Religion is a category of social practices that includes a wide range of different beliefs and rituals. Religious beliefs tend to posit the existence of the supernatural and a divine plan for humanity. Religions also generally encourage morality and a sense of community among believers. Religious traditions often include a complex body of sacred texts, scriptures, history, and mythology that explains their worldview. They also typically contain a set of moral codes that outline how believers are expected to behave with respect to themselves, other members of their group, outsiders, and the supernatural. Religions also often divide the world into two comprehensive domains, one sacred and the other profane.
Despite its many complexities, regular religious practice appears to have enormous potential to address today’s most challenging social problems. Strong and repeated evidence indicates that the practice of religion improves people’s ability to cope with life’s stresses. It increases levels of compassion, morality and goodwill, while it reduces levels of violence and hate. In addition, the belief in a higher power may provide people with a sense of purpose and direction in their lives.
In spite of its many pitfalls, such benefits suggest that religion should be encouraged in all areas of American public life. Legislators should seek constitutionally appropriate ways to explore the impact of religious practice on society and, where possible, to recognize its role.
While there is much debate about whether religion does in fact benefit society, most researchers accept that it has some positive effects. The prevailing view is that religion and spirituality improve people’s mental health by providing them with an internal locus of control over their situation, which helps them overcome stress and depression. For example, Dr Laura Wallace, at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, examined obituaries from across America and found that those who identified as religious had lower rates of suicide than those who did not.
Some scholars criticize the usefulness of the concept religion, arguing that it creates and reifies a distinction between secular and sacred elements of human existence that does not necessarily exist in the real world. These scholars call for a shift from a monothetic to a polythetic approach to the concept, in which it is understood as a family-resemblance concept rather than as an object with a fixed essence.
Others argue that to treat the concept as a family-resemblance idea is not to deny its reality. Instead, these scholars suggest that it is simply to shift the attention away from hidden mental states toward visible institutional structures and practices. While this shift is worthwhile, it does not undermine the fact that religion is a social reality that would have existed even had language not created the concept. As a result, both approaches are valid, and each provides important insights. Nevertheless, there is no denying that the current state of the world and our increasing reliance on government calls for a new dialogue on the role of religion in American society.