Religious beliefs and practices are universal across societies, although there is great variation in how people think about God and Spirits, practice ritual, engage with supernatural powers, and believe about what comes after death. This variety can be explained by adopting a functional approach, as in Durkheim’s definition that religion is whatever dominant concern serves to create solidarity and Paul Tillich’s axiological definition that religion is whatever provides orientation for one’s life. The idea that religion evolved to benefit larger moral communities, as argued by University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt and his graduate student Jesse Graham, also fits the category.
Even though some psychologists – echoing Sigmund Freud – characterize religion as pathological, it still has a strong hold on the lives of most Americans. The two-thirds of the population identifies as religious, and their beliefs influence their daily thoughts and behaviors. In fact, studies show a direct link between what people say is essential to their faith and how they behave day-to-day.
Research links the practice of Religion to a host of social benefits, including better health, learning, economic well-being, self-control, and relationships with family, friends and community. And it reduces the incidence of many of society’s most vexing problems, including divorce, crime and delinquency, out-of-wedlock births, drug addiction, anxiety, and prejudice. A fourth C, for community, can be added to the list. This is because the human brain is a kludge of different operating systems, from the ancient reptilian or fight-or-flight instincts to the limbic or mammalian brain (emotions) and the more recently evolved neocortex (rationality). For many, Religion provides a way to balance these competing demands.