Religion is a belief in the existence of a deity and a system of faith that guides human behavior. It is a major source of meaning and purpose in life. It also provides a moral framework that is used to judge right from wrong, good from bad, and truth over lies. It is believed that religion can improve one’s health and well-being and strengthen the bonds of family, community, and country. It can also help in the development of self-control, coping skills, and empathy. However, there are concerns that religion can also cause stress and anxiety in humans.
A number of theories about the origins and functions of religion have been proposed. Anthropologists have a strong interest in tribal and “primitive” societies, and it has been natural for them to try to use their findings to guess about the earliest forms of religion. Almost all of the anthropological definitions of religion have been substantive, however, and they define membership in the category in terms of a belief in a distinctive kind of reality.
More recently, scholars have started to abandon the classical assumption that a concept can be accurately defined by focusing on just one of its properties. This has allowed for the emergence of a variety of “polythetic” approaches to the study of religion. The approach used by Emile Durkheim in his Elementary Forms of Religious Life, for example, defines religion as whatever dominant concern organizes a group of people into a moral community (whether or not it involves belief in unusual realities).
These different polythetic theories all recognize that there are a range of social and psychological functions served by religious belief and practice. Some of these are:
The conflict perspective argues that the basic function of religion is to provide meaning and significance for the individual’s life. This is achieved by generating a sense of belonging to a like-minded community. It is also believed to provide a way of coping with problems in one’s life by providing hope and a belief that the future will be better than the present. It is also argued that religion helps in the reinforcement of societal order and can act as a tool for social control. Lastly, it is claimed that religion can inspire people to work for social change. However, critics of this theory point out that the benefits associated with religion can be obtained without a reliance on religious beliefs and practices. For instance, the pursuit of academic excellence, a strong family unit, and a sense of community can provide similar benefits to those who are not religious. In addition, the pursuit of these goals can help in reducing the risk of drug and alcohol abuse, out-of-wedlock births, criminal activity, and poor health. Moreover, these pursuits can increase educational achievement, economic wealth, and social welfare. In contrast, the failure to pursue these goals can result in depression and anxiety, low self-esteem, and poor coping skills. In the long run, these behaviors can lead to a decline in morality and even contribute to crime.