I wonder if social anthropology can truly enlighten people as to their current rites and practices. It seems that even in light of functionalist views of religion, beliefs and rites of practice remain largely unchanged in the religions that define the culture conducting the studies.
I don't mean to draw a conclusion here. I just wonder if there are limits on the efficacy of social anthropology regarding enlightening people in terms of their own religions.
Social anthropology, as I understand the field, attempts to analyze and explain how cultures and societies function and why they work as they do. All societies have some basic beliefs on which the culture is based - some call these beliefs religion, some call them socialism or communism, some call them by other titles. I think there is a fundamental human need to explain that which cannot be explained through observable or logical processes - religion and its counterparts serves this function. This makes it not only a force for good, but a force allowing people to build communities and societies.
I agree with the statement in the original post. Social anthropology not only attempts to uncover the function that religion served (and continues to serve) in societies, but the way people understood the world they lived in. Religion developed, I think, because people have a psychological need for it, and because socieites have a political and a cultural need for it. It can provide a moral underpinning for social norms. At the same time, it also leads to stratification, as people who can provide access to, or control the supernatural (shamans, priests, etc.) often emerge as elites.
I remember reading not too long ago that the oldest human site discovered thus far was a ruin of a building clearly meant as a religious structure. The article speculated that this suggests that human settlement was motivated by religion more than anything else. If that is the case, then civilization as we know it is clearly a "good" created by mankind's need for a deity.
Some scholars argue that religion serves to bind together people who would otherwise have no reason to live together peacefully in a society. They argue that society needed religion once it got to a size where not everyone in a given community was related. It needed some kind of reason for people to not kill one another. If you accept this theory, social anthropology tells us that religion at least was once a force for good.