Religion is a human activity that seeks to understand or explain the meaning of life. People often use religion to cope with important issues such as illness, death, and the afterlife. Some religions teach specific behaviors that people can use to lead healthy lives and make a positive impact on the world around them.
The basic idea behind religion is that people have an especial relationship with a god or spirit, or they are concerned about the fate of their souls after death. In more religious or naturalistic traditions, religion may also include a concern for the natural world and the community of people.
Many people are attracted to a particular form of religion because they believe it gives them a sense of structure and tradition that can enhance their psychological well-being and promote a higher quality of life. Studies have found that practicing a religion can reduce tension and anxiety, stabilize emotional variability and increase levels of satisfaction with life.
A third function of religion is that it strengthens social unity and stability. It provides a common set of beliefs, makes people feel as though they are part of a larger community, and helps them communicate with each other. This function is particularly important for societies that are struggling to overcome economic, political, or cultural instability. It may even serve as a way of motivating people to engage in constructive social action, such as fighting against poverty or helping people in need (see Chapter 6 “Social Control”).
Another function of religion is that it is a source of moral guidance for individuals and society. Most religions provide specific teachings about how to treat other humans and how to live a good life in accordance with their beliefs. This is an effective source of moral guidance for practitioners and can help people to be more caring toward others, including their families, friends, and the broader community.
These functions are reflected in the fact that most people who practice a religion are happier and live longer than those who do not (Moberg, 2008). Moreover, the regular practice of religion can improve one’s mental and physical health.
Durkheim’s insights about the functions of religion continue to influence sociological thinking today on these and other aspects of religion’s impact. These functions include giving meaning to one’s life, reinforcing social unity and stability, serving as an agent of social control, promoting psychological and physical well-being, and inspiring people to engage in activities that can contribute to positive change in the world.
A fourth function of religion is that it can be a source of comfort for those who are suffering from mental or emotional disorders, especially those with a history of childhood trauma and/or serious family conflict. A recent study found that a majority of those with psychiatric disorders who practiced their religion had significantly lower scores on measures of stress and depression than nonreligious subjects.
These findings are echoed by studies showing that religion can promote social cohesion and reduce conflict, hostility, and violence among people who have differing beliefs. These findings are a compelling reason to encourage public officials and policymakers to make more effort to accommodate religious traditions in their policies, schools, and public services. This could result in better mental and physical health, a stronger sense of identity, and a reduction of violence and other forms of social dysfunction.