Constitutionalizing Religion

Religion plays a vital role in the lives of most Americans. It provides people with structure, traditions, and support that help them deal with challenges in their personal and professional lives. It also helps them to connect with others, build self-control, and stabilize emotional variability. These benefits are important for individuals, families, states and the nation. The time is ripe for lawmakers to seek constitutionally appropriate ways to explore the impact of religious practice on society, and recognize its role.

Scholars who examine religion have tended to adopt either a monothetic or polythetic approach to the term. The former is based on the classical view that every instance of a concept will have one or more defining properties, while the latter takes into account the fact that a concept can have multiple functions and may serve different purposes in different cultures.

Substantive definitions of religion focus on the presence of beliefs in a particular kind of reality or on the adherence to an explicit metaphysics. These include the beliefs in disembodied spirits and cosmological orders which are common to most religions, but not all of them, as well as the beliefs in life after death and in supernatural beings that have been common among some religions in the past. They are contrasted with functional definitions of religion, which do not require belief in a unique kind of reality, such as Emile Durkheim’s 1912 definition of it as the social form of those practices that unite some groups of people into a moral community.

For many scholars, such as Clifford Geertz and Ninian Smart, religion is a rich and varied phenomenological landscape. It includes practices and rituals, emotions and experiences, symbolic acts and art, music, and literature, all of which express the proximate and ultimate goals of people’s lives in different ways. It includes a sense of community and shared responsibility, and it includes a range of aesthetics, from art and architecture to music and dance. It is also a source of moral values, and a framework for the exploration of the world that issued in the natural sciences.

In addition, it carries with it a sense of the future, with its acknowledged but largely unknown consequences for humans (for example, the existence of heaven and hell). These aspects are often intertwined, but there is often a tension between the proximate goals and the ultimate destiny.

Finally, religion carries with it the sense of transcendence, with its esoteric teachings about a higher power and the possibility of divine intervention in human affairs. This is a source of strength and comfort for many, but it can lead to anxiety in some. The notion that there is a greater plan for all of creation is a powerful motivator for human action, and can contribute to peace and prosperity. Nonetheless, it is easy for religions to lose sight of their real purpose, and for organized religion to become an end in itself. The healthy religious system must realize that it is a means to an end which goes beyond the organization itself, and toward which it is meant to point all beings: the goal of living a good life in a world with known and acknowledged limitations.

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