Religion provides a sense of community, structure and moral guidance. Its tenets encourage people to treat others with respect and compassion, to protect the environment and to procreate (within certain limits). Most religions also emphasize doing good things for family, friends and the wider community as a whole. In many cultures, practicing a religion can help reduce stress and anxiety by providing a means to believe that someone or something greater than oneself is in control of life’s challenges.
The word religion encompasses a wide range of beliefs and practices, some of which are considered “world” religions like Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Hinduism. It’s commonly used to refer to any faith that focuses on the existence of a divine power or spirits. This approach, called “monotheism,” is common in the Western world.
There are also people who define religion as a social genus, rather than a set of beliefs or behaviors. This “functional” definition, based on the concept of an underlying shared set of values, is rooted in the work of philosopher Émile Durkheim. It is also echoed in the work of Paul Tillich, who defined religion as whatever dominates a person’s values and concerns.
The idea of a social genus, as opposed to individual affinities or beliefs, can be useful for studying human behavior because it allows us to compare and contrast the effects of different groups. For example, there’s growing evidence that religiosity can boost well-being and health. But this finding may have more to do with the benefits of having strong community connections than with belief in a higher power or specific religious doctrines.