The Importance of Religion


Religion is a set of beliefs, practices and institutions that organize people around ultimate concerns about life and death. These concerns may be in relation to God or spirits; they may be in relation to the broader human community or the natural world. In religious traditions, texts are deemed to have scriptural authority and people are invested with spiritual or moral power. Most people rely on their religion to guide their lives and to cope with the problems of daily living, such as sickness, loss, death, anxiety, poverty, and the need for social support. Totally secular approaches to public policy, psychotherapy, and education neglect the importance of religion for two-thirds of the world’s population.

The word religion comes from the Latin term religio, which means “scrupulousness” or “devotedness.” It refers to the practice of fulfilling commitments, such as taboos, promises, curses, and vows. It is the devotedness that gives meaning to one’s existence and that enables one to endure hardships or persecution in the name of a higher cause.

Many scholars define religion as a group of beliefs and practices that create a system of values, ethics and morals based on transcendent claims of supernatural origin. Others define it more narrowly as the way that a particular culture deals with ultimate questions. Regardless of how it is defined, the vast majority of people in the world believe that religion is more than just a private matter of belief.

It is common today for scholars to use the concept of religion as a taxon for sets of social practices that generate groups with common needs and interests. The most famous paradigmatic examples are the so-called world religions, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. This is a monothetic approach to the concept because it assumes that there are certain characteristics that every member of a class must have, and that if a form of life has these properties then it belongs in the class.

More recently, there has been a reflexive turn in religious studies as scholars have pulled the camera back to examine the construction of objects previously taken for granted as unproblematically “there”. The most influential book in this new approach is Talal Asad’s Genealogies of Religion (1993). It uses Michel Foucault’s genealogical method to show that assumptions baked into the concept of religion distort its study. This nonrealist interpretation of the concept is not intended to undermine its reality, but rather to reveal that the nature of what it names has been constructed. The result is a more complex view of religion and the potential for understanding its role in the world. There is now good evidence that the practice of religion is beneficial for the health and well being of individuals, families, communities, and societies. It also promotes educational achievement, economic prosperity, and ethical behavior, increases self-control and esteem, and decreases social pathologies, such as out-of-wedlock births, crime, and drug abuse. Moreover, it provides the basis for moral beliefs and behaviors and supports family and community ties. It even appears to increase longevity and improve health through regular attendance at worship services, prayer, and other forms of ritualized worship. However, it is important to note that most of these effects are correlations and not causative.