Religion has always been a social phenomenon, providing cohesion and stability for individuals and societies, as well as causing divisions and conflict. It is a source of beliefs and spiritual experiences that can bring people together or push them apart, and has been a major factor in human history of persecution and war, such as the Puritans’ persecution of non-Puritans or more recently in the Middle East and Northern Ireland.
It soothes man’s emotions during suffering and disappointments, making them bearable, enhances his sense of self-importance, and knits the values of a society into a cohesive whole. It also rationalizes or makes bearable the frustrations and disappointments of life that cannot be changed, such as death or illness.
Moreover, as the anthropologists have learned from their studies of tribal and “primitive” societies, religion can serve important functions, including preserving a status quo that favors the rich and powerful over those who are not so fortunate, or that is in the process of becoming rich and powerful. It can also serve as a mechanism to control the behavior of those less wealthy and powerful by teaching reverence and obedience.
The question is whether it has the same function in more modern and secular societies. Some scholars argue that it does, though without the supernatural divine element of traditional religions. They point out that many of the same functions identified by Durkheim are served by such secular phenomena as nationalism or patriotism, in which case it is a socially conservative force.