The Role of Religion in American Society
Religion is the belief in a higher power. It can be a source of comfort in times of distress and a source of hope. It can also help to reduce anxiety and provide meaning in life. Research has shown that religious people tend to be happier and healthier. They are less prone to depression, have lower rates of substance abuse, and have better dental health than non-religious people. Despite the doubts of some psychologists, such as Sigmund Freud, and the criticism of many of its practitioners throughout history, religion has endured and thrived for 100,000 years. It is present in every culture and has more than 85 percent of the world’s population embracing some form of faith.
Many scholars have attempted to define religion in terms of a distinctive kind of reality, but these definitions are controversial because they assume that a particular way of knowing the world is the only possible one. They are what philosophers call “substantive” definitions because they determine membership in a group in terms of the existence of a belief in a distinct sort of object.
A different approach is to examine the ways in which people have identified and belonged to groups in the past by sharing similar beliefs, experiences, practices, lifestyles, and values. This is what sociologists and other social scientists do when they study religion. The most influential book in the reflexive turn in anthropology, Talal Asad’s Genealogies of Religion (1993), applies Michel Foucault’s genealogy concept to the study of religion. It argues that the idea of religion operating in modern anthropology has been shaped by Christian and modern assumptions and that the concept should be deconstructed rather than treated as a category that is uniquely separate from politics.
In the last 30 years, as government has encroached into almost every area of society, it has become increasingly important for Presidents and the Senate to select candidates for federal office who are sensitive to the role of religion in American society. The country should not be run by people who do not believe in a higher power or share the belief that God has a plan for humankind and its future.
The question of what counts as a religion is a difficult one because the senses of the word change over time. What was once a concept of scrupulous devotion has been retooled into something cosmic, polytheistic, and theistic. Moreover, functional definitions shift the sense even more because they determine membership in a group in relation to a set of behaviors, not just a belief in an unusual sort of object. Nevertheless, it is worthwhile to consider the issue carefully, because it is crucial to how we understand a religion’s influence on society.