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.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.
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.
Tuesday, May 4, 2010
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: