Why Are People Religious?
Humans ask questions. Since the earliest homo sapiens walked the earth, individuals have wondered where they came from, why they’re here, and what it all means. Religion, by and large, represents society’s attempts to answer those questions. While it isn’t always able to achieve that goal—many religious claims can be disproven by science—it often succeeds at providing followers with structure, a code of ethics, and a sense of purpose.
Religious beliefs reflect mankind's unique cognitive ability to detect agency and intention in others and, by extension, in the natural world. Early forms of religions were pantheistic, attributing to the natural world power that we would now deem supernatural. As social groups grew in complexity with the dawn of agriculture and non-migratory ways of life, religion kept pace, and continues to do so today. Its rituals and beliefs foster social cohesion and group identity, if often to the exclusion of others who do not share the same ideas.
The promise of an afterlife, a core tenet of most organized religions, is another key motivator of followers, as this belief serves an important psychological function.
Spiritual but Not Religious
The concept of a wisdom tradition allows for the possibility that most faiths share core spiritual beliefs and that those beliefs can be embraced by individuals without the trappings of organized religion. These beliefs may or may not map onto a higher being or higher power, and they are often inwardly-directed, calling for a focus on the "inner self" and on one's own spiritual development. As such, a wisdom tradition offers a framework for decision-making and meaning-making that is personalized and devoid of the doctrinal trappings of formal religion.
Across the globe, but particularly in Western cultures, organized religion’s influence is on the decline and atheism is rising. But many cognitive and evolutionary psychologists argue that humans' evolved need for spirituality and agency now finds its roots in the idea that one can be "spiritual but not religious."
Organized religion has inarguably been responsible for many wars, atrocities, and injustices throughout history; for this reason some people are more comfortable identifying with wisdom traditions that do not include the concept of the non-believer as an "out-group" member who must be converted or destroyed.
Are Religious People Healthier or Happier?
Spiritual beliefs can be beneficial for a person’s health, increasing their optimism and resilience while decreasing their risk of depression, substance abuse, suicide, and risky behaviors. Belief can bring together people who share the same values, giving them a sense of belonging and greater social support. In addition, many religious organizations support health-based initiatives, such as healthy eating, regular exercise, and stress reduction, that have a positive impact on their community.
Belief can give people comfort during hard times, including when they experience profound loss. It provides purpose and an anchor for morality, which acts as a deterrent to crime. Religious belief can be a boon to parents as well, as it can inspire children to be more generous: When compared to agnostic or atheist peers, religious youth are much more likely to be involved in community outreach such as volunteering, and overwhelmingly more likely to cite forgiveness as a value and behavior that they endorse.