Origins and Functions of Religion

Religion is one of the most powerful forces in human life. It can promote morality and good living; it can create social cohesion and unity, it can encourage learning and economic well-being, and it can reduce the incidence of many problems and pathologies. People of faith report improved health, stronger family relationships, higher levels of educational achievement, better self-control and coping skills in the face of stress, and lower rates of drug and alcohol abuse, crime, and mental illness. Religion also provides a source of social support and helps people overcome loneliness, fear, and isolation. Its mystical experiences can be profoundly moving, and its ethical guidance can provide a framework for a moral life. It can be a powerful inspiration for the arts, and its aesthetics can guide the world of architecture, music, drama, poetry, art, and dance. It is the source of much of humanity’s most enduring and timelessly moving creations, including the explorations of the cosmos that issued eventually into the natural sciences.

The study of religion emerged as a discipline in the 19th century, and the methods and approaches of history, philology, literary criticism, sociology, psychology, anthropology, and the other related disciplines have all been brought to bear on the quest to determine the origins and functions of religion. However, no consensus has been reached regarding the proper way to understand this vast and diverse phenomenon.

This is partly because questions about the nature and origins of religion are conflated with other important concerns, primarily its function as an organizing system in the formation of groups and societies. For example, as the Inquisition and Salem witch trials demonstrate, religion can create a sense of group identity that can lead to social conflict. It can lead individuals, communities, and nations to persecute those who are not members of their particular religious community or practice, and it can cause great suffering for entire populations over centuries, as attested by the current genocide in Darfur.

What distinguishes religion is that it involves an evaluation of the self in relation to a universal goal. It is an evaluation that takes place knowingly, deliberately, and comprehensively. It is a system of valuation that is the most intensive and broadest that humans experience.

The basic argument of sociobiology is that religions are early and, for millennia, successful protective systems that have tied the brain’s potentialities to the body’s necessities and to the necessity for survival. Having achieved their protective and stabilizing goals, they have created the space for human exploration, especially of human possibility. This exploration is largely a spiritual one, and it may take the form of a belief in a transcendent God or an unfathomable universe or as an exploration of the body itself, which is known as somatic exploration (from Greek soma, meaning “body”).