Intellectual vs Functional Religion

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Many scholarly and academic attempts to define or describe religion can be classified into one of two types: functional or substantive. Each represents a very distinct perspective on the nature of function of religion. Although it is possible for a person to accept both types as valid, in reality most people will tend to focus on one type to the exclusion of the other. Which type a person focuses on can tell a lot about what they think of religion and how they perceive religion in human life. For those who focus upon substantive or essentialist definitions, religion is all about content: if you believe certain types of things you have a religion while if you don’t believe them, you don’t have a religion. Examples include belief in gods, belief in spirits, or belief in something known as “the sacred.” Accepting a substantive definition of religion means looking at religion as simply a type of philosophy, a system of bizarre beliefs, or perhaps just a primitive understanding of nature and reality. From the substantive or essentialist perspective, religion originated and survives as a speculative enterprise which is all about trying to understand ourselves or our world and really has nothing to do with our social or psychological lives. For those who focus on functionalist definitions, religion is all about what it does: if your belief system plays some particular role either in your social life, in your society, or in your psychological life, then it is a religion; otherwise, it’s something else (like a philosophy). Examples of functionalist definitions include describing religion as something which binds together a community or which alleviates a person’s fear of mortality. Accepting such functionalist descriptions results in a radically different understanding of the origin and nature of religion when compared to substantive definitions. From the functionalist perspective, religion doesn’t exist to explain our world but rather to help us survive in the world,...
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