04 May On the Functions of Religion
By Arun Pillai
The South Asian Idea had provided a link to a lecture by Professor Jared Diamond on the functions of religion. One of our readers responds with an extension to Professor Diamond’s argument. We would welcome a discussion on this topic.
Professor Jared Diamond lectured on the functions of religion in a number of societies from ancient to modern times. Some of these functions were the providing of explanations of the world around us, the maintenance of political obedience and stability, the teaching of moral precepts, and the justification of wars. For more on each of these functions, I recommend listening to his lecture.
In this short piece, I want to comment on some things Diamond leaves out. Notice that all of the functions listed above are social functions: they pertain to all of society. While these are no doubt important, there are individual functions that religion also serves.
The many uncertainties of life—the results of a college exam, the outcome of a job interview, and so on—where the stakes may be high for an individual often leave the person feeling anxious. Scientific thinking (e.g. probability theory) does not really help one to cope with these unwanted emotions.
More seriously, there is a great deal of suffering in the lives of most people: the Budhha said that life is suffering. Often, this suffering occurs for no reason whatsoever: we may fall ill, or someone steals our money, or a friend betrays us, and so on. We may believe that life is just and that we have led good lives and yet bad things happen to us. Why?
Most seriously, someone close to us dies, or we may face death ourselves, and then again we feel at a loss. For those who are able to have faith in religion, it can offer solace in all such situations.
Apart from fulfilling such needs, religion may also make believers feel they belong to a community, may offer them feelings of confidence and happiness, and so on.
These are some important reasons why it is not very likely that the world will ever be free of religion. Atheism may be more correct as a belief about the world but, for many people, it does not offer the comforts of religion.
I am not recommending religion on these grounds. I am just trying to give an additional scientific reason for its persistence.