Religious belief and practice is an important part of life for more than two-thirds of the world’s people. It gives meaning and purpose to life, promotes moral and ethical behavior, provides social control, increases self-esteem and empathy, and helps people overcome anxiety and prejudice. It also has been associated with lower rates of out-of-wedlock births, crime, delinquency, drug and alcohol abuse, health problems, and divorce.
Religion is a complex assemblage of practices and beliefs that reflects the diverse needs of human beings. One approach, that of Paul Tillich (1957), defines it as whatever dominates a person’s values and provides an orientation for his or her existence. This functional definition contrasts with the more mystical approach of Emil Durkheim (1895) and others who emphasize the importance of social solidarity in defining religion.
The most commonly identified religious practices include prayer, observance of holy days and rituals, reading and studying sacred texts, and participation in religious institutions. Almost all religions believe in a divine agency that created the universe and their world, known as their God. Many religions also believe that there is a heaven and hell, with the most significant difference being the specific rules and punishments for those who are faithful or not. Many of these beliefs and practices have been around for thousands of years. Early religious traditions like tribal totems and ancestor worship, along with belief in guardian and protective gods, led to the development of more sophisticated belief systems.