Role Of Religion In Society Essay Topics

Here is your essay on religion, it’s meaning, nature, role and other details!

Religion is an almost universal institution in human society. It is found in all societies, past and present. All the preliterate societies known to us have religion. Religion goes back to the beginning of the culture itself. It is a very ancient institution. There is no primitive society without religion.

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Like other social institutions, religion also arose from the intellectual power of man in response to certain felt needs of men. While most people consider religion as universal and therefore, a significant institution of societies. It is the foundation on which the normative structure of society stands.

It is the social institution that deals with sacred things, that lie beyond our knowledge and control. It has influenced other institutions. It has been exerting tremendous influence upon political and economic aspects of life. It is said that man from the earliest times has been incurably religious. Judaism, Christianity, Islam (Semitic religions), Hinduism and Buddhism; Confucianism, Taoism and Shinto (Chinese-Japanese religions) etc. are examples of the great religions of the world.

Meaning of Religion:

Religion is concerned with the shared beliefs and practices of human beings. It is the human response to those elements in the life and environment of mankind which are beyond their ordinary comprehension. Religion is pre-eminently social and is found in nearly all societies. Majumdar and Madan explain that the word religion has its origin in the Latin word Rel (I) igio. This is derived from two root words.

The first root is Leg, meaning “together, count or observe”. The second root is Lig, meaning ‘to bind’. The first root refers to belief in and practice of “signs of Divine Communication”. The second root refers to the carrying out those activities which link human beings with the supernatural powers. Thus, we find that the word religion basically represents beliefs and practices which are generally the main characteristics of all religions.

Central to all religions is the concept of faith. Religion in this sense is the organisation of faith which binds human beings to their temporal and transcendental foundation. By faith man is distinguished from other beings. It is essentially a subjective and private matter. Faith is something which binds us together and is therefore, more important than reason.

Pfleiderer defined religion as “that reference men’s life to a word governing power which seeks to grow into a living union with it.”

According to James G. Frazer considered religion as a belief in “Powers superior to man which are believed to direct and control the course of nature and of human life”.

As Christopher Dauson writes, “Whenever and wherever man has a sense of dependence on external powers which are conceived as mysterious and higher than man’s own, there is religion, and the feelings of awe and self-abasement with which man is filled in the presence of such powers is essentially a religious emotion, the root of worship and prayer.”

Arnold W. Green defines religion as “a system of beliefs and symbolic practices and objects, governed by faith rather than by knowledge, which relates man to an unseen supernatural realm beyond the known and beyond the controllable.”

According to Maclver and Page, “Religion, as we understand the term, implies a relationship not merely between man and man but also between man and some higher power.”

As Gillin and Gillin says, “The social field of religion may be regarded as including those emotionalized beliefs prevalent in a social group concurring the supernatural plus crest and behaviour, material objects and symbols associated with such beliefs.”

Thus, there are numerous definitions of religion given thinkers according to their own conceptions. As a matter of fact the forms in which religion expresses itself vary so much that it is difficult to agree upon a definition. Some maintain that religion includes a belief in supernatural or mysterious powers and that it expresses itself in overt activities designed to deal with those powers.

Others regard religion as something very earthly and materialistic, designed to achieve practical ends. Sumner and Keller asserted that, “Religion in history, from the earliest to very recent days, has not been a matter of morality at all but of rites, rituals, observance and ceremony”.

Religion, in fact, is not a mere process of mediations about man’s life; it is also a means of preserving the values of life. While it is possible to define religion as belief in God or some super-natural powers, it is well to remember that there can also be a Godless religion as Buddhism.

Nature of Religion:

In sociology, the word religion is used in a wider sense than that used in religious books. A common characteristic found among all religions is that they represent a complex of emotional feelings and attitudes towards mysterious and perplexities of life.

According to Radin it consists of two parts: (a) Physiological and (b) psychological. The physiological part expresses itself in such acts as kneeling, closing the eyes, touching the feet. The psychological part consists of supernormal sensitivity to certain traditions and beliefs. While belief in supernatural powers may be considered basic to all religion, equally fundamental is the presence of a deeply emotional feeling which Golden Weiber called the “religion thrill”.

If we analyse the great religions of the world, we shall find that each of them contains, five basic elements: (1) belief in supernatural powers, (2) belief in the holy, (3) ritual, (4) acts defined as sinful and (5) some method of salvation.

1. Belief in Supernatural Powers:

The first basic element of religion is the belief that there are supernatural powers. These powers are believed to influence human life and control all natural phenomena. Some call these supernatural forces God, other call them Gods. There are even others who do not call them by any name. They simply consider them as forces in their universe. Thus, belief in the non-sensory, super-empirical world is the first element of religion.

2. Belief in the Holy:

There are certain holy or sacred elements of religion. These constitute the heart of the religion. There are certain things which are regarded as holy or sacred. But a thing is holy or sacred not because of a peculiar quality of thing. An attitude makes a thing holy. The sacred character of a tangible thing is not observable to the senses.

Sacred things are symbols. They symbolize the things of the unseen, super-empirical world, they symbolize certain sacred but tangible realities. When a Hindu worships a cow, he worships it not because of the kind of animal the cow is, but because of a host of super-empirical characteristics which this animal is imagined to represent.

3. Ritual:

Religious ritual is “the active side of religion. It is behaviour with reference to super empirical entities and sacred- objects”. It includes any kind of behavior (such as the wearing of special clothing and the immersion in certain rivers, in the Ganga for instance), prayers, hymns, creedal recitations, and other forms of reverence, usually performed with other people and in public. It can include singing, dancing, weeping, crawling, starving, feasting, etc. Failure to perform these acts is considered a sin.

4. Acts defined as Sinful:

Each religion defines certain acts as sinful and profane (unholy). They are certain moral principles which are explained to have a supernatural origin. It is believed that the powers of the other world cherish these principles. The violation of these principles creates man’s sense of guilty. It may also bring upon him the disfavour of the supernatural powers. If the behaviour is not in accordance with the religions code, the behaviour or act is considered as sinful.

5. Some Method of Salvation:

A method of salvation is the fifth basic element of religion. Man needs some method by which he can regain harmony with the Gods through removal of guilt. In Hindu religion Moksha or Salvation represents the end of life, the realisation of an inner spirituality in man.

The Hindu seeks release from the bondage of Karma, which is the joy or suffering he undergoes as a result of his actions in his life. The ultimate end of life is to attain Moksha. The Buddhist hopes to attain Salvation by being absorbed in the Godhead and entering Nirvana. The Christian has a redeemer in Christ who gave his life for man’s sins.

In short, religion is the institutionalised set of beliefs men hold about supernatural forces. It is more or less coherent system of beliefs and practices concerning a supernatural order of beings, forces, places or other entities.

Role or Functions of Religion:

Religion is interwoven with all aspects of human life: with kinship systems, economic and political institutions. Prior to the advent of what may be called as “the age of reason”, religion has been the chief supporter of the spiritual and moral values of life. It has shaped domestic, economic and political institutions. Hence, it is obvious that religion performs a number of functions both for the religious group and for the wider society. These functions of religion are discussed bellow.

1. Religion Helps in the Struggle for Societal Survival:

Religion may be said to help in the struggle for societal survival. Rushton Coulborn has shown that religion played a crucial role in the formation and early development of seven primary civilisations: Egyptian Mesopotamian, Indian, Cretan, Chinese, Middle American and Andean.

Religion in each of these societies gave its members the courage needed for survival in an unfavourable environment, by giving explanations to certain aspects of the human conditions which could not be explained in a rational manner. In present societies religion also performs this role.

By relating the empirical world to the super-empirical world religion gives the individual a sense of security in this rapidly changing world. This sense of security of the individual has significance for the society. Since religion helps man to forget the suffering, disappointments and sorrows in this life’, social dissatisfaction and social unrest become less frequent and the social system continues functioning.

2. Religion Promotes Social Integration:

Religion acts as a unifying force and hence, promotes social integration in several ways. Religion plays an important part in crystallising, symbolising and reinforcing common values and norms. It thus provides support for social standards, socially accepted behaviour. Common faith, values and norms etc. are significant in unifying people.

As the individuals perform rituals collectively their devotion to group ends is enhanced. Through a ritual individual expresses common beliefs and sentiments. It thus helps him to identify himself more with his fellows, and to distinguish himself more from members of other groups, communities or nations.

By distinguishing between holy and unholy things, religion creates sacred symbol for the values and this symbol becomes the rallying point for all persons who share the same values. The cow as a sacred symbol of the Hindus, for example, is a rallying point which gives cohesion to Hindu society.

Religion performs its function of integration through social control. It regulates the conduct of individuals by enforcing moral principles on them and by prescribing powerful sanctions against them for violation.

3. Religion helps to knit the Social Values of a Society into a Cohesive Whole:

It is the ultimate source of social cohesion. The primary requirement of society is the common possession of social values by which individuals control the actions of self and others and through which society is perpetuated. These social values emanate from religious faith. Religion is the foundation upon which these values rest.

Children should obey their parents, should not tell a lie or cheat, women should be faithful to men; people should be honest and virtuous are some of the social values which maintain social cohesion. It is religion that asks man to renounce unsocial activities and requires him to accept limitations upon his wants and desires. All the religions have preached love and non-violence. They have emphasized sacrifice and forbearance.

4. Religions Acts as an Agent of Social Control:

It is one of the means of informal means of social control. Religion not only defines moral expectations for members of the religious group but usually enforces them. It supports certain types of social conduct by placing the powerful sanctions of the supernatural behind them.

It makes certain forms of social behaviour as offences not only against society but also against God. Hence, any violation of the acceptable norm is punishable not only by God but by society. Hinduism gives sanction to the caste system which regulates social relations of various classes in India.

5. Religion Promotes Social Welfare:

Religion encourages people to render services to the needy and poor and promote their welfare. It develops philanthropic attitude of people. Help and assistance are rendered to poor and destitute persons due to religion inspiration. It is believed that one can obtain the cherished goal of religion by way of giving alms and assistance to the helpless and needy persons. In this way religion promotes the welfare of individuals, groups and community.

6. Priestly Function:

The priesthood often was dedicated to art and culture. The priests laid the foundations of medicine. Magic supplied the roots of observation and experimentation from which science developed. It also inculcated the habit of charity among the people who opened many charitable institutions like hospitals, rest houses, temples to help the needy and the poor.

7. It Rationalizes and Makes bearable Individual Suffering in the known World:

Religion serves to soothe the man in times of his suffering and disappointment. In this world man often suffers disappointment even in the midst of all hopes and achievements. The things for which he strives are in some measure always denied to him. When human hopes are blighted, when all that was planned and striven for has been swept away, man naturally wants something to console and compensate him.

When a son dies man seeks to assuage his grief in ritualistic exchanges of condolence. On God he puts faith and entertains the belief that some unseen power moves in mysterious ways to make even his loss meaningful. Faith in God compensates him and sustains his interest in life and makes it bearable. In this way religion helps man to bear his frustrations and encourages him to accept his lot on earth.

8. Religion Enhances Self-importance:

It expands one’s self to infinite proportions. Man unites himself with the infinite and feels ennobled. Through unity with the infinite the self is made majestic and triumphant. Man considers himself the noblest work of God with whom he shall be united and his self thus becomes grand and luminous.

Besides this, religion shapes domestic, economic and political institutions. Religion supports institutional pattern more explicitly. All the great religions of the world have attempted to regulate kinship relations, especially marriage and family. Political institutions are often sanctioned by religion: the emperor of China or Japan was sacred; the ruling caste of India was sanctioned by Brahmanism; the kings of France were supposed to rule by divine right.

Religious rites are performed on many occasions in relation to vital events and dominant interests: birth, initiation, marriage, sickness, death, hunting, animal husbandry and so on; and they are intimately concerned with family and kinship interests and with political institutions. Religion is the central element in the life of civilisation.

Religion has also performed some other services to humanity among which Sumner and Keller included the provision of work, the spread of education, the accumulation of capital and the creation of a leisure class.

For thousands of years, religion has exerted a great influence over economic and political life. Even today religion is called upon to support rulers, contacts and other legal procedures.

Dysfunctions of Religion:

In addition to positive functions of religion, there are some negative aspects of its social functions. Although religion is an integrative force, it may be disruptive for the society as a whole. Sumner and Keller, Benjamin Kidd, Karl Marx, Thomas F. O’ Dea and others have pointed the dysfunctions of religion. The dysfunctions of religion are as follows.

1. Religion Inhibits Protests and Hinders Social Changes:

According to Thomas F. O’ Dea, religion inhibits protests and impedes social changes which may even prove to be beneficial to the welfare of the society. All protests and conflicts are not always negative. Protests and conflicts often become necessary for bringing out changes. Some changes would certainly lead to positive reforms. By inhibiting protests and preventing changes religion may postpone reforms.

2. Hampers the Adaptation of Society to Changed Conditions:

Social values and norms emanate from religious faith. Some of the norms which lose their appropriateness under changed conditions may also be imposed by religion. This can “impede a more functionally appropriate adaptation of society to changing conditions.”

For example, during the medieval Europe, the Church refused to grant the ethical legitimacy of money lending at interest, despite the great functional need of this activity in a situation of developing capitalism”. Even today, traditional Muslims face religio-ethical problems concerning interest-taking. Similar social conflict is evident in the case of birth control measures including abortion, in the Catholic world.

3. Religion may Foster Dependence and Irresponsibility:

Religion often makes its followers dependent on religious institutions and leaders. But it does not develop an ability in them to assume individual responsibility. For example, a good number of people in India prefer to take the advises of priests and religious leaders before starting some ventures. But they do not take the suggestion of those who are competent in the field.

4. Promotes Evil Practices:

In its course of development religion has supported and promoted evil practices such as cannibalism, slavery, untouchability, human and animal sacrifice etc.

5. Contributes to Exploitation:

As religion interprets misfortune and suffering in this world as manifestations of the supernatural order itself, it sanctifies the existing social structure. Religion preaches submission to the existing socio-economic condition and to fate.

It is this control function of religion that caused Marx to call religion as “the sigh of the oppressed creature, the sentiment of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opiate of the people.” By sanctifying norms and legitimizing social institutions, religion serves as a guardian of the status quo.

6. Promotes Superstitions:

Religion is the source of many superstitions. These superstitions have caused harm to human being. Superstitions like evil spirits and ghosts cause diseases; poverty is the desire of the God etc. hinder the welfare of human beings.

7. Results Conflicts:

Religion results in inter-group conflicts by dividing people along religious lines. It is deeply related with conflicts. Wars and battles have been fought in the name of religion.

8. Religion Causes Wastes:

Sumner and Keller are of the opinion that religion often causes economic wastes. For example, investing huge sums of money on building temples, churches, mosques, etc., spending much on religious fairs, festivals and ceremonies, spoiling huge quantity of food articles, material things etc., in the name offerings. It leads to waste of human labour, energy and time.

9. Religion Weakens Unity:

Religion creates diversities among people. It creates a gap among them. In the name of God and religion, loot, plundering, mass killing, rape and other cruel and inhuman treatments have been meted out to people.

10. Religion Promotes Fanaticism:

Religion has made people blind, dumb and deaf to the reality. They have faith without reasoning which is blind. On the contrary, it has often made people to become bigots and fanatics. Bigotry and fanaticism have led to persecution, inhuman treatment and misery in the past.

11. Religion Retards Progress:

Religion preserves traditions. It preaches submission to the existing conditions and maintenance of status quo. Religion is not readily amenable to social change and progress.

12. Religion Retards Scientific Achievement:

Religion has tried to prevent the scientists from discovering new facts. For example, it tried to suppress the doctrines of Darwin, Huxley and others.

By placing high premium on divine power religion has made people fatalistic. They think that all events in life is due to some divine power and hence due to fate. As a result, his power and potentiality is undermined. Thus, religion affects the creativity of man.

Marx has strongly criticised religion. For Marx all that was fundamental in the science of society proceeded from the material and especially the economic sphere. For him therefore religion is, to be sure, superstition, but to stop at this point is to limit religion to merely abstract belief.

It leaves the impression that religion may be dislodged simply by new, rational belief. Marx’s sense of the matter is more profound. Merely changing beliefs is not enough. The transformation of an entire social order is required, for belief is deeply rooted in the social relations of men.

Religion, writes Marx, “is the ‘self-consciousness and self-feeling of man who either has not yet found himself or has already lost himself. But man is no abstract being, squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man, the state, and society. This state, this society produce religion, a perverted world consciousness, because they are a perverted world.

Religion is the compendium of that world, its encyclopedic, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn completion, its universal ground for consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence because the human essence has no true reality.

Marx believed, like Luduig Feuerbach, that what man gives to God in the form of worship, he takes from himself. That is, man is persuaded through suffering or through false teaching to project what is his to a supernatural being. But he was convinced, unlike Feuerbach, that what is fundamental is not religious forms – against which Feuerbach had urged revolt-but the economic forms of existence.

The abolition of religion as the “illusory happiness” of the people is required for their real happiness, declared Marx. But before religion can be abolished the conditions which nurture it must be done away with. “The demand to give up the illusions about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusion”.

Marx’s criticism of religion is thus deeply connected with the criticism of right and the criticism of politics. As Marx put it… “The criticism of heaven transforms itself into the criticism of earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics”.

Marx was an atheist as well as a great humanist. He had profound sympathy for all who look up to religion for salvation. This is amply clear from his following observation: “The criticism of religion ends with the teaching that man is the highest essence of man, hence with the categorical imperative to overthrow all relations in which man is debased, enslaved abandoned…”

Changes in Religion:

Change is the very essence of a living thing. A living religion must grow, must advance and must change. No form of religion is static. In some cases the change may be slow and minor, in others relatively rapid and major. Every religion claims its first principle supreme, original and eternal. Hence, there is also an element of censure for change.

Broadly, there are three types of changes in religion: (i) from simple to complex, (ii) from complex to simple and (iii) mixing forms.

Contact with complex form of religion adds many new elements in the simple form of tribal religion. For example, with the gradual spread of Vaishnavism in chhotanagpur, the Oraons tribe which lives in that region, began to reorganise traditional faith.

There are also examples of simplification of complex form of religion, specially of rituals and ceremonies. Buddhism for instance, came as a revolt against the Vedic ritual which was both complex and expensive, and also beyond the common man’s reach. In the 19 century, Brahmo Samaj again tried to simplify the complex nature of Brahmanic Hinduism.

Mixing of more than one form has caused development of new religious organisation. The most excellent example is of Sophism. It has evolved from Persian, Zoroastrianism and Arab Islamism. Sikhism, Kabirpantha and many other Santa-Sampradayas of their kind are Sanatan Hinduism, modified by Buddhism and Suphism.

The history of the development of religion shows that as mankind moves from small isolated village towards large, complex, urban, industrialised society the character of influence of religion on man and his life changes. In the earlier phases of religion the primary needs of mankind, those concerned with the necessities of life, played a dominant part. As man’s knowledge of natural forces grows, he learns to control them by natural methods, that is, by a detailed scrutiny of their causes and conditions.

As religious explanation of the universe is gradually substituted by rational scientific explanations and various group activities (such as politics, education, art and music) have been increasingly transferred from ecclesiastical to civil and other non-religious agencies, the conception of God as a power over man and his society loses its importance. This movement is sometimes referred to as secularisation.

Thus secularisation as Bryan Wilson has defined, refers to the process in which religious thinking, practice and institutions lose social significance. In Europe, secularisation is held to be the outcome of the social changes brought about by urban, industrial society. It means that religious beliefs and practices have tended to decline in modern urban, industrial societies, particularly among the working class in Western societies.

Religion in Western societies has tended to place less emphasis on dogma and more on social values. It has tried to reconcile its doctrine with scientific knowledge. As Barnes has pointed out religion adapted to our changed conditions of life is worth preserving and it must seek to organise. The masses and guide their activities for the benefit of the society rather than for the purpose of pleasing the God.

Secularism as an ideology has emerged from the dialectic of modern science and Protestantism, not from simple repudiation of religion and the rise of rationalism. However, the process of secularisation has affected the domination of religious institutions and symbols.

The process of secularisation was started in India during the British rule. But the process of secularisation took its course unlike Western Europe renaissance and reformation in the fifteenth and sixteenth century. The process was very slow.

However, this worldly outlook, rationality and secular education gradually affected various aspects of religion in India. Various laws of social reformation, modern education, transport and communication contributed towards decline in religiosity among the Hindus.

No doubt we are moving from religiosity to secular way of life. But evidences show that religious beliefs have not declined in West as well as in our society. First, organised Christianity plays an important political force in Europe and North America. Second, the vitality of Zionism, militant Islam (Islamic fundamentalism), radical Catholicism in Latin America and Sikhism, fundamentalism and communalism in India suggest that no necessary connection exists between modernisation and secularisation.

All these criticisms are formidable indeed. But it should be noted that the diversity of religious sects and cults in modern societies demonstrates that religion has become an individual matter and not a dominant feature of social life. It can also be argued that, while religion may play a part in ideological struggles against colonialism (as in Iran), in the long run modernisation of society brings about secularisation.


The history of the development of religion shows that as mankind moves from small isolated villages towards large, complex, urban, industrial society; the influence of religion on man and his life changes. In the earlier phases of religion the primary needs of mankind were very much influenced by it. As man’s knowledge of natural forces grows, he learns to control them by natural methods, that is, by a detailed scrutiny of their causes and conditions.

As religious explanation of the universe is gradually substituted by rational scientific explanations and various group activities (politics, education, art and music) have been increasingly transferred from ecclesiastic to civil and other non-religious agencies, the conception of God as power over man and his society loses its importance. This movement is sometimes referred to as secularization.

Secularism as an ideology has emerged from the dialectic of modern science and Protestantism, not from a simple repudiation of religion and the rise of rationalism.

‘Secularisation’, in the words of Peter Berger, refers to ‘the process by which sectors of society and culture are removed from the domination of religious institutions and symbols.

Brayan Wilson argues that the following factors encouraged the development of rational thinking and a rational world view. Firstly, ascetic Protestantism, which created an ethic which was pragmatic, rational controlled and anti-emotional. Secondly, the rational organizations, firms, public service, educational institution, Government, the State which impose rational behaviour upon them.

Thirdly, the greater knowledge of social and physical world which results from the development of physical, biological and social sciences. He says that this knowledge is based on reason rather than faith. He claims that science not only explained many facts of life and the material environment in a way more satisfactory (than religion), but it also provided confirmation of its explanation in practical results.

The term ‘secularisation’ has been used in different ways. Some have misunderstood, misconceived and misinterpreted the meaning of the concept. Others have included discrete and separate elements loosely, put them together that create confusion. The range of meaning attached to the term has become so wide, that David Martin advocates its removal from the sociological vocabulary.

There are two meanings of the word current in modern and modernizing India and even in the whole of this subcontinent. One of the two meanings is found by consulting any standard dictionary. But there is the difficulty in finding the other, for it is non-standard, local meaning which, many like to believe, is typically and distinctively Indian or South Asian.

The first meaning becomes clear when people talk of secular trends in history or economics, or when they speak of secularizing the State. The word secular has been used in this sense, at least in the English-speaking West, for more than three hundred years.

This secularism chalks out an area in public life where religion is not admitted. One can have religion in one’s private life. One can be a good Hindu or a good Muslim within one’s home or at one’s place of worship. But when one enters public life, one is expected to leave one’s faith behind.

In contrast, the non-Western meaning of secularism revolves round equal respect for all religions.

In the Indian context the word has very different meaning from its standard use in the English language. It is held that India is not Europe and hence secularism in India cannot mean the same thing as it does in Europe. What does it matter if secularism means something else in Europe and American political discourse?

As long as there are clear and commonly agreed referents for the world in the Indian context, we should go ahead and address ourselves to the specifically Indian meaning of secularism. Unfortunately the matter cannot be settled that easily. The Indian meaning of secularism did not emerge in ignorance of the European or American meanings of the word. Indian meaning of secularism is debated in its Western genealogies.

New meaning is acquired by the word secularism in India. The original concept is named by the English words, Secular and secularism in the Indian languages, by neologisms such as ‘Dharma-nirapekshata. This is translation of those English words and dharma-nirapekshata is used to refer to the range of meanings indicated by the English term.

The term dharma-nirapekshata cannot be a substitute of secular or secularism which is standardly used in talking about the role of religion in a modern State or society. Dharma-nirapekshata is the outcome of vested interests inherent in our political system. Dharma-nirapekshata is understood in terms of practice of any religion by any citizen.

Besides, the State is not to give preference to any religion over another. But this term is irrelevant in a democratic structure and it bears no application in reality because three principles are mentioned in the liberal-doctrine (Liberty which requires that the State, permits the practice of any religion, equality which requires that State not to give preference to any religion and the principle of neutrality).

Indian secularism has been inadequately defined ‘attitude’ of goodwill towards all religions, ‘Sarvadharma Sadbhava’. In a narrower formulation it has been a negative or a defensive policy of religious neutrality on the part of the State.

Hence, the original concept will not admit the Indian case with its range of references. Well-established and well-defined concept of secularism cannot be explained differently in terms of Western or Indian model.

To Herberg, ‘authentic religion’ means an emphasis on the supernatural, a deep inner conviction of the reality of supernatural power, a serious commitment to religious teaching, a strong element of the theological doctrine and a refusal to compromise religious beliefs and values with those of the wider society.

If there is any trend of decline in any aspect of religion mentioned above, then it is indicative of the process of secularisation. Thus secularization, as Brayan Wilson has defined, refers to the process in which religious thinking, practice and institutions lose social significance. Religion in America is subordinated to the American way of life. It means that religious belief and practices have tended to decline.

Secularism is taken to mean that one’s religious ideals and beliefs should not interfere in general with social, economic and political field. Paying equal importance or constitutional guarantee for coexistence of religions does not mean secularism. There are other aspects of secularism. Secularism is related to rationalism and empiricism.

Secularisation involves reduction of religious influence on men, elimination of some aspects of it which are not beneficial to human welfare, elimination of superstitions and blind beliefs. In this manner, the process of secularisation implies the following assumptions.

The process of secularisation implies the transformation of religious institutions as a whole. There is the need to secularise the religious institutions. This means less emphasis on supernatural power, lack of theological doctrine, and desirability to compromise with religious beliefs and values.

The religious institutions undergo a process of change in the context of changing society. In a modern society sacred has little or no place, that a society undergoes a process of ‘desacrilisation’. This means that supernatural forces are no longer seen as controlling the world. Action is not directed by religious beliefs.

People in a modern society increasingly look upon the world and their own lives without the benefit of religious interpretation. As a result there is a ‘secularisation of consciousness’. Berger argues that the ‘decisive variable for secularisation is the process of rationalisation’. That is the pre-requisite for any industrial society of the modern type.

Secularisation also implies rationality. Wilson argues that a rational world view is the energy of religion. It is based on testing of arguments and beliefs by rational procedure, on asserting truth by means of factors which can be quantified and objectively measured.

Religion is based on faith. Its claim to truth cannot be tested by rational procedures. A rational world view rejects faith which is the basis of religion. It removes the mystery, magic and authority of religion. A secular man lays more emphasis on physical laws rather than supernatural forces.

The process of secularisation as the most important component of the process of modernisation is occurring in different forms in various contemporary societies. Like modernisation, this process is good and desirable for the welfare of mankind. Finally, it is both a product and a process.

This speech was presented at the Sixth Dialogue among Civilizations between Japan and the Islamic World in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on March 23, 2008.

I am neither a scholar of religions nor a specialist in Islam, but I do give considerable thought to the major issues facing modern society from the viewpoint of government policy and the organization of society. So what I wish to do today is to offer a rough sketch of what I consider to be the role of religion in modern society in the hope of offering some food for thought. I must admit, though, that I am not a specialist in this field, so I please pardon me if my perceptions are not accurate.

Man and Modern Civilization

First I would like to address the nature of modern civilization. A scientist once commented that the defining difference between modern and earlier civilizations is our ready access today to mechanical power. By burning fossil fuels, an energy source that has been stored underground for millions of years, we have been able to speed up the pace and broaden the scope of our activities and have advanced the division of labor and money economy to their ultimate limits. Today, the impact of our activities can instantly reach all corners of the globe.

Modern civilization has blessed man with many benefits, including convenience, comfort, and economic prosperity.

At the same time, it has spawned a number of what I would call "pathological phenomena," one of the biggest being the crisis in the global environment. Another is the fact that trading of financial and other products in lots hundreds and even thousands of times greater than actual demand is being conducted on a daily basis. On the personal level, there has been a rise in such allergies as hay fever and atopy in Japan, and the number of mental patients suffering from depression and people committing suicide has been on the rise.

Even though humans have a highly developed brain, we are still part of the animal world. It is this difference in cerebral development, though, that has led to the creation of civilization. The various aspects of modern civilization, such as man-made products and the fast pace of activity, moreover, are themselves creating even larger gaps between man and other life forms. The gaps have become so wide, in fact, that non-human aspects have been unable to keep up with modern civilization. One might characterize modern pathologies, then, as the manifestations of this phenomenon.


For most people, religion provides answers to the big questions in life, which in Buddhism revolve around the themes of birth, aging, disease, and death. It teaches people how they should relate to their desires, worries, and fears. It also brings them comfort and impresses upon them the need for resignation. At the same time, based on these teachings, it provides a system of norms regarding daily conduct. The extensiveness of such systems will no doubt depend on whether one is talking about a world religion or a local, indigenous faith. The most universal of such systems, transcending time, region, and culture, are the ones that have emerged as world religions.

In other words, most people expect religion to fill the gap that I referred to earlier existing between man and other life forms.

The universality of the values that religion upholds is in the realm of abstract concepts. When they are actually put into practice in concrete ways, though, they manifest themselves in various forms according to place and time.

This is akin to the fact that universal values of modern society, such as freedom, equality, fairness, and human rights, are upheld in different ways according to country and ethnic group.

What Modern Society Looks for in Religion

In this sense, I believe that religion will come to play an increasingly larger role in filling the yawning gap that modern civilization has created between man and other life forms.

Its role will be not only to comfort man as he struggles through life but also to curb the excesses of civilization. For example, in the microscopic world, modern civilization has gained the ability to manipulate genetic information. Such attempts to modify the mechanisms of life are being driven by advances in technology and man's greed, even though their potential future impact are not yet clear.

On a larger-scale, environmental issues have been ignored for decades despite warnings from scientists that the problem is really serious, largely because these issues were not immediately felt. This has resulted in the crisis we face today.

Both of these issues involve the need to control human greed and desire, which is a fundamental task for any religion.

What are some of the issues that religion must confront if it is to play a larger role in curbing such excesses? I would like to consider this point with reference to the role of Buddhism in Japan.

The biggest issue religion confronts today is the fact that it appears unable to keep up with modern civilization. The gap between man and other life forms that religion is addressing is that which existed about a century ago.

This is true of almost all religions, as aptly illustrated by the fact that the condemnation of Galileo for heresy was only recently rescinded.

How Islam deals with progress was discussed at a previous meeting of the Dialogue among Civilizations between Japan and the Islamic World. I am sure that all religions of the world, including Islam, have attempted to adapt to the times by adding new concepts and changing interpretations. But there are differences in the speed and scope with which such changes have been made. I would add that there are also differences in how the devotees of the various faiths react to the changes.

In order for religions to catch up with modern civilization and effectively deal with its pathologies, I believe it is important for religions to explain the core aspects of their teachings in a manner that is readily understood by modern man. It is also necessary to establish norms for daily conduct that are in keeping with modern lifestyles. In this regard, I believe it is important to allow for diverse responses according to region and ethnic group.

It is my conviction that the Japanese people inherently have very strong religious feelings but that this is being rapidly lost in modern society, especially in urban areas. As far as Buddhism in Japan is concerned, I believe it needs to quickly catch up with modern civilization and to make the two changes I have just mentioned if it is to remain a viable means of bridging the gap between man and other life forms in contemporary society.

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