The Many Functions of Religions

There is a long history of assessing — and attempting to explain — religion in a functional manner.  Marx and Engels figured that the function of religion was to disguise the realities of the underlying economic system and palliate the suffering of the laboring masses.  Durkheim thought that the function of religion was to enable rituals which bound society together.  Freud asserted that the function of religion was to allay fear and serve other emotional needs.  Others have claimed that the function of religion is to promote and sustain moral behaviors.  Some modern evolutionary theorists see religion as an adaptation which functions to promote group cohesion.  The latter obviously owe a big debt to Durkheim and rely heavily on the ritual explanation for religion.  There may be some truth to each of these attempted functional explanations, but none of them explains the origins of religion.

In most cases, functional explanations revolve around proximate rather than ultimate causes.  A good analogy would be the feathers on birds.  Looking at birds today, many of us would say that the purpose — or function — of feathers is to enable flight.  If, however, we look deeper into the evolutionary past, we learn that feathers first appear on proto-birds (i.e., dinosaurs) that could not fly.  The function of feathers, at least initially, was for thermoregulation.  This function of feathers was an ultimate cause.  Feathers kept these flightless dinosaurs warm.  Only later were feathers used for flight.  This function of feathers was a proximate cause.  Feathers are a perfect example of what Stephen Jay Gould usefully called an “exaptation” — something evolves for one purpose (ultimate cause) and at a later time is adapted for a different use (proximate cause).

With these things in mind, Philip Goldberg’s recent article on the several functions of religion was quite interesting.  With alliterative flair, Goldberg lists these functions:

1. Transmission: to impart to each generation a sense of identity through shared customs, rituals, stories, and historical continuity.

2. Translation: to help individuals interpret life events, acquire a sense of meaning and purpose, and understand their relationship to a larger whole (in both the social and cosmic senses).

3. Transaction: to create and sustain healthy communities and provide guidelines for moral behavior and ethical relationships.

4. Transformation: to foster maturation and ongoing growth, helping people to become more fulfilled and more complete.

5. Transcendence: to satisfy the longing to expand the perceived boundaries of the self, become more aware of the sacred aspect of life, and experience union with the ultimate ground of Being.

I want to take a closer look at Goldberg’s list and briefly comment on each item.

Transmission:  Although religions (especially post-Neolithic and modern ones) can indeed “impart to each generation a sense of identity through shared customs, rituals, stories, and historical continuity,” religion does not always function this way and in the deeper past rarely functioned this way.  A sense of identity can come from many sources other than religion.  Few hunter-gatherer societies, past or historic, derived their sense of identity from their supernatural beliefs (“shamanisms”).  In modern times, perhaps the most powerful source of identity comes from nationalism or what the sociologist Robert Bellah calls “civil religion.”  The same is true of shared customs, rituals, stories, and history.  These have many sources, not all religious.  Think about the customs, rituals, stories, and history surrounding the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving, which are not considered by most to be religious holidays or occasions.

Translation:  With this function, Goldberg is getting closer to an ultimate cause.  The various aspects of mind which give rise to supernatural beliefs (and which eventually led to the formation of religion in more recent times) assist us in perceiving and interpreting the world, even if these perceptions and interpretations are often mistaken.  Humans are hard-wired to think in terms of cause and effect.  This is part of our unique evolutionary history.  Whenever we observe an effect — whether it be a birth, a disease, a death, an accident, or a natural disaster — we almost universally will attribute a cause.  When we are lacking an empirical explanation — which has been the case throughout most of human history — the explanation will be supernatural.  Religions are built on this foundation.

Goldberg’s translation function falters, however, when he claims that religion helps us acquire “a sense of meaning and purpose.”  Although this is certainly one function of modern religions, it was not a function of the earliest religions or the supernatural traditions (shamanisms) which preceded religions.  I have read hundreds of hunter-gatherer ethnographies and ethnohistories, and have yet to encounter a hunter-gatherer society in which the meaning and purpose of life was unclear or even a question.  People began to wonder about the meaning and purpose of life during the Axial Age, during a time of mass urbanization, increasing social stratification, widespread warfare, despotic rule, and disintegration of kinship groups.  Along with these changes, large numbers of people experienced — for the first time — disease, poverty, oppression, and slavery.  Under these conditions, it is easy to see how people might begin to question the meaning and purpose of their miserable lives.  Ironically, when Hobbes characterized life in pre-state societies as “nastie, poore, brutish, and shorte,” he was much closer to describing life in more recent, large-scale societies.  Life in industrialized and capitalist societies has simply amplified the question of meaning and purpose.

Transaction:  Here we again encounter the canard — or historical fiction — that religion creates and sustains morals and ethics.  As I discussed in this post (“Religion Functions to Sustain the Moral Order — Starkly Wrong“) and several others (use the blog’s search function and type “morals, morality, or ethics”), this idea is quite recent and originates with Zoroastrianism and later, Judaism (i.e., the Ten Commandments).  It received major support from Plato, whose metaphysical ideas were incorporated into Christianity initially by Saul/Paul and subsequently by Augustine.

Transformation:  There are many paths to maturation and growth without religion.  The study of history and other cultures demonstrates that many peoples are “fulfilled” and “complete” without recourse to religion.

Transcendence:  There does seem to be a universal human longing to experience altered states of consciousness.  Whether these altered states amount to “the sacred” or “ultimate being” is another question altogether.  In shamanisms, these altered states of consciousness were induced not to seek union with the sacred or divine, but instead were used for instrumental purposes — to accomplish a specific goal related to some aspect of life that was troublesome.  Shamans seek contact with the spirit world — and hence transcend the physical self and world — in order to prevent misfortune, cure illness, and promote success (in hunting and other matters).  They did not seek transcendence for its own sake.  Indeed, it was considered dangerous to do so.  Having said all this, it is easier to understand why people in large-scale modern societies might seek to transcend an existence that is either actually or experientially impoverished.

Supernatural thinking arises naturally from the normal operations of the evolved human brain-mind.  Any attempt to explain religion that does not begin with these aspects of mind will fall short because the many functions of supernatural thinking and religious belief are proximate rather than ultimate causes.

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7 thoughts on “The Many Functions of Religions

  1. Michael Blume

    I appreciate your discussions of evolutionary hypotheses of religion very much! But I wonder why I couldn’t find anything about the (on average) higher numbers of children by religionists, even if controlled for education, income and other factors. Religious tend to be fruitfull and multiply throughout the generations – which is a direct fitness advantage.

    PS: Welcome at my blogroll at “Biology of Religion”! :-)

  2. admin Post author

    I am glad I found your site and thanks for linking me! My short answer is this: I am generally hesitant to look at modern religions — their forms, beliefs, practices (and fertility rates), and then project those back into evolutionary time. Doing so poses serious methodological problems. Indeed, it is my contention that there was no such thing as “religion,” in any organized or systematic sense, until well after the Neolithic Revolution approximately 12,000 years ago.

    The first evidence of organized and systematic religion, in the modern sense, comes from Mesopotamia and Egypt, and thus dates to approximately 5,000 years ago. By this time, the forces of culture appear to have been far more important to humanity than the forces of selection. Thus, while organized religions may have increased fertility rates over the last 5,000 years, I am not certain it had anything to do with fertility rates during the preceding 150,000 years, which is when Homo sapiens first appears in the archaeological record.

    Although I dislike the term “cultural evolution” (because I think “evolution” should be confined to biology), it seems to me that most analyses of post-Neolithic, historically known, or modern religions are looking at cultural evolution rather than biological evolution. Cultural factors such as religion, in other words, were driving fertility rates but not doing much to shape the genome or phenotype of humans over the last 5,000 years.

    Before there were any modern religions (i.e., before 5,000 years ago), there were shamanisms (the spiritual traditions which everywhere preceded the rise of organized religions). Thus, if I wanted to test the hypothesis that spiritualism in the form of shamanisms affected fertility rates, I would be looking at the reproductive fitness of shamanistic groups. Because nearly all shamanistic groups over the past 100,000 years were hunter-gatherers, I think you will find that they deliberately depressed fertility rates through various methods, including extended lactation, abortion, and infanticide. All hominids and humans hunted and gathered for nearly 99% of their existence on earth, and whatever their spiritual/religious practices were, one thing is certain: they could not afford many offspring and took great care to limit group size.

    This would seem to argue against religion playing much of a role in reproductive fitness, at least until quite recently in human history.

  3. Michael Blume

    That’s an interesting perspective! Nevertheless, I would like to point out three main arguments against this sidestep:

    1. If an evolutionary function is observable among contemporary humans, one would have to explain why it shouldn’t have been in older times. In fact, Sarah Hrdy emphasized the role of cooperative breeding (related to mythologies and religious “as-if kin”) especially (!) among the cultures of hunters and gatherers! I discussed her convincing stand here:

    2. Among contemporary, egalitarian hunters and gatherers without religious institutions etc. as e.g. the !Kung San, the Hadza etc., religious mythologies and commandments “are” emphasizing pro-family values, children etc., as well.

    3. A great deal of the available symbols and statues of pre-historic times is dealing with topics of sexuality and especially fertility, e.g. female figurines giving birth. This would hardly have been the case if reproduction had been a no-topic or even a negative one in our ancestor’s mythologies.

  4. Alao Oluwafemi joseph

    Religion br really help the society both positive and negative,life itself is also challenging and it recuired more believe and faith to able to make a life so meaningful for everyone so i will submit by saying religion make one to be focused nomatter the situation life may bring.

  5. Moses M. kiura

    thanks for the addition to this dynamic, unfolding discipline of knowledge in the spiritual realm.on my view it has the function of the unknown as known till humans get to the Answer; it shall end with the end of humans in their current nature…….

  6. Moses M. kiura

    though worshipers try to bring divergence in religion, convergence is inevitable: Zoroastrianism in the elder brother to Judaism, Judaism the father of Christianity and a relative to Islam…….secular figures like Socrates have influenced religion almost permanently who shall can tell which is which and why?????

  7. Marc Schlagenhoff

    I do not know if you still pursue this blog and more specifically this topic, however, I am glad I found it and hope you will find the time to let me have your thoughts on the following. English is not my mother tongue, so please bear with me if my use of terminology may be off mark; I will try to include definitions of the central terms as I understand and use them.

    I would like to focus on the topic of transmission as function of religion, and possibly its origin. I think that religions developed indeed based on two major elements: Explanation and as binding element to allow for identification with a specific social group; the importance of these functions increases and decreases depending on the development of the society in which these religions exist.

    Religion as explanatory power is most important in societies where there are no (means to obtain) other explanations. Religion as identifying element is most important in societies where on the one hand there is exposure to other cultures, but no other constant element available on which to base one’s cultural identity upon.

    Next, I think that it would be fair to say that religion has undergone a development over time.

    Early (prehistoric) religions or belief systems – to the extent we are able to determine their content – tend to be more animistic, i.e. of the kind to attribute supernatural powers to each thing around them: each well for example has its „spirit“, there resides an entity in the tree or forest etc., leading to a worldview in which – lacking explanation for most things – everything acquires a supernatural connotation.

    In later times, the pantheon becomes more abstract; you would, for instance, develop one „god of the waters“ ruling over all the springs, rivers and oceans in addition to or replacing your local „well-god“. These belief systems usually are quite open towards other belief systems, sometimes incorporating other deities or adding new attributes to their existing deities, as the roman mythology seems to have done in connection with the spreading of the empire. Also, it would seem that in these systems, „the gods“ do not issue binding rules on what is absolutely right or wrong, but rather rules on how they are correctly to be worshipped. They are limited to being explanatory forces behind, say, lightning, floods or earthquakes, and, if treated well, may grant their worshippers favours, but are not perceived as entities with a determined and unified set of moral rules.

    Later still, the tendency is to do away with polytheism and lean towards monotheism, having one all-encompassing god who gives its followers a rigid set of rules not only on how to worship them, but also on how to live their lives. In addition, these deities usually are exclusive in a sense that a claim is made that the respective deity is the only „true“ or existing god, and there are no other possible gods.

    In parallel to this, if we look at the social development that took place (let us take the middle east and Europe, for the sake of an example), the development of societies would have followed roughly these lines:

    The first stage were family-based hunter-gatherer societies, where everyday life took place within a group of persons related by blood or otherwise closely connected, not unlike groups of other primates. The identification with the group, the sentiment of belonging to the group, arise naturally, given the limited contact with other humans not part of that group.

    Next, farmer and herder cultures developed, eventually leading to social structures in which life in proximity to neighbours not immediately part of or related to the clan becomes the norm; however, the resulting entities (think greek city-states) are still quite small, and the average inhabitant remains firmly rooted in his or her entity of origin, which means that the cultural identity still can mainly be derived from the family or village group. The necessity to delimit ones cultural identity against others is not yet very strong.

    Later, the city-states (at least some of them, think Rome) began to expand their boundaries and influence, incorporating other entities, and geographic mobility of part of the population (in particular in the upper social strata) increased. This means on the one hand that the opportunities of contact with other cultures increase, and on the other hand the need to delimit ones cultural identity against that of other people increases. However, at this point, there still is no notion of „nation-state“, lacking for instance the notion of a clearly determined national territory.

    Next, the feudal systems come about, still based very much on small communities, but where, as a result of the idea of personal allegiance, these communities might quickly be „transplanted“ into other cultural contexts; if for example the count of Toulouse at some point had sworn allegiance to the Nasrid Emir of Granada, his christian followers would have acquired a muslim overlord, and have been perceived as part of the Nasrid sphere of influence roughly translatable into „state“. If, however, your community can quite easily be transported into other cultural contexts, it becomes quite important to be able to have a common cultural identifier which is not based on where you live, or who your chieftain is, but on what exactly you believe.

    Finally, the notion of nation-states begins to arise and become dominant; now, as you state, nationalism assumes the role of main source of identity.

    I think that the outlined developments of both belief systems and societies correspond quite well in that whenever the need for a means to create and uphold a cultural limit between „you“ and „them“ in order to ascertain your belonging to a certain group gets stronger, the religious idea gets more defined and more „invasive“ meaning that the ruleset becomes more elaborate to allow clear distinction between groups. Once other means of identification come along (in particular with the advent of the idea of „nations“, the need for religion as determining factor decreases again, making religion less important in the perception of the people.

    At the same time, the importance of religion as an explanatory element also decreases proportionately with the increasing capacity of natural explanation; where for the early human, most anything was unexplainable and therefore had to have a supernatural cause, observation and reason have over time reduced the necessity for the supernatural as explanation.

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