The Importance of Religion

Religions are systems for the monitoring, coding, protecting and transmitting of information that has proved to be of the highest possible value, whether it is a means to attain proximate goals (a wiser, more fruitful, more charitable, more successful way of living) or ultimate ones (the end of this life and the process of rebirth). This information embodies values which may vary from person to person and from culture to culture. It may be expressed in a variety of ways, such as ritual, art, or silences; as a mythic or historical account; as ideas; and as a system of values and behaviors.

Religion enables people to deal with (or to accept) the many limitations that stand across the project of their lives. For some, these limitations are a matter of time and space: the limits of this life, the time when this life will be over; or the time limit of this universe. For others, these are a matter of the mind: the limits of this self in relation to the universe, or the self in relation to God.

Regardless of these limits, religions help people to navigate them, and they offer maps which enable them to see the various boundaries that lie ahead of them. These maps can also help them to recognize the many kinds of limitation that they face, and to choose how to deal with them.

Some critics have gone farther, and claimed that the concept of religion is a cultural construct. They argue that the modern semantic expansion of the term went hand in hand with European colonialism, and that we should cease treating it as if it refers to something that exists outside of our current sphere of influence.

But the fact is that most people, when asked about their religious affiliations, will answer that they belong to a particular faith. And these faiths provide concrete teachings about how to treat other humans, how to live with the well-being of other people at the forefront of one’s decisions; they offer ways to participate in things like charity organizations.

It is hard to overstate the importance of these kinds of contributions. In a world in which there is a great deal of conflict, where human relationships are often strained and sometimes violent, these religions give people common ground on which to build. They provide an understanding of the world, the purpose of one’s own existence, and what is required to achieve the goal of happiness.

Moreover, they make it easy for people to share and communicate these ideas, even when their own beliefs differ from those of the rest of the population. They are, in short, a vital part of the human experience.