Religion and the Meaning of Life
Religion seeks to answer important questions such as why we exist. why people suffer and die. and what happens when we die. Sociologist Peter Berger (1967) referred to religion as a sacred canopy-a sheltering fabric hanging over people that gives them security and provides answers for the questions of life (see "Sociology Works!"). However. this sacred canopy requires that people have faith-unquestioning belief that does not require proof or scientific evidence. Science and medicine typically rely on existing scientific evidence to
respond to questions of suffering. death. and injustice, whereas religion seeks to explain such phenomena by referring to the sacred. According to Emile Durkheim (J 995/1912). sacred refers to those aspects of life that are extraordinary or supernatural-in other words. those things that are set apart as "holy." People feel a sense of awe. reverence. deep respect. or fear for that which is considered sacred, Across cultures and in different eras. many things have been considered sacred. including invisible gods. spirits. specific animals or trees. altars. crosses, holy books. and special words or songs that only the initiated could speak or sing (Collins. 1982). Those things that people do not set apart as sacred are referred to as profane- the everyday, secular ("worldly") aspects of life (Collins. 1982). Sacred beliefs are rooted in the holy or supernatural. whereas secular beliefs have their foundation in scientific knowledge or everyday explanations. In the educational debate over creationism and evolutionism, for example. advocates of creationism view their belief as founded in sacred (Biblical) teachings. but advocates of evolutionism argue that their beliefs are based on provable scientific facts. In addition to beliefs. religion also comprises symbols and rituals. According to the anthropologist Clifford Geertz (1966). religion is a set of cultural symbols that establishes powerful and pervasive moods and motivations to help people interpret the meaning of life and establish a direction for t eir behavior. People often act out their religious beliefs in the form of rituals-regularly repeated and carefully prescribed forms of behaviors that symbolize a cherished value or belief (Kurtz, 1995). Rituals range from songs and prayers to offerings and sacrifices that worship r praise a supernatural being. an ideal, or a set of supernatural principles. For example. Muslims bow toward Mecca. the holy city of Islam. fivetimes a day at fixed
times to pray to God, whereas Christians participate in the celebration of communion (or the "Lords Supper") to commemorate the life. death, and resurrection of lesus. Rituals differ from everyday actions in that they involve very strictly determined behavior. The rituals involved in praying or in I."serving communion are carefully orchestrated and must be followed with precision. According to the sociologist Randall CoUins (1982: 34). MInrituals. it is the forms that count. Saying prayers. singing a hymn. performing a primitive sacrifice or a dance. marching in a procession. kneelinp before an idol or making the sign of the cross-in these. the action must be done the right way." • Not all sociologists believe that the "sacred canopy" metaphor suggested by Berger accurately describes contemporary religion. Some analysts believe that a more accurate metaphor for religion in the global vil lage is that of the religious marketplace, in which religious institutions and traditions compete for adnercnts, and worshippers shop for a religion in much the same way that consumers decide what goods anJ services they will purchase in the marketplace (Moo-e. 1995). However. other analysts do not believe that moral and ethical beliefs are bought and sold like groceries, shoes. or other commodities, and thp) note that many of the world's religions have perri 'C .rorn earlier eras to advanced technological soc.z. :,. But this poses another question: When did the .:. Ilest religions begin? Although it is difficult to establish exactly when religious rituals first began, anthropologists have concluded that all known groups over the past hundred thousand years have had some form of religion (Haviland. 1999). Religions have been classified into four main categories based on their dominant belief. simple supernaturalism. animism. theism. and transcendent idealism. In very simple preindustrial societies. religion often takes the form of simple supernaturalisIII- the belief that supernatural forces affect people's lives either positively or negatively. This type of religion does not acknowledge specific gods or
supernatural spirits but focuses instead on impersonal forces that may exist in people or natural objects. For example. simple supernaturalism has been used to explain mystifying events of nature. such as sunrises and thunderstorms. and ways that some objects may bring a person good or bad luck. Bycontrast. animism is the
belief that plants, animals, or other elements of tbe natural world are endowed with spirits or life forces that have an impact on events in society. Animism is associated with early hunting and gathering societies and with many Native American societies. in which everyday life is not separated from the elements of the natural world (Albanese. 2007). The third category of religion is theism-a belief in a god or gods. Horticultural societies were among the first to practice monotheism-a belief in a single, supreme being or god who is responsible for significant events such as the creation of the wodd. 'Three of the major world religions-Christianity. Judaism. and Islam- are monotheistic. Bycontrast, Hinduism. Shinto, and a number of the indigenous religions of Africa are forms of poly theism=« belief in more than one god fourth category of religion. transcendent idealism. is a non theistic religfon-a religion based on a belief in divine spiritual forces such as sacred principles of thought and conduct. rather than a god or gods. Transcendent idealism focuses 011 principles such as truth. justice. affirmation of life.and tolerance for others. and
its adherents seek an elevated state of consciousness in
which they can fulfill their true potential.