Religion is a broad term that covers many different beliefs, attitudes, and practices. It is a topic that has been debated across disciplines, including anthropology, history, philosophy, sociology, psychology, religious studies, and most recently cognitive science. The scholarly community is divided on whether it is best to use a functional or substantive approach to define religion.
Functionalism sees religion as a social glue that binds society together. This approach is largely attributed to Emile Durkheim, who defined religion as “a unified system of beliefs and feelings relative to sacred things which unite into a single moral community called the Church all those who adhere to it.” The idea is that any set of beliefs and practices can be considered a religion so long as it serves this important social function.
Substantive definitions, on the other hand, resist a certain ideological image of humans. This image portrays people as passive social actors who simply accept their role in society and are not the active agents maintaining a particular viewpoint. The idea is that if you define something substantively, the act of creating that definition will automatically bring some cognizance of that thing into human awareness and thereby change the way a person thinks about it.
Some scholars have taken the view that it is wrong to think about religion in terms of beliefs or any subjective mental states at all. Instead, they argue that we should shift the focus to the visible institutional structures that produce these beliefs and attitudes. They call this the fourth C of religion, which goes beyond the traditional three of true, beautiful, and good to include material culture, habits, and physical structures.
Most religions are based on some kind of faith in the supernatural or spiritual, which satisfies a fundamental human need for explanations about how the world works (though not as efficiently as science does). They also often contain a set of “divine dictates” that encourage people to treat each other well, protect their communities, and procreate (though not always successfully).
It turns out that there is a strong correlation between religiosity and a number of positive social outcomes, such as educational attainment, health, economic well-being, self-control, and empathy. Some believe that these benefits can be attributed to religion’s ability to provide meaning in life and a sense of purpose. However, others think that the benefits of being religious cannot be explained solely by religion’s ability to promote these positive behaviors; other factors, such as social connection, are also necessary.
In addition, researchers have begun to uncover evidence that being religious is not inherently healthy. For example, religiosity has been linked to depression and loneliness. This is why some people, such as the atheists Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, have argued that you do not need to be religious to reap these benefits, and in fact it would be better for you not to be. For this reason, there is a growing body of research that shows you do not need to be religious to enjoy the benefits listed above, as long as you engage in other positive activities such as forming close relationships and practicing gratitude.