Overview of Religion

In this tutorial, you will learn about the religious experience in general and some of its variations around the world.  The focus will be on the types of religious beliefs and religious leaders, especially in small-scale societies.  An exploration of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, or any other major religion is beyond the scope of this tutorial.  The approach taken is that of cultural relativity--religious practices or beliefs are not evaluated in terms of their "correctness" or "sophistication" but, rather, in terms of their function within the societies that have them.

What is Religion?

A religion is a system of beliefs usually involving the worship of supernatural forces or beings.  Religious beliefs provide shape and meaning to one's perception of the universe.  In other words, they provide a sense of order in what might otherwise be seen as a chaotic existence.  Religions also provide understanding and meaning for inexplicable events such as a loved one being killed in an earthquake or some other unpredictable force of nature.  For most religious people, their beliefs about the supernatural are at the very core of their world views.

Rituals in Religion


photo of a chalice, cross, candle, and Bible

Symbolic objects used
in Christian rituals

The performance of rituals click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced is an integral part of all religions.  Rituals are stylized and usually repetitive acts that take place at a set time and location.  They almost always involve the use of symbolic objects, words, and actions.  For example, going to church on Sunday is a common religious ritual for Christians around the world.  It usually requires the wearing of somewhat different clothing and interacting with others in a particular manner in a sacred location.  At the heart of this experience is a sequence of traditional ritual acts that symbolically represent aspects of the life, teachings, and death of Jesus.

photo of a Mayan temple at Tikal, Guatemala  

Maya Temple in Guatemala
built on a high pyramid base
to make it a sacred location

Most religious rituals are performed in special places and under special conditions, such as in a dedicated temple or at a sacred spot.  This is an intentional separation between the secular and the sacred.  By being removed from the ordinary world, the sacred acts are enhanced for the believers.  The separation makes the rituals more effective.  Only allowing initiated people to participate in religious rituals also can have the same effect.

Religious ritual reinforces the basic tenets of religion.  For instance, the "partaking of the host" in the Catholic mass is a symbolic participation in the "last supper" of Jesus and, by extension, an affirmation of the acceptance of his teachings.  Rituals are often charged with high emotions.  The exalted feelings people experience during rituals provide positive reinforcement for continuing them.  When rituals make people "feel good", they reinforce the belief that their religion is the "correct" one.

Non-Religious Rituals

Not all rituals are religious.  Brushing your teeth every morning in the same place and in the same way is a non-religious ritual.  Like religious rituals, it also can make you "feel good", which reinforces your continuance of the practice.  However, it rarely involves a belief in supernatural beings or forces.

  photo of two kids standing in front of an American flag
Children displaying their
national flag--a powerful
secular symbolic object

Political ideologies and movements often have rituals that can be profoundly important for people, especially when they become the focus of nationalism.  Communism and extreme nationalist movements over the last century essentially became secular click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced religions in some countries.  They had their rituals, essentially sacred objects, and beliefs that provided meaning and order for millions of people.  Even in democratic nations that are more international in their focus, there are often symbolic political objects and rituals connected with them.  An example in the United States is the pledge of allegiance to the American flag in schools and at public meetings.  The flag takes on a powerful meaning for which people have given up their lives despite the fact that it is only a piece of cloth with different portions dyed red, white, or blue.

Psychological and Social Functions of Religion

Religions fulfill psychological needs.  They help us confront and explain death.  They help relieve our fears and anxieties about the unknown.  Supernatural powers and beings may be appealed to or manipulated by people in times of crisis, as for example in praying to win a battle or survive a fierce storm.  Religions help ease the stress during personal life crises such as birth, marriage, serious illness, and death.  It is not a coincidence that in most societies the "rites of passage" that are performed to help people adjust to these often highly emotional transitions are strongly religious.  We also get psychological relief from "divinely given" moral codes.  They lift some of the burden of decision making from our shoulders in difficult situations because they tell us what is right and wrong.  Knowing what to do without having to think deeply about it provides tremendous psychological relief.

photo of a formal American wedding in a Christian church
Formal North American Church wedding
(religious ritual is central to this rite of passage)

Religions also fulfill social needs.  They can be powerful, dynamic forces in society.  By reinforcing group norms click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced, they help bring about social homogeneity.  They can provide a basis for common purpose and values that can help maintain social solidarity.  A uniformity of beliefs helps bind people together and reinforces group identity.  

In most societies, religions play an important role in social control by defining what is right and wrong behavior.  If individuals do the right things in life, they may earn the approval of the gods.  If they do the wrong things, they may suffer supernatural retribution.  For instance, the most sacred text of Islam, the Koran click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced, not only provides detailed lists of specific kinds of crimes and appropriate earthly punishments, but it also gives descriptions of how to do mundane tasks such as eating specific kinds of food.

The sacred texts of religions usually set precedents for proper behavior in common situations.  The Judeo-Christian Bible stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Able, Noah, Job, Moses, Solomon, and even Jesus provide examples of how virtuous people should lead their lives.  It does not matter whether the sacred stories or myths of a religion actually occurred in every detail--they are still illustrative of correct thought and behavior.


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This page was last updated on Tuesday, October 06, 2009.
Copyright 2000-2009 by Dennis O'Neil. All rights reserved.
Illustration credits