What Is Religion?
Religion is a complex topic to study, with a large variety of beliefs and practices. Religion involves a range of activities, such as rituals, worship, moral codes and the belief that there is a higher power. Religious people believe in a set of values and are committed to living according to those values. Religion also provides comfort, guidance and hope. Some studies have shown that religious believers are healthier and happier than non-religious individuals.
There is no single definition of religion, and scholars have argued for both monothetic and polythetic approaches. A monothetic definition is one that identifies certain features as essential to religion, while a polythetic approach focuses on how these features interact. Generally, scholars have defined religion as human beings’ relationship with that which is holy, sacred, absolute, spiritual or divine, and which they regard as worthy of especial reverence. In some traditions, this relationship and those concerns are expressed in terms of a person’s relationships with gods or spirits; in others, they are related to a person’s relationship with the broader human community or the natural world.
Some scholars have focused on a stipulative definition of religion, meaning that a practice is a religion only if it meets specific criteria. For example, a stipulative definition would include only those practices that are organized in houses of worship and involve the use of prayer. Other scholars have taken a functional approach, which defines religion as whatever dominant concern organizes a person’s values and gives him or her a sense of orientation in life. This definition of religion is flexible and broad, and can include many practices that might not be considered a religion under other definitions.
Regardless of how a researcher defines religion, most agree that it is a cultural phenomenon that provides a foundation for morality and social cohesion. A recent article by University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt and his graduate student, Jesse Graham, explains that religion evolved to benefit larger moral communities and encourage people to follow rules like do no harm, play fairly, be loyal to your group and respect authority. Haidt and Graham suggest that these principles bind a society together through stories, symbols and ceremonies.
In addition, religion has been linked to a wide variety of positive social outcomes, including increased health, learning, economic well-being, self-control, societal participation and empathy. It has also been associated with reduced rates of out-of-wedlock births, crime and delinquency, family dissolution, drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness, social anxiety and prejudice. In addition, the observance of religion can provide social services that address these issues. Religious organizations have been a critical part of the response to these problems, as they have offered services such as counseling, shelter and educational programs for children. These programs have had a significant impact on the lives of many individuals and their families. This is especially true for those who are ‘intrinsically’ religious, or whose faith alters their thinking and behavior.