The Importance of Religion

Religion is a human response to fundamental questions about the meaning of life and the purpose of existence. It involves beliefs and practices based on the idea that there is a higher power that guides human destiny and provides spiritual guidance. Most religions offer a moral code of conduct that outlines ways people should interact with one another and the world around them. Religion also addresses concerns that science cannot answer, such as what happens after death and how humans should treat one another.

Many of the same features that characterize religion are present in all cultures. These include faith and worship, sacred texts and rituals, a divine leader or guru, and the veneration of saints and other holy people, places, objects, and days. In addition, most religions teach some version of the afterlife, whether in a literal sense such as going to heaven or hell or in a more symbolic sense such as reaching nirvana in Buddhism.

Some scientists – notably, evolutionary biologists and behavioral economists – take the view that religion is a form of human evolution that developed out of the need to control uncontrollable aspects of the environment. Other scientists, including anthropologists who study the development of human societies, believe that religion developed as a way to deal with mortality and the fear of losing one’s soul.

Religious faith and practice have powerful impacts on the lives of most people. For example, those who attend church regularly report being much happier than those who do not. This happiness is linked to a number of health benefits, such as lower levels of depression and anxiety and better coping with stress. However, the link is not direct and causal, and there are many other factors that influence both happiness and religiosity.

Researchers are now focusing on the ways that religious belief and practice improve people’s ability to cope with life’s stresses. They are investigating the possibility that these positive effects result from a “religious dividend” that comes from a combination of different aspects of religion, such as the idea that there is something greater than oneself and a set of teachings on how to behave toward others.

The fact that religion is important for the majority of Americans makes it all the more vital that government agencies, psychotherapists and other professionals understand its role in their clients’ lives. The American government celebrates freedom of religion, but there is no excuse for ignoring its effect on the mental and emotional well-being of most Americans.