The Conceptual and Symbolic Aspects of Religion


Religion is the way human beings deal with ultimate concerns about life and death, or about the natural world. It usually involves belief in a supernatural Being or Beings, the worship of that Being or Beings, and the observance of religious practices and laws. It also includes the sacred books, rites, and symbols that are believed to convey spiritual or moral authority. The word religion may also be used to describe a person who is religious, or an organization that teaches and supports a particular religion.

Traditionally, the discipline of history of religions has focused on the beliefs, practices and ethics associated with specific religions. But in the nineteenth century, anthropologists were concerned to understand how religion developed in a variety of cultural contexts, and this led them to emphasize what is now called the conceptual aspect of religion.

This approach to religion is problematic because it can be too narrow, leading to the conclusion that only those beliefs and practices which are logically derived from naturalism qualify as religion. This is not a view that is compatible with the history of religions as an empirical science.

Emile Durkheim, an early influential sociology professor, pointed out that the social aspects of religion are far more important than the specific religious beliefs which people hold and practice. This insight continues to be important to modern sociological thinking on the function of religion in society.

The Symbol Interactionist Perspective

This view of religion sees it as the result of symbolic interactions between humans and the environment, each of which contributes to a particular religious phenomenon. This concept of religion also emphasizes the importance of the symbolic, mystical elements in most religions. This may include emotional and psychological experiences such as crying, laughing, screams, trancelike conditions, or feelings of oneness with those around you. It may also include myths, legends, or biblical accounts of God’s dealing with humans; chants, hymns and prayers; rituals and ceremonies; and speculative writings on the nature of the Deity, the soul, retribution and future life.

The Symbol Interactionist viewpoint can be contrasted with the hermeneutical perspective, which sees religion as a set of interpretative keys that unlock mysteries about it. It can also be contrasted with the structural or evolutionary approaches to religion, which look at the way beliefs and practices are structured over time and their impact on human life.

Religion can be a source of social cohesion and a force for good, but it is also often a cause of tension and conflict. It can cause people to discriminate against others based on their religious affiliation, and it has contributed to wars and other forms of wanton bloodshed. To avoid these problems, the President should appoint, and the Senate should confirm, judges who are sensitive to the role of religion in public life. Then it will be possible for them to judge the law without prejudice and to promote a greater understanding of religious diversity in the body politic.