More than 80 percent of the world’s population subscribes to some religion. The word “religion” encompasses a wide range of beliefs, practices and rituals that differ significantly from one another. Some scholars have criticized the concept of religion, arguing that it is not an accurate social category and that it has no true essence. However, many other scholars use a more flexible, polythetic definition of religion that recognizes several properties that are common or typical of most religions. These include an emphasis on morality, the awe-inspiring and transcendent nature of religious experiences, spirituality and community.
A few theorists, such as Sigmund Freud and Emile Durkheim, developed an approach to religion that analyzed its relationship to society. These social theorists believed that religion evolved to meet human needs. Religion provides a sense of purpose and meaning to life, reinforces social cohesion and stability, serves as a mechanism of control and promotes psychological and physical well-being.
It is easy to see why many people embrace the concepts of religion. Even in the most secular cultures, religious beliefs and practices still influence many aspects of daily life. The major religions in the world provide educational institutions, hospitals and social welfare networks. Their moral teachings help to shape ethical conduct and to deter antisocial behavior.
In addition, religions offer social support and a feeling of belonging among likeminded groups. This social glue has the effect of preventing people from engaging in risky and harmful activities, such as drug addiction and a desire to commit suicide. Moreover, most religions have developed a set of moral teachings that emphasize the worth and dignity of human beings. They also encourage tolerance and the avoidance of violence in solving problems.
The earliest religious practices were tribal totems and ancestor worship, followed by mythology and tales of individual gods and goddesses. These beliefs merged into the more comprehensive belief systems that emerged around 10,000 years ago in Egypt and Mesopotamia. These later religions included rituals and the belief in a supernatural power that controls the universe.
Many religions have also incorporated an aspect of morality, as exemplified by their codes of ethics and laws of conduct. This reflects the evolutionary role of religion as a way to bond humans into large moral communities. University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt and his colleague Jesse Graham have proposed that religions evolved as a way to bind people into groups with five fundamental moral foundations: Do no harm, play fairly, be loyal to your group, respect authority and live purely.
The ubiquity of religion in the world, its widespread impact on societies and its ability to generate intense emotional responses all support the idea that it has a genuine essential nature. Yet, it is equally true that some of the most disturbing events in history have been committed in the name of religion or by religious leaders. The truth lies somewhere in the middle.