The Role of Religion in Human Society


A religion is a system of beliefs, practices and symbols that is held in common by members of a group or community. It is usually centered on a supernatural being or on a cosmic order, and it often claims to give its followers the path to eternal life. It can also serve as a source of moral guidance and a way to make sense of the world around us.

In many societies, religions provide the moral framework for laws and social institutions. Moreover, religious beliefs and values are the inspiration behind much of humanity’s most beautiful art and architecture. They have also shaped human culture in music, dance, drama and poetry. And they have provided the fuel for the scientific explorations of the natural world that issued in the form of the natural sciences.

But religions can also be a source of intolerance, cruelty and bigotry. They can foster feelings of superiority and entitlement among some of their members. They can give rise to sectarian wars and violent extremist movements. And they can support a wide range of social problems, including sexual discrimination, child abuse, exploitation and poverty.

Nevertheless, for most of the history of mankind, religions have been a vital force in human society. And they continue to be so today. A recent survey found that six-in-ten evangelical Protestants, Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses say they rely on religious teachings and beliefs for moral guidance. In contrast, only about half of Catholics and mainline Protestants do so.

One way to understand the role of religion in human society is to look at the ways in which people respond to fears and anxieties. As the sociologist Emile Durkheim pointed out, in times of stress and crisis, people often turn to religion for help and protection. They believe that the Deity has a plan for their lives and is able to intervene in ways they cannot. They feel that they need a spiritual guide to help them get through the bad times, and they voluntarily perform rituals in the hope of getting that guidance.

What a particular religion does with these motives and perceptions depends on the religion itself. In lower religions, the aim is a kind of friendly communion with the Deity in which man may find aid and happiness. This is a very crude notion of perfection, but in the higher religions it is combined with the need to conform to a recognized moral standard.

In some cultures, religions are based on animism, which holds that all living and nonliving things, including animals, plants, rocks, rivers and even weather systems have a spiritual essence. In others, the concept of a God is abstract and transcendent, but there are always the same basic rituals to mark important events in a person’s life. The most fundamental of these is the annual festival, which marks the beginning and end of a period in a calendar year. In these cultures, the future is also a focus of attention. In many religions, the past can be visited too, in order to learn from its lessons and to forgive wrongdoing.

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