The Role of Religion in People’s Lives

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Religious studies is a discipline that specializes in comparing different beliefs and ritual practices. In order to do this it must employ conceptual categories that are analogical rather than univocal. This is important because there are people in the past and still in the present who do not have beliefs in disembodied spirits or explicit metaphysics and yet belong to a religion (in some cases a very small number). Thus the term religion can be defined socially rather than normatively. This does not mean that the study of religion is merely relative or Eurocentric but only that the history of religions began in a particular historical and cultural milieu and it is only right to use the concept in comparative terms.

The range of activities that can be included under the concept Religion is wide. The various definitions of the term reflect this diversity. They range from a substantive definition such as Edward Tylor’s belief in spiritual beings to the functional criterion of Emile Durkheim’s collective conscience or Paul Tillich’s ultimate concern. These single criterion monothetic definitions are often criticized for being restrictive and ethnocentric.

On the other hand, it is possible to use a functional analysis of Religion that is more inclusive by looking for shared emphases and values. This approach allows us to understand the role of Religion in people’s lives and how it contributes to them.

A major function of Religion is its moral influence. It can teach people to behave ethically and promote good behaviour in society. Religious values also provide people with a sense of purpose and meaning in their lives. Religions can give individuals hope in the face of death, loss and suffering. They can help individuals to overcome problems such as poverty, drug abuse and out of wedlock births by supplying them with a set of moral criteria and a sense of community.

In addition to these moral functions, Religion can play a social role in the development of identity and personality. Individuals with a strong sense of spirituality can become more self-confident and able to withstand life’s difficulties. They are less likely to react to problems like suicide or mental breakdown with despair and defeatism and are more capable of overcoming difficulties by turning them into opportunities for growth.

The fact that religious beliefs and practices do so many things in our lives explains why they are such an important part of our human heritage. The diversity of the various religions reflects this rich heritage and it is only right that this be recognised in the academic study of Religion.