The Importance of Religion

Religion is a way of life that is practised by two-thirds of the world’s population. Its importance in the lives of these people should not be underestimated. Totally secular approaches to public policy, psychotherapy and education are at risk of being blind to the needs and concerns of this vast group. They are also at risk of using a model that is alien to their cultural background. A study of religion must include its anthropological dimension, which is to say that it must take into account the fact that it is a social kind that presupposes human physical culture and custom.

Religions make it possible to pursue some of the most important goals that can be conceived, including some that can only be attained after death, either in a new rebirth or in a state of perfect heavenly bliss. They are concerned to safeguard and transmit the means of attaining these goals, whether they be proximate or ultimate, in order that man may achieve his fullest potential in this life.

In its strictest sense, however, religion is the conscious acknowledgment of man’s dependence on Deity, and it involves the exercise of both intellect and emotions. It invokes not only fear, but awe, admiration and devotion. The obtaining of benefits in answer to prayer prompts thankfulness. The sense of having offended and estranged God leads to fear and sorrow and the desire for reconciliation. Love springs from contemplation of the immensity of God’s goodness and excellence.

All religions have moral codes that prescribe how one should behave and treat others, and they usually justify these codes by invoking their supernatural origins. They are concerned not only to preserve a right relationship with God but also with each other and with the natural world.

A number of scholars have attempted to define religion as a function or a type of behaviour and have argued that a definition that is neither real or lexical can be correct but that a functional definition cannot. Such a functional definition would involve not only the beliefs and practices of a religious group but also their underlying rationale, and thus it could be true that some cultures do not have a religion in the strictest sense of the word.

To define religion as a set of ideas or beliefs is to commit the error that Edward Burnett Tylor ascribed to some of his contemporaries when he defined it as “belief in spiritual beings”. This definition is too broad and narrow to cover what religion actually is. It excludes people who believe in a Supreme Being, judgment after death and idolatry and, therefore, it misses the mark. A definition that is more specific is needed, and it should probably include the belief in the divine or the supernatural as well as a code of conduct. In addition to these dimensions a fourth one can be added, that of community. This would allow a more comprehensive treatment of religion than is possible on the basis of the three-sided model of the true, the beautiful and the good.