Religion is a set of beliefs and practices that generates meaning in the lives of its followers. It is a source of morality, self-control, and empathy and it can foster cooperation and community. It has a major role in promoting peace, charity, and morality and it can serve as a social control mechanism by curbing hostile responses to threats. It also promotes social change by generating creativity, sublimation, and mobilization functions. It can have negative consequences, however, such as fostering war, fanaticism, and fundamentalism.
The study of religion has evolved from a more narrow, theological approach to a more broad, functionalist one. Although it seems fashionable today to use open polythetic definitions of religion, such as “a constellation”, “assemblage”, or “network”, the idea of defining a complex like religion in terms of multiple properties sets is actually quite old. Emile Durkheim, for example, used the three-sided model of the true, the beautiful, and the good to describe his concept of religion. It is possible to add a fourth dimension — community — to this model, however, as was done by Catherine Albanese in her anatomy of religion.
In fact, there is nothing in the idea of a substantive definition of religion that would preclude people from considering themselves religious. Even if some anthropologists, like Edward Burnett Tylor, have defined religion in terms of belief in spiritual beings, it is clear that there were people both in the past and in the present who did not believe in disembodied spirits or cosmological orders. In addition, if the idea of religion is defined in terms of beliefs and behaviors that are associated with a particular culture or geographical area, there are people in other parts of the world who will not fit into this category.
Some critics have even gone further than this, arguing that the modern semantic expansion of the word religion corresponded with European colonialism and that we should abandon the notion of a substantive definition of the term. Others argue that the term religion simply names a collection of ideas rather than a particular form of life.
In spite of these critiques, a number of scholars have emphasized the positive effects that religion has had in societies throughout history. In the modern era, for example, religious institutions are associated with a wide range of social benefits such as education, health care, economic well-being, self-control, and personal ethics. They can also reduce the incidence of social pathologies such as out-of-wedlock births, poverty, crime, and drug addiction. It is important that policymakers, psychotherapists, and educators understand these effects in order to make appropriate decisions in their fields. In addition, it is equally important that the general public have an accurate understanding of the role that religion plays in their lives. This will enable them to avoid the mistaken assumption that religiosity is a social disease. In the end, religion is an intrinsic part of human nature. It will continue to play a vital role in society for the foreseeable future.