How Does Religion Actually Work?

Faith in a god or spirits seems to have a strong effect on people’s lives. Research suggests that religious people have a lower chance of depression and are less likely to drink or use drugs. But how does religion actually work? And what can we say about the many different religions that exist around the world?

For centuries, scholars have used a variety of approaches to analyzing the concept of religion. Most of these have been “monothetic” in that they operate on the classical view that every instance that accurately fits a given class will share some defining property or properties.

Others have tried to understand religion as a social genus, that is, as something that appears in every human culture. Such an approach often involves dropping the substantive element of what is included in a class and instead relying on the function that a class serves (such as providing orientation in life or creating social cohesion).

Still other scholars have opted for a more analytical perspective, one that takes advantage of Sigmund Freud’s notion that psychological illnesses can be traced to the way we think about our experiences. These scholars have sought to understand the role that religion plays in a person’s identity, their worldview and their life choices. This approach, known as a cognitive approach, has become a popular method in the study of religion. It shifts attention from hidden mental states to the visible institutional structures that produce these beliefs and practices.