Religion serves many functions. It can be a catalyst for change, or it can serve to preserve social ideals and traditions. The role of religion as a way to preserve the traditions of the society is based in the main functions of religions. Religions are intended to reinforce group norms. This may be accomplished through defining actions as either good or evil, such as in the Western religion of Christianity. Killing is considered an evil, and so is prescribing to idolatry. By defining these actions as evil, spiritual consequences can be attributed to the actions that deter group members from participating in such activities. (Haviland, 2002, p. 362).
The next roles of religion are to provide moral sanctions for actions and to provide values and common goals that are intended to help society function orderly. This can be accomplished by attributing certain gods, goddesses, or spirits to specific behaviors, events, or items. Each god, goddess, or spirit has a function of control over some aspect of the group member’s life, and can be considered to be evil or good. In traditional Chinese societies, ancestral spirits are thought to protect current generations from harm as long as tributes of remembrance are continued. If these traditions of honoring ancestral spirits are discontinued, or are not conducted according to tradition, then the ancestral spirits will be angered and they will spread misfortune to the family. These types of mythologies uses fear to reinforce traditional rituals and practices. (Haviland, 2002, p. 367).
Education is another role that religion plays. They pass down the stories and knowledge gained by the culture through oral traditions such as story telling and rituals. Rituals are used to make learning traditional ways memorable. This can be accomplished through grand celebrations, such as those seen by the Maya, or through rites of passage where there is a physical alteration imposed on the adolescent, such as in the case of genital mutilation conducted in Somalia on young women. (Haviland, 2002, pp. 374-376).
Religion can also serve as a catalyst for change. When social conditions are under pressure from outside sources, new religious movements may sprout up and encourage actions to be taken. One example of such a movement is known as a revitalization movement. In 1931 on the Solomon Islands a revitalization movement emerged that predicted the divine removal of the White oppressors. Prophets promised that once the Whites were removed a cargo ship would arrive with Western manufactured goods. In order to provide storage for all of the goods that were to arrive the prophets encouraged the people of Solomon Island to build a large storehouse. Many people added their labor to the construction of the storehouse, and in doing so, did not keep working their traditional fields. (Haviland, 2002, 384). Another example of such a movement was seen in the United States in the 19th Century with the Mormonism movement. (p. 385). The result of this revitalization movement, was an evolution of the base religion, Christianity, into a new secular form, Mormon.
Haviland, William A. (2002). Cultural Anthropology. (10th ed.). Fort Worth: Harcourt College Publishers.
Lee, Valerie L., and Searles, Richard T. (2002). Study Guide for the Telecourse Faces of Culture. (8th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.