Does Religion Have an Essence?


Religious people tend to have strong beliefs about the nature of God or of spirits. In addition, most religions offer specific teachings on how to treat fellow human beings. These teachings can help people live a good life and do what is right for their families, friends and community as a whole.

Most religions also have sacred rites and rituals, sacred places, symbols, sacred books and a clergy or priesthood to administer the religion. Many religions deal in some way with salvation, either a literal heaven after death (like Christianity) or a more symbolic ending of suffering such as nirvana (like Buddhism).

Many anthropologists and others who study human cultures and origins believe that religion developed out of a need for humans to find meaning in their lives. They say that humankind became self-aware and realized that they would eventually die, so they created spirituality to give them hope and a reason to continue living.

However, some scholars argue that religion is not a necessary part of any culture. Some of these scholars have suggested that we stop treating “religion” as a social taxon and instead consider it a family resemblance concept like “literature”, “democracy” or “culture.” Using such a method to sort cultural types can produce surprising discoveries. But it can also raise philosophical issues, similar to the ones that can be raised about other abstract concepts used to sort cultural types, such as “literature” or “democracy”. One such issue is whether or not we can treat any phenomenon as having an essence and if there are any properties that distinguish this phenomenon from others.

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