The Nature and Functions of Religion

The Nature of Religion

Religion has been traditionally defined as a collection of cultural systems, belief systems, and worldviews that relate humanity to spirituality and, sometimes, to moral values. Such definitions, while helpful for encapsulating religion quickly, do not capture the complexity and diversity of religious experiences around the world. (10)

In aiming to properly define religions, scholars have traditionally fallen into one of two schools: The Functionalist school and The Substantive school. The Functionalist school aims to define religion based on how religion functions for believers.

One can better understand this by thinking about the existential questions that religion aims to answer:

  • Why am I here?
  • What is my purpose?
  • Where am I going?

In contrast to this school of thought, the Substantive camp argues that religion is best defined by the elements or “substances” that comprise it. Here, one might think about symbols, rituals, beliefs, etc.

In more recent years, scholars have come to see religion as a complex organism, which cannot be reduced to its functionality or its substances. Therefore, the best definitions often comprise a mixture of the two, noting that religion includes both tangible and intangible elements. With that said, we will explore briefly the functions and substances that comprise religion to better capture the elements that define religion. (1)

The Functions of Religion

If one aims for a definition of how religion functions, one is likely to argue that the uniqueness of religion has to do with its ability to answer the “Big Questions” of human existence. Those questions include:

  • Where did I come from?
  • Where am I going?
  • What is my purpose in life?
  • Is there a cause for suffering?

Provide an Explanation for Human Origins

One of the common questions that religion has historically aimed to address is that of human origins. Most religions have creations stories to provide an explanation of human beginnings, or mythological accounts that provide a religious explanation for the creation of the universe and human beginnings. In the western World Religions, for instance, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all share a version of the Garden of Eden tale. A tale in which the expulsion of the first couple from paradise leads to the peopling of the world. Indian religions too have their own explanation for human origins. The Vedic creation myth, for example, explains that at the beginning of time the caste system was formed from the body of slain deity. Those born within the caste are simply fulfilling that which was established long ago.

As it relates to beginnings of the individual self, East and West take different approaches to this question. Traditionally speaking, the West believes that the formation of the Self begins at conception or birth. When speaking about a soul or the spiritual self, the western tradition has by and large instructed that the soul does not possess a pre-history, but its beginnings start at ensoulment within the body. With the East, and Hinduism more specifically, there is a belief that one’s soul migrates from one body to the next through a process of reincarnation. As such, it is not so much the body that defines the Self, as it is the soul that inhabits the body.

Provide an Explanation for Human Endings

East and West will take different paths when dealing with the question of endings, but most religions deal with this question in some way.

In all the major Indian religions, for example, there is a belief that life is not a one-and-done cycle, but that human beings have the possibility of being reincarnated again. Based on the amount of karma one accrues or loses in this life determines where one is slotted in the next life.

The religions of East Asia take a different approach to this question of afterlife.

  • Daoism, for example, teaches that through mastery of one’s chi, the believer can reverse the aging process and become an immortal infant.
  • Confucianism and Shinto hold on to the belief that ancestral spirits continue to exist with the family, and therefore are deserved of continued veneration.
  • In the West, Christianity and Islam are quite similar in their afterlife beliefs, teaching that life is a one-and-done endeavor, with places of rewards and punishments awaiting those who pass into the next life.

Provide an Explanation Human Purpose

Another question that religions seek to answer revolve around that of purpose. Religions across the world will have different ways of addressing this question, but ultimately, they all do in some way. Often times, interestingly enough, they articulate human purpose through some form of numbered system.

  • In Confucianism, for example, the purpose of human kind is to treat others compassionately and recognize one’s role within the larger society according to the Five Great Relationships . This, Confucius argued, would ensure that society would remain a stable, and free of chaos.
  • In Buddhism, the purpose of human existence is to eliminate personal desire through the Four Noble Truths . The objective here being that the elimination of desire will lead one to the elimination of personal suffering.
  • In the West, Judaism teaches that one purpose is to observe the laws of God as laid out in the Ten Commandments .
  • For Muslims, one’s objective is to abide by the regulations of the Five Pillars , demonstrating one’s faith in public acts on a daily basis.

Provide an Explanation for Human Suffering

Again, most religions demonstrate a basic concern for the problem of human suffering. This is sometimes articulated as a matter of theodicy , or the problem of how to deal with “ evil .” Almost across the board, evil is often articulated as the cause of self-interest or individual desire. This is why many, if not all, religions stress the importance of self-discipline and self-control so that to extinguish those evils.

Where religions differ is in terms of where evil derives. Western religions, for example, articulate evil along the lines of sin.

  • For Christians, historically at least, the belief has been that human beings have inherited sin from Adam and Eve and therefore must rely on the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ to find relief from one’s sin.
  • In both Judaism and Islam, the belief is that human beings are born good but can become sinful through their wrongdoing. Both of these religions have holy days throughout the ritual year, which allow for the believer to purify him or herself of the sin that has accumulated over the year.
  • In the East, Shinto holds a similar view of sin as that of Judaism and Islam, seeing impurity as an inevitable part of the human condition that must be managed lest it corrupt our innately good selves.

Conclusion

By addressing these questions, religion has historically legitimated its role within human culture by providing answers to the other unexplainable questions that surround human existence. With the development of science in the modern era, however, religion no longer is the sole proprietor of answers to these questions. Science, for example, can point to evolution as a reasonable response to the question of human origins. As such, this is one of the main reasons why religious definitions must comprise more than simply functionality. This is why a good definition must also account for the substances of religion, or the definable elements of religion. (1)