Religious participation may reduce stress and improve mood and coping skills. Research shows that practicing religion also helps people build social connections, strengthen family bonds and cope with life’s challenges. However, researchers have found that these benefits do not depend on whether or not a person adheres to specific religious beliefs. Those who are not religious can still reap these rewards by forming other kinds of relationships, such as friendships, and working toward goals that bring them pleasure and meaning, rather than through adherence to particular religious teachings.
Scholars have argued about the best way to define religion. Many take a “monothetic” approach, seeking to identify the essential properties that determine if something is a religion. Others, such as anthropologists Clifford Geertz and Emile Durkheim, use a functional definition that considers the distinctive roles that certain forms of life play in a society regardless of whether or not they involve belief in unusual realities.
Recently, there has been a move toward what is called “polythetic” approaches. These seek to avoid the claim that an evolving social category has an ahistorical essence by identifying multiple properties that are common or even “typical” of religions, but do not necessarily constitute the religions themselves. Like monothetic definitions, polythetic approaches have their critics, who argue that they tend to ignore important characteristics of religion and are invariably ethnocentric. Nonetheless, these definitions reflect the fact that a religion does not exist in nature as an objectively real object, but is instead a construct invented by humans.