How Religion Affects People


Religion is a very complex phenomenon that influences people in many different ways. It can bring people together and help them in times of crisis, but it can also be a source of conflict between members of the same religion. The most common way that religions influence people is through the guidance that they provide for how to live their lives. This guideline may be expressed in the form of a code of conduct, a moral philosophy or a set of beliefs about how the universe works. In most religions, this guidance is given through a hierarchy of spiritual leaders, the most important being God.

One of the key issues for any system of religious belief is how to evaluate what is good and bad, or right and wrong. This question has been an issue for all religious traditions in some form, although not necessarily all of them have answered it the same way. For example, within the same religion, there may be a wide range of judgments about what is good and what is not, and these may differ diametrically from one another. The same is true of the questions of what to do and how to do it, where the choice of a course of action will require an evaluation of its wisdom or foolishness or whether it is prudent or rash.

A further problem is that, as we have seen, it is extremely difficult to define what is, or what is not, a religion. This is because, in practice, human beings will always do things religiously to some extent. Some of these things will be done scrupulously, generously, ecstatically, prayerfully, sacrificially and ritually; others will be done irreligiously or ad hoc, or cynically and with no regard for morality. There is thus a great deal of variation about what qualifies as a religion, and so much so that it has often been tempting for scholars to try to find a definition that will cover all of these cases (this approach has been referred to as a “monothetic set” of definitions).

However, to do so will be to miss the point of why humans have created religions in the first place. Religions are created to make life as project a little easier by providing a set of means for attaining what may be the most important goals that humans can conceive of. Some of these are proximate, and can be attained in this life (a wiser, more fruitful, more charitable, or more successful way of living), while others are ultimate, and have to do with the final condition of this or any other individual or even of the cosmos itself.

One solution to this problem has been the emergence of what have been called polythetic approaches to the concept of religion. These move away from the classical view that all instances of a concept will have some property which accurately describes them, and instead treat concepts as having prototype structures. This is a radical change in the way that the concept of religion has been treated for most of the history of the field, but it offers an opportunity to understand religion in all its complexity.