Religion is human beings’ relation to that which they regard as holy, sacred, absolute, spiritual, divine, or worthy of especial reverence. It also includes their dealing with ultimate concerns about life and death. Such concerns may be expressed in terms of people’s relations with or attitudes toward gods or spirits; in humanistic and naturalistic religions, they may be expressed in terms of the broader humanity or the natural world.
Those who are religious often view their faith as providing them with structure, a code of ethics, and a sense of purpose. They are able to put meaning and value in their lives through it, and they are willing to live according to its tenets and at times even die for them. This need for meaning, value, and direction is a fundamental aspect of human existence. It can be fulfilled in many ways, including through science and family, but for some people, religion is the most important source of this valuation.
Substantive definitions of religion typically define it as whatever beliefs unite a group of individuals into a moral community (whether or not those beliefs involve unusual realities). The social scientist Emile Durkheim used this functional approach when he defined religion, and his formulation is still widely used today. Other functional definitions use a number of different criteria, such as the way a group organizes its values and the role that it plays in society, to determine membership in the category.
Another, more skeptic approach to the concept of religion is to reject its thing-hood and assert that it is an invented category created by European colonialism. This is an extremely widespread and popular position among some people, and it is not without its merits. However, to treat the concept of religion as if it corresponds to something outside of modern European influence is a flawed and dangerous idea.
A third and more enlightened approach is to accept that things do exist that are not readily definable in terms of other categories, and that the category of religion can be treated as a prototype. Using this perspective, one can analyze a wide range of phenomena that seem to fit the prototype and discover patterns that shed light on what the term religion really refers to.
For example, if a person’s religious practice includes prayer and meditative activities, such as mindfulness, this is not just a form of self-help; it has also been shown to be good for mental health and well-being. Regular religious practice also decreases the incidence of a variety of social pathologies, such as suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, crime, out-of-wedlock births, and depression, and increases personal morality and empathy.
Considering the importance of religion in human life, it is important to study how best to understand it. The approaches discussed above can all be helpful, but it is also worth exploring other ways to explore this fascinating subject. Seeking the help of a mental health professional can be an excellent option for those who have trouble understanding the role that religion plays in their own lives.