Understanding Religion


Religion is a broad and complex term that encompasses beliefs, practices and symbols that give people meaning, hope and purpose in their lives. It provides comfort and guidance for the bereaved and dying, helps to control social instability and may motivate people to work for positive social change. While the specific beliefs and practices of religion vary widely, some common features distinguish it from philosophical systems and purely ethical religions. Some scholars have proposed functional definitions of religion, while others focus on doctrinal and ritual aspects of religion.

The functionalism of religion seeks to understand religion in terms of how it serves the needs and aspirations of its adherents. For example, some anthropologists have found that early religion developed out of curiosity about the uncontrollable forces of life and death and a desire for immortality or a heavenly afterlife. It also provided a system for regulating behavior and a mechanism to punish criminals.

Other anthropologists have used ethnographic methods to study religious rituals and beliefs in their natural settings. They have sought to identify the symbolic interactions that constitute religion, which include crying, laughing, screaming and trancelike conditions. Some religious beliefs and behaviors are not trancelike, but they provide an important way for people to express themselves. The rituals help to define and reinforce the boundaries of a group, separate members from non-members and signal that an individual is part of that group.

These functions are related to a religion’s core values, which include morality, forgiveness and compassion for the dead. Religions also serve a social-control function by regulating marriage, family and sexual relationships. In addition, some religions have strong leadership and enforcement powers, which can be especially helpful for societies that are rife with corruption.

Psychologists and neuroscientists have argued that religion answers emotional needs in humans, including fear of death and the need for a sense of purpose and direction. Some anthropologists and sociologists have criticized the use of these scientific approaches to explain religion, however.

A final approach, called verstehen, emphasizes the importance of social context in understanding a religion. This approach stresses that the people involved in a religion have working definitions of what it is, and that to depict their behaviors in any other way would be a distortion. Social scientists who use this method are often unable to define a religion in a general way because the definitions are embedded in the culture of the participants.

Regardless of which approach is taken, it is important that the President and the Senate select judges who are sensitive to the role that religion plays in American society. The United States has a large and influential religious population, and it is unfair to the country to push religion out of the public arena in a way that would weaken it.