Religion: Its Origins, Social Role and Sources of Variation

Open Journal of Philosophy 10 (3):346-367 (2020)
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Religion emerged among early humans because both purposive and non-purposive explanations were being employed but understanding was lacking of their precise scope and limits. Given also a context of very limited human power, the resultant foregrounding of agency and purposive explanation expressed itself in religion’s marked tendency towards anthropomorphism and its key role in legitimizing behaviour. The inevitability of death also structures the religious outlook; with ancestors sometimes assigned a role in relation to the living. Subjective elements such as the experience of dreams and the internalization of moral precepts also play their part. Two important sources of variation among religions concern the adoption of a dualist or non-dualist perspective, and whether or not the religion’s early political experience is such as to generate a systematic doctrine subordinating politics to religion. The near ubiquity and endurance of religion are further illuminated by analysis of its functions and ideological role. Religion tends to be socially conservative but has the potential to be revolutionary.
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