What Is Religion and How Does It Affect Us?

Religions have a profound impact on our lives. They influence our attitudes, values and behaviors in areas such as education, social relations, philanthropy, morality and self-control. They also provide the framework for family life, marriage, and personal well-being. Regular church attendance is associated with higher levels of marital satisfaction, lower rates of divorce and unweddlock births, and less criminal behavior, drug and alcohol abuse, and mental health problems. Religion also provides a sense of belonging and a framework for community service.

Religion is a powerful force in human lives, and it should be taken seriously by public policy makers, psychotherapists, teachers, and other professionals who interact with two-thirds of the nation’s population. At the same time, it is important to remember that religion has its problems. Religious communities can be insular, antiquated, and legalistic. Religious beliefs can be irrational and supernaturalist. And religious people can be insensitive to the feelings of others, sexist, racist, and homophobic.

The word religion is derived from the Latin religio, which approximates to scrupulousness or conscientiousness. In its original meaning, the term was not intended to describe any particular group, religion, or culture; it simply described a psychological state that could be found in many cultures. The classic view of religion is that of a system of beliefs, rituals, and practices that creates a feeling of closeness with God.

In most religions, the belief is that there is a supreme Deity who, besides ruling the universe, controls and guides the fortunes of men. Feeling helpless against the forces of nature, man recognizes his dependence upon Divine assistance and voluntarily performs certain acts of homage in an attempt to receive aid, peace, and happiness. The higher religions also teach that, in the final analysis, man can attain perfect happiness and peace by living in friendly communion with the Deity.

These acts of homage are usually expressed in the form of sacrificial offerings of food, drink, and other objects that, by being removed from ordinary use, pass into God’s possession as His sacred property. The offering of these items is meant to be a visible expression of the worshipper’s respect for the Deity, and a sign that He may be appeased or offended by the worshipper’s actions.

Some scholars, however, have argued that to understand religion merely in terms of beliefs and empathetic states is not enough. They suggest that one should also consider the visible institutions and disciplinary practices that produce these states, a perspective that they call “structure/agency”.