Religion is a unified system of ideas, beliefs and practices that gives its followers something sacred to believe in. It also provides them with a code of behavior and a moral framework for judging their own actions and those of others. Its core beliefs are often about a spiritual or supernatural order of forces and powers beyond human control.
There are many ways to define religion, but one common way is to consider it a belief in a supreme being and a set of instructions for living life that are transmitted by a faith community. Religion also consists of a group of rituals and other symbolic activities that have meaning for believers and provide them with a sense of identity, community and morality.
For most people, religion plays a central role in their lives, and it provides a set of values and motivations that influence their thoughts, decisions and behaviors. It may be a source of comfort and guidance in the face of death, suffering, or other hardships. It is also a source of hope, purpose and joy. And, as the latest scientific research suggests, it is also a powerful contributor to wellbeing.
Two-thirds of Americans identify with a religion, and those who do so report high levels of well-being, including happiness, compassion, generosity, integrity, self-control and social capital. In addition, religious participation is associated with lower levels of social pathologies such as out-of-wedlock births, crime and delinquency, drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness and prejudice.
While secularists have long been skeptical of religion, it is now clear that the practice of faith has real benefits. This has been emphasized in recent studies showing that religion is good for children, adults, families, states and nations. It is a part of the social fabric that should be respected in public policy, psychotherapy and education.
The idea that religion has a positive impact on people is called the “pious effect.” In short, those who have a strong religious belief tend to lead happier and more successful lives than their secular counterparts. This has led to renewed interest in religion and a debate over the question of whether secularists should embrace the idea that religion is good for society.
While there has been some decline in religious identification and belief over the past few decades, the share of people who say that religion is very important to them and who believe in God has remained roughly the same. The percentage who believe in heaven, hell and reincarnation has also stayed the same, although the proportion of those who believe in one god or a plurality of gods has declined somewhat.
Some anthropologists (scientists who study human societies) support a view that religion evolved as a response to either a biological or a cultural need. In this view, humankind developed spirituality as a way to cope with the knowledge that death is inevitable and a way to give meaning to life through a belief in an afterlife or, in the case of monotheistic religions, a divine plan for humankind.