A Sense of Belonging
In our day and age it seems all to easy to lose a sense of belonging, to unravel the ties that bind, and to find oneself utterly different and alone.
Religion has traditionally been a powerful force for preserving a sense of community, counteracting the tensions that can easily pull people apart. The word itself is most likely derived from the Latin root religare, to "re-tie" or "re-connect." Most of us have had an experience of "collective effervescence," a powerful feeling of shared energy and identity among a group of people. When religious practitioners gather together for a ritual, they are often energized and motivated by this feeling, which they then carry beyond the ritual and into their daily lives. Because they feel bound to each other (and perhaps even to all of humanity), their shared feeling of community fuels their actions in the world at large. It follows that religion offers a sense of knowing one's place with regard to others (one's duties, obligations, and goals) on a broad and sometimes universal scale.
For many, religion tells human beings that they are never alone. The structure and communion of religious life provide a consistent sense of belonging. But doesn't that lead to uniformity and stricture? What about the hermit, the exile, the loner, or the rebel? What about the value of solitude, of being alone? Historically, religious institutions have indeed wielded the power to define people socially, to institute social distinctions, and ultimately to exclude outsiders and those who question and protest.
But even among those who find themselves in exile or retreat, we might suggest that religion still speaks. Even the individual in solitude has his or her own sense of belonging. Perhaps it is an interior life populated by a community of imagined figures (we might compare this to the experience artists sometimes describe). Perhaps one is in constant contact with an idea, maybe a moral or political one, like liberation or justice. Or perhaps the loner is constantly in communication with what he or she perceives to be divine.
In all cases, human beings need a sense of community, belonging, and connection, and we could say that this is a religious sense.