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.