What Religion Does for Believers

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by Neil Godfrey

H/t Otagosh — See the Triangulations blog for nine functions the author believes religion accomplishes for believers: Religion as Moral Signalling. This follows from my previous post that views religion (Islam, Christianity — any of them) as social creations with social functions. The doctrines and practices are not the end but the means to the ends. A graphic highlights nine needs met by religion — listed here from Otagosh’s summary:

  1. Morality signal
  2. Behaviour control
  3. Identity support
  4. Community resources
  5. Entertainment
  6. Family/Tribal bonding
  7. Happiness, peace, comfort
  8. Magical hope (healing, money, safety)
  9. Fear alleviator



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3 thoughts on “What Religion Does for Believers”

  1. I agree.

    But also…..an African writer (forgot the name) once commented that human beings understand their world through stories/narrative. —and in large part—that is how many religions function—as a common narrative for a very large number of peoples. It is within this narrative that rituals, rules of behavior and laws are made and accepted…..

    All 9 aspects can also be found in other non-religious meta-narratives—has anyone tried connecting these with the meta-narrative of “Modernity”? If we are to understand “others”—we also need to understand the components that make up our own “world-view” and its ramifications…..

  2. These considerations are so very important, but almost completely ignored by many hardcore atheists I talk to. I try to explain that logical arguments about the non-existence of God had no impact on me leaving religion and becoming an atheist myself. Instead it was all the other functions that slowly, over time, were fulfilled by institutions and peer groups that had nothing to do with church or religion.

    The morality signal, the main point in the referenced blog post, was eroded almost completely in two directions. First I realized all the morals that made my religion different from non-religion had no bearing on being a good person. Second, I met and worked with many Christian leaders and authority figures whose morality I couldn’t reconcile with even a secular sense of morality, let alone a Christian morality.

    Also I found the “magical hope” thing less important, especially in terms of money, when I had a new peer group who were actually willing to help each other out. My church’s main focus, to the exclusion of almost everything else, was evangelism, so all money was funneled into that. There was lots of preaching and teaching about helping the less fortunate, but not so much activity in that area.

    All these things together, plus others, means that switching from theist to atheist was a very minor step in me leaving religion, and happened way after all those nine functions no longer had any connection to a concept of god.

  3. These functions of religious communities have been undermined by other agencies. Hence partly the decline of Christian churches among intelligent people in the western world. “According to the Church fathers…especially St Augustine…history has the purpose of assuring the happiness of a small portion of the human race in another world” (J. B. Bury). What seems to have survived in Britain is the clerical manipulation of “guilt” over “selfishness” – with further ultimately no less suicidal corollaries such as welcoming Muslim and Hindu communal settlements.

    However, for some the existential problems remain: what about this awesome cosmos, what about the intractable human condition, and what about inevitable death? To develop my little story about the London taxi-driver, “I ‘ad that there Bertrand Russell in the backer me cab the uvver night. Very clever gent. ‘Bertie,’ I says, ‘wossit all abaht?’ And d’you know, ‘e ‘adn’t got ‘n effiin’ clue. Then I picked up that Farver Copleston outside Farm Street, dog collar ‘n all. Arsed ‘im the same question. ‘Reverend,’ I said, ‘wossit all abaht?’ ‘God knows,’ he said.”

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