Is the sociological purpose of religion self-gratification or selfless actions?
I think this is a profoundly insightful and deeply probing question. It is also astoundingly complex and cannot be answered simply but, it is precisely questions such as these that will provoke the most necessary of investigations.
In many ways you could say that religion by its very nature is aimed at self-gratification. R. L. Johnstone’s working definition of religion is quite conducive to this point, it is as follows:
Religion is a set of beliefs and rituals by which a group of people seeks to understand, explain, and deal with a world of complexity, uncertainty, and mystery, by identifying a sacred canopy of explanation and reassurance under which to live (Johnstone, 2007, p. 14).
Here Johnstone draws out that “Religion thus serves to provide answers to peoples’ questions and concerns over purpose, destiny, and mystery, as well as comfort and support in times of danger, bereavement, and death” (p. 14). Comfort, answers, support, these are all self-serving endeavors and are also incidentally the primary motivations for seeking out the religious experience in most cases. In a world beyond one’s control, full of turmoil, angst, and uncertainty, people seek security and religion is but one of the most utilized to attain a sense of comfort and consolation.
At its core then, the religious desire could be said to be the desire to self-soothe or self-medicate, a method of relieving one’s self from the wiles of the world. Religion thus, provides a lens through which one may see the world, as well rhetoric and models for relating to and engaging with the culture in which they are a part. Yet, all of this motivated by the desire deal with, cope with, and ultimately avoid despair. Peter Rollins explains that “religion at its most basic defined a particular way of thinking about and relating to God, a way of approaching God as the solution to problems such as fear, ignorance, or despair” (Rollins, 2011, p. xiv). Here the divine becomes little more than a deus ex machina or something of “a psychological crutch” (p. 7). Jean-Paul Sartre points out that “it is plain dishonesty for Christians to make no distinction between their own despair and [atheist’s] and then call [atheists] despairing” (Sartre, 1996, p. 319).
To act selflessly is to be decidedly self-sacrificial. It is act without any concern for one’s own interests, well being, comfort, and security for the greater good. It is the abandonment of all those things one seeks to attain from endeavoring to be religious. Perhaps then the greatest acts of selflessness are at once acts of religionlessness.
Johnstone, R. L. (2007). Religion in society: A sociology of religion (8th ed.). Upper Saddle, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Rollins, P. (2011). Insurrection: To believe is human to doubt, divine. New York, NY: Howard Books.
Sartre, J. P. (1996). Existentialism and human emotions. In L. N. Oaklander (Ed.), Existentialist philosophy: An introduction (2nd ed.) (pp.310-319). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.