The Concept of Religion and Mental Wellness

Religions provide maps for navigating the many limitations which stand across the project of human life. These may be in the form of morality, which sets rules for acceptable behaviour, and which often organizes hierarchies; in time, which imposes either a cyclical or linear view of life (with or without rebirths); in space, which creates a sense of sanctuaries and pilgrimage; in history, which enables people to relive the past and deal with its consequences; or in future, which enables people to anticipate and plan.

They also give access to different methods of coping with stress, which have distinctive benefits. It is therefore not surprising that many studies report that religiosity improves mental wellness, although the reasons are complex.

For many people, religious beliefs and practices are central to their identity, which can provide meaning, purpose and a framework for living in a challenging world. This is true even for those who are not formally part of a religious community, but who may feel a connection to the divine and engage in spiritual practice.

However, the fact that there is so much variety within and across religious phenomena means that many attempts at defining religion have been unsuccessful. Many definitions – for example, the one offered by Durkheim – are too narrow, too superficial or fail to appreciate the complexity of the phenomenon.

In an attempt to address this problem, some scholars have begun to take a ‘multifaceted’ approach. They propose that religion is a complex, which can be described in terms of its ‘cultus’ and its ‘doctrinus’. The cultus involves ritual, which is expressive of a valuation; the doctrinus comprises ideation, which enables a comprehensive inclusion of this valuation.

It is important to note that the emergence of this multifaceted approach does not undermine the enduring validity of the concept religion, which remains the best available tool for sorting out the various kinds of cultural phenomenon. But it does mean that there is a need to be judicious in how this term is applied, so that the notion of religion does not become an ideological weapon of anti-modernist criticism.

Some critics have gone further and asserted that the notion of religion names nothing at all, or that its semantic expansion went hand in hand with European colonialism. This is a dangerous position, for it denies that social concepts have an essential nature and forbids the use of the concept to distinguish between different cultural kinds. A more appropriate strategy is to recognise that there are always material components of any social kind, whether it is a belief system or an ethnic group. These aspects – the habits, physical culture and social structures of its members – should be added to the classical three-sided model of the true, the beautiful and the good. This would result in a four-sided model, which is the approach taken by Ninian Smart and others. This is an alternative to a monothetic approach that treats the concept of religion as a family-resemblance concept.