Religion is a group of beliefs and practices that unite people into a moral community. Historically, definitions of religion have focused on the existence or role within human life of a supreme god or gods. These definitions, however, exclude the many people who do not believe in a god or gods and do not hold specific views on the afterlife or any explicit metaphysics. For this reason, scholars have shifted the definitions of religion from one that emphasizes the supernatural to one that focuses on the social function of a group.
Religious beliefs and practices have positive effects on the lives of those who participate in them. Research indicates that the act of being religious may reduce stress, increase self-esteem and improve the quality of family relationships. Religious people are more likely to volunteer their time and money to help others, and they are more satisfied with their lives than non-religious people. In addition, being religious is associated with fewer social problems such as out-of-wedlock births, drug abuse, alcoholism and divorce.
The word “religion” comes from the Latin root res-ltor, meaning “to bind.” While some might suggest that this is an outdated concept, it remains central to the lives of many people around the world. The practice of religion brings structure to people’s daily routine, providing a framework for their lives and making it easier for them to manage their emotions. It also helps them feel connected to a higher power, which can be comforting in the face of hardship or tragedy.
While the three-sided model of the true, beautiful and good provides a clear account of what a particular social group explicitly teaches, it overlooks the role that an implicit, material reality plays in the organization of that social group. To address this problem, Ninian Smart suggests adding a fourth C to the traditional description of religion: the physical culture of that social group.
This is an important addition because the physical aspects of a religion play a significant role in its members’ day-to-day functioning. For example, studies show that those who are highly religious are more likely to gather regularly with their extended families and to be involved in community service than those who are less religious. They are also more likely to be married, and they report high levels of satisfaction with their marriages.
As Congress returns to work, it is an opportune time to open a new national debate about the role of religion in American life and its impact on our families and society. This should include a discussion on how best to define religion. A new understanding of the role of religion in our lives can provide a foundation for constructive policy and help us build a strong, vibrant democracy. The future of our nation depends on it.