TED Conversations

Jake Frackson

This conversation is closed.

What is the purpose of religion?

Throughout the history of man, religion has been present. Religious beliefs have affected everything from personal ethics to national politics. It has been an integral part of many societies in our past and present. However the question remains:

What is the purpose of religion?

Religion has been presented to explain unknown intellectual problems (Comte, Tylor), to explain strong and abstract emotional feelings (Marett, Malinowski, Freud), to oppress social groups (Marx), to connect society (Durkheim), to explain arbitrary suffering (Weber), etc.
Many other purposes for religion have been theorized but no universal answer has been found.
Will a single answer ever be found? Is there only one answer?

Possible answers, further questions or any comments are welcome!


Showing single comment thread. View the full conversation.

  • thumb
    Sep 12 2012: The real purpose of religion is to control people. This is not necessarily a bad thing - i guess the question becomes : control people to do what ? This is where the set of ethical and moral codes comes in.

    I believe without religion, there would exist a vacuum in human life.
    • thumb
      Sep 12 2012: Agree about CONTROL.

      VACUUM may be true for many but not to the life of all human being.
      • thumb
        Sep 12 2012: There is a space for spirituality in the life of most, if not all, human being. The question is: what do you regard as religion?

        I should have you understand that atheism can truly be defined as a religion - and its not a neutral religion. It is a valued position just like xtianity.
        • thumb
          Sep 13 2012: Blind Belief
        • thumb
          Sep 14 2012: "Spirituality" well let me call it the search for transcendence does not need to involve supernatural beliefs.

          You have a very different idea of religion and atheism to me Ehis.

          To me atheism is just a lack of belief in gods and goddesses. Atheism is a position on a single question do you believe in gods. It is not a way of life, no dogma, no defined moral code.

          Maybe someone start a religion that does not believe in gods, like Buddhism, but not believing in gods is not a religion.

          I'm a sceptic first. I'm sceptical of supernatural claims whether part of organised religion, cults, personal spirituality, alien abductions, astrology etc. Atheism is a by product of my scepticism.

          I guess not believing in gods may inform your views on other issues, but there is no dogmatic position. An atheist may not believe in gods but may believe in eternal human spirits, life after death, crystal healing, be anti gay marriage and anti reproductive rights, or for the rights of a women to choose if she lets a baby grow inside her body.

          Now religion is very diverse, and perhaps the edges are blurry. When does a cult become a religion for instance. But I suggest a position on a single question is not a religion.

          I'm also not sure if world views that lack belief in the supernatural or aliens etc qualify as religion. I would not call a materialist world view a religion. I would not call science a religion. In fact you can generally accept science as our best guess and still believe in some supernatural deities or a spiritual realm.
    • thumb
      Sep 12 2012: I have managed to fill the vacuum or accept things as they appear.

      But agree there might be gaps for some people in some areas.

      also our basic wiring does not change

      I note some of the least religious countries have not fallen apart - Sweden, Japan etc
      • thumb
        Sep 12 2012: Least religious? Those countries call themselves secular but that doesn't mean that religion hasn't evolved into something different in those countries (cult of celebrity, the worship of money, etc.). Possibly they have just found a way to use religious needs in a more beneficial way for the state?

        "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature and the opium of the people." Karl Marx

        I'm not saying I agree with this act ethically, but its plausible.
        • thumb
          Sep 13 2012: Hi Jake,

          I suggest the human mind that has evolved a certain way. Our human cultures and society have evolved to what that are today. Our scientific understanding has developed to what it is today.

          I suggest sometimes religion and its practice just reflects our basic needs and wiring.

          Needs: such as a search for meaning, fear of death, understanding our origins, managing societies etc.

          Wiring: assumption of agency, heirachy, hallucinations, imaginary friends, confirmation bias, credulous as children, tribalism etc. We are all susceptible to music and ritual whether the context is religious or not.

          Religion is just one tool for dealing with these issues and just one aspect of our lives that uses the various cognitive and social mechanisms.

          Other parts of human culture may be more primarily driven by religion e.g. Theological studies etc.

          I tend to see religion as a result of what we are as humans more than a cause of what we are.

          I guess you can look at it both ways. How are various behaviours and cultural mechanisms "religious". Or how does religion leverage our basic human psychology, cognition, and social dynamics.

          I don't see the quest to understand how I got here as an essential religious question.
          I don't see social ethics and values as an essentially religious challenge.
          I don't heirachy and celebrity and cult worship as essentially religious
          I don't see trancedent experiences or imaginary friends as essentially religious

          Religion is just one way of looking at these.

          I suggest you might have it all round the wrong way.

          People have world views. People have needs and wants. People have loves and fears. People have questions. Societies need laws. Some things increase suffering. Others reduce suffering or even add joy.

          These are not religious needs. They are human needs.

          We don't need religion to deal with them all. Religion is just one way to address human needs and society etc.
      • thumb
        Sep 12 2012: @Obey I fear that you have a very closed definition of religion. Japan is a religious country - how do you define religion?
        • thumb
          Sep 13 2012: You are right that religion or similar superstituous traditions is a broad category.

          I guess Japanese culture is infused with Shinto and Buddhism rather than Abrahamic gods.

          However, I suggest the Japanese see themselves as non religious.

          My understanding:
          About 70% of Japanese profess no religious membership, according to Johnstone (1993:323), 84% of the Japanese claim no personal religion

          In census questionnaires, less than 15% reported any formal religious affiliation by 2000. According to Edwin Reischauer, and Marius Jansen, some 70–80% of the Japanese regularly tell pollsters they do not consider themselves believers in any religion.

          Maybe half might nominally believe in some god concept or have some Buddhist viewpoints - according to Demerath (2001), 41% do not believe in God, and 55% do not believe in Buddha.

          Having been there and having many Japanese friends I didn't get a sense that their society hinges on religious dogma and traditions.

          On the scale of being a religious country to a non religious one, Japan and much of North West Europe are the least religious. The US is an anomaly.

          So I think my point stands, and if I may refine it slightly - that countries where religion is not a dominant social force, where most people define themselves as non religious seem to do just fine if they have rule or law etc and the other non religious institutions that support quality of life.
      • thumb
        Sep 13 2012: @Obey, to summarize you think religion is a means for an end? The end in this instance being answers? Religion is far more complex than that. Faith can give identity, purpose and worldview. Religion is not an out-of-date media for answers. It evolves as we evolve. To restate Ehis' question, what is your definition of religion?
        • thumb
          Sep 13 2012: I agree religion and religious beliefs can relate to identity, purpose, worldviews, moral frameworks.

          I'm just saying you can have all these without religion, without basing them on religious beliefs.

          If you think would views, morality, identity must always be religious, I disagree.

          Religion is hard to pin down. I don't think it has clear cut boundaries.

          Most dictionary and wiki definitions are on the right track. Most religions are a subset of supernatural spiritual belief systems, the shared ones typically with dogma. Most started as cults but have become established over time and less reliant on one living person.

          Possibly involving belief and worship of supernatural beings, but I'd also include Buddhism. Typically with a supernatural view of reality, eternal spirits, afterlife, a divine order. Maybe creation stories or scriptures or moral doctrines. They may involve human organsation, heirachies, ritual etc.

          Some belief systems are a bit tricky. I don't know enough about Confucianism to determine if I would call it a religion. Scientology, is probably transitioned from cult to religion. Animism, shamanism are related too.

          Chess club, science, and atheism are not religions.

          I agree religion is diverse and evolves but it is not part of my identity or world view. My moral framework is not based on religion. My life has purpose even though finite and I evolved.

          While we are surrounded by religions and religious beliefs and related supernatural belief systems - new age, astrology etc, you can live a life that is based on secular foundations.

          I think you are stretching religion too far to say a fixation on money or Madonna is a religion.

          My life is just fine without religion.

          Also, religion can play a part in peoples life and still be false in terms of the claims,
        • thumb
          Sep 13 2012: Jake, maybe I can put it this way:

          Imagine all the religions have their own languages. Some also have languages that are not religious. Our ability to speak is independent of whether we chose or are indoctrinated with a religious or non religious language.

          Our ability to "speak", to develop moral systems, to develop world views, to attribute meaning to our lives is independent of religion. They can be infused with religion or devoid of it.

          I think you are mixing up the processes and capability with inputs and outputs.

          I don’t need religion in my world view. I don’t need religion to understand the universe and my place in it as best I can. I don’t need religion to develop a moral framework. I don’t need religion to face death. I don’t need to have an imaginary friend to get through life or a divine policeman to define and pursue what I consider a good life. I don’t need eternal life in order for a finite life to have meaning. I don’t need religion to belong to a community, to be a citizen, to contribute. I don’t need religion Etc. I’m comfortable not having all the answers rather than making up unverifiable ones.

Showing single comment thread. View the full conversation.