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Does Religion Act in Any Psychologically Special Ways?

Just how special is religion?

Key points

  • Many lay people feel religion is unique and special.
  • Scholars are divided. Some feel religion is special, and others feel it is mundane.
  • In a new study, researchers consider religion's specialness in terms of definitions and effects.

If I asked you where your most important values come from or what answers the most important questions about life, the universe, and everything, would you say religion?

Most Americans–and most people around the world—are deeply religious. They believe in gods or other supernatural agents, try to live according to their religious beliefs, belong to religious communities, and even their diets are affected by their religions. Many people think religion is special and does things that nothing else can do.

Divided Scholarly Perspectives

Scholars who study religion are divided on this question. Many psychologists of religion say that only religion can answer ultimate questions, tell you what happens after you die, or imbue your life with sacredness and connection to the divine.

Other scholars, however, think religion is not so special. They say that many other areas of life can be just as important to people or comfort us in the face of mortality. And even as people stand ready to die for their religions, people also lay down their lives for their country or family.

People might feel religion makes them act morally because they feel like they are being watched and judged all the time–but thinking about the police or government can often have similar effects on morality as religion.

And many scholars who study religion–myself included–have tried to stay out of this debate. I’ve argued religions are kinds of cultures with beliefs and values, and practices. Still, I’ve tried not to take a position on whether religions are just another kind of culture or are very special kinds of cultures. However, I have discussed how religion has profound effects on morality and other psychological domains.

Is Religion Special?

I, along with an international team of scholars, have a forthcoming paper in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science, finally trying to bring some clarity to the question of religion’s specialness. With Kristin Laurin (University of British Columbia), Jordan Moon (Arizona State University), and David MacKinnon (Arizona State University), we considered whether religion itself is special and whether it acts via mechanisms that other things do not. (preprint here)

When it comes to whether religion is special, we highlight the importance of clear definitions. If you have an overbroad definition, like if you call religion “whatever a person believes in,” it is hard to know whether religion is special. Or, if you build specialness into the definition, religion is then by definition special–like if you say “religion is whatever is more important to someone than anything else.” We argue that using other vague terms to define religion, like sacred or transcendent, is not helpful unless we can define those terms in specific ways.

What about religion’s effects? Religion affects people’s morals, health, and feelings about death. But does it do so in unique ways or in ways that other domains of life also do? For example, religion does seem to help people be healthier and live longer–but so does physical exercise.

Religion makes people believe in some morals and not others–but so do people’s ethnic or racial cultures or political beliefs. And religions do have things to say about what happens after we die–though religion seems to have less effect on people’s death anxiety than you might predict.

We don’t know if religion is special, but it is important.

Our team did not come to any firm conclusions. These are very complicated questions indeed about religion’s specialness. We recommend thinking carefully about providing clear definitions in research on religion and comparing the effects of religion to other similar things before coming to conclusions.

At the end of our article, we highlight something very important–that religion does not need to be psychologically special to be important. Religion is undoubtedly important to people and the field of psychology, whether or not it has special features or special effects. Many people consider their religious beliefs, identities, and communities to be singularly important to them, and we owe them the respect of taking these feelings seriously.


Moon, J. W., Cohen, A. B., Laurin, K., & MacKinnon, D. P. (In press). Is religion special? Perspectives on Psychological Science.

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