Religious beliefs are important to the lives of most Americans. Whether as an integral part of one’s life or as something practiced outside the home, religion has been linked to health benefits, better educational achievement, lower crime rates, higher self-esteem and empathy, fewer substance abuse problems and fewer mental disorders. Religious communities also serve as a rare forum for individuals to meet people who are surprisingly different from themselves and expose them to insights that they might not have discovered on their own.
The word “religion” means belief in a set of ideas about the supernatural. The word is used to describe many different spiritual traditions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism and Christianity. Almost all religions have some common features, such as sacred places and objects, rituals, codes of ethical behavior, mythology, a concept of salvation and eternal life, and a deity or group of gods to whom worshippers pray.
Anthropologists and historians have offered several theories of the origin of religion. The most common is that it evolved as a response to human curiosity about the big questions of life and death and fear of uncontrollable forces. It may have also developed as a hope for immortality, a reward from a benign creator, or a way to avoid evil in this world and go on to a more pleasant place in the next.
In the nineteenth century, Edward Burnett Tylor defined religion as “the belief in spiritual beings.” He argued that narrowing the definition to include only the beliefs of a supreme god or judgment after death excludes the belief in other spiritual beings and thereby distorts the study of religion. Moreover, he suggested that the belief in spiritual beings is an universal feature of all known societies.
The modern approach to the study of religion is that it is an aspect of social life. It is a system of beliefs and practices that unites people into a moral community, and it reflects the need for meaning in the midst of uncertainty. Emile Durkheim referred to this view as a functional approach.
Many scholars have challenged this approach by arguing that it is too abstract and fails to take into account human needs for belonging. These scholars have proposed a more holistic approach that takes into account both the social functions and the subjective experiences of religion. This approach is sometimes called the “prototype theory.”
Regardless of which view of religion is taken, the fact remains that most people belong to a religion or spiritual tradition. This is a universal phenomenon that should be taken seriously by public policy makers, teachers, psychotherapists and other professionals. Religions are a valuable source of wisdom and comfort, but they can also cause stress in families and communities when their teachings conflict with secular society. This is an issue that religious organizations need to address if they wish to retain and attract members. Totally secular approaches to public policy, psychology and education are flawed.