What Is It That Makes Religion So Important?


Religion gives meaning and purpose to life, reinforces social unity and stability, serves as an agent of social control, promotes psychological and physical well-being and may motivate people to work for positive social change. The defining characteristics of religion differ across times, places and cultures, but the basic questions are the same: What is it that makes some beliefs, rituals, rites, practices, prayers and institutions more important or powerful than others? Religions ideally serve several functions.

Until recently, most attempts to analyze the term religion have been “monothetic” in that they operate with the classical view that a concept can be accurately defined and described by its defining properties (see article on prototype theory of concepts). However, the last few decades have seen a move towards “polythetic” approaches that abandon the notion that a concept is best understood as a taxonomic category with necessary and sufficient properties, and instead treat it as a family-resemblance concept.

One of the key advantages of this approach is that it allows us to acknowledge the fact that different phenomena can be categorized in many different ways, and that it is therefore unwise to attempt to define what exactly it is that defines a religion (see article on the semantic range of the term). Another advantage is that it allows one to recognize that the term religion relates not only to belief and ritual behavior, but also to social structures and habits and physical culture – a fourth C to supplement the usual three of “true”, “beautiful” and “good”. These factors are not to be denied or minimized as part of the religious landscape.