What Is Religion and Why Do People Believe in It?

Religion encompasses a broad spectrum of beliefs and practices that people hold sacred. People use their religion to guide their lives and help them make sense of the world around them. Religious belief and behavior can be practiced in many ways—scrupulously, generously, ecstatically, and prayerfully.

In addition to helping people understand the universe, religions also play a major role in promoting human well-being. Scientific research shows that regular participation in religion can lead to greater happiness, health and longevity. Despite this, many intellectuals have taken it upon themselves to criticize the persistence of religion, dismissing it as superstition and irrationality. In recent years, these critics have published popular books with titles such as Why I Am Not A Christian and The God Delusion.

Psychologists have proposed various theories as to why people believe in religion. In particular, they have suggested that some of the reasons for believing in religion are inherited from parents and culture. Others are based on the human need to belong and be part of a group. This need may be reinforced by the fact that many religions provide a community of like-minded worshippers.

Finally, some researchers have argued that religion is a side effect of certain subconscious intuitive mental faculties that normally apply to physics (enabling us to predict the arc a football will take when it is kicked) and social networking (helping us keep track of other people’s identity, history and loyalty). These mechanisms serve to link—without explaining—one event with another or to attribute unexplained events to supernatural causes.