The Four Dimensions of Religion

Religious belief and practice are central to the lives of most people on this planet. Religion is good for individuals, families, states and countries. It improves health, learning, economic well-being, self-control, self-esteem and empathy. It reduces out-of-wedlock births, drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness, crime, anxiety and prejudice. It also bolsters social cohesion and stability, helps to build strong marriages, and promotes morality and civic participation.

The most widely accepted definition of Religion focuses on spiritual beliefs and values that are held sacred or meaningful. This view, however, is too narrow and leaves out the vast majority of religions that do not involve God or supernatural beings and dimensions. A better approach focuses on the functional roles that Religion plays in society. Emile Durkheim, for example, emphasized that religion produces and reinforces social solidarity. Other sociologists, such as Paul Tillich, focused on the axiological function of providing orientation for life.

It may seem avant garde to think of religion as a complex rather than as a monothetic set of beliefs, but the concept of religion as a social kind is not a recent Western project. In fact, it is likely that social kinds do not wait for language to develop, and that this notion of Religion has been a long time coming. This article argues that it is important to add a fourth dimension – community – to the three classic models of the true, beautiful and the good in order to recognize the essential contributions that religion makes to communities.

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