Basilica of the Annunciation – Nazareth

Located in the town where, according to the Gospels, Jesus was raised and lived most of his life, this church, built in 1969, was erected on the location where, according to Roman-Catholic speculation, Gabriel, a messenger from God. told Mary that she would conceive a child whose name would be “God is liberation,” namely, Jesus.

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How Does It Work? The Role of Religion in Society

La Sagrada Familia

More than a human phenomenon or experience, religion is one of the fundamental institutions of all societies.[1]  As a social construct, its contributions and limitations are real and undeniable.  However, there are differences of opinion regarding what roles religion play or should play in our world.  And yet, because every opinion is contextually-situated and finite, in that respect, limited, every opinion or hypothesis regarding the functions of religion deserves our thoughtful consideration. We must listen to and learn from them.

In the scholarly study of religion, and thanks to the contributions of the field of socieology, there are three main views that help us understand how religion fits in society and what purposes it serves: The Functionalistic, The Conflictivist, and The Symbolic-Interactionist views.  Let us briefly describe each one of them and focus on what their areas of concerns are.

First of all, minimizing social conflict, religion usually reflects, maintains and preserves the dominant establishment of any society, in terms of their main values, beliefs and acceptable, normative behaviors.  From this standpoint, religion, like other social institutions articulated by humans, creates balance and harmony in people’s lives to make things “work.”  It is another piece of the big machinery we call “society”, a micro-organism of a larger, integrated body.  As such, religion makes some contributions and has limitations as well.  These are basic tenets of a functionalist perspective of religion

Second, seen through the lens of how its values, beliefs, and actions embody the structures, ideologies, and patterns of behavior of the larger society, religion typically replicates the same tensions, fractures, and conflicts we find in the secular world, especially with respect to the issues of power, privilege, inclusion, use of resources, and classes of people, with the corresponding inconsistencies or ambiguities.  As such, religion plays a pivotal role in facilitating social change, slowing it down, or making it harder to be achieved.  The conflictivist perspective assumes these ideas as fundamental truths.

In addition to the first two views, religion also provides spaces for its members to interact with each other in changing, symbolic, complex ways, and to exercise different levels of influence in doing so.  This interaction is part of larger societal systems and is meaningful, even when its members might not be fully aware that their actions stand for particular patterns of conduct and ideologies.  Because this perspective focuses on human relations and their deeper meanings, scholars refer to it as a symbolic-interactionist.

Putting all these views in the back burner for a moment, religion plays more specific functions, many of which might resonate with a more down-to-earth understanding of its usefulness or lack thereof.  I hereby summarize some of the most important ones:

  1. Religion creates networks of significant relationships. Through common values, beliefs, and actions, religion unites believers in a fraternal spirit so that all of its members may have fellowship and show solidarity to each other in order to strengthen their faith as they invite others to join. Religion helps people connect to others thus creating a sense of community.
  2. Religion  provides moral guidance on how to live in the world. Religion is like an existential GPS or handbook that leads people’s path in their effort to express their solidarity to those who suffer or need a loving hand.  It gives people an idea about to live and act in goodness with respect to a Higher Reality and themselves.
  3. Religion offers some answers to the reality of good and evil. It its effort to guide people to live a good life, it is true that religion many times fails to answer all the questions regarding what is right and what is wrong, why there is evil in the world, and role – if any  – the Holy plays in it.  Fortunately, believers are not left orphans inasmuch as religion offers them some faith-based answers regarding morality and the problem of theodicy.
  4. Religion gives emotional support. In response to the uncertainty and challenges of life that tend to overwhelm individuals and communities, religion gives people faith and hope as it helps them monitor and deal with emotions such as guilt, self-esteem, fear, and concerns, in light of deeper, spiritual values. Believers can find in it the incentives and spiritual medicines to deal with many psychological challenges constructively.
  5. Religion  controls people’s lives. Through the creation and enforcement of religious values and moral norms, religion exercises a strong social influence in the believers’ life-journeys.  This form of social control – in addition to some structural constraints -, is only possible thanks to people’s free-will decisions to believe in and accept those values and norms.
  6. Religion helps cope with present misfortunes in light of a better world. In religious communities, tragedy, pain, disease and/or death are normally understood in terms of spiritual, overarching better plans and believers are guided to look forward to a superior life in this life and the next one.  Life’s present ordeals are part of a preparation for the future.
  7. Religion takes side with and supports the status quo. As a replica of the larger society, religions (by intent or default) normally play a conservative role identifying themselves with people in positions of privilege and power, while doing nothing or little to criticize, oppose, or fight against the establishment, and even neglecting the needs to those who suffer most.  When this happens, religion equips people for “heaven” and ignores “hell” on earth.
  8.  Religion generates morally ambivalent or paradoxical results. As a pervasive human phenomenon- with its possibilities and limitations- religion both includes and excludes, gives life and takes it away.  To our surprise, while It seeks to do good, it also produces the opposite effect.  No wonder religion, just like other institutions, is guilty of oppressing, exploiting, or hurting others.[2] At the end of the day, no institution is morally perfect or absolutely innocent.

In no way am I suggesting that these are all the roles religion plays or that religion fulfills all these functions at the same time.  In principle, they are all reasonable and valid, interpretative possibilities to be used when deemed suitable.  Not only are they all interconnected, but one of these function or any combination of them might be more relevant than the other possibilities, at any given time.  Again, the roles vary and so do their interpretations.

Along with some corrections or qualifications to the list of interpretations I have provided, other views could also be added since no interpreter monopolizes the truth or characterizes it flawlessly.   As we accept this invitation, let us keep in mind that all of us, as individuals, also play specific roles as members of our respective religious communities, which could well reinforce, diversify, or even challenge the ideas I have summarized in the present post.  We all play a part too!


[1] See also my other posts on the theme “Understanding Religion:” ; ;

[2] The following quotes illustrate this function:  “Religion is the opiate of the people” (Karl Marx) and  “Religion is excellent stuff for keeping common people quiet” (Napoleon Bonaparte).

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La soledad es nuestra más fiel compañera
Loneliness is our most faithful companion



En cada lugar, tiempo, pueblo y cultura, cada familia es SAGRADA, no solamente aquella a la que se le dedica un santuario

In every place, time, people, and culture, every family is SACRED, not just the one to whom a sanctuary is dedicated






Voy a prepararles un lugar
I am going to prepare a place for you

Jesus, The Galilean



Una ventana es una puerta abierta al horizonte
A window is an open door towards the horizon



Cuando Dios nos sale al encuentro para bendecirnos con su silente gracia
When God comes to meet us to bless us with his/her silent grace



In the Beginning… The Origin of Religion


“Human existence is inexorably indebted to beginnings. Curiosity and mystery are timeless allies. Understanding is the resilient aspiration of all mortal inquiry” (AEM)

For centuries, the question of how and when religion began has been one the mind-boggling enigmas that has captivated the imagination of a multitude of inquisitive minds, especially in the field of comparative religions.[1]  Unfortunately, a final solution to this enigma has not been possible.  Neither history nor science has succeeded in their attempts to find the truth.  To our disappointment, no one really knows.

Fortunately, we are not left in a worthless limbo.  With different levels of precision, we have an idea of how many world religions started.   Thanks to a long history of research whose roots go back to the 19th century, we now have at our disposal a series of inter and cross-disciplinary hypotheses seeking to explain how some pre-historical efforts to connect with a Supreme Power might have started or – even with a little more precision – how particular religions might have begun in our seven continents.  Despite this knowledge, we still are clueless regarding how religion, as a pervasive and cultural human effort to develop a relationship with the divine mystery, started and developed.

Using as “informants” what world religions have been and have done for centuries, as finalized concrete products of a process,[2] and setting aside the idea that religion or religions originated out of a primitive mentality, faulty thinking, naiveté and/or human ignorance, I hereby outline some of the most popular, tentative proposals about the genesis of religion:[3]

  1. Everything is Alive and There is Life in Everything. As a result of dreams and visions of people who died, in primitive societies religion might have started as the belief that former family members, friends, warriors, and ancestors were alive in some form, in another world, and still connected with the physical world of those left behind.  The experience with the deceased in somewhat abstract terms, led many cultures  to conclude that the dead existed “spiritually” and that they had “souls” as well; somewhat they were alive in another dimension.   The same views were extended to animals, objects, plants, and other elements of nature; everything was alive and had a soul as well. As time passed by, this recognition led to the veneration of the dead and nature until they were worshipped as divine entities whom they would please in order to obtain favors.[4]  In the academic study of religion, this view is usually called animism.
  1. Dealings with the Mystical Powers of Nature. Another hypothesis argues that religion began with groups of people responding to what they heard, saw, felt, touched, and tasted in the natural world.  From their sensorial experience,  they assumed there were mystical forces behind anything that they interacted with.  As a fundamental piece of this evolving relationship, these pre-historical communities started personalizing the elements.  As an example of that, they gave names to the mystical powers of nature and attributed to them specific roles or functions until they became deities with the corresponding myths to explain who they were, what they did, and how they related to the physical world.  Natural phenomena became impersonal divine realities and/or expressions of specific gods or goddesses in charge.[5]
  1. Recognition of One Supreme, All-Powerful Deity. Some scholars affirm that, in some cultures, religion appears to have originated as a belief in one God, normally seen as above everything else and attributed perfect qualities. [6] Recognizing the centrality or uniqueness of this God, the belief in many gods and animism developed much later, as a normal part of the diversification process or even seen as a distortion.  For that reason, many decided to go back to monotheism. 
  1. Controlling the World of Nature. It has been said that once humanity failed to manipulate nature with magic, as a second stage of three-stage process, primitive societies resorted to the use of religion to achieve this goal, hoping that through its beliefs and rituals nature itself would also cooperate and submit to the will of humans.  Religion’s failure to control the elements was replaced by science, as the third stage of this linear understanding of humanity.  One could then say that religion came after the failure of magic, only to fail again.  It is the result of an evolutionary process, which is no longer relevant.
  1. Psychological Projections. Since humans are not just souls and bodies, but also composed of minds and emotions, religion might have originated as a result of human desires, wishes, and needs that needed satisfaction in the face of challenges or threats to their well-being.  Motivated by fear and guilt of the spirits or God or even death, the beliefs, symbols, and rituals people created became defense-mechanisms, media for self-protection, affirmation, and control.  Religion is simply a replica of self seeking to benefit the self.
  1. Social Organization, Identity, and Meaning. In response to a type of life that might come across as chaotic, shapeless, and meaningless, religion mediates people’s desire to have a structured, unified community to which they need to belong and out of which they may obtain answers to where they came from, who they are and where they are headed. self.  For centuries, all humans have longed for balance, harmony, and purpose in life.  The desire to be connected with something greater than ourselves might have served as a very strong motivator to seek a relationship with the powers that be millions of year ago or even today.
  1. The Overwhelming Enigma of Life and Death. Finally, and to give to our dialogue more philosophical and existential overtones, religion might have originated out of a profound reverence for the mystery and power of life and concerns for death, which inspired in people a sense of awe, humility, powerlessness, and submission to a perceived deeper reality.  We should not be surprise that such sentiments might have crossed the minds of many primitive cultures.

Although there might some other explanations one could add to this list of hypotheses, a few, tentative conclusions may be presented:

  1. Religion is as old as human existence. It does not come across like an after-thought, footnote or appendix in the course of human history.  The premise here is that men and women, because of their complex nature (comprised of emotions, souls and body)  have some sort of innate, intuitive  and/or spiritual tendency to response to the outside world in mystical ways.
  1. Religion must have started as a natural response to nature as an extension or projection of self and/or as the result of some kind of dynamic and complex dialogue between the inside of humans and what is outside.
  1. Religion must have started in different places at different times; a linear process presupposing one, single, pre-historical religion from which others branched out is unreasonable and simplistic. If this is so, it would perhaps be more appropriate to talk about “origins.”
  1. Religion originated as a result of a combination of several factors, difficult to single out. We now know that things in life are multi-factorial and that, at any given time, one factor or a combination of several could be more important than taking into consideration all the factors.
  1. Religion, in the interest of growth and survival, went through a necessary process of formalization and/or institutionalization.  It started out as a simple, informal phenomenon only to become something more structured, formal, and diversified, with all the possibilities and limitations associated with this process.

While we give embrace these and other reasonable conjectures, one thing will forever be the same or go unchallenged: the untamable, human spirit will continue to look for answers that, buried in the-now-gone past, still long to be creatively reimagined until that moment when the mystery of the beginning(s) of religion will no longer be a treasure to look for but an awesome discovery that will make all inquiries an issue of the past.


[1] For a working definition of the term religion and what religions do to make a relationship with the Sacred possible, please see my posts “What is Religion: Naming a Faith-Driven Experience” and “In Our Image and Likeness: How Does Religion Facilitate a Relationship with the Holy?”

[2] The majority of them follows patterns of expressive behavior that makes possible a comparative and contrasting analysis.

[3] Using common sense and drawing inferences from the beliefs, feelings, and actions of world religions, scholars have articulated and projected these hypothesis following an inverted, chronological order (a process from the present to the past).

[4] For instances, through sacrifices, offerings and other rituals.

[5] As an example of this worldview, the Afro-Caribbean Changó was seen as the god of thunder, just like Baal in Canaanite religions.

[6] The data used for the articulation of this view comes from Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which are monotheistic.


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CandlelightBefore the power and mystery of life,


  • This picture is courtesy of Huitt Rabel!
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Our walk back Home is breathtaking, mysterious, and promising!

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