paradigm played a twofold role: it served the interests of the rich because it sanctified the existing economic relations and government institutions, and it provided some illusory comfort to the poor, which prompted Marx to give religion the name of the “opiate of the masses.” According to Marx, in the future communist society based upon equality and freedom from economic oppression, religion will die out as a survival of times past.