The Role of Religion in Human Life

Religion is human beings’ relation to that which they regard as holy, sacred, absolute, spiritual, divine, or worthy of especial reverence. It focuses people’s ultimate concerns, such as the meaning of life and one’s fate after death. In monotheistic religions, such as Christianity, this is often expressed in terms of a personal relationship with God. In less monotheistic forms of religion, such as humanism and naturalism, these may be expressed in terms of a generalized concern for the broader human community or the natural world.

Besides this, religions also give people the means to deal with the limitations that stand across their project of life, whether in terms of the limited lifespan and physical capacities that define their earthly existence (see immortality; reincarnation; agnosticism), the uncertainty about the future, which is revealed by science (see time), or the limited social possibilities for self-actualization that can be found within a given society (see materialism). This enables them to live their lives with confidence and meaning.

The function of religions to give people a secure context in which to work out their values and concerns gives rise to the many rites of passage, rituals, and practices that are characteristic of most of them. They may involve the use of images and symbols; they may involve an emphasis on sacrificial acts and other expressions of compassion and love; they may emphasize community and fellowship. They may involve the sanctification of certain persons; they may also include a range of ethical principles that guide behavior.

Religious beliefs also vary widely, but all of them have some things in common. Among them are the belief that there is a god or gods, or other supernatural entities; the concept of an afterlife; a system of morality; and a code of conduct which outlines what is right and wrong.

Despite the efforts of philosophers, scientists, and skeptics to disprove them, most religious believers continue to believe in their beliefs. These beliefs are not always rational, but they play an important role in the lives of two-thirds of the world’s population. This is a fact that should not be ignored by those who wish to develop public policy, deliver psychotherapy, and teach. The failure to understand the role of religion in these and other areas can lead to intolerance, cruelty, bigotry, exploitation, and even violence. It can also prevent the full development of human potential. This article was written as class notes, intended to comment on readings and amplify discussion in class. It is not intended for publication or distribution. Copyright 2001, Philip A. Pecorino. All Rights Reserved. See Copyright & Permissions for more information. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.