The Meaning and Role of Religion


Religion is a set of beliefs and practices that people use to give meaning and purpose to their lives, reinforce social unity and stability, serve as an agent of social control, promote psychological and physical well-being, and may motivate them to work for positive social change. Although religion varies widely across cultures, the basic functions it serves are universal. As the world becomes more interconnected, people’s religious beliefs and practices are also influencing their day-to-day decisions in profound ways. Various studies indicate that people who consider themselves religious are more likely to be socially active and engage in volunteerism, are more likely to spend time with their family, and are generally happier in their lives.

Religion appears to have evolved out of human curiosity about uncontrollable aspects of nature and human life, and fear of powerful forces beyond human control. Over time, it transformed this curiosity and fear into hope, including the desire for immortality, a belief that a loving creator will watch over humanity, and an ultimate meaning to human existence that science cannot fully address.

The first historical religions emerged along the Nile River in Egypt and in Mesopotamia, with some being polytheistic (recognizing multiple gods). Later, more complex religions developed in Africa and Asia. As the religions developed, they began to incorporate myths of creation and rebirth and tales of individual gods, goddesses and spirits as part of their beliefs. Many religions also developed rituals and codes of behavior, which helped to organize society, impose discipline and morality, and regulate economic activity.

Anthropologists, historians, and sociologists have debated the meaning of religion and its role in society. Some define it as any belief in a distinctive kind of reality, while others use more functional criteria, such as Emile Durkheim’s definition of religion as any system of practices that unites a group of people into one moral community (whether or not those practices involve belief in unusual realities).

Sociologists have studied the impact of religion on society by looking at the way that it binds together families, communities, nations, and world regions; the power and authority it possesses; and its influence on social changes. These studies have shown that religious people tend to be more tolerant and less likely to discriminate, as well as having greater empathy for those who suffer from illness or war.

Religious rituals and ceremonies are often emotionally intense experiences that can include crying, laughing, screaming, trancelike conditions, and feelings of oneness with those around you. These experiences can be transformative for some people, while for others they are not. The fact that these experiences exist, and are so widespread, indicates the importance of religion in human societies.