Religious life is central to the lives of most people. It is one of the most important sources of meaning and purpose in their lives, helps to sustain family and community ties, provides a framework for ethical behavior and moral judgments, and may even motivate them to work for social change.
But what is religion, exactly? As a concept, it has evolved in a number of different directions. Historically, the term was used to describe scrupulous devotion to a god or goddess. More recently, it has come to mean a specific type of social practice or set of beliefs that are common in a particular group. Some examples include Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism and Judaism. Other religions are more local in nature, such as Shinto and hockey. Still others are more universal, such as the belief in a single creator or an afterlife.
The term has also been defined functionally, with scholars defining it as the practices and beliefs that generate social cohesion or provide orientation in one’s life. Such approaches have a number of advantages, including that they are less controversial than substantive definitions. However, they can be problematic as well. They tend to be generalized to all cultures, which is inconsistent with the fact that not every culture has a religion.
It is important to understand why people use the term religion as they do. There are a variety of reasons, from psychological to sociological to biological. Psychologists, for example, suggest that religions meet the human need to feel part of a larger moral community and help people cope with death and other anxieties. Neuroscientists have found that certain brain patterns are associated with an intense religious experience.
There is also a growing recognition that religion serves many functions other than that of providing a moral framework or offering spiritual guidance. It fosters cooperation, enhances learning and economic well-being, increases self-control and empathy, promotes physical and mental health, and reduces the incidence of social pathologies, such as out-of-wedlock births, crime, and drug or alcohol addiction.
Some critics of religion go further, arguing that to understand religion as something that has an essence or as a category of beliefs is to engage in Western bias and that scholars should shift attention from hidden subjective states to visible institutions and disciplinary practices. However, this approach is inconsistent with the fact that the concept of religion as a social genus did not wait for language to emerge and that the development of a term for this kind of reality was a natural part of human evolution. As a result, a functional approach to religion is not likely to eliminate debate over its meaning and application.