The Importance of Religion in American Life
Religious belief provides a framework for many aspects of human life. It has been linked to better wellbeing, and is a strong predictor of how people treat other members of society. It also influences family and community life. Regular religious practice is a powerful antidote to the social problems that plague our nation. It is critical that Congress and the Senate maintain its role as a chamber for debate on the vital issue of religion in American life.
The word religion can mean any system of belief or adherence to a faith, but it is often used to describe an organized group of believers with shared values and practices. It can include a variety of different practices and beliefs, from Christianity and Judaism to Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. While some scholars argue that there are no universally accepted definitions of religion, most agree on a set of core characteristics that define it. These include a focus on values, a belief in a supreme power, and a structured set of activities and rituals.
One classic definition of religion comes from Emil Durkheim, who argued that it was a collective form of feeling that created solidarity in the face of a common threat. The same sentiment was echoed by Paul Tillich, who defined religion as whatever dominant concern organizes a person’s values, whether or not that concern involves belief in unusual realities. Others have sought to depart from this three-part model, but these attempts have been largely unsuccessful. For example, the philosopher William James suggested that feelings alone could constitute a religion, and while he did not deny that cognition was involved, he played down the cognitive element.
Taking part in mass religious practices and being part of a religious community can provide a sense of belonging that is especially important to individuals who feel isolated or depressed. In addition, most religions stress doing good in the world, which can lead to increased participation in charitable activities. Practicing a religion can help a person to feel that they are not alone in the universe, and this feeling of being connected to something bigger than themselves has been shown to reduce tension, diminish anxiety and stabilize emotional variability.
Although it is generally agreed that religion has a positive effect on health, the exact nature of this benefit is not fully understood. Some researchers believe that it provides an external locus of control, reducing the fear of being punished or abandoned by God in the face of medical challenges. This may be the reason that religiosity correlates to lower rates of depression and higher levels of wellbeing. Other researchers, however, have found that religion can lead to negative thoughts, such as guilt and shame, which can contribute to mental illness. Moreover, some scholars have suggested that the positive effects of religion are offset by its costs, including excessive zeal and fanaticism, and the dangers of sectarian divisions. These concerns, along with those relating to the influence of religion in politics and economics, have led some to question its value.