Religion is a huge category of beliefs and practices that cover a wide range of ideas and behaviors. Its wide semantic scope raises two philosophical issues that would likely arise for other abstract concepts used to sort cultural types (like literature, democracy, or even culture itself).
These issues are, 1) whether one should treat religion as a social genus or a social taxon, and 2) whether the concept of “religion” can be said to have an essence. Traditional monothetic approaches to the study of religion use the classical view that a concept has a single, defining property that all instances of that concept will share. More recently, scholars have favored a more polythetic approach. These take the position that the concept is like a prototype; all of the different beliefs and practices that people engage in may have various characteristics, but when enough of them are present, it makes sense to call them all religions.
The results of our surveys suggest that this polythetic approach is a valid way to understand the category of religions. There are clear links between the things that people say are important to their faith and their behavior in day-to-day life. For example, our research shows that religious Americans are more likely to be a part of a support network when they face a crisis, and the practice of religion is associated with higher levels of happiness and marital satisfaction.
But the benefits of religion go beyond these positive outcomes. For example, religious Americans are more likely to be involved in helping their neighbors, and they donate more of their time and money to charity than people who are not religious. In addition, our research shows that religion is associated with lower rates of depression and higher rates of psychological well-being.