Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The Social Function of Religion

I am not a religious person. Nor are most religious people I know.

Basically, religion is the social glue of tribal societies. It explains why some people are included in the tribal structure while others are excluded. Almost every culture has a creation myth that describes its origins and attempts to provide an explanation for death. When society was based on kinship, it was inconceivable that a person would question his religion because religious beliefs were so tightly woven into tribal culture. Even today, most people adhere to their parents' religion because, as children they were socialized into it. Changing religions is extremely difficult because it means rejecting your family and their beliefs. To avoid family conflict, most people simply follow the required rituals and forms even though they no longer believe.

Christianity is different from other religions. It had no creation myth so it appropriated the Jewish creation story in the Old Testament - The New Testament provided an explanation of the reasons for death - a transition from life through a process of judgment by god and afterwards a life of eternal pleasure for the included and eternal punishment for the excluded.

Christianity has also existed primarily in ethnically and religiously plural societies rather than in homogenous societies based on kinship. It was forced to compete with other religions through the process of conversion. It did so effectively in two ways: first by appropriating the mysteries of other religions - virgin birth, death and resurection myths, miracle cures and pagan seasonal celebrations are all taken from other popular religions. Second by allying themselves with the powerful elements of civil society - from the Roman Emperors Constantine and Theodosias through Hitler and Stalin down to the U.S. Republican Party of the present day.

The real difference today between christianity and most other religions is the bible. It is a book that is ridiculously inconsistent, scientifically nonsensical, historically unverifiable and morally ambiguous. American religious fundamentalists especially those in the deep south have elevated the bible to the point where it has become the fourth person of the trinity. They insist that the bible is the inspired work of god - although why god ceased to inspire books after the bible isn't well explained. Joseph Smith advanced a sequel in an attempt to bring the bible up to date with the European discovery of America but his Book of Mormon hasn't had a good reception outside of Utah.

Southern fundamentalists also insist on absolute belief in the literal words of the bible. To interpret the bible is to sin. Yet their charismatic, self-appointed mega-church clerics and televangelists have no hesitation in selecting out their targets - for example homosexuals can be targeted for venimous attacks, while people who eat seafood - equally abominable according to the book of leviticus - are ignored. The distinction is political not theological - homosexuals are easier to attack than the food industry. But selection is interpretation and despite this a whole flock of fundamentalist theological sheep speak hatred against homosexuals from their tax-supported pulpits around the continent. (more to follow)

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