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The Function of Religion in Human Life and Thought: A Whiteheadian Exploration

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Any attempt to discuss the function of religion in human life and thought—the title assigned to me—will inevitably call for some preliminary comments. For one thing, there is the obvious need for an initial explanation of how “religion” is to be used in the present context. This is to be expected because that term has been, and is frequently, defined and developed in many ways. It has even been suggested that “religion” itself is a historical invention. In addition, the term carries such a variety, sometimes even a divergence, of connotations that it would be more misleading rather than helpful to talk about its function since its so-called function would be dependent on the particular understanding of religion that one has. Moreover, certain manifestations, expressions, or practices which are alleged to be “religious” would be regarded as questionable or even objectionable by those who do regard themselves as sincere believers or practitioners of religion.

The word “function” can be just as problematic here. For in ordinary contexts one gives it a rather pragmatic or utilitarian meaning as when one talks about the function of the motorcar or even the function of an association. To link religion with such a usage of the word is not only to devalue religion, giving it a subservient role, but it is also to be rightly accused of perpetuating the objectivist understanding of religion. After all, it is claimed by many, if not most, religious followers that a more appropriate way of appreciating the connection between religion and human life and thought would be to discuss it in terms of “the relationship to” or “the significance for” or even “the role of”, rather than in terms of “function in”, human life and thought. It is a claim that should alert us to the existence of much subjectivity and of the personal dimension in religion, which makes an exploration such as the one we are undertaking more difficult or even doubtful.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 01 January 2010

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