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What are the functions of religion? What societal needs does it fulfill? Is religion necessary for these functions?
Many contend that religion explains the existence of the universe, provides morality and social stability, binds people together, and gives rise to comfort and hope. While religion does serve these functions, some argue that these roles can be fulfilled by alternatives to religion.
Keep reading for an overview of the functions of religion in society, drawing on ideas from Jonathan Haidt, Will and Ariel Durant, Richard Dawkins, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, and others.
The Functions of Religion
In this exploration of the various functions of religion in society, we’ll turn to history, philosophy, and psychology. We’ll look at four areas where religion plays a role—an explanation of the natural and supernatural, morality and social stability, community building, and comfort and hope—and consider some alternative viewpoints. We’ll see how the alternative views, held by prominent atheists, don’t deny that religion functions as it does. Instead, they argue that religion isn’t necessary to fulfill these personal and societal needs.
Religion Helps Explain the Universe
Theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking begins his book Brief Answers to the Big Questions with a discussion of God, observing that the concept of God is closely related to the question of how the world began. He explains that our ancestors looked to religion for an explanation of the origin of the universe as well as how reality works in the present. In ancient times, people attributed the creation of the universe, the seasons, the phases of the moon, natural disasters, and many other things to the actions of a god or gods.
Is Religion Necessary to Understand the Universe?
Hawking asserts that, today, science provides better explanations for natural phenomena than religion does, making the concept of God unnecessary. He doesn’t, however, claim to have proof of God’s non-existence. He concedes that scientists don’t yet have naturalistic explanations for some things, such as the origin of the first life forms. Nevertheless, he expects natural mechanisms to be discovered, based on the historical trend of natural explanations replacing supernatural ones.
Is Hawking right? Despite advances in science, explaining the universe remains a function of religion in society. Many religious people still believe that a deity is behind the creation and working of the universe, even though we understand it better than ever. They don’t consider religion and science to be mutually exclusive, despite the efforts of some to perpetuate that notion.
Religion Gives Rise to Moral Behavior
Napoléon Bonaparte said that “religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich.” Indeed, the instilling of morality has long been a major function of religion.
In The Righteous Mind, moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt explains that, on the whole, religions provide frameworks for moral behavior. Gods helped to create moral societies; they punished bad behavior and rewarded good behavior. If people think someone can always see and judge them, they’ll be much more likely to act in a morally upstanding way.
Haidt writes that the group activities that people who are religious engage in—and the friendships that religion helps to foster—promote selfless behavior. He points out that studies from Robert Putnam and David Campbell show that religious people are more likely to give money to charity and are more generous with their time.
Religion Cements Behavioral Norms
Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson, the authors of The Elephant in the Brain, speak to this function of religion in society. They argue that religion isn’t just about belief, salvation, and a higher purpose; it’s also about cementing and enforcing behavioral norms.
For instance, Simler and Hanson point out that most religions have rules about who can get married and that many have teachings that encourage procreation. In other words, they say, one function of religion is to establish and enforce a set of norms around mating.
Similarly, Simler and Hanson argue that many religious practices revolve around sacrifice because it shows that we’re good potential allies if we’re willing to selflessly put the group first. They claim that deities typically stand in for society at large. So, sacrificing to a god shows that we’re willing to sacrifice for society. For this reason, they conclude that demonstrating religious belief indicates your willingness to pay your dues for the greater good of the social group.
Meanwhile, other religious practices serve to distinguish adherents from non-adherents and implicitly signal something about the practitioner’s values. For example, when you attend a public religious function, you see fellow believers and they see you. As a result, the religion’s rules and values become public knowledge, meaning everyone is more likely to observe them because they know the community knows they know the rules and expects them to follow them.
Meanwhile, visible components of religion—such as attire—serve to identify believers to each other and to outsiders. In both cases, Simler and Hanson say religious attire serves as an implicit promise to uphold the religion’s moral standards. For fellow believers, the attire activates the common knowledge of shared norms, and, for outsiders, it implies that the wearer knows he or she speaks for the whole religion and is therefore motivated to behave morally.
Religion Provides Social Stability & Survival
Social stability—based on morality—is one of the functions of religion. When a society at large exhibits moral behavior, it’s able to maintain stability. Law and order operate smoothly. Pulitzer Prize-winning historians Will and Ariel Durant, in their book The Lessons of History, indicate that there’s no significant example of a stable society without religion, at least before the 20th century (they believe that our society is exceptional in history for maintaining moral conduct without the ubiquitous force of religion).
The Durants write that, in early civilizations, people perceived prescriptions for human behavior as being handed down by gods: Yahveh gave the 10 Commandments to Moses, Thoth gave the law to Menes in Egypt, and Shamash gave Hammurabi a code for Babylonia. Thus, religion created social stability by providing paths for conflict resolution through courts and softening penalties exacted by barbarian law.
In his book Skin in the Game, Nassim Nicholas Taleb explains that these rules are a way for entire civilizations to hedge their bets against moral deviance. The rules are typically simple—without gray areas—and err on the side of restriction and safety. This makes them easy to teach, difficult to misunderstand, and more likely to avoid the risks of moral ambiguity. Consider the 10 Commandments. If a society is deeply—spiritually—compelled to obey commandments such as “You shall not steal,” “You shall not murder,” or “You shall not commit adultery,” it’s going to be a more stable, productive society.
A single small theft of one of your neighbor’s sheep isn’t going to have much of a harmful effect on society, Taleb explains. But, if everyone is constantly stealing every little thing they can get away with, society will suffer. A widespread, oversensitive aversion to these sins mitigates the cumulative damage to the collective.
Religion provides social stability also because of the hope that it provides. If that hope is destroyed, the Durants contend, you risk triggering a class war.
The Durants argue that social stability is a function of religion, and Taleb takes it a step further. He argues that religion not only contributes to societal stability, but it also contributes to societal survival. He claims that the ultimate function of religion is to offset the risks of societal ruin caused by humans’ self-serving instincts.
Religion is society’s expression of loss aversion, Taleb writes. Just as each of us plays it safe in all the little areas of our lives to avoid cumulative ruin, religion ensures that as many people as possible live in ways that avoid contributing to the risk of destroying the human race.
Is Religion Necessary for Moral Behavior?
As we’ve seen, a case can be made that religion provides human beings with an exhortation to moral action. In The God Delusion, biologist and anti-religion activist Richard Dawkins asserts that religion isn’t necessary for this function of religion. Kindness and altruism have perfectly rational Darwinian roots, he claims. The drive for gene survival provides a powerful incentive for individuals to behave altruistically toward those in their kin group, with whom they share a genetic link. The reciprocity reflex is also a powerful evolutionary mechanism, Dawkins continues. We are hardwired to repay favors because it increases everyone’s chances of survival.
Yuval Noah Harari agrees with Dawkins. In his book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, he writes that, although many religious laws are meant to keep social order, people are driven to cooperate regardless of religious convictions. Many mistakenly attribute morality to religion. In reality, he contends, humans are hard-wired to maintain social order, and religion has worked both for and against this cause.
While the rules of a lawgiver god may have successfully kept the peace and social order in many eras and cultures, Harari points out that they have also been the source of much violence and discrimination. People have committed countless atrocities in the name of gods. By contrast, secular laws have achieved the same social order as religious laws, but they have not inspired the same level of self-righteous violence.
Despite what some may say, humans don’t need divine law or the threat of hell in order to act morally, Harari argues. Morality is baked into the DNA of humans and all social animals. As social animals, humans are motivated to do what’s best for their communities because relationships play a large role in determining human happiness. Additionally, humans are motivated to be good to people outside of their immediate communities for reasons that are separate from religion.
Are Dawkins and Harari right? Atheist John Gray (whom Nassim Nicholas Taleb considers to be the wisest living person today) criticizes the hostility toward religion held by “evangelical atheists.” He argues that religion is a historical prerequisite for a society built on liberal, humanist values such as freedom, justice, human equality, and personal autonomy.
Religion Creates a Social Fabric
Another function of religion is to create a social fabric. In The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt argues that religion binds people together.
A college football game is analogous to the community that’s built around religion. Students and alumni dress up and participate in rituals that have been around for decades if not a century. From the outside, it looks costly and purposeless if not dangerous. But, thinking about it from a sociological perspective, it brings people into a hive where they’re worshiping something greater than themselves. It changes people’s experience with a school, which in turn leads to more donations and a better experience for everyone in the community.
Many people don’t understand religion, Haidt claims, because they focus on the spiritual and supernatural beliefs that come along with it. They have difficulty describing it or understanding it as a primarily social driver that brings people into a community around a belief.
Religion regularly helps society become more communal. We’ll call this the “Durkheimian Model,” because it follows Durkheim’s logic that certain beliefs and practices create community.
Religion is a self-sustaining practice that can help increase community through believing, doing, and belonging. Each sustains the other two. When you believe in a Christian God, for example, you’re more likely to join a church. This leads you to both feel a greater sense of belonging in your community and have a stronger belief in God. A sense of belonging may lead you to volunteer work with a church group and also a greater belief in both God and the institution of the church. The table below illustrates this phenomenon:
This function of religion in society is backed up by the work of anthropologist Richard Sosis. He studied communes in the 19th century to prove the point that religion binds: Of those based around a religious concept, 39 percent were functioning after 20 years. Of those that weren’t religious, only 6 percent functioned after 20 years. The sacrifices that the communes demanded were much more successful when they were sacralized.
Religion Provides Comfort and Hope
Another function of religion is the provision of comfort and hope for billions of people. In The Lessons of History, the Durants assert that even the unhappy, the suffering, the bereaved, and the old enjoy “supernatural comforts” more soothing than any material benefit. For many, faith is the only thing that keeps despair at bay.
Some functions of religion have diminished over time. Despite this erosion, the Durants explain, religion survives because it inspires imagination and hope. It “consoles and brightens the lives of the poor” and those “wearied with the uncertainty of reason.” As long as there’s hardship, there will be religion.
Is Religion Necessary for Comfort & Hope?
Proponents of religion claim that, at its best, religion provides human beings with consolation in our moments of deepest loss and grief, Dawkins writes in The God Delusion. The claim that religion provides consolation or makes people happier or more secure is dubious at best, he argues, claiming that social science research offers no conclusive evidence that atheists are any less happy or fulfilled than people of faith.
We know this anecdotally, too, Dawkins writes. Christians, for example, claim that they’ll be rewarded with joy for eternity as they’re reunited with their deceased loved ones. If they truly believed this, then they wouldn’t fear their own deaths or mourn the passing of friends and family. Instead, they would be excited about death and their future ascension into paradise. But, of course, this is not how religious people think or behave in practice. They despair of their own deaths and grieve the loss of others just as much as anyone. This would seem to indicate that even the devout don’t truly believe in resurrection and eternal life and that, instead, they know intuitively that they’re truly gone forever once they die.
For their part, Dawkins contends, atheists can have a more healthy and affirming attitude toward both life and death because they don’t have to reconcile the rational part of their minds with a belief in God or eternity. Atheists are free to accept the idea that there was a period of time stretching from the beginning of the universe to the moment of their birth when they did not exist—and that death merely represents the resumption of that state of non-existence.
Not believing in eternal life opens your eyes to the truth that your existence is the very briefest flicker of a candle in the vast history of the universe. Your non-existence is the natural and normal state of affairs. You just happen to be living through a fleeting exception. Knowing that, life can be as joyous or as sad as you choose to make it.
Is Dawkins right about this function of religion? He claims that a belief in resurrection and eternal life should cause people not to grieve the loss of loved ones. But, even if loved ones will be reunited at a point in the future, there’s a loss: those who survive will now experience life without those who die. People who hope in eternal life simply grieve differently than those without that hope; they grieve the temporary loss of a relationship, but they don’t grieve an eternal loss of a relationship with those who die.
Even if religion weren’t necessary for these functions, it’s clear that religion has served in these roles since the dawn of humanity. For millennia, with all of its faults and failings, religion has helped us explain the universe, behave morally, maintain social stability, and come together in communities. And, perhaps most of all, religion has brought comfort and hope to countless people, instilling a belief that there’s more to life than this—and that the best is yet to come.
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