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Functionalism and the Autonomy of Religion

by Leonard J. Waks - 1985

A response to Clive Beck’s, “Religion and Education.” The author focuses on Beck’s functionalist account of religion and some problems that he detects in it, and then suggest an alternative account.

Presented as a response to Clive Beck, “Religion and Education,” at the annual spring meeting of the Middle Atlantic States Philosophy of Education Society, Lake Harmony, Pennsylvania, May 6, 1985.

Clive Beck’s article is unusually clear and timely. I want to begin by speaking of the second of these virtues. Beck is not alone right now, even among those in the intellectual mainstream, in wishing for a reconsideration of religious values and their place in education. We stand at a historical juncture, at the end of an age, the scientific-industrial age, the age of irreligion, positivism, and the liberal, scientific, secular world view. Confidence in this world view had two bases: the myth of progress through science and technology, and the vast but nonrenewable resources of the earth. The myth has been creaking and cracking since the last century. The resources have been squandered; their exhaustion has been guided by such values as greed, power, and self- and national aggrandizement. What we have come to think of as “education” is bound up with such values. As we move on from here, we cannot confidently assume the same level of material resource support for our lives, and we cannot afford to act in such wasteful ways. Our possessive, personal-achievement, and domination values must be reconsidered, and just as the prophets and saints have always questioned these values, so now too religious ideas will be called on in reevaluating them. Beck says that “religion will not go away.” It is more accurate to say that it did go away for a while, and perhaps would have stayed away if material resources had been infinite, for then the wild party of greed, power, and domination games could have gone on forever. The party is no longer much fun, and is dragging to an end.

I see Beck as a transitional figure in this process; his functionalist account of religion places one foot in the liberal, secular viewpoint and the other just beyond it. In my remarks I focus on this functionalist account and some problems I detect in it, and then suggest an alternative account.


The centerpiece of Beck’s paper is his functionalism. He proposes that “we adopt a somewhat ‘teleological’ or ‘functional’ view of religion.” What is this functionalist view, and why adopt it only “somewhat?” His view is functionalist because, as Beck puts it, “a major task of religion is to nurture a good life . . . to enable people to achieve basic human values” (emphasis added). Religions are to be assessed in terms of their promotion of these basic human values. Religious demands “are not primarily ends in themselves,” they are means to these basic human values, which are not themselves inherently religious. Religion is interpreted functionally, as a means to independent ends. Beck’s list of these includes: “happiness, companionship, friendship, love, self-respect, respect from others, knowledge, freedom, a sense of meaning in life, and so on.”

The “somewhat” stems from Beck’s acknowledgement of a continuum of means-ends. He notes that “religion does to some extent have intrinsic value and cannot be judged solely by external criteria,” and that “there may be a distinctively religious value associated with certain kinds of ritual” (emphasis added). These remarks qualify his functionalism, making his approach only somewhat functionalist.

However, once introduced, these qualifiers are left hanging; Beck does not clarify, augment, or utilize them. Instead, he concentrates throughout on the relation between religion and basic ends that are independent of it, ends with which religion must, at a minimum, not conflict. For the purpose of discussion, this may be best, as it keeps the main lines of Beck’s functionalist position clear, and invites the clearest response.

I now want to call attention to three aspects of Beck’s functionalist account of religion, in order to further clarify it and to question its sufficiency.

First, Beck asserts that while it is possible for religious people to lead a good life and achieve basic human values, “the same is true of nonreligious people.” This underscores that for Beck the “good life” and “basic human values” are in no way logically tied to “the religious life” or “intrinsically religious values.” Religion is merely one means for pursuing the very ends attainable by nonreligious persons, pursuing alternative means.

Second, Beck’s functionalism leads him to a kind of noncognitivism on religious matters. Different religions are functional for different people. Americans love America—this works for them better than loving Canada, but on the other hand loving Canada works better for Canadians. This does not provide either group with any basis for asserting that their country is better. “Similarly,” Beck argues, “strong commitment to a religion does not require a belief that it is the one true religion.” This analogy undercuts the cognitive side of religion, the “doctrine” or “creed.” I may love my church, but I also may believe its teachings, and regardless of areas of agreement (I agree with Beck that these are very large), the different creeds certainly appear at some points to contradict each other, in which case some must contain falsehoods, regardless of how much happiness or community adjustment they bring about. On Beck’s functionalism, they are to be evaluated not on their truth or falsity, but on their power to produce basic human values such as happiness, a sense of community belonging, and so forth.

Beck holds that “even false beliefs may sometimes be appropriate for a given individual or group. . . . In some cases false beliefs may be quite important to us, and in other cases they may do no harm.” For Beck false beliefs may be better than the truth because they make the individual happier, better adjusted to his community, and so forth. The great religions, however, agree in asserting that the truth and only the truth can make one free, and that ultimate value resides in adjusting oneself to the truth, not adjusting the truth to oneself. (It is core religious claims of this sort that in my view require philosophical probing if we are to get anywhere in understanding religion.)

Third, Beck urges an attitude of “tolerance” and even “pluralism” regarding fundamentalist religion, because “different people have different needs. Some people feel comfortable with a sense of dependence on God; others need greater freedom and independence.” This is something like basing tolerance for the florid sexual activity of a fifteen-year-old on her high hormone levels. She “really needs it.” There is a subtle reductionism here; the ultimate criterion of value is biological. Something is good if it “gratifies needs” or produces “comfort” for the organism. The great religions, however, all regard humans as guided by deep inner purposes that conflict with their basic organismic needs, and not as mere “organisms.” (This is another of those core claims.) They view basic needs and creature comforts as snares that constrain development, and as aspects of life to transcend, not as ultimate values.


Beck’s functionalism leads him to a noncognitivist, reductionist account of religion, which in my view fails to account for the core teachings of the great religions. Where has he gone wrong?

I think his wrong turn is conceiving of his basic human values as independent of religion, as having more or less a constant meaning within both secular and religious frameworks. This move is of cardinal importance for Beck. It allows him to retain his footing in the secular world; it provides the Archimedean point that permits him to explain religion within a secular framework, as a means to familiar basic human values.

However, the terms within which these values are stated do not have a constant meaning; they are “essentially contested,” subject to multiple interpretations, and religious and nonreligious people will tend to interpret them differently. Terms like happiness, love, and freedom denote values, and hence are directive, only as they are integrated into conceptual schemes, systems of belief, and patterns of action-that is, ways of life. In a secular framework, such terms denote secular values; in a religious framework, these same terms are “intrinsically religious” or denote “distinctively religious values.”

For the secular person, happiness may consist in pleasure and the absence of pain, freedom in the absence of external constraints, love in a particularly intense feeling. These interpretations would be consistent with the conceptual needs of a secular life of a certain sort.

For the religious person, these same concepts will have different interpretations, ones that relate to the living of a religious life. Happiness may consist in fulfilling the deepest purposes in our nature (and have nothing to do with feelings of pleasure or pain); freedom may consist in divesting ourselves of our biological and social conditioning (and have nothing to do with external constraints); love may consist in a compassionate understanding and acceptance (and have nothing to do with intense feelings).

This is surely related to the insight about the continuum of means and ends, about values “intrinsic to religion” or “distinctively religious,” which Beck left hanging. I suspect that he failed to develop it further because it does not cohere with his functionalist approach. For it implies that religion stands apart, that religion is not merely another tool, another therapy, for achieving secular values and the secular good life, but is rather a different way of life with its own ends and values.


I now want to trace the outline of a view in which the ends of religion are conceived in distinctively religious terms. Let us hark back to Beck’s list of typical features of religion: “tradition, community, ritual, interest in profound experiences, belief in the transcendent, belief in the supernatural (or magical), a world view, a way of life, a sense of origins and destiny, a sense of meaning in life, an attitude of acceptance of the divine order.” This is a very mixed list. Many items on it could be given coherent secular interpretation; they are not inherently religious. Others fit some of the great religions but not others. This coheres well with Beck’s “family resemblance” approach to the definition of religion, but to me it appears loose and not likely to assist us in zeroing in on what is most central (if not necessary and sufficient) to religion.

I would want to say that the core of a religion consists of a particular end and three interdependent means. The end is spiritual growth, that is, the restructuring of self to increase capacity for truth, penetration into the real, access to experience ordinarily blocked by biologically and socially conditioned needs-gratifying conceptual schemes, access to the world beyond ordinary conceptual limits. The path of spiritual growth is the “good life” in religious perspective, and as the lives of the saints and prophets amply demonstrate, there is certainly no simple or necessary connection between this path and the good life conceived in secular terms. The three interdependent means are (1) mythology and allegory, (2) ritualized mystical practice, and (3) philosophical doctrine and creed.

A religious mythology typically consists in a group of stories (myths, allegories) pertaining to the life on the “other side” of, or “beyond,” the world of organismic needs and ordinary conceptual limits. Such stories may concern “revelations” (lessons from the other side), “miracles” (events, often allegorical, that cannot be accounted for within ordinary conceptual schemes), spiritual challenges and “breakthroughs” to the other side, and so forth. Such stories are rich in allegorical meaning.

The ritualized practices are shaped to induce an enlarged experiential openness, an openness to the world beyond given conceptual limits. Thus these practices may be called “mystical” in that they point to the “mystery,” the world lying beyond the grasp of our ordinary conceptual and explanatory schemes. These practices are shaped to induce altered states of consciousness (extraordinary states, states not governed by basic-need gratifying, biologically conditioned mental routines) through concentration, repetition of words or sounds, meditation, contemplation.

The third component is philosophical discourse about the inner meanings of the allegories and myths. In such philosophical discourse, the meanings of the revelations and miracles in the myth may be explored, interpretations shared, and connections made to the predicaments of everyday life.

Some practices may immediately (in, e.g., meditation states) bring about a new openness to experience, through some weakening of the needs, inhibitions, and compulsions that hold rigid cognitive routines in place. Others may work less directly, gratifying fundamental needs (stability, belongingness) and thus making it possible for deeper aspects of personality, deeper capacities for experience and deeper purposes, to emerge. Still others may work gradually and cumulatively; for example, the mythology provides exemplars of spiritual struggle and attainment, and regular absorption in its study may bring about a cumulative accommodation to a larger reality by promoting the general restructuring of self in the direction of openness.


Some religious traditionalists may object to my account, discerning behind it the same liberal cast of mind that I have discerned in Beck’s paper. They may object to my abstract account of religion, based on all the great religions, and they may perceive me as joining Beck in denying that there is “one true religion.”

For my part, I do not think that “traditionalist” religion, with its elements of narrow dogmatic creed and blind faith (which admittedly have been exaggerated by humanists), can play a particularly valuable role in reevaluating the secular values of the scientific-industrial age. Whatever our needs for a religious perspective to redirect our values and our lives, those of us who have been educated in the secular, rationalist mode can no longer simply be absorbed by, and abide in, an authoritative mythic world. Where claims are made, questions of truth and evidence now arise. Unless the realms of science and myth are segregated and approached in very different ways, such misdirected efforts as “scientific disproofs” of Genesis, on the one hand, and “scientific creationism,” on the other, are certain to be generated. Science needs to restrict itself to the natural order, and reject “scientism” as a bankrupt religion. Religion needs to concern itself with the demands of the spiritual life in the scientific-technological era and the global village, and reject interpretations of myth that rob it of its spiritual meaning and reduce it to bankrupt pseudo-science.

I do not think we can simply return to the “good old time religion.” The great religions have the spiritual and philosophical resources to meet our emerging needs, but these needs cannot be satisfied by narrow dogma or blind faith. In the emerging age we will require religious formulations that greet with critical respect the achievements of the scientific rational mind, even as they point beyond rational thinking to the great mystery. And we will require religious practices that are demonstrably useful in assisting a linkage with the mystery, and the living of a life that derives from it, a life transcending narrow personal, social, religious, and national boundaries, and materialist values such as greed and domination. These requirements establish the problems and priorities for religion and religious education at this time. We should all be grateful to Beck for setting these issues before us for our serious consideration.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 87 Number 2, 1985, p. 271-276
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 670, Date Accessed: 10/28/2021 4:41:08 AM

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