Religion is defined as an organized collection of belief systems, views about the universe, or cultural systems that humans use to relate spiritual and moral values to their lives. Many religions have symbols, traditions, and histories that explain the origin of life, the way the universe works, and the moral, ethical and legal ways to organize human life (De Vries, ed., 2008). While the exact origin of religion is unknown, anthropologists suggest that it evolved to both explain the nature of humanity and the universe and to allow for a basic degree of organization within society:
Many of the great world religions appear to have begun as revitalization movements of some sort, as the vision of a charismatic prophet fires the imaginations of people seeking a more comprehensive answer to their problems than they feel is provided by everyday beliefs. Charismatic individuals have emerged at many times and places in the world. It seems that the key to long-term success -- and many movements come and go with little long-term effect -- has relatively little to do with the prophets, who appear with surprising regularity, but more to do with the development of a group of supporters who are able to institutionalize the movement (Monaghan and Just, 2000, p. 126).
Within different cultures, religion takes on different forms, levels of importance, rituals, and emphasis on belief or practice. When one looks comparatively at surviving documents from world religions, though, one finds a great deal of common themes that focus on helping to deal with the problems of human life and culture, conflicts, and "how and why the world is put together that allows people to accommodate" fear and deal with negative consequences (Monaghan, p. 124).
Still others, particularly during the 19th century, find religion to be either psychologically or materialistically based. One of the more influential thinkers of the 19th century, Sigmund Freud, acknowledged that religion had an extremely powerful effect upon society. In his view, religion and faith were supernatural explanations of deeply buried emotions, wants and needs within the subconscious. Humans use religion to organize the universe into understandable chunks, give structure to social groupings, explain the unknown or unexplainable, control self and society, and provide hope during times of crisis or for an afterlife. "Religion is an illusion and derives its strength from the fact that if falls in with [human] instinctual desires" (Kenneally, 2011). Karl Marx, another 19th century philosopher, believed religion was often a tool for the elite to control the masses, make them feel better about their lot in life, to work hard, and not question the order of society. In other words, religion is something that makes one "feel good" about their suffering, and because we humans suffer so very much, we need our constant fix of this opiate (religion). Like a drug, religion not only makes humans feel better, but it is addictive, and shrouds the truth about exploitation and control from the minds of the masses (Pals, 2006).
Surveying religion from a historical and sociological framework, one finds that the central theme of explaining and organizing society dates back into the Ancient World. The Great Hymn to the Aton, for instance, was a superb example of early monotheism expressed in poetry and literature. The text dates to the 14th century BC, and was surprisingly modern in its view of cosmology and many of the views that would become central to the Abrahamic religions:
How manifold are all Thy works!
They are hidden before us,
O Thou sole God, whose powers no other possesseth.
Thou dids't create the earth according to Thy desire,
While Thou wast alone:
Men, all cattle large and small,
All that are upon the earth,
That go about upon their feet;
All that are on high,
That fly with their wings (Akhnaton's Longerer Hymn to the Aton, n.d.).
Societal organization and moral/ethical behavior, or law, is another prime example of religious control within society. Gaius Sallustius Crispus, or Sallust, was a Roman historian and politician who opposed the Roman aristocracy during most of his career and was also a supporter of Julius Caesar and his reform program (Mellor, 1999, p. 30). His comments on the moral decline of Rome sound quite contemporary, and focus upon the lack of a solid moral and ethical base within Roman society; certainly aggravated in his opinion, by the promulgation of other religions from the conquered parts of the Republic, as well as a decline in past moral standards. Thematically, this exemplified the notion that for society to be just it must also have a moral and ethical standard:
As soon as wealth came to be a mark of distinction and an easy way to renown, military commands, and political power, virtue began to decline. Poverty was now looked on as a disgrace and a blameless life as a sign of ill nature. Riches made the younger generation a prey to luxury, avarice, and pride… Equally strong was their passion for-nication, guzzling, and other forms of sensuality. Men prostituted them-selves like women, and women sold their chastity to every comer. To please their palates they ransacked land and sea. They went to bed before they needed sleep, and instead of waiting until they felt hungry, thirsty, cold, or tired, they forestalled their bodies' needs by self-indulgence. Such practices incited young men who had run through their property to have recourse to crime. Because their vicious natures found it hard to forgo sensual pleasures, they resorted more and more recklessly to every means of getting and spending (Sallust, c. 146 BC).
Frederick II (1194-1250) was one of the primary Holy Roman Emperors in the Medieval Period. He left a number of political and cultural legacies, was often at "war" with the Papacy, and considered himself to be of direct lineage to the Ancient Roman Emperors. He was instrumental in the Fifth and Sixth Crusades, and attempted to consolidate power away from the German Kings. Frederick became a staunch foe of the new Pope, Innocent IV, which was instrumental in some of his writings about God, religion and society (Armstrong, 2001). In general, writing in Heretics: Enemies of God and Humanity, Frederick believed that the Roman Church had fallen into evil ways that were decidedly "unreligious." He opposed many Church interests after 1231 on the bases that many in the Church were out for their own economic gain, not the spiritual salvation of the masses. Presenting the argument in writing, he found that those who deny the articles of Catholic faith also deny the claims of rulers who derive authority from God. This means that heretics are enemies of God and the social fabric. Frederick held that the questioning of religious truths also involved questioning the monarch's command of law, and as enemies of the law, heretics were also the enemies of society (Abulafia, pp. 211-13). In this sense, Frederick's overall view was cyclic -- Kings rule by Divine Decree; going against Divine Decree is not only unholy, but also upsets the stable balance of societal power and thus cannot be tolerated.
The Enlightenment was an historical era in Western philosophy that reflected a change in thought based in intellectual, scientific, and cultural life, primarily centered in Europe. It is a theory of change, also known as the Age of Reason, but not a single theory or movement; in fact many of the notions from the 18th century are contrary and divergent. The idea of the enlightenment is thus more a set of values that tended to question traditional institutions, customs, morals, and most especially the religiosity of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and replace them with stronger beliefs in rationalist thought and science (Porter).
Voltaire was a seminal example of an Enlightenment philosopher in that he was striving for knowledge, to discuss ideas, and to understand human nature by looking for meaning. One of his issues was the lack of tolerance he found in many Christians, an idea that he could not reconcile with the actual teachings of the Bible. Voltaire believed that religion was the work of men, but spirituality and the Catholic Church the work of God. He noted that intolerance was the responsibility of the Church, and that without societal tolerance; religion becomes a philosophy of heretics and squalor:
It does not require any great art or studied elocution to prove that Christians ought to tolerate one another. I will go even further and say that we ought to look upon all men as our brothers. What! call a Turk, a Jew, and a Siamese, my brother? Yes, of course; for are we not all children of the same father, and the creatures of the same God? (Voltaire, n.d.).
These are but a few examples of the way religion has impacted society, showing a number of common themes that are present even in 21st century global culture. The Hymn to the Aton was one of the first examples of a more monotheistic approach to religion, causing great…