Religion serves several functions for society, including giving meaning and purpose to life, reinforcing social unity and stability, serving as an agent of social control, promoting psychological and physical well-being, and motivating people to work for positive social change.
Research has linked regular religious practice to reduced rates of out-of-wedlock births, crime, delinquency, drug and alcohol addiction, health problems, anxieties, and prejudice. Faith-based outreach programs have been particularly effective in reducing such social pathologies, especially those involving youth and adolescents.
There are two major sociological perspectives on religion: conflict theory and symbolic interactionist theory. Each views religion as having various benefits, but also as contributing to inequality and social conflict (Emerson, Monahan, & Mirola, 2011).
For example, in conflict theory, religion can help reinforce social inequality by making people happy with their existing conditions. This can lead to a tendency to cling to the status quo, which leads to further social conflict and social disadvantage.
In contrast, in symbolic interactionist theory, religion can help reinforce social stability by bringing people together for rituals and ceremonies. These rituals can involve a wide variety of emotional and psychological states, such as crying, laughing, screaming, trancelike conditions, and feelings of oneness with others.
For most of us, religious practices are beneficial. Research has found that a person’s level of God-oriented or intrinsic practice, which is based on beliefs that transcend the individual’s own existence, is associated with high levels of self-control, self-esteem, and empathy. On the other hand, an extrinsic form of practice, which is oriented toward other ends such as status, personal security, or self justification, is less likely to be beneficial.