The Meaning and Function of Religion


Religion is the relation that people have to something holy, sacred, absolute, spiritual, divine or worthy of especial reverence. It also includes the way people deal with ultimate concerns about their lives and their fate after death.

A Biological Approach

Research suggests that religion can be beneficial for psychological and physical well-being. It offers access to a variety of ways of coping with life’s stresses, and is linked to a positive sense of self-esteem and an internal locus of control.

A Social Approach

Religion often draws people into like-minded communities, where they may feel a connection to others. These social connections can be very powerful and are a key source of meaning for many people.

A Symbolic Interactionist Approach

In symbolic interactionist approaches, religion is seen as consisting of experiences and behaviors that involve crying, laughing, trancelike states, oneness with other participants, and feelings of deep emotion. These emotions help people connect with a higher power and are thought to have existential benefits.

A Functional Approach

In a functional definition, religion is understood as the beliefs and practices that create social cohesion or provide orientation in life (e.g., Durkheim). Alternatively, it is defined as whatever dominant concern serves to organize a person’s values or beliefs (e.g., Paul Tillich).

A number of different disciplinary approaches have been used to explore the meaning and function of the concept of religion. These include anthropology, history, philosophy, psychology, religious studies, sociology, and cognitive science.

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