The Functions of Religion

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Religion is a human phenomenon that, like any other genus in the social category of values, is not present in all cultures. But it is also unlike other members of the social genus in that it is both more intensive and more comprehensive than any other form of valuation that exists.

It is a system of worshipping a god or goddess that provides a framework for life. It inspires and motivates individuals to perform acts of devotion or homage. It awakens the intellect and stirs the imagination. It engenders hope and the consciousness of friendship with an all-powerful protector creates joy.

In primitive times religion, in its more crude forms, was theoretically liable to degenerate into polytheistic nature-worship or, on the contrary, to monotheism without the aid of Divine Revelation; but if it is to retain its virtue it must rest on a sound principle, namely, that all things that are in the world around man have their origin in intelligent volition.

Traditionally, scholars have defined religion in terms of beliefs about a unique kind of reality. In recent decades, however, sociologists have shifted from this “monothetic” approach to one that emphasizes the functions that a religion can serve regardless of its specific beliefs or practices. This functional definition of religion was developed by Emile Durkheim and continues to be an important source of sociological thought on this subject. For an introduction to this approach, see Rodney Needham’s article, ‘The Functions of Religion’ (1975). A more detailed discussion of these issues is provided in this essay by Rodney Needham.