What Is Religion?

The Psychology of Why People Believe

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What Is Religion?

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

Definition of Religion:

Religion is a set of organized beliefs, practices, and systems that most often relate to the belief and worship of a controlling force, such as a personal god or another supernatural being.

While this is a basic definition, there are many different understandings of what religion is. Not all religions are centered on a belief in a god, gods, or supernatural forces.

The famed psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud described religion as a form of wish fulfillment. However, modern psychology recognizes that religion can play an important role in an individual's life and experiences and can even improve health and well-being. In fact, studies have shown that religion can help people develop healthy habits, regulate their behaviors, and understand their emotions—all factors that can affect your health.

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 lesser-known belief systems of smaller populations. 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.

Religion vs. Spirituality

While religion and spirituality are related, there are differences between the two. Spirituality is an individual practice and belief, whereas religion is centered on a set of organized practices that a larger group shares. It is possible to be spiritual without being religious.

Why People Believe in Religion

The reasons why people believe in religion are not fully understood, but researchers have suggested a number of possible explanations.

The Psychology of Religious Belief

According to the most recent Gallup poll, 47% of adults in the U.S. have some type of religious membership. As to why people believe in religion, psychologists have proposed several theories.

While Freud believed that religious belief was a form of pathological wish fulfillment, other researchers have proposed that how the human brain works often predisposes people to believe. The human mind looks for patterns, purpose, and meaning, which may influence why people turn to religion to guide their belief systems.

Parenting and cultural influences also play an important role since people tend to belong to the religion in which they were raised. The human need to belong, combined with the desire for social connection, also contributes to the desire to be part of someone larger than the self.

The Purpose of Religion

Religion can serve a wide range of purposes. Religion can be 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 affect 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 attend 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, however, because of several factors that are difficult to control for, 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 healthy behaviors.

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

Religion can contribute to a sense of community, provide support, and offer guidance. It has also been shown to impact both physical and mental health.

Religion and Physical Health

One series of studies found that participants who were either religious or spiritual had a decreased risk of coronary heart disease (CHD), lower blood pressure (BP), better immune function, and longer lifespans when compared to people who were not religious or spiritual.

Researchers found that the participants who were religious or spiritual tended to eat more nutritious diets, engage in more physical exercise, and have better cognitive function compared to people who were not religious or spiritual.

In these studies, people who were religious were also less likely to smoke, which put them at a lower risk of smoking-related illnesses such as all cancers, cardiovascular disease, and lung disease. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is linked with a better quality of life as well as a greater lifespan.

Religion and Mental Health

Religion can also influence mental health in both positive and negative ways. Religion can serve as a source of comfort and strength when people are under stress. At other times, this connection may be less helpful—or even harmful—if it creates stress or acts as a barrier to treatment.

Studies suggest that religion has both the potential to help and harm mental health and well-being. On the positive side, religion and spirituality can help promote positive beliefs, foster community support, and provide positive coping skills. On the other hand, negative religious coping, miscommunication, and harmful negative beliefs that actually be detrimental to mental health.

Key Mental Health Benefits

Some mental health benefits of religion include:

  • Giving people structure
  • Building a community with a group
  • Creating a sense of belonging
  • Helping people cope with stressful events
  • Can encourage forgiveness, compassion, and gratitude

Religion can also play a role in helping people cope with mental health conditions. People often turn to their religious beliefs in order to cope with symptoms of mental illness and to help manage stress.

Research has also shown that religious people often first turn to religious clergy when they need treatment for mental health conditions. Religious and pastoral counseling can be an important resource for people of faith who want to incorporate their religious and spiritual beliefs into their treatment. Twelve-step addiction treatment programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) also sometimes take a faith-based approach to treatment.

Pastoral counseling is provided by religious clergy who have been psychologically trained to provide therapy services. These counselors integrate modern psychological practices with theological teaching to address problems that their clients are experiencing.

Is Religion Good or Bad for People?

There's no doubt that religion has a complex influence on the lives of individuals and societies. Religion can help bring people together, but it can also be a source of division and stress, particularly for those who face discrimination within religious communities, such as people who hold differing beliefs from the rest of the group.

Research has also found that people who struggle with their religious beliefs may experience lower well-being and higher levels of anxiety and depression. Specific religious beliefs can also play a part in the potential benefits or drawbacks. People who believe in a merciful God are more likely to forgive themselves and treat their mistakes with self-compassion. In contrast, those who believe in a punishing or judgemental God may experience worsened health effects.

Given the potential benefits linked to religious affiliation, some may wonder if it might be a bad thing not to be religious. While studies suggest that religion may have health benefits, you don't need to ascribe to a set of organized religious beliefs to reap these rewards. Taking steps to engage in healthy behaviors, form social connections with others, and strengthen your coping skills are steps you can take to obtain those benefits that religion often provides.

If you are concerned about religion's impact on your life, discussing your concerns with a mental health professional may be helpful. Research suggests that religion can play a positive and supportive role in people's lives in many ways. For some individuals who feel less supported or even excluded from religious practice, it is important to weigh the potential good with the potential harm.

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 and often experience better mental well-being. The tough question to answer 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 and feel better. 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.

Research also suggests that religion can sometimes become a barrier to mental health treatment. Religious attitudes toward mental health and treatment can play a role in whether people seek help when they are experiencing symptoms.

Some religious traditions instill the idea that problems are moral or spiritual failings rather than mental health issues.

According to this perspective, mental problems can be overcome simply through willpower or "heroic striving." Because of this, people from such backgrounds may simply be less likely to seek professional help and support when they are having mental health problems.

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