The Importance of Religion


Religion is a complex system of beliefs, values and rituals shared by a group of people. It also refers to the feeling of a special relationship with the spiritual world. It is a powerful force in the lives of most Americans and plays a critical role in public policy, psychotherapy and education. Totally secular approaches ignore this important dimension of the human experience.

The term “religion” derives from the Latin word religio and its root religare, meaning “to be conscientious, devoted or committed.” It applies to any faith and worldview. It is sometimes used to mean a belief in one god but it is more often a system of beliefs and practices that define what a person or community believes and does.

Many anthropologists believe that early religion developed as a response to the uncontrollable aspects of the environment that humans encountered such as weather, childbirth and success in hunting. Early humans tried to control these forces through manipulation by magic and through supplication through religion. Magic tries to directly manipulate the environment through various rituals, such as drawing pictures of large numbers of animals on cave walls in hopes that it will ensure success in hunting. Religion tries to control the environment by appealing to an unseen force, gods and goddesses, through various rituals. In the end, both systems of manipulation and supplication have their strengths and weaknesses.

Psychiatry and psychology also offer insights into the origins and functions of religion. Freud interpreted religion as an expression of the repressed Oedipus complex in primitive societies in which small groups were dominated by fathers. This led to taboos that arose around sexually forbidden relationships and other forms of interfamily violence.

More recently, a number of scientists have found that religion and spirituality can help people cope with life’s stresses. The findings are not so much proof of divine intervention as they are evidence that different religious and spiritual traditions offer distinct methods for coping with stress.

The teeming complexity of our modern world offers unique challenges to religion. In a world of endless philosophies and truth claims, religions must continually reassess their positions and evolve to keep pace with an ever-changing society. In a time when globalization pushes cultures and their religious beliefs together, it becomes increasingly difficult for individuals to maintain a sense of belonging to an identifiable religious community. This, in turn, may affect their mental health. Increasingly, psychologists and psychiatrists are looking at how different religions can improve the mental well-being of their patients. They are finding that there is a direct link between positive religious and spiritual beliefs and a strong sense of community. These links may be a result of the fact that many religions include prayers, rituals and community support, all of which can contribute to improved psychological health. Moreover, they can have positive physical effects. The practice of religions can lower blood pressure and heart rate, reduce depression and anxiety and increase feelings of well-being.