The Purpose and Function of Religion

November 11, 2015

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In my last post I concluded that religion and morality were two separate and distinct things–that a person may be religious and immoral or secular and moral (or vice-versa). I claimed that religion by itself is morally neutral. It may  be an impetus for the greatest good or the worst evil–but that just reinforces the fact that devoid of politics, geography, bias, psychology, environment and community religion will not spark either extreme. Traditionally, at least in the States, many have argued that religion is necessary to inculcate morality. I claim we must divorce the two concepts completely and that in doing so we can enhance the inter-religious/inter-philosophical conversation and cooperation across the religious-secular divide.
So, if there exists no (or a negative) link between religiosity and morality what is the real purpose and function of religion?
If you to asked the saints, devout or extremely pious of past or present the purpose of religion you would likely receive a multitude of answers rooted in the language of the particular religion of each. But all of these purposes can usually be summarized by students outside of the traditions as either “peace of mind”: salvation, moksha, enlightenment, wholeness and assurance of future entry into paradise, heaven or nirvana–or “justice”: transforming society into an egalitarian land of equality, e.g. under the rule of the Kingdom of God or of the rightly guided Caliphs. One of these purposes is internal, the other is external but both are largely “big picture” or eschatological (end of history) goals. The average, even if committed, individual doesn’t give much consistent daily practical attention to these goals. Sure some hyper-sensitive folks may yearn for the good end of history goals more than others and if rooted in fear plenty of children (and adults) have spent nights scared of hell (I remember those days). Many people hope for a day when they will be reunited with their deceased loved ones and we all want peace of mind–but more than any of these lofty goals what religion has historically done and continues to do best is to provide community.
Religion provides community. It gives people a sense of place, an extended family and a group identity. Think of Judaism, how a people persecuted and pushed across the globe through diaspora after diaspora found a way to intertwine text and tradition to form new communities in each new land they found themselves. Today even atheists with Jewish lineage often identify as Jewish. Think of Muslims who picture themselves as part of the worldwide ummah , a global community who feel the persecution of their sisters and brothers around the globe as if it was their own injury and persecution. Think of a Baptist potluck dinner in a church basement extending into the late afternoon where best friends gather each and every week for generations. Religion provides community. Incidentally there have been studies–particularly in light of the shortage of male partners and therefore birth rates in Orthodox Jewish and Mormon US communities–that suggest the lower apostate rate for females in comparison to males in religious communities is due to a higher emphasis on community by females.
Religion functions as family and community for those without and creates larger frameworks for those with. Religion creates historical chains of community, stretching communities back into history predating even one’s known genealogical family tree. Religion creates the opportunity for action–what one alone cannot do one large body can. On the negative side religion can create an “us” and a “them” in contradistinction. Once again, think of Judaism and how the Bible relates the tribe of Judah and the People Israel as unique and set apart from their pagan neighbors. People have always separated into us and them,  this has served an evolutionary purpose–helping protect the group from those outside who may do harm. Monotheism developed out of tribal religions, like early Judaism, in which the tribe was loyal to their god or gods over their neighbors god or gods. A key development in morality is due credit to Judaism in that the Torah was emphatic on caring for those outside of the tribe (the “stranger”) when that was not an evolutionary or historical  good but rather a moral one. Today religion can often spin “us” and “them” in a polarizing manner. Think of the targets of scorn for many American conservative Christians–Muslims, Atheists and LGBTQ persons (particularly T, transgender, easily the most mistreated and abused group in the world for their relatively small size). Care for the stranger often lapses from group dynamics.

So it’s worth noting–Religion, a morally neutral institution serves primarily to promote and sustain community–another morally neutral institution. Yet the power and action that can come from that community can be tremendously good or terrifically bad. Or it can be bland and moderate or unjust and oppressive.

What serves the function of community in the absence of religion? People tend to congregate into community in unique ways when they uproot from traditional mechanisms and the digital age as allowed this to proliferate even more. Millennials tend to eschew civic groups (Shriners, Masons, etc.) more often than their parents much like they do church. What institutions will arise to replace the old way of congregating? Several years ago I researched a possible book exploring how something like Metal music and culture functions as a religion–I’m far from the first to suggest that as there was a half-joking half serious attempt by some metalheads some years past to get “Metal” listed as a religious identification on the census. But the fact that Metal music explores so many religious concepts, often in derision or protest, and the fact that so many metalheads tend to live their music and identify with it their entire lives functions in much the same way as religion. There are other cultures and ideologies– from Punk Rock to rodeo to atheism to libertarianism–that also function as religion in many ways. But what can truly serve the role of religion in such a way with text, tradition, history and accepted institutions?

Back to the broader topic–if religion is separate from morality and the major function that religion seems to serve is that of providing community and group identity, from whence does morality come? What is morality? Is it a good? Is it a fixed concept? I’ll save that for next post.

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2 Responses to “The Purpose and Function of Religion”

  1. […] I’ll get back to my series of posts next time by considering what morality even is. It may seem odd that I blatantly denounce the mistreatment of refugees as “immoral” without specifying what that word implies but I assume anyone reading who has the slightest inclination or understanding of “morality” can see immorality on display in national responses right now. If not, I’m not sure I have any time for you anymore anyway. […]

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