Religion offers a wide range of benefits including peace, forgiveness, serenity, simplicity, faith, and hope. It can also strengthen family life and morality, promote community cohesion and stability, serve as an agent of social control, and enhance mental and physical well-being. It can also be a powerful force for social change, as demonstrated by the many examples of religiously inspired people willing to sacrifice their lives to fight injustice. However, religion can also cause divisions and lead to persecution, torture, wanton bloodshed, and war. It is therefore crucial for policymakers, psychologists, educators, and other professionals to understand the importance of religion in the lives of two-thirds of all Americans.
Religion is a multifaceted phenomenon, and scholars have offered many different definitions. Some have tried to define it substantively, focusing on beliefs and practices. Others have defined it functionally, focusing on the role it plays in human life. Still others have tried to do both at once, a strategy called a mixed definition (or sometimes an integrated definition).
Substantive definitions tend to emphasize a belief in a distinctive kind of reality. For example, Emile Durkheim argued that any system of beliefs and rituals that unite a group into a moral community is a religion. Similarly, Paul Tillich defined religion as whatever beliefs and practices dominate a person’s values and provide orientation in life. Various other versions of this approach are found in anthropology, history, philosophy, sociology, psychology, and cognitive science.