The ten features of a religion

The ten features of a religion
What kind of thing is religion and what is it that the various world
religions have in common that lead us to refer to them collectively as
religions in the first place? Note from the outset that I am not asking 'how
should we define religion?' as I believe that gets us nowhere. Definitions
of something as diffuse, amorphous and ubiquitous as religion will
always prove either too inclusive or too narrow to shed any genuine light
on the phenomenon under investigation. Rather, what I want to do is lay
out the characteristics of the various religions and see where they overlap
in terms of function and structure. This approach owes something to the
academic discipline known as 'phenomenology of religion' where the
investigator tries to appreciate, in a sympathetic manner, the workings of
a religion from the point of view of the believer.
I want to look at what religions traditionally do for believers and I
tentatively suggest that all religions perform ten separate functions and
that these functions operate at both the individual and social levels. I do
not claim that all the functions have the same emphasis and importance
in all the religions but I would argue that all ten will be found in all
authentic religions. However, I would also argue that some of these
functions may well be performed by certain non-religious beliefs,
practices and institutions and that some, perhaps, are no longer viable
within our modern culture.
The problem is that even after I have delineated what I like to think are
the ten key functions of all religions the concept is still fuzzy around the
edges. There are some communities of belief and practice that seem to
straddle the category 'religion', having some but not all of the features,
and for these scholars have invented the term 'para-religion'. Marxism,
Amway and Twelve-step programmes are all examples of para-religions.
However, designating something as a para-religion is not intended to be
either dismissive or validating. It doesn't serve to label the belief system
as good or bad. It's just descriptive.
The ten functions are:
You may disagree with my ten functions and think that some are not
important or that others should be included. Good. If you can help me
refine the model by criticising it – all the better. However, please
remember, we are not concerned with what we would like religion to be
or whether this covers what you like to call your religion. I am simply
looking at traditional religions as actually practiced across the world and
history. This is a descriptive not a prescriptive exercise.
1. Explanation
Our religion explains the origins and the ends of things: the universe as a
whole and our place in it. Frequently this is expressed as a map of the
universe (a cosmology), informing us what kinds of beings are in the
universe and how it is organised, and a creation narrative (a cosmogony),
explaining how it came to be like this. Human beings have a fundamental
need to know where they come from, why things are the way they are and
how the story is going to end. Accounts of how history ends are known as
'eschatologies' but in religions like Buddhism and Hinduism, which have
a more cyclical notion of human existence and history, eschatology is far
less emphasised, although it is rarely completely absent.
I like to think of traditional religious cosmology as a combination office
floor plan and organisation chart. As an individual I can see exactly how I
stand in relation to all the other beings in the universe both spatially and
hierarchically as there is a great big arrow pointing at my picture on the
diagram saying 'You are Here'. (If you are an Untouchable in Hinduism
then the arrow points pretty much to the bottom of the pile, although you
might be comforted to see that at least the animal kingdom is below
God or gods may function as part of the explanation, but not invariably.
In Buddhism the gods have a peripheral role and are just as much subject
to the wheel of existence as the rest of us. What is important is that the
cosmology provides us with a transcendental goal that enables us to
orientate our lives. In the case of Christianity it is the 'Kingdom of God' or
the 'Beatific Vision'; for Muslims it is submission to the will of Allah; for
Buddhists it is seeing through the illusion of a permanent self; for Hindus
the realisation that my individual self is identical with the divine Self that
transcends the universe.
2. Justification
Our religion accounts for and justifies the fact that evil and injustice exist
and apparently flourish in the world despite the apparent fundamental
goodness of creation. The theory that accounts for the existence of good
and evil is known as a 'theodicy' and its function is to assure us that our
belief/faith in the good is not futile. Believers can have a conviction that
in the end the good will win out and they will be compensated for their
undeserved suffering.
Human beings are confronted with recurrent crises in life such as natural
catastrophes and the great transitions of personal life such as disease,
loss, old age, the certainty of death. They have to cope with fear,
frustration, loss, uncertainty, suffering and danger. Religious belief
provide us with plausible explanations for many conditions which cause
us great anguish and our religious faith makes possible fortitude and
equanimity in the face of suffering.
3. Diagnosis
All religions contain an account of what is wrong with the human
condition – why it is out of kilter – and what needs to be done to put it
right. This is often expressed in a narrative, sometimes tied into an
origins myth (cosmogony), explaining how it came about that there is evil
in the world. For in all cultures natural evil strikes humans as strange and
unnatural and in need of explanation. For Christians the problem is the
Primeval Fall in the Garden of Eden; the ancient Greeks explained it in
terms of Pandora opening her box; for Muslims it's all down to man's
forgetfulness of God. The Buddhists locate the problem in an illusory
belief in a substantial self while Hindus conceive the illusion to consist in
a belief in plurality when in fact all existence is unitary.
So-called primitive religions put far less emphasis on what's wrong with
the world but they still contain a variety of myths to explain troubling
distinctions. For instance the Maasai in Kenya explain the differences
between wild and domesticated animals by a story telling of how once
women had their own animals but they were so lazy that the animals
escaped and so they now run wild. This is a useful story as it both
explains why there is a distinction between wild and domestic animals
and at the same time justifies the fact that only men own animals!
The anthropologist Levi Strauss took the view that all myths are attempts
to explain and overcome contradictions and dilemmas that constitute the
human condition. That is why underneath their differences myths and
religious systems tend to share structural similarities.
4. Salvation
Having diagnosed what is wrong with the world we now need something
to put it right. At the individual level too where we have messed up, made
mistakes, failed or done wrong, there needs to be a way back to the
original and natural state of the world which is harmonious and peaceful.
The individual needs a way of dealing with guilt and regret, putting the
past behind them and starting out again. He or she needs a way to
overcome moral paralysis and move on in their life. At one level this can
be seen as a therapeutic function of religion, at another it expresses the
idea that every human individual has intrinsic value and is redeemable
regardless of what they have done and that they are capable of change
and renewal. The doctrines that deal with the rectification of the world
and of individual lives are known as 'soteriology'.
The way of salvation may come to the believer by way of 'revelation' in the
sense that information or insight is vouchsafed to a believer that would
not be available through their own efforts. In some religions the believer
may achieve 'illumination' in the sense that they gain an intuitive
understanding of the world and the human condition through effort and
practice. They may also refer to this as 'enlightenment'. In these religions
the soterological function may be fulfilled by illumination whereby
instead of restoring a broken relationship (with God, the world, fellowhumans) the believers begins to see the world and themselves in a
different way.
5. Prescription
How we should live? The prescriptive aspect of religion covers ethics,
spiritual practices, rituals and ceremonies, a way of life, culture etc. It
lays down the law – or at least a set of principles – and prescribes what
we need to do to be saved/liberated/illuminated and to live the best sort
of life.
The value-system of all communities or societies, in the past at least, were
largely correlated with, and to a degree dependent upon, a more or less
shared system of religious beliefs and convictions. Religion can be seen to
be supporting, reinforcing, reaffirming and maintaining these
fundamental values in a community.
In some religious communities, such as liberal Christianity, the
prescriptive aspect of religion is almost completely ethical, in others like
Orthodox Judaism, it contains a large element of ritual practice and in a
religion like Islam there is a large overlap between ethics, ritual
prescription and civil law. From its inception Islam has always held up as
the ideal a totally Islamic society in which these three elements were
completely unified under a theocratic state.
6. Consolation
What can we hope for in the face of evil and injustice; contingency,
chance and mortality? The belief that wrongs, ills and frustrations are
righted in a future life (perhaps a reincarnated life) is consoling. The evil
get their come-uppance and the innocent and virtuous are rewarded. In
the end – justice is done. To live without some kind of belief in the
ultimate triumph of justice (which I believe is the main motivator for a
belief in life after death) is to have accept that some lives end tragically in
unredeemed loss.
7. Legitimation
In the west, were religion has largely been privatised, we often overlook
the function of religion as providing justification of the dominant social
group's power and its use of coercion.
The religious system provides a body of ultimate ends for the society,
which also happen to be compatible with the supreme, divine ends. This
leads to a conception of an overarching social plan which links into the
meaning and purpose of the cosmos overall, for example, a plan that
fulfils the will of God and which advances the Kingdom of God. In
general, there has never been a society so secularized as to be completely
without any religiously inspired transcendental ends at all. These ends
are held to provide some justification for the ruling elite to use coercive
force as they are serving a greater end than their own self-interest.
Historically, religion has functioned as a tremendous engine of
vindication, enforcement, sanction and perpetuation of social
institutions. Ancient Egyptian and Chinese religion probably exemplify
this most clearly where the heavenly realm exactly mirrors the earthly
with its pharaohs, emperors and bureaucracy. If heaven is structured like
this then it must be right that earthly power is structured like this too. In
the west, kingship has been justified on the grounds that God is a king in
heaven and so kingship must be OK.
8. Validation
Religion gives me, as an individual, personal value and purpose in the
context of the world and society. One who feels loved by God or saved by
Christ is a validated person.
Religion not only articulates and relates human yearnings and ideals to a
universal and ultimate ground but it also facilities the development of
personality and social bonding.
Religion has the effect of “…mobilizing all man's scattered energies in one
triumphant sense of his own infinite importance” (Lippman).
9. Integration
Religion unifies and integrates. It gives me a sense of belonging to and
solidarity with my faith group, humanity as a whole and with the natural
order. It gives me a sense of sympathetic fellowship with others who
share the same beliefs and practices and provides opportunities in
religious acts for giving vent to emotions and energies. It make me feel at
home in the universe.
Religion is “…a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred
things… [It] unites into one single moral community… all those who
adhere to them” (Durkheim).
10. Inspiration
Religion has the ability to sum-up and exemplify all the highest ideals
and values (ethical, aesthetic and religious) of a human in his/her society.
My religion fires me up and motivates me to live well and promote the
mission of my religion.
To inspire members of your group you need a collective vision of Human
Nature, Redemption and the Good Life. For most ordinary believers
inspiration is found through contemplation of religious works of art,
reading sacred scriptures, the practice of prayer or participation in
rituals. The religious specialist may well experience the sacred directly in
visions and mystical experience but this is rare. On the other hand stories
of the specialist having such experiences are often part of the sacred
narrative which can become the subject of the believer's contemplation.
Do you agree with these ten functions? Do you think there are any that I
have omitted? Some functions, like provision of an explanatory
cosmology, are really part of science these days and so I would suggest
can no longer be fulfilled by modern religion. However, I would suggest
that we still need clear prescriptions on how to live the good life; we need
consolation in the face of pain, suffering and loss; we need a sense of
personal validation and solidarity with like-minded people who will
encourage us in pursuit of the good life; and more than anything we need
inspiration to provide us with a vision of our goal (whatever that might
be) and motivation to pursue it. So while we may reject the claims of any
particular religion I would argue that the needs that religion fulfils, and
the questions that it seeks to answer, are universal. In the absence of
religious belief these needs still need to be fulfilled in some way.
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