The Purposes of Religion
"Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît pas [The heart has its reasons which reason does not know]” —Pascal
“To find people who believe their religion as a person believes that fire will burn his hand when thrust into it, we must seek them in those Oriental countries where Europeans do not yet predominate, or in the European world when it was still universally Catholic.” —John Stuart Mill
“Yeah, well, what Jesus blatantly fails to appreciate is that it’s the meek who are the problem.” —“Reg,” leader of the People’s Front of Judea, in The Life of Brian
“Futility of futilities, all is futile.” —Ecclesiastes
Pretty obviously, religion is in decline all over the world, with the possible exception of Islam. In an age and a global civilization pervaded by science, secularism, and hysterical atheistic leftism, religion is increasingly considered to be unnecessary, even obsolete, like alchemy or poetry that rhymes. Furthermore the secular culture of consumerism, and also heightened standards of living pretty much everywhere, have degraded what religion still is practiced by making people increasingly lukewarm, superficial, and preoccupied with other things. The result of all this is a spiritual vacuum resulting in alienation, lostness, and a fair amount of existential despair in the individual, and increasing instability and fragmentation in society as a whole.
But despite the anti-religious trend in the world today I would maintain that there is still a need for religion—for organized religion and not for just a wholesome philosophy of life or even just sincere personal spirituality. It may not be necessary for all individuals, and I dare say it is not, but for society as a whole I think it may be invaluable. There is a need for organized religion itself because we humans are by nature a religious animal; it’s built into us, and it serves a number of purposes, not all of which are anywhere near to being obsolete. So below I list the purposes of organized religion that come to mind.
1. One of the earliest purposes for religion, long before morality or salvation had anything to do with it, has been explaining things unknown. People very much do not like being ignorant (or more importantly, perceiving themselves as ignorant) about relatively important topics. They want to know what causes rain, or how to avoid sickness, or why we are here in this world, and if they don’t know the answers to these important questions, they at least would like to think that the experts, the authorities in society who receive special respect for their wisdom, do know the answers; this remains just as true now as it did in the Stone Age. Though with regard to most worldly phenomena, the earth, the sky, even human nature itself, the myths and inspired revelations of traditional religion are no longer considered to be particularly reliable. Science has proven its worth over and over again, and has defeated religious explanations for worldly phenomena with hard demonstrations…yet there are still some things that science cannot touch, that lie beyond the scope of science, just as some things lie beyond the scope of, say, mathematics. And with regard to things metaphysical, this by definition lies beyond science, as “metaphysics” literally means what lies beyond physics. So this traditional and very ancient purpose of explaining the universe we live in is much reduced in an age of scientific empiricism, but still some of the most important questions, like how to be happy or how to live a deeply fulfilling life, or possibly even what becomes of the human spirit after death, are still best answered for the masses of common people by religion, especially a wise religion.
2. Another very ancient purpose of religion which is still valuable today is its ability to unify a people by unifying their worldview. This is evidently the only reason for religion seen by many cynical atheistic types; religion is viewed as little if anything more than a means for government authorities or a priestly elite to control the attitudes and behavior of the people through fear and superstition. But unification of worldview, and of the attitudes of society, is not necessarily a bad thing, especially if it arises more or less organically among the people themselves because it satisfies their profound need for a satisfying belief system and set of values. A culture unified by an inspired and uplifting spiritual message, even a relatively crude and mythological one, and also a common set of relatively healthy values, certainly can result in a society that is much stronger and more inspired and vibrant. Skeptics may insist that a less emotional and more rational philosophy would be better, but people don’t work that way; they are driven by their passions, not by cold reason. Even if only from a Darwinian perspective a society in agreement on values and the people’s place in the universe can be extremely valuable, as the recent ideological fragmentation of the west is helping to demonstrate.
2.1. One proposed purpose for religion given much emphasis by some cynical atheistic types, which is a kind of corollary or offshoot of the previous one, is that it gives a parasitic priestly class power and prestige and something to do. In fact in a recent video Styxhexenhammer666, a former satanist, expressed an even dimmer view of organized religion in general, saying, and I quote, “Organized religion is a sham….ultimately it’s just a money grab.” In his expressed opinion organized religion simply exploits people’s fear of death as a way of obtaining money and power: “It’s essentially an establishment which uses the biological drive for survival, and warps it in order to make profit.” But this is so obviously untrue—that is, the very idea that this is the ONLY purpose of organized religion—that we can include it as one of the shadier interpretations of religion which may in fact be the main one applicable for certain fringe cults, those that are deliberately fraudulent practically from the beginning. It should be sufficient to point out that even many of the ordained clergy of organized religions devoutly believe their religion; in fact many (but certainly not all) of them believe it and practice it much more devoutly than do most of the laity, and even derive some deep consolation from it.
2.2. Another offshoot or mutation of the purpose of unifying a society’s beliefs is that religion appeals to the deep human desire for a feeling of family, of inclusion—essentially, of tribalism. People want to feel that they are valued members of a group, and many western church-goers, for example, may feel this purpose of religion more deeply than they feel a need to be saved from sin and hellfire. Nevertheless these two purposes may overlap when people believe themselves to belong to the favored tribe of their deity, or to the tribe of the enlightened and liberated.
3. Another very early purpose of religion which in some respects is obsolete but in some others is still vital, is its role in promoting the health, happiness, and general well-being of the people who follow it. Many early religious taboos were of this sort: not eating pork and other “unclean” animals, frequent bathing and washing, prohibitions against incest, and so forth; and also many basic moral principles had this result, such as prohibitions against adultery and overindulgence in sensuality such as overeating and drunkenness, and also such social virtues as charity to the poor, loving one’s neighbor, and hospitality to the stranger. Many of the health taboos are now obsolete since modern physicians and nutritionists know more about bodily health than did premodern prophets, but many others which are more subtle are still very important—one example being the warnings in religious texts against gluttony, which are largely ignored by an irreligious generation plagued by obesity, diabetes, and other negative side effects of sensual overindulgence. And with regard to general happiness and mental well-being, science has had, if anything, an effect that is largely retrograde from many earlier religious cultures. The alienation and amorality of modern times calls for some return to a society instilled with sound advice (maybe even precepts or commandments) regarding basic morality which truly results in a modicum of inner peace and well-being.
3.1. A variation on the promotion of general happiness and well-being was suggested to me by a person whose opinions I respect: religion is “a testing ground for deep rooted cultural archetypes that get passed down through generations.” She even considered this to be the most important purpose of all (though she isn’t extremely religious). I can appreciate that there are subconscious archetypes that we humans hold deep in our hearts, as a kind of universal symbolic language, and that fitting these archetypes into a satisfying poetic/symbolic mythos which furthermore promotes other positive effects could be very important; though I don’t think in terms of archetypes much except unconsciously or when I am dreaming, so I can’t really judge how fundamental this purpose of religion is. Jordan Peterson has talked a hell of a lot about it in his videos though, for example in his biblical series.
4. The perceptive reader may have noticed that none of the purposes given for organized religion thus far are particularly spiritual or metaphysical. That is because I have tried to list the purposes of religion in ascending order of spiritual exaltation, and have saved those reasons for last. So, one deeply spiritual purpose of religion in general, including of course organized religion, is that it helps to fulfill a human need for connection, or at least nearness, not only to unseen forces, but to the Absolute. Ultimate Reality, the Absolute, God, the Way, the Kantian thing in itself, the Highest Truth—whatever one wants to call the ultimate or highest principle—of necessity pervades our entire world. We are soaking in it; and presumably all of us, at least at a subliminal level, are aware of it and acknowledge it as more important than the details of our personal narratives, or money, or scientific theories, or anything else. Deep down there is a human resonance with Infinity; and any religion that accentuates that in some way is bound to be deeply satisfying to people spiritual enough to raise their awareness of the Absolute into conscious experience. For some people it may amount to little more than feelings of awe and reverence towards some infinitely wise and powerful Deity, but for others it may lead to real mystical awareness and profound insight; and for those who have experienced it, even at a relatively crude level, it is of unquestionable value and consolation.
5. Finally there is the highest possible purpose of religion: full realization of Ultimate Reality, complete liberation from this vale of tears, also known as Samsara. Not all religions ascend this high, and in fact most of them don’t. Even Christianity, a relatively advanced religious system, contents itself, with the possible exception of some of the mystical schools, with nothing more than nearness to God in an afterlife. But full enlightenment, if we can believe a multitude of sages throughout the ages, is possible at least for a few, and assuming that it is possible, no purpose in life could be higher. Furthermore, some yogic and/or mystical schools have developed advanced yogic techniques for calming and clarifying the mind to facilitate “contemplation” and insight, and without such traditions someone striving for enlightenment might have to reinvent the wheel, not being able to take advantage of the experiences of countless practitioners who had come before. Also, the initiations and ordinations and vows and purifications of these religious orders help to weed out dilettantes and the weak, thereby improving the overall success rate and seriousness of the system. Science is utterly clueless on this purpose of religion, and probably the preceding one too, though there have been some profoundly philosophical scientists who have approached the precipice of mysticism, at least in a non-scientific capacity. But of course worldly materialism is practically the opposite of unbounded Infinity, and is the direction taken by the secular west, although total secularism and spiritual death for an entire civilization seems just about impossible to me…which is another reason why I consider the current drive towards global Marxism and materialistic secularism to be a lost cause. But perhaps I digress. But let’s play devil’s advocate here and assume for one second that the atheistic materialists are right and there is no God, no accessible Absolute, no escape from Plato’s cave—even so, the earlier purposes remain intact and are still enough to justify the existence of churches, temples, and priests.
I’m sure there are other purposes for religion that I haven’t thought of, and many offshoots and mutations of the ones I have listed, but I figure this is enough to chew on at present, so I stop.