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Tuesday, May 4, 2010

What are the Functions of Religion?

As I indicated in prior posts, I have been fascinated by the writings of David Eller, an anthropologist. He is the author of two chapters in John Loftus', The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails. He is also the author of a college textbook entitled, Introducing Anthropology of Religion: Culture to the Ultimate (Routledge, 2007). On pages 10 and 11, he gives six functions of religion:

1. Filling individual needs, especially psychological or emotional needs. Religion provides comfort, hope, perhaps love, definitely a sense of control, and relief from fear and despair.

2. Explanation, especially of origins or causes. Humans wonder why things are as they are. How did the world start? How did humans start? . . .

3. Source of rules and norms. . . . religion can provide the answer to where the traditions and laws of the society came from. . . . This is the charter function of religion: It acts as the the "charter" or guideline or authority by which we organize ourselves in particular ways and follow particular standards. Why do we practice monogamy? Because a religious being or precedent says to, or because the first humans did, etc. Why do other societies practice polygamy? Perhaps because their religious being or precedent (say, the ancestor or founder) said it or did it.

4. Source of "ultimate sanctions." Religion is, among other things, a means of social control. . . . a large part of religion is about what we should do, how we should live. . . . Human agents of social control cannot be everywhere and cannot see everything, and the rewards and punishments they can mete out are finite. . . .

5. Solution of immediate problems. . . . If we are sick or distressed, are the beings or forces angry with us? What should we do about it? If there is an important social or political decision to make (say, going to war), is there a way to discover the preferences or plans of the beings and forces--to "read their mind"? Can we ask them for favors, give them gifts, or do anything at all to influence their actions and intentions?

6. Fill "needs of society." . . . Certainly, not everything that a religion teaches or practices is good for every individual: Human sacrifice is not about fulfilling the needs of sacrificial victims. Nor does religion always soothe individual fears and anxieties; for instance, the belief in a punitive afterlife may cause people to fear more, and concerns about proper conduct of rituals can cause anxiety. However, belief in a punitive afterlife can cause people to obey norms, which is good for society. The primary need of society, beyond the needs of individuals, is integration, cohesion, and perpetuation, and religion can provide an important "glue" toward that end.
I think these "functions of religion," as Eller calls them, goes a long way in explaining why religion is so very important to people. These functions are not unique to any one particular religion but common to them all. They help us to understand why religion is intricately interwoven into our societies and why it is very difficult, if not impossible, to ever eradicate it.


  1. Thank you for your blog I have learned so much. I see now as a teenager the being able to join a group who accepted me and welcomed me made me feel good and gave me that power feeling of god's love. It took me years to see the delusion I was under.

  2. i also think that a religion can help a spiritual person develop their morality, and improve upon their character.
    it can also serve as a vessel for benevolence within the community, such as charities, etc...
    i also think religion can help one celebrate life, create a sense of thankfulness and awareness of the good things in our lives. this doesn't mean we ignore the bad things, but it can mean that we work to change the things we need to change within ourselves and cultivate awareness of the good.
    religion also serves as a way to socialize with people who share the same worldview.

    yes, religion, especially those religions that emphasize dogma, are prone to becoming just another political force. however the function of religion, for me, is what i've listed above. i have absolutely no problem with atheists, in fact most of my friends, and most of the blogs i follow, are atheistic, and i do have a problem with christianity. however there is a positive side of religion. the idea that "religion is all good" or "religion is all bad" is simply not true. it is untrue that "all people need to be religious" but it is also untrue that religion has no positive purpose for those who are spiritual by nature.

  3. Nice post. I agree that these are some of the reasons religion is important to people. It should also be mentioned that one of the reasons religions come about in the first place, and evolve, is by helping to support behavior that works to build societies, and then by ensuring their own survival within the society by indoctrinating the young and making promises and threats. This sounds pretty negative, but any secular culture must have similar charters to balance the needs of individuals with the needs of society.

    The question is, are secular charters enough to get people to behave nicely? I don't know, but I suspect they can only work in societies with a high level of education.

    cheers from cloudy Vienna, zilch

  4. I don't doubt that the propensity for spirituality is some sort of evolutionary adaptation that enabled human beings to cope with the overwhelming profundity of consciousness. However, our understanding of how the human mind developed is so sketchy that I don't think science is anywhere near telling us how or why it happened. I am therefore wary of some of the more militant atheists who are so confident that the wholesale elimination of religion would be a good thing. I just don't think we know enough about the wiring of the human psyche to be sure of the exact need that religion fills and how it might be filled in the absence of religion.