Understanding Religion

Religion is a complex phenomenon that has shaped the lives of humans throughout history. It can bring people together, but it can also divide them. Individuals and entire communities have been willing to persecute and kill each other over religious differences. Religion can provide meaning and purpose, but it can also be a source of stress and anxiety. This is true whether one is a member of a religion or not, whether the religious person believes in the existence of a god or gods or not.

A fundamental challenge in studying religion is determining how to define it. Many scholars have offered definitions of religion that are either monothetic or polythetic. A monothetic definition requires that a group be organized into a specific community, have a central figure or authority, have a distinctive kind of discourse that claims transcendent status for itself, and have a code of behavior that is taught and enforced. This definition excludes most forms of apolitical social organization and some forms of commercial society. For this reason, the definition of religion has been challenged by a number of sociologists, including Max Weber (The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism) and Emile Durkheim (Elementary Forms of Religious Life).

Another approach to understanding religion is to consider what a group’s members believe about a supernatural being or beings. This perspective has been championed by many thinkers, from agnosticism to Zoroastrianism, Judaism to Hinduism, and Christianity to Islam. This view of religion has been criticized by some as an attempt to control and manipulate the beliefs of other people.

Still others have argued that the concept of religion should be defined in terms of the role it plays in human lives. This functional approach is more inclusive than the substantive definitions. It is exemplified by the work of sociologists such as Durkheim and Lincoln.

There are also a number of purely psychological approaches to the study of religion. Some of these focus on the cognitive dimension of religion and include studies of sacred texts, prayer, and ritual. Other psychologists have examined the effect of religion on mental health. In particular, some researchers have found that religiosity has a positive effect on mental health. For example, some research shows that people who have a strong belief in God are less likely to experience depression and more likely to have good marriages.

It is important to remember that even a totally secular approach to public policy, psychotherapy, and education must address the religion of two-thirds of America’s population. It is vital that our nation, and its lawmakers, have a full discussion of this issue so that all Americans can be assured of their civil rights and of access to the education, jobs, and services that will enable them to live in peace with their fellow citizens. The Senate can play a leading role in this debate by sponsoring hearings on the importance of religion in American life. This is an opportunity to reclaim the civil forum that once was the Senate’s domain on these great issues of our time.