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.


  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 06:12h, 04 May Reply

    Arun, It is a coincidence that there is a post in today’s New York Times by Professor Stanley Fish (God Talk) based on Terry Eagleton’s new book Reason, Faith and Revolution.

    The crux of the argument (as stated by Fish) is the following:

    Science, says Eagleton, “does not start far back enough”; it can run its operations, but it can’t tell you what they ultimately mean or provide a corrective to its own excesses. Likewise, reason is “too skin deep a creed to tackle what is at stake”; its laws — the laws of entailment and evidence — cannot get going without some substantive proposition from which they proceed but which they cannot contain; reason is a non-starter in the absence of a prior specification of what is real and important, and where is that going to come from? Only from some kind of faith.

    “Faith and knowledge,” Eagleton concludes, are not antithetical but “interwoven.” You can’t have one without the other…All reasoning is conducted within the ambit of some sort of faith, attraction, inclination, orientation, predisposition, or prior commitment.” Meaning, value and truth are not “reducible to the facts themselves, in the sense of being ineluctably motivated by a bare account of them.” Which is to say that there is no such thing as a bare account of them.

    The bottom line for Eagleton is that one can’t reject religion “on the cheap” by contrasting its unsupported (except by faith) assertions with the scientifically grounded assertions of atheism. We are where we always were, confronted with a choice between a flawed but aspiring religious faith or a spectacularly hubristic faith in the power of unaided reason and a progress that has no content but, like the capitalism it reflects and extends, just makes its valueless way into every nook and cranny.

    Update: Part two of the Stanley Fish article is invaluable for this discussion.

  • Vinod
    Posted at 06:18h, 04 May Reply

    In support of Arun’s points, I’ll add that it is the emotional involvement of the individual in the precepts of religion that allows reigion to play its social functions so splendidly.

  • Hasan Abdullah
    Posted at 04:07h, 05 May Reply

    Religion is an ‘ideology’, an outcome of the individual’s interaction with the rest of the Nature, and means vastly different things to different people. The very focus, dare I say discussion, on religion shows its influence on us, the ordinary mortals.
    In respect of religion, or God, I can do no better than quote Mirza Ghalib:
    nah thaa kuchh to khudaa thaa, kuchh nah hotaa to khuda hotaa
    duboyaa mujh ko honey ney, nah hotaa main to kyaa hotaa
    (When there was nothing, God was; Had there been nothing, God would have been/ My being has been my undoing; Had I not been, then what would have been?)
    Better, we focus on humanity’s requirements (- the real ones) and finer human sensibilities, and try to create circumstances that are conducive for reducing, even if not eliminating, alienation from the society, and the consequent development of human being’s identification with the humanity-at-large.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 15:27h, 05 May

      Hasan, There are many complexities in your comment that require further discussion:

      First, whether a religion is an ideology or it is something that can be the subject of an ideological study? For example, progressive Muslims and fundamentalist Muslims both subscribe to the same religion, Islam, but have very different ideological positions (liberal and conservative, to simplify). An article that elaborates on this is Some Notes on the Ideology of Religion by George Walford.

      Second, so much of our engagements with humanity’s real requirements are mediated through religion (note the discussion on whether interest is Islamic or not). Therefore we cannot really engage with earthly issues by ignoring religion.

      Third, religion is an extremely important determinant of attitudes and beliefs. For this reason there is a department of religious studies in every university in the West even though some people claim that the West has given up religion. We have to study religion like any other subject to be able to understand the reality we live in and how to work with that reality. Ignoring religion is not a realistic or advisable option.

  • Hasan Abdullah
    Posted at 09:16h, 06 May Reply

    I am sorry that South Asian finds my comment complex, as I prefer to think that it was rather straight forward. In any case, thanks for engaging in a dialogue. My point-wise submission to the above observations are:

    First Point: The understanding of religion is mediated through Ideology or world-view, although at the same time religion also has some bearing on the formation of ideology. It is a loop, where ‘perhaps’ primacy would have to be accorded to individual’s circumstances and/or interaction with the rest of the Nature. And, that is precisely why the subscribers of a given religion, say Islam or any other, can have extremely divergent positions (liberal or conservative) on a given issue.

    Second Point: I am not suggesting to ‘ignore’ religion. Understanding the role of religion is necessary to understand the response of the ‘religious’ people. However, I do not prefer to discuss religion, as that is not my domain. To me, religion is more a part of the ‘superstructure’, whereas my focus is on the substructure, i.e., the ‘mundane’ issues of peace, health, education and ‘roti, kapda aur makan'(bread, clothing and shelter). I would wish to focus on earthy issues like present ‘global economic crisis’ and not religion. I think we can surely engage with the present economic crisis, or the virus scare, or the disastrous situation in several parts of the world, or the ills afflicting our societies without bringing in religion.

    Third Point: South Asian observes: “Religion is an extremely important determinant of attitudes and beliefs”. Absolutely correct! BUT, FOR WHOM? And, this third observation also contradicts the first observation regarding the divergence between the viewpoints of the adherents of the same religion. At a very broad and crude level, religion – in the sense of observing rituals – is a result of the fear of the unknown. The aspect, or understanding, of religion that makes one humble and humane, and reduces alienation from the society is most welcome. In the ultimate, alienation from the society and an unfulfilled, or unsatisfied, life shifts our focus away from the ‘mundane’ issues. Else,

    nah thaa kuchh to khudaa thaa, …….
    (When there was nothing, God was;…)

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 22:43h, 06 May Reply

    Hasan, Your comment was quite simple and clear. What I meant was that the simple comment contained within it many complex issues.

    Religion provides a frame of reference and a common language for its adherents. Muslims can hold many different ideological positions but when they want to validate their positions they go back to the surahs and the ahadees. Of course, they choose different sections of the texts but the source of the confirmation remains common.

    I also wish that we can focus on earthly issues without bringing in religion. But tell me, which issue can we tackle in Pakistan without reference to religion? Even ‘roti, kapra aur makaan’ had to be couched in terms of Islamic Socialism when the time came for implementation.

    The metaphors in which arguments can be effectively made in Pakistan are religious. The early leftists were struggling on behalf of the oppressed but they got nowhere because their metaphors did not resonate with their audience.

  • Hasan Abdullah
    Posted at 08:26h, 08 May Reply

    I am an Indian; and, in India, people like me discuss about issues without any reference to religion, and ‘validate’ their position on the basis of accepted human morals. The ‘Muslim’ identity is subsumed in human identity.

    The reasons for the failure of any ‘movement’ can be ‘complex’.

    In any case, first and foremost, people have to identify with an individual or an organisation, before they would even listen to him/her/it. And, for that, I think that ‘actions speak louder than words’; and, the paths to better society are paved with people-oriented movements.

    One can participate in any number of societal campaigns, based on the specific location one is in. To name some, campaign for – i) ‘literacy, new books and libraries’ ii) ‘popularization of science’, iii) ‘peace’, iv) ‘blood donation and relief works’, v) ‘clean neighbourhood and healthy life-style’, vi) ‘playing spaces for the children’, etc. etc.

    To elaborate my undertanding that dialogue needs to be conducted on the basis of accepted morals, I could send an old article “The restricted rights”, where I have argued that the if a ‘religious’ understanding on a given issue leads to an undesirable outcome then, with due respect to religion, that needs to be opposed.

    In another article of mine, “Truth, Ideology and Practice”, again, religion is conspicuous by its absence.

    I, once again, request SouthAsian to focus on ‘mundane’ issues – some of which I mentioned in my previous mail.

    With this, from my side, I close discussion on religion.

    ‘SouthAsian’ is entitled to have the last word!

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 20:53h, 08 May Reply

    Hasan, You are fortunate to be living in an environment where there is space to discuss issues without reference to religion. In Pakistan this space has shrunk considerably. I suppose that is the point Vir Sanghvi wanted to make but he extended the argument unnecessarily to suggest that somehow the people (rather than the situations) had become different.

    I agree that many issues can be discussed without reference to religion and you would find many such discussions on this blog. For example, the most popular posts on overpopulation and illiteracy have no reference to religion.

    It is natural for people to generalize from their own experiences and that is why religion weighs heavy on the minds of Pakistanis when even the shaving of beards and the wearing of jeans are religious questions. That is one reason why it is very necessary to carry on such conversations. It makes people realize that their experiences can be quite different from those of others.

    I am an equal partner in these conversations and learn along with others. That is one reason I start conversations on subjects I don’t know enough about. I don’t have the last word by any means nor am I entitled to one – that would defeat the objective of the blog.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 01:02h, 11 May Reply

    Hasan, I am not sure I have understood some of your remarks. You seem to be making a distinction between religion and God. Is that right?

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 05:09h, 11 May Reply

    “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. ”

    And also provide oppertunity for exploitation and torture.

  • richard
    Posted at 13:46h, 08 September Reply

    Postulation of a god is used to explain nature’s existence; what is used to explain god’s existence?

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 09:50h, 23 March Reply

    An interesting argument on why the existence of God might not have relevance for our salvation:

    Does it Matter Whether God Exists? by Gary Gutting, Professor of Philosophy, University of Notre Dame.


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