Religion refers to a set of beliefs, organizations, morals, and behaviors that are often based on the rules of a particular social-cultural system. It includes texts, worldviews, ethics, moral codes, and sanctified places. The purpose of religion is to unite people, provide a sense of meaning and direction, and strengthen spirituality. Religious communities are often supportive, but can also be oppressive. Large-scale acts of terrorism have given religion a bad name. However, studies show that religion can also be beneficial, including in terms of better physical health.
Many religions have profound texts. These texts have the potential to provide insights into God’s nature and provide spiritual guidance. Some have a strong commitment to the individual soul. Others rely on a supernatural being for moral and ethical guidance. Organizations, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, describe themselves as spiritual.
Religious participation involves rituals, ceremonies, and collective prayer. Often, members follow a religious code of conduct, including dress. In addition, the practice can be a means of self-expression and publicity. For example, a church member may be afraid to share his or her experience of an abusive husband with others. This fear can hinder a person’s ability to deal with a difficult situation. While many professionals and lay preachers live sordid lives behind closed doors, a community of believers can provide much needed support.
Despite the importance of religion in our culture, people are divided on whether it is a positive influence on their lives. A majority of adults in the United States, Ireland, Portugal, and Italy believe that religion gives them a sense of purpose. Across Europe, however, views are mixed. Europeans who identify as Christians tend to have positive views of religion, while those who don’t identify with the Christian faith have a more negative view.
Among adults who are neither religious nor spiritual, one third say they have “no faith” and are religiously disinclined. Many spiritually non-religious individuals have an inner sense of peace that they would not feel if they were tied to a religious institution. Generally, their view of Jesus is that he is loving and accepts them.
In contrast, fewer than half of respondents in the United States, Denmark, and Sweden consider themselves religious. Those who hold both positive and negative views of religion are more likely to engage in spiritual practices. Also, those with a college education are less likely to have a positive opinion of religion. On the other hand, those with less education are more likely to have a positive attitude.
Those who are neither religious nor spiritual are more likely to agree with the statements that religion causes harm and does not help them choose right from wrong. Conversely, fewer respondents disagree with the statements that religion provides them with a sense of purpose and helps them make moral decisions.
The differences in the way Western Europeans view religion are largely due to their differing cultural heritage. A majority of Europeans who are neither religious nor spiritual say that there are no spiritual forces in the universe. Similarly, most Europeans who are neither religious nor spiritual are less likely to say that they have a soul.