What is Religion for?


Organised religion is often used, and allows itself to be used, for a wide variety of purposes. It can be an instrument of social control, or rebellion, it can be a marker of community, ethnic or linguistic identity, it can be a source and enforcer of moral codes and legal norms and so on and so forth. In none of these roles is it unique, that is to say that other institutions or movements could be used to achieve similar purposes. Indeed in the West in recent centuries Christianity has increasingly been pushed out of these functions by the State, the Nation, the Party or some other social organism. Which leaves us with the question is there some core function, a USP if you will, which organised religion alone can fulfil and which human societies find themselves unable to dispense with?

In the interests of full disclosure I should say at the outset that I write as a Catholic so my answer to the question will be ‘Yes’ but in no sense is this post intended to be confessional propaganda. My purpose is to explore the reasons for the emergence and persistence of religion in a world where it is often much more convenient to be irreligious. The normal place to start such an investigation is the texts or scriptures of the various faiths. This overlooks the obvious fact that religion as a living phenomenon predates and produces the texts, they are dependent in it not it on them. Modern secularist criticism of religion to some extent rests on the undoubted fact that the faiths have produced few accurate answers to the ‘how’ questions about how the cosmos and the world came to be and how it functions. Still less have they provided a reliable method for ascertaining such answers unlike science. I think though that the ‘how’ questions have always been secondary to the ‘why’ questions in religion and that such explanations as were provided bear the imprimatur of the age in which they were offered more than they do of divine revelation.

So the question of meaning, ‘why?’, has always been a central part of the religious impulse. The tendency for humans to seek a purpose for themselves, for their species, for their planet and for their universe appears to be an ineradicable one. So long as humans endure there will be some for whom questions of meaning will be the most powerful driving force in their lives. That most of their fellows are seldom or never bothered by such matters and that others accept (or appear to accept) absence of meaning as being a fact of life is neither here nor there for such individuals. The search is so absorbing that in every generation there will be some who pursue it regardless of the cost and if necessary in total disregard of public hostility, ridicule or indifference.

On its own the quest for meaning does not explain organised religion. It could equally well lead to a sort of bloodless deism, an engaged materialism or a highly individual spirituality. The added factors required to create a faith community are, I think, a conviction or intuition that part of the answer lies in the existence of a spiritual realm or reality which interpenetrates our material one and the acceptance that fundamental insights into that reality have been gained and shared by others before us. In particular great foundational figures like the Buddha, the Christ, Moses or the founder of Islam have brought back reports of their encounters with that perceived reality which radically answer questions about meaning and purpose.

More than that, possibly more importantly than that, organised religion provides a blueprint for how each individual can themselves encounter that spiritual dimension and verify for themselves the facts reported about it. Forms of collective religious practice, monastic communities, sacraments, scriptures and well attested forms of private prayer and meditation such as the rosary all provide individuals with the opportunity to experience to some degree that which the foundational figures experienced. Organised religion is the mechanism by which a community shares the history of a million individual encounters and lays the foundations for a million more.

From the perspective of human societies the important point to grasp is not that this or that particular religion is more objectively ‘true’ than any other. It is that the search for meaning, the intuition about a spiritual dimension and the necessity for communities to be built around the results of those searches and that intuition are an integral part of human nature and thus of society. Science and secularism will not make religion wither away nor reduce it to the merely private sphere. Attempts to make religion go away are doomed to fail and should not be attempted.

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1 Comment

  1. Dear Sir, interesting. I was a grad student in history, unemployable, became an RN in acute dialysis and CCU. Illness (crohns) forced a medical retirement. I became Orthodox perhaps twenty years ago (Russian). I am rather indeterminate in political positions: confused in other words but definitely out of sorts with the idiocies of mass media. I’m also a southerner. For whatever that means. I do not believe that I have a right not to be offended. I value free, open, coherent, informed speech.


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