It is difficult to define as religions have different components which have various importance depending on the religion, society, and stage of evolution of the religion. There are five attributes that variously contribute to most religious thinking.
1. The belief in a postulated supernatural agent for whose existence our senses can’t give us evidence, but which is invoked to explain things of which our senses do give us evidence. Many religions go further and postulate the existence of an entire parallel supernatural world – often a heaven, hell, or another afterlife to which we will be transferred after our death.
2. They are social movements of people who identify themselves as sharing deeply held beliefs.
3. Their adherents make costly or painful sacrifices that convincingly display to others the adherents committment to the group (time, money, or body comfort).
4. Belief in gods and other postulated supernatural agents has practical consequences for how people should behave (laws, moral codes, taboos, or obligations, depending on the society).
5. Supernatural agents not only reward virtuous rule-obeying people and punish evil-doers and rule-breakers, but can also be induced by prayers, donations, and sacrifices to intervene on the behalf of mortal petitioners.
Perhaps the greyest borderline areas involve movements such as Buddhism, Confucianism, or Shintoism, about which there is varying uncertainty whether they constitute religions or else philosophies of life.
Religion is nearly universal in humans. By the time that he first written documents appeared abound 5000 years ago, there was already religion. What function does it fulfill? Religion often imposes heavy costs on individuals and societies it so it must bring benefits t offset those costs. Religion surely didn’t evolve and wasn’t consciously invented for any specific purpose or to solve any specific problem. It was a by-product of our brain’s increasingly sophisticated ability to deduce cause, agency, and intent, to anticipate dangers, and thereby to formulate causal explanations of predictive value that helped us survive. Trying to understand natural phenomena, illness, events about which modern science gives us unsatisfactory answers.
The search for causal explanations. Religion may have been a by-product of our brain’s increasingly sophisticated ability to deduce cause, agency, and intent, to anticipate dangers, and thereby to formulate causal explanations of predictive value that helped us survive. Explanations for illness or drought causing crop failure may have taken on supernatural explanations. Science provides only explanations but not meaning, and religion can satisfy answers for humans demand for meaning. Initially there wasn’t a recognized distinction between the natural and supernatural, or between religion and the rest of life.
Virtually all religions hold some supernatural beliefs specific to that religion, held despite not being able to be confirmed by experience of the natural world, and that appear implausible to outsiders. No other feature of religion creates a bigger divide between religious believers and modern secular people, or between believers in different religions. Why are supernatural beliefs such universal features of religion? Are they simply ignorant superstitions illustrating only that the human brain is capable of deceiving itself into believing anything – for example supernatural non-religious beliefs like black cats crossing your path bring bad luck. Controlled experiments and scientific methods to distinguish between random and non-random phenomena in are counterintuitive and unnatural and thus not found in traditional societies. But the investments that various religions make to their beliefs are far more burdensome, time-consuming, and heavy in consequence than non-religious like avoiding black cats.
Belief in religious superstitions serves to display one’s committment to one’s religion – who can be trusted to remain as a group member. The more of one’s life is wrapped up with one’s group, the more crucial it is to be able to identify group members correctly. Demonstrating the sincerity of your commitment by espousing some irrational belief that contradicts the evidence of your senses, for example that the founder of your church was born of a virgin birth, makes your fellow believers much more confident that you can be trusted not to abandon your group. The supernatural powers of gods surpassing human powers are projections of our own personal power fantasies. Even they may be irrational, they are emotionally plausible and satisfying.
Functions of religion.
These are listed in the order of their appearance and disappearance during the history of societal evolution.
1. Explanation. To traditional peoples, there was no ability to distinguish between what is now considered to be natural and scientific, or supernatural and religious. Origin myths, like the book of Genesis, are widespread to explain the existence of the universe, people, language diversity, and natural phenomena, like weather and tides. In christianity, creationists (the majority of Americans today) still ascribe the origin of the solar system and every species to god, but not weather or the day-to-day functioning of the universe.
2. Defusing anxiety. To deal with problems and dangers beyond our control, people were most likely to resort to prayer, rituals, ceremonies, donations to the gods, consulting oracles and shamans. observing taboos, and performing magic. By preserving the fiction, we convince ourselves that we are still doing something, aren’t helpless, and haven’t given up. We at least feel in charge lessening anxiety, and go on to make our best effort. This function has decreased with societies increased control over life’s course, often by state governments growing stronger decreasing violence and other dangers, averting famines by storing food, and the development of science and technology. Despite using crop science to develop plants able to adapt to different environments (Peru has 4000 varieties of potato), learning hunting behavior, fishermen navigating by the stars, winds and currents, there were still large areas beyond their control. In dealing with unpredictable droughts, cold, and insects, the chance movement of animals, and illnesses, we resort to prayer, believe that these measures are effective and become less anxious, calmer and more focused.
3. Providing comfort. Giving comfort, hope, and meaning when life is hard – at the prospect of our own death or that of a loved one, for example. Most religions provide comfort by in effect denying death’s reality, and by postulating some sort of afterlife for a soul associated with a body. One’s soul together with a replica of one’s body may go to a supernatural place called heaven or some other name; or one’s soul may become transformed into an animal or another person here on earth, or to hold out hope for something even better awaiting us after death, such as eternal life, reunion with one’s loved ones, freedom from care, nectar, and beautiful virgins. Hell has a double function: to comfort you by smiting your enemies, and to motivate you to obey your religion’s moral commands. Such beliefs can be so compelling that monks and nuns actually reject the worldly life.
Small-scale societies place much less emphasis on world rejection, salvation, and the afterlife than do large-scale, more complex and recent societies. Social stratification and inequality have increased, life has become harder as hunter-gatherers became farmers and assembled into larger societies, and complex societies have more formalized moral codes. Misfortune, and poorer social strata and countries tend to make people more religious. That religion shows no sign of dying out may be due to our persistent quest for meaning in a world full of unpredictable unfortunate events. Science seems to say that “meaning” isn’t meaningful, and that our individual lives really are meaningless, and evanescent except as packages of genes for which success is just self-propagation. But we still have our same old brains that crave meaning. That may be part of the explanation for why the United States is also the most religious among wealthy First World nations.
4. Standardized organization. Most modern religions have full-time priests, churches, standardized sacred book, rituals, art, music, architecture, and clothing. Only larger and more productive societies can generate the surpluses necessary to support all this organization. Karl Marx viewed religion as the opium of the people and an instrument of class oppression.
5. Codes of behavior towards strangers. All major world religions teach what is right, wrong, and how one should behave. Small scale societies depend heavily on relationships, but as the societies grew larger, the thousands of individuals were much more than an individual could know by name and relationship, and rules of peaceful behavior were applied between all members of the society. The rules enforced by political rulers were justified by religion – the gods are presumed to be the authors of the rules, codified in formal codes of morality (eg. the Ten Commandments). In recent secularized societies, such rules have moved beyond their religious origins.
6. Justifying war. Tribes of previous history faced no moral dilemmas in killing members of other tribes with whom they have no relationship. In more recent times, religions moral codes apply only to one’s behavior toward fellow citizens within the state. Commonly in the past, and all too often today, most religions claim that they have a monopoly on the truth, and that all other religions are wrong. Some of history’s most extensive genocides have been committed for religious reasons. European states in the 20th century added secular grounds to justify wars and killing, but religious fanaticism is still strong in some other societies.
7. Badges of commitment. Secular people are troubled by religions irrational supernatural beliefs, promotion of costly behaviors, and hypocrisy of preaching a universal moral code while encouraging the killing of others not part of their religion. It requires the need of adherents of a particular religion to display some reliable badge of commitment that are inevitably costly – to regularly practice rituals, prayers, and songs, undertake pilgrimages, commit money, or have body mutilations like circumcisions. Religious ideologies are more effective than secular ideologies at persuading members to maintain a possibly irrational commitment.
Measures of religions success.
The most straightforward measure of a religions success is its number of adherents. The number is increased by birth, successfully raising their children in that faith, and by conversions, and decreased by deaths and loss by conversion to other faiths. Christianity and Islam proselytize and have far more adherents than Judaism which doesn’t. Judaism has persisted by relatively high birth rates, low death rates except in times of persecution, emphasis on education to generate economic opportunities, strong mutual help, and low losses by conversion to other religions. Christianity, as an outgrowth of Judaism, emerged as the dominant religion 3 centuries later by actively proselytizing, promoting having more babies, increasing opportunities for women, institutions resulting in lower death rates, and the Christian doctrine of forgiveness (which gains advantages in the future). Mormonism is one of the most rapidly growing religions in the last 2 centuries despite its implausible origins in Joseph Smiths finding golden plates on a hillside in western New York State. Its number of adherents does not depend on whether its tenets are true, but on whether those tenets and associated practices motivate its adherents to have more babies, win converts, or constitute a smoothly functioning supportive society with incentives to work and contribute 10% of their income as an annual tithe. These high demands guarantee that those who choose to become or remain Mormons take their faith seriously. A religion’s success is relative to the successes of other religions. A behavior can be explained from an evolutionary perspective without being morally condoned.
Changes in religion’s functions.
Religion is so difficult to define as it has changed its functions as it has evolved. Of the 7 functions listed, the last four were entirely absent early in history, and five were still present but in decline at another stage. There is no single characteristic shared by all religions. Religion is a set of traits distinguishing a human social group sharing those traits from other groups not sharing those traits in identical form. Included among those shared traits is always one or more often all three of: supernatural explanation, defusing anxiety about uncontrollable dangers through ritual, and offering comfort for life’s pains and the prospect of death. Over time as complex societies developed, religions promoted standardized organization, political obedience, tolerance of strangers belonging to one’s own religion, and justification of war against groups holding other religions. If living standards rise around the world in the next 30 years, then religions functions number 1 and 4-7 will continue to decline, but functions 2 and 3 seem likely to persist. Religion is especially likely to continue to offer meaning to individual lives and deaths whose meaning may seem insignificant from a scientific perspective. Even if science’s answer to the search for meaning is true, and if religion’s meaning is an illusion, many people will continue not to like science’s answer. If the world’s economy and living standards and peace deteriorate, then all functions of religion, even supernatural explanation, may undergo a resurgence.