Religion is a set of beliefs and practices that center on questions about the meaning of life. It may involve the worship of a supreme being, and it is an enduring human phenomenon.
A Definition of Religion
Religion ideally serves several functions: it gives meaning and purpose to life, reinforces social unity and stability, promotes psychological and physical well-being, reduces the incidence of social pathologies, and motivates people to work for positive social change. It also improves health, learning, economic well-being, self-control, self-esteem, and empathy.
In many ways, religion is more effective at these functions than secular institutions. It inspires charity, for example, and reduces crime, addiction, depression, and illness in the elderly.
It is good for families and communities, too. It improves children’s health, education, and behavior; it encourages family formation and durability; it fosters community cohesion and cooperation; it improves the quality of marriage and sex; and it may help to mitigate prejudice and discrimination.
A Defining Approach to Religion
It has been common for academic scholars of religion to use monothetic approaches, which operate on the classical assumption that all accurately described entities will share a defining property that puts them in a category and distinguishes them from others. Polythetic approaches, however, are a newer and more productive way of approaching the study of religion.
Using polythetic methods, scholars can identify patterns in the class of religious entities and co-appearances of properties that lead to explanatory theories. This can lead to a more accurate and fruitful understanding of religion as a species.