The Social Importance of Religion


Religion is a cultural system of beliefs, practices and values. It encompasses myths and legends, teachings of faith, moral codes, sacred rites, and rituals — as well as speculation about the nature of God, the soul, retribution and the afterlife. Ideally, religion gives meaning and purpose to life, promotes social stability and morality, fosters psychological and physical well-being, and may motivate people to work for positive social change. It is usually manifested by a group of believers who identify as part of the same religion.

Religion has a dual aspect: an objective side, and a subjective one. The objective aspect is man’s recognition of dependence on the Deity, and his voluntarily acknowledging that dependence by acts of homage. It involves not only the will, but also the intellect and the imagination; it appeals to the emotions as well.

The perception of man’s helplessness in the face of sickness, defeat, and death engenders a desire to enter into friendly communion with the Deity or deities in order to obtain relief and a sense of security. The perception that this communion is possible engenders hope, and the feeling of friendship with a protector so good and powerful excites love.

Aside from its anthropological importance, religion is of immense social significance as it influences the political systems of many countries. Islam, for example, is a dominant force in several nations and has direct influence on politics, law enforcement, and societal behavior in the United States and beyond.

For most of human history, religion has been a major source of morality and social cohesion. The earliest societies incorporated religion in various ways, including belief in a single God or Gods; reverence for certain natural objects (e.g., trees, lakes, mountains); obedience to a code of morality; and religious rites, such as circumcision and marriage ceremonies.

In the nineteenth century, three influential European social theorists attempted to understand the relationship between religion and society: Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, and Max Weber. Marx viewed religion as an extension of class struggle and a means of maintaining the status quo. Durkheim, on the other hand, saw religion as a form of collective ritual that helps control society and provides comfort for people suffering from economic oppression. Weber, meanwhile, believed that religion serves as a coping mechanism for people facing a hostile or stressful environment.

Contemporary research reveals that religion is a complex phenomenon that spans diverse cultures, beliefs and practices. There is no one definition that adequately describes the phenomenon of religion. Some scholars use the term to refer only to a belief in spiritual beings, but this approach is too narrow because it excludes most of the world’s known religions. Others define religion as a combination of social and spiritual aspects, while still others link it to certain cultural developments and their associated ethical or moral attitudes. A more inclusive approach, such as that of Edward Burnett Tylor (1871), defines religion as “a belief in a divine being or power and the worship thereof.”