Religion can influence many different aspects of culture, and is a key component of some societies. It is also a source of division, arousing conflict and fear among those who do not share the same beliefs, as seen with the rise of Islamist extremism in recent years. Sociological tools, such as surveys and interviews, can help us better understand the role of religion in society and how it affects people’s daily lives.
It is important to remember that while some studies show that religion can be harmful, the vast majority of research cites positive outcomes. Having spiritual beliefs can give people a sense of purpose in their life, helping them to feel like they belong to something bigger than themselves, which in turn is linked to improved mental wellbeing and possibly even decreased mortality.
While many of the early attempts to understand religion viewed it as an inevitable feature of human culture, more recent approaches have shifted away from these monothetic ideas. One approach comes from anthropologist Clifford Geertz, who defines religion as “a system of symbols that works to establish powerful, pervasive moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that they appear uniquely realistic.”
Another theory comes from psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who suggests that religion co-evolved with morality as a way to bring people together into larger moral communities. It is this sense of moral belonging that translates into benefits such as lower rates of depression, drug abuse and alcoholism, and greater longevity.