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Functions Of Religion In Society

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In its simplest form any religion may be seen as a belief system. This system may affect values, laws, customs, rites and general behaviour patterns. Religion may affect the individual, group, community or nation. It may play a peripheral or an integral role within society. Its structure may be as complex as any large organisational bureaucracy or as simple as a two-way relationship between a person and object/subject of worship.

The function of religion in a society is often to explain to the people in that society their primal origins, the nature of life, the function and aims of life and reasons for living. To put it simply, to answer the question "why am I here"? In the past religion has been used as a control mechanism, a way of achieving order, of delegating roles and responsibilities. From a sociologist's point of view the "Ten Commandments" given to Moses are a set of behavioural rules that would bring order and harmony to the society that would allow the society to function in an organised and systematic manner.

Religion may dictate a set of acceptable standards and those who wish to remain in that society must adhere to those standards, within acceptable limits. For those who are unable to do this, for whatever reason, there is the option of leaving the society or of beginning / belonging to, another religion.

Fundamental to all religions is the concept of a relationship. The relationship may involve one or more persons, it may be physical and or spiritual and it may be dynamic or static, real or imagined. Within the ambit of this relationship words such as 'devotion, enlightenment, respect, faith, sacred, holy, worship, solace, sacrifice mystical and charismatic' are used. Communication channels may be formal and organised as through a priest / priestess, witchdoctor / shaman, where there is a set time and place when religious activity can take place. Communication may be informal where the individual has a 'direct line' at any time, and any place. In the latter instance reliance on religious objects (figurines, statues, temples or paintings etc.)while important may not be essential.

The beliefs and values a society holds are often incorporated into the religion. Collectively they may constitute the morality of a society. The laws and rules governing a society can reflect this morality. Control and systems of punishment can be 'woven into the fabric of religion' and in some societies are a dominant feature.

Punishment may be immediate and harsh acquiring legitimacy through the years or it may be postponed until after death when the severity is magnified by mysticism and imagination. The alternative to punishment may be to control through forgiveness and penance, mercy is a fine quality and most societies recognise its value and influence.

Religion may be seen as one social process among many social processes. It is the product of human minds, a complex social entity that has been passed down through generations. As a product of society it is inextricably bound up with other social products such as politics, economics, law, music and art. It has however an energy of its own, once born it can develop and change of its own accord; it can generate its own rules. In general it is meaningful only to those who belong to the culture from which the religion emerged. Religion can be transferred from one culture to another, but usually with difficulty and with questionable success.

Religions can be as varied as the many different cultures from which they emerge. The major world religions may be listed as follows :-

* Shinto from Japan

* Islam, predominant in the Middle East and parts of Asia, of which there are two branches, Sunni and Shi'ism

* Hinduism in India and Indonesia

* Buddhism in South East Asia which developed into two creeds, the 'Greater Vehicle' Mahayana and the 'Lesser Vehicle' Hinayana

* the Chinese religions Taoism and Confucianism

* Christianity spread throughout Europe and the New World (The Americas) in the form of Orthodox Christianity, Roman Catholicism and Protestantism

* Judaism in Israel; the many Tribal Religions in Africa, Asia and South America

There are many lesser religions, some with an extensive history and others newly created.

Many religions tend to focus on a 'God figure'. Some religions have more than one 'God figure' (Polytheistic) as an object/subject of reverence and worship. The reliance on religious symbols, sacred objects is common to all religions as is the firm belief in reincarnation or 'a life' after death. The variety of religious practices is consistent with the diversity of cultures and the limitless paths humans have sought in order to make sense of their world. These religious practices are given legitimacy and credence in written documents which in themselves may offer an enlightened path for the follower. Christians have



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