Re: Religion: definition of

Gerold Firl (
13 Apr 1995 13:39:14 -0700 (Tom Johnston-Oneill) writes:

> I couldn't disagree more with these comments. Geertz and Weber are
> not talking about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. They are
> not, in your words, talking about "rarified[sic] aspects of abtruse[sic]
> spirituality". They are instead talking about the most fundamental
> problems of human consciousness, like why people get sick and die, why the
> rains come and either provide a wonderful season or a poor one, why you
> can or cannot trust your neighbor, why there is evil, why people suffer,
> why they dream (and the list goes on). If you get the chance read the
> articles I gave references for.

At one level, you're absolutely right. These fundamental questions of human
existance are addressed by religion, and they are important. I'm trying to go
one level deeper, however. The question of "why people get sick and die" can
be answered in many different ways; my point is that the particular direction
taken by a particular culture will be a reflection of the particular
circumstances of that culture: *especially*, first and foremost, a reflection
of the requirements of survival. If ideology does not reinforce the patterns
of behavior which optimize the probability of simple survival, then there is
a very good chance that the culture will not survive.

Culture fits the definition of a _complex adaptive system_ perfectly, and as
such, it follows the evolutionary logic of other adaptive systems. A religion
which does not reflect the specific requirements of cultural survival at that
time and place will not last.

> You apparently would like to reduce religion to its "essential
> function" and in do so you employ a "nature, red in tooth and claw"
> simile. And yet the "survival of the fittest" would only describe the
> smallest arc of human experience.

Lets not get too hung-up on the detailed workings of adaptation just yet.
Evolution is far more than just the strong killing the weak. Symbiosis and
competition work hand-in-glove to produce stable systems.

> Monothesism was not the "birth" of
> religion but the result of a long historical process in a particular
> place. How can the "essential function" of something become manifest
> thousands of years later? It is simply not a very good strategy to study
> three culturally and historically related religions which form a single
> complex (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) in an attempt to determine
> universal features of something so diverse as "religion".

Right. I wasn't suggesting that the birth of monotheism should be equated
with the birth of religion. I was using the birth of monotheism as an example
(and one with which there should be widespread familiarity) of how the
material conditions of physical survival influenced the development of
religion. Plus, this example serves as an excellent illustration of my main
point regarding the question "what is religion": religion is a system for
*organizing* society, for imposing a pattern of internal behavior on the
constituent members of the culture so-as to regulate their interactions in a
way which will be beneficial for the survival of the society.

> I would like to suggest that it is impossible to determine "the
> essential cause, raison d'etre or function" of phenomena as complex as the
> cultural systems we call "religion".

Try this. Religion functions to create social organization. Our social
instincts, easily recognizible as related to the other primates, are
inadequate as guides when society is made up of more people than we know on a
personal basis. Religion provides a set of guidelines which can be used to
regulate our relations with other members of the culture *without* our having
to know the other individual personally.

Think of any religion. It will be described by the description given above.
And I maintain that this is indeed the primary function of religion, at least
when viewed at the level of society as a whole. Of course, from the
perspective of the individual the function of religion will be seen quite
differently. But religion is a culture-wide phenomenon, and to be fully
understood it must be viewed from this perspective.

Disclaimer claims dat de claims claimed in dis are de claims of meself,
me, and me alone, so sue us god. I won't tell Bill & Dave if you won't.
=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=---- Gerold Firl @ ..hplabs!hp-sdd!geroldf