What is the function of religion?

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What is the function of religion? We see religious beliefs and their ability to guide behaviour in all human societies, so they seem to represent an intrinsic aspect of our psychology. Of course, adherents of each religion can articulate reasons for their faith, relating to spiritual, moral, and cultural aspects. But if we take an external view, what accounts for the success of religion across human societies?

In Western cultures, it is easy to think of religions in terms of one of the Abrahamic faiths; Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, all of which come from common Middle Eastern origins. In these faiths there is a unitary, all powerful, all knowing God who forms the moral basis for the religion. In each, adherents generally see God as sitting in judgment of them. Thus, the argument goes, such religions with a single, powerful deity are useful to societies because they provide a structure around which more complex structures can be built. Persuading people to build a city can be tough, but if you can persuade them all that doing this is God’s plan then your job might be easier.

The trouble is, this kind of idea is hard to test. You can’t really set up two cultures, give one a monothestic religion, and then see who has the best outcomes. Even looking between different religions is tricky, because many cultures are related to each other, so similarities between two of them may be due to the fact that they come from a similar starting place.

Evolutionary biology, it turns out, has a very similar problem. Two species that have similar features may have independently solved an evolutionary problem in the same way, or they may be distantly related to a common ancestor. The field of biology that has developed complex statistical methods to deal with this problem is called phylogenetics, and creates descriptions of the relationships between species as phylogenetic trees.

Professor Russell Gray, from the School of Psychology at the University of Auckland (and concurrently Director of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History), has had great success applying phylogenetic models to linguistic and cultural variation in human societies. For example, by applying these models to variations among languages in Pacific societies, he and his collaborators have been able to show how people spread through the region over the centuries.

In a recent paper, Joseph Watts, a PhD student at Auckland, along with Russell and an international team of collaborators, has used these methods to study the relationship between religions and societies. They wanted to understand whether religions with central, powerful gods are more likely to lead to complex societies. As a comparison, they also looked at religions with more general beliefs about ancestral spirits, karma, etc. They examined the religious basis and political complexity of 96 Austronesian cultures (a related linguistic group from Madagascar to the Pacific). If monotheistic gods are useful for developing political complexity, we’d expect to see them occur with (and predict the appearance of) complex societies.

In fact, their analysis shows that such “moralizing high gods” do not seem to be crucial for establishing political complexity in Austronesian societies. Although there was a relationship between the two, it was no stronger than the relationship between the other, broadly supernatural religions (without central god figures) and cultural complexity. In other words, both types of religion seemed to have something to do with the way that cultures develop. Furthermore, their statistical modelling indicated that the moralizing high god religions only develop AFTER a society has started to become complex. Developing religions with central, all-powerful gods may be something that cultural leaders encourage after a society gets to a point of complexity, possibly due to the levers of power that it provides for maintaining control.

So religions with central gods are no more likely to lead to societies that are politically complex than other, more diffuse religious structures. Joseph’s work shows us how we can use rigourous scientific methods to examine a much broader range of questions than one might think. It also shows how important it is to test theories scientifically rather than rely on our intuitive, culturally-influenced understanding.

For more information on Joseph Watts’ research, click here:

For more information on Russell Gray’s research, click here:

You can find the research paper here:

One thought on “What is the function of religion?

  1. I’ve always thought religion was part of the human condition to need an explanation, and that religions form to answer that need. It explains the unexplainable. And whether it requires one God or many, what explanation brings is a sense of order, reward, punishment or inspiration as needed. Perhaps the religions formed as a result of complex societies bringing groups together who found they had similar explanations.


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