Jake Frackson

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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!

  • Sep 12 2012: Martin Luther King provided an elegant if not perfect answer to this :-
    "A religion true to its natures must also be concerned about man's social conditions. Religion deals with both earth and heaven, both time and eternity. Religion operates not only on the vertical plane but also on the horizontal. It seeks not only to integrate men with God but to integrate men with men and each man with himself."
    • Sep 12 2012: Hi Gross

      "...to integrate men with men and each man with himself." I think this may only be in Buddhism

      Buddhism teaches us to look into ourselves and be truth to ourselves and we will find the way.
      Catholicism teaches us to look upon the sky and God will show us the way.
      (in my case I can't think as the second version teaches us)
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    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.
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      Sep 12 2012: Agree about CONTROL.

      VACUUM may be true for many but not to the life of all human being.
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        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.
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          Sep 13 2012: Blind Belief
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          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.
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      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
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        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.
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          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.
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        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?
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          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.
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        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?
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          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,
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          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.
  • Sep 14 2012: Religion is a method of control, to control the people and guide them into what the leaders want them to do
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    Sep 18 2012: This question might as well ask, "Why does superstitions exist?" The obvious answer is that they provide an explanation for things we do not understand.
    There is some research that seems relevant:


    Analytic thinking undermines belief because, as cognitive psychologists have shown, it can override intuition. And we know from past research that religious beliefs—such as the idea that objects and events don't simply exist but have a purpose—are rooted in intuition. "Analytic processing inhibits these intuitions, which in turn discourages religious belief," Norenzayan explains.
  • Sep 13 2012: Hmmm, I don't think that religion can be said to have a purpose as such. It is simply a successful meme that plays upon some of our deepest instincts. For example, a fear of death is natural and instinctive, but the idea of an eternal afterlife could become a successful meme because it allows us to trick ourselves into not being scared. Similarly, if a society has a cosmic law-giver, it supports co-operation and homogeneity within this society, which allows it to prosper over more spiritually anarchic societies. Religion is humankind's first attempt at law, at science, at moral philosophy... and it worked to our advantage for a while.
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      Sep 14 2012: Good point, religion can be put to different uses but has no intrinsic immutable absolute purpose.
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    Sep 13 2012: Confussion....no more than confussion.
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    Sky F

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    Sep 13 2012: This whole discussion is drifting nicely away from reality. It's like asking what the purpose of the 7-11 down the street from me is and then discussing corporate America, the core of our wants and desires, the role of society members, the value of convenience in our daily lives, the happenstance that it would even exist so close to me, onward into obscurity. The real answer is that the purpose of it for me is to fill the need of slurpees into my life, and the purpose for the business itself is to make money. Period.

    Like the purpose of a 7-11, the purpose of religion depends on who you're asking. For most people it's simply to provide comfort, create community, and maintain tradition. The whole "Will a single answer ever be found? Is there only one answer? " is just a silly question that isn't really asking anything at all (because it's vague as shit) and just makes the whole discussion way too serious without actually even talking about anything.

    As for the whole 'social control' thing being talked about, this is the purpose of it for a very small minority of clever people who are using religion's "comfort, community, and tradition" to exploit it's members for personal reasons, whatever they may be. To be what you exclusively talk about as your purpose for a religion on a grand scale is really silly though. It is not the ultimate purpose of the religion, just a seedy by-product.

    But again, it all depends on from who's perspective you're talking about. I answered from the perspective of "the majority who subscribe to it."

    Anyways, don't be so serious guys. It just seems like a hot-air festival in here.
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      Sep 14 2012: Religion has elements that are the same for everybody, for example it does unite (the origin of the word is re, again, and ligare, to tie together). So, you are correct in that religion creates community, but the greater question is for what purpose? To make peace? To create understanding?
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        Sep 14 2012: Religion often unites the ingroup and reinforces tribalism and differences with out groups.

        The purpose depends on the intent and beliefs of the individual.
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    Sep 13 2012: Whether gods, goddesses, immortal spirits and a spiritual realm exist or not, religions are essentially man made constructs. They are cultural technologies.

    Like many man made ideas and constructs they can have a variety of purposes and uses.

    Individuals and groups may put religious or spiritual beliefs to different purposes, many of which have been raised in this conversation.

    If there are interventionist gods then these gods may also have a purpose for religion.

    If there are only non interventionist or no gods, then religion is a purely human affair.
  • Sep 12 2012: Hey all,

    This is a topic that will go on and on because we all have different belief and we belong to different religion.
    we didn't choose it, it just happened to be so... I will be glad if we could choose our religion regardless our ethnicity.

    All the religion separately have a good meaning and purpose, but when it comes to argue over it and try to compare them we end up in wars - not just arguing or fight, but making wars. I think religion created nothing between humanity but hate.

    There are no grounds for going beyond a scientific explanation of reality and no sound reason for believing anything but our sense experience. A clear intellect, close attention to detail and a little scientific knowledge will expose religion as superstitious bosh. God does not exist!

    I may be wrong

    if Heaven is a good place, if everyone wants to meet God, then how comes that nobody wants to die?
    I think the Heaven is here, and God is in you - Live the life as you would like to live like the Creator, because WE ARE CREATORS
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      Sep 13 2012: Perhaps most people in their heart of hearts know there may not be an afterlife and are heading to oblivion
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    Sep 12 2012: Religion is humanity's search for the creator.
    Its about a search for the truth, and the morally right; a search for the guideline for life and living.
    According to the Bible, in the book of James, Chapter 1 verse 27 "Religion that God our father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world."
  • Sep 12 2012: The purpose of religion is the total annihilation of the human spirit.
    It is not some amoeba-like institution. It is not a building, or a book.
    It is people and in the name of religion, those people have reigned down terror, brute force, torture, disease, destruction of life and environments and always, like water, follows its natural propensity to Fascism.

    Be like this or else. Do like this or else. Believe like this or else. The 'or else' is still going on with the false-flag operations of America in the 'spreading of democracy', fighting terror, freeing people, making the world safer.

    Make, making, is force. It isn't understanding, love, compassion, empathy or any good quality that humans possess.
    It is evil, greedy, deceitful, corrupting, polluting, abusive and it is done to children and everyone else and it is all for the good of the children, the people, or whoever they wish to eat, drink and swallow their B.S.

    This is still apparent today and not only in Islam, but still alive and thirsting for blood-letting, in Christians and Jews.
    People of religion continue to spread the lies of religion, so by association and also by belief, they are as guilty and evil as those who participate, or participated, hundreds of years ago.

    Conversion. Yeah, that's what it is.
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    Gail .

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    Sep 12 2012: Religion BEGAN as a way to explain unknowable gaps in understanding about how life works (why did that tornado/earthquate/drought/flood/volcano/etc. happen).

    It evolved into a way to control the masses and entrench cultures with inequality, so that the least equal are defending the more equal status of the more equal, with a promise of reward of one kind or another.

    Today, religion is unnecessary and regressive. Science has shown enough evidence that the god of Abraham should have been thoroughly discredited by now. Still, there is something else that religions and sages throughout time agree about, ad quantum physics is in the process of explaining. It is not "God", per-se, but it is god-like, and we are made from it - gods in our own rights - able to manifest our own realities.
  • Sep 12 2012: Religion is ultimately just a set of ethical and moral codes set down on how to live a good life for spiritual reward. Ultimately, they all also preach roughly the same ideals. Pretty much the only thing that really ruined religion was becoming organized (in other words, money and politics).
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    Sep 12 2012: I swear that it looks as if there is a strange withdrawal process in action across the western nations and possibly the planet,forgive me,i'm not belittling your Q or trying to hi-jack it,it's just when i'm online "religion this or religion that" or "Atheist this or christian that" is virtually everywhere and it's been like this for a long time,i wonder if people realize that half the planet has got the shakes.It almost feels like we're going through puberty.

    Religion: A set of beliefs in a higher agency outside of our known existence.That's my take on it.

    We're guys and guys always like to have the last word.