What Is Religion?

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What Is Religion?

Religion is a set of organized beliefs, practices, and systems that most often relate to belief and worship of a controlling force such as a personal God or another supernatural being. However, there are many different definitions of religion and not all religions are centered on a belief in a god, gods, or supernatural forces.

Religion often involves cultural beliefs, worldviews, texts, prophecies, revelations, and morals that have spiritual meaning to members of the particular faith. Religion can encompass a range of practices including sermons, rituals, prayer, meditation, holy places, symbols, trances, and feasts.

According to an estimate by the Pew Research Center, 84% of the world's population has some type of religious affiliation.

Types of Religion

There are many different types of religions, including the major world religious traditions that are widely known as well as much smaller belief systems that are not as well recognized. Some of these represent monotheism or the belief in a single god while others are examples of polytheism or the belief in multiple gods.

Some of the types of religions include but are certainly not limited to:

  • Baha'i
  • Buddhism
  • Christianity
  • Confucianism
  • Hinduism 
  • Indigenous American religions
  • Islam
  • Jainism
  • Judaism
  • Rastafarianism
  • Shinto
  • Sikhism
  • Taoism
  • Traditional African religions
  • Zoroastrianism

Related to religion, animism is the belief in divine non-human beings, while totemism involves the belief in a divine connection between humans and the natural world. On the other end of the religious spectrum is atheism, which involves a belief in no god or gods, and agnosticism, which holds that the existence of god or gods is unknown or unknowable.

Purpose of Religion

Religion can serve a wide range of purposes. Religion can serve as a source of comfort and guidance. It can provide a basis for moral beliefs and behaviors. It can also provide a sense of community and connection to tradition. Some research even suggests that it may have an effect on health.

The impact of religion on health and life expectancy has always been a tricky area of research. It seems (to some) that religious people (defined here as people who go to religious services regularly) seem to be healthier than those who don't attend.

This has led to a line of research looking into the impact of religion on health to determine what, if any, positive benefit religion could have on life expectancy. This research is tricky because of several factors, including:

  • People who attend religious services may simply be healthier than those who cannot attend.
  • The benefits may have more to do with social contact than religion itself.
  • Certain religions may encourage behaviors that are healthy.

As researchers look into the impact of religion, all these factors must be considered along with the possibility that religion itself influences health.

Impact of Religion

A study of more than 92,000 participants from the Women's Health Initiative found that women aged 50 and up were 20% less likely to die in any given year if they attended religious services weekly (15% reduction if they attended less than weekly) compared to those who never attend religious services.

This analysis was controlled for age, ethnicity, income level, and most importantly, current health status. The data was collected through surveys and an annual review of medical records.

What was interesting was that the religion effect applied to the overall risk of death, but not to the risk of death from heart conditions. There is no explanation for why that may have been.

The fact that the study controlled for overall health status makes it more possible that attending religious services has a positive impact on health (not just that healthier people go to services more often).

Another study also found a health-related benefit of attending religious services, this time expressed in added years of life. Researchers have found that weekly attendance at religious services is associated with two to three additional years of life. These findings were controlled for other factors such as the amount of physical exercise and taking statin-type cholesterol medications.

The same study also examined the costs of physical exercise, statin-type drugs, and religious attendance. Physical exercise was the most cost-efficient way to add years to your life, followed by weekly religious attendance and statin-type drugs.

Years of Added Life Expectancy
  • Religion: 2 to 3 additional years

  • Exercise: 3 to 5 additional years

  • Statin-type drugs: 2.5 to 3.5 additional years

Cost Per Year
  • Religion: $2,000 to $14,000 (donations and contributions)

  • Physical exercise: $2,000 to $6,000 (gym memberships, equipment, etc.)

  • Statin-type drugs: $4,000 to $14,000

Tips

If you are interested in exploring some of the potential benefits of religion or spiritual traditions, there are some things that may help:

  • Find a community that you connect with. Social support is an important part of well-being, so feeling a sense of connection with others in your religion can be beneficial.
  • Explore practices often utilized by religion. Meditation and mindfulness have been shown to have a number of wellness benefits.
  • Search for things that inspire you. Whether it is reading inspirational books, listening to beautiful music, or spending time enjoying nature, finding things that give you a sense of peace and inspiration can help improve your mental clarity and well-being.

The observation is real: People who attend religious services regularly tend to live longer. The tough question is, why? It may simply be that people who attend religious services tend to have more social and financial resources than non-attendees, or it could be that something about attending religious services (like making connections with others, prayer, or spiritual reflection) helps people to live longer. You'll have to decide for yourself.

Potential Pitfalls

Because these studies are observational (researchers watch what happens in the real world without actively controlling any of the conditions or randomizing the participants), it cannot be said with certainty that religious attendance increases life expectancy or that it doesn't.

We can only conclude that there is an association between religious attendance and increased life expectancy. They are linked, but we don't know why.

There could be a different reason to explain the life expectancy outcome in the study. In fact, other studies have shown that people who regularly attend religious services:

  • May be more likely to be employed
  • Tend to have larger social networks
  • Tend to be more positive
  • Are more likely to live in intact families
  • Are less likely to be experiencing disabling illness

Any of these factors could explain the difference in life expectancy observed in these studies. Another study suggested that religious involvement on its own should not be automatically assumed to improve health. People who share religious beliefs also usually share other characteristics including ethnic, cultural, and socioeconomic backgrounds.

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  1. Pew Research Center. The global religious landscape. Published December 18, 2012.

  2. Schnall E, Wassertheil-smoller S, Swencionis C, et al. The relationship between religion and cardiovascular outcomes and all-cause mortality in the Women's Health Initiative Observational Study. Psychol Health. 2010;25(2):249-63. doi:10.1080/08870440802311322

  3. Hall DE. Religious attendence: More cost-effective that Lipitor?. JABFM. 2006;19(2):103-109. doi:10.3122/jabfm.19.2.103

  4. Schlundt DG, Franklin MD, Patel K, et al. Religious affiliation, health behaviors and outcomes: Nashville REACH 2010Am J Health Behav. 2008;32(6):714-724. doi:10.5555/ajhb.2008.32.6.714