Understanding Religion

Religion is vitally important around the globe. Its importance has not diminished in the last decade of the twentieth century or with the acceleration of globalization in the first decade of the twenty-first. Anyone trying to comprehend our contemporary world cannot afford to ignore it. However, understanding it is not easy. Even a casual glance at the literature on religion quickly illustrates that scholars differ widely about how to approach the topic. The disagreements reflect a wide range of assumptions that are baked into the concept itself. Nonetheless, all the current approaches share two fundamental properties.

A central question is what exactly religion names. While many scholars accept that the concept is a social taxon, most agree that it is only a vaguely defined abstraction. The term originally referred to the Latin term religio, which roughly meant scrupulousness or devotedness. Later, it came to be used as a synonym for beliefs and practices that constituted a moral framework.

Modern historians, for example, use the term to refer to a set of beliefs and behaviors that characterized ancient cultures and were later adopted by Western civilizations. Anthropologists and sociologists see it as a cultural matrix that shapes the ideas, values, and experiences of a culture. While these definitions are generally acceptable, they are not very useful in understanding the diverse world that is religion today.

The most basic distinction involves how a religious person thinks about the world and their place in it. Those who view the world in the light of divine revelation tend to be religious. These people are ‘intrinsically religious’ because their faith alters their thinking, behavior and relationships. Other people, however, think about the world in a more materialistic way. They are ‘extrinsically religious’ because they follow a religion for the sake of its social benefits, for instance, a sense of community and a strong moral compass.

Almost all religions emphasize doing good for family, friends, loved ones and strangers alike. As such, most religious people tend to participate in charities and similar organizations. While research has cited some negative effects of religious practice, the overwhelming majority of studies cite positive outcomes. These outcomes include better health, lower stress and higher levels of social support.

In addition, all religions have a rich tradition of mystical and spiritual experiences that have provided comfort and meaning for millions of people worldwide. While researchers often disagree about how to define religion, they agree that the mystical and spiritual aspects of faith play an important role in human lives. They also agree that such experiences can be helpful in dealing with suffering and loss. In short, a full understanding of religion is impossible without addressing the spiritual dimension of life. The debates on how to understand religion are ultimately a reflection of our differing views about this central element in all our lives. The more we realize that our differences about religion are a product of our differences in how we think about the world, the closer we will get to understanding each other and our shared humanity.