Religious beliefs, behaviors, and practices serve several important functions for individuals, families, societies, and nations. They comfort, guide, and give meaning to life; strengthen marriages, families, and communities; provide a moral framework for living; and help people to understand themselves, their relationships with other humans and other creatures, and their place in the universe. The practice of religion also reduces the occurrence of social pathologies such as suicide, out-of-wedlock births, drug abuse and delinquency, anxiety disorders, health problems, prejudices, and war.
One of the most difficult issues in studying religion is how to define it. Historically, most definitions have been “monothetic,” holding that a given social category has an essential property that distinguishes it from other categories. However, over the last few decades, “polythetic” approaches have become increasingly popular, avoiding the assumption that any evolving social category has an ahistorical essence.
Polythetic definitions recognize that the term “religion” has different meanings for different people and cultures, and that a religion can change over time. Thus, the term is better understood as a taxon for sets of social practices than as a prototypical structure or a set of beliefs about God. In today’s world, the concept of religion is often used for a taxon of beliefs, as well as for belief systems and a wide variety of specific religious behaviors. For example, many studies find that people who attend religious services on a regular basis are happier and healthier than those who do not.