Why Religion Is So Pervasive

Religion is a social phenomenon with a long history and a wide range of practices around the globe. It can be a source of spiritual well-being and a motivator for positive social change. In addition, it can also be a source of conflict and hostility. Many scholars have struggled to understand why religion has been so enduring and such a powerful force in human societies.

Sigmund Freud viewed religion as a pathological force that encouraged irrational thoughts and ritualistic behavior. More recently, psychologists have criticized the link between religiosity and depression, anxiety, and addiction. Despite these doubts, however, the persistence of religious faith is undeniable. It is found in every culture and influences nearly 85 percent of the world’s population.

The word “religion” comes from the Latin words religio (respect for what is sacred or spiritual) and religare (to bind, in the sense of an obligation). Regardless of its origins, there is no one definition of what religion is. Some scholars use a substantive definition that defines religion as any set of beliefs and practices that regard what is sacred or spiritual. Others, such as Emile Durkheim, used a functional definition that includes all the systems of belief and practice that unite people into a moral community.

Still other scholars have argued that it is important to look at the purposes served by religions rather than simply focusing on whether or not those beliefs and practices are true. The idea is that even if there is no proof for or against the existence of God, religions can serve several useful functions: they provide meaning and purpose to life, reinforce social unity and stability, function as an agent of social control, promote psychological and physical well-being, and motivate individuals to work for positive social change.

A third way to define religion is by looking at the ways that different religions are similar to each other. Using this approach, some scholars have attempted to establish what is fundamentally shared by religions across cultures. This is sometimes referred to as the “functional” or “family resemblance” approach to religion.

For example, most religions believe in some form of afterlife and cosmological order. Some also promote a sense of purpose in life, which research shows can lead to better mental wellbeing and, in some cases, even extend lifespan.

A fourth and final way to think about religion involves considering what it is that distinguishes one religion from another. Some scholars argue that a religion’s ontology is what makes it religious while others, such as James Lincoln, have taken the view that the concept of religion can be understood only in terms of its function and not its essence.