The Social Function of Religion

Religion is a term that is used to describe a wide range of cultural traditions around the world. It is common to think of it as a taxon whose paradigmatic examples are the so-called world religions of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. However, the concept can also be applied to sets of beliefs and practices that are not universally referred to as “religion” but are specific to one group of people or a particular geographical area. These latter forms of religion are usually referred to as folklore or indigenous religion.

In the past, scholars have analyzed these different forms of religion by looking at their social functions. The 19th century saw the rise of disciplines like archaeology and anthropology, which enabled them to study religious traditions across the globe. Since that time, many social scientists have viewed religion as a powerful social force that varies in its effect on societies around the world and is both an agent of liberation and an instrument of coercion.

A major function of religion, Haidt argues, is that it provides comfort and hope for billions of people. People who believe in God, for example, can be assured that their lives will have meaning and purpose. They can also be reassured that they will be reunited with their deceased loved ones in the afterlife and can feel confident that they will live in friendly communion with God.

This social function of religion can also be seen in its role as an enforcer of norms. For example, many religious groups have rules about who can marry and teach that procreation is the most important goal of human life.