Religion is a complex, intertwined set of beliefs and practices that people use to structure their lives. It can be a source of hope, strength, and identity. It can also be a source of conflict, violence, and division. Religion is a central part of every culture. It affects all aspects of a society, from political life to personal relationships. Many sociologists study religion to understand how it influences a society.
The concept of religion is very broad and contested. It has been used to describe a variety of different beliefs and practices, from animism and the belief in spirits, to organized Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism, to new religious movements and agnosticism. The range of what people think falls under the term religion makes it difficult to analyze and compare different cultures. Attempts to do so have often run into problems.
One way of sorting out which practices belong to a particular religion is to look for common elements. This approach is sometimes called a polythetic definition of religion because it uses a large number of characteristics to define the concept. This is similar to the way in which a computer program might use 200 or more characteristics to classify a bacterial strain.
For example, all cultures have funeral rites. The exact form that these take varies among cultures, but there are certain universal elements in every ceremony such as the announcement of death, care of the body, burial or cremation, and ceremonies or rituals. Emile Durkheim, a famous sociological theorist, focused on these functional elements when he studied religion. Another approach to the social role of religion was taken by Paul Tillich, who defined it as whatever dominates a person’s values and organizes them in a coherent system (irrespective of whether this involves beliefs in supernatural realities).
The functionalism of some modern scholars has led to an emphasis on the importance of structures, such as institutions, rather than ideas or feelings. This is seen as a response to the structural/agency debate that has long plagued the social sciences and, in particular, the study of religion.
Some social scientists criticize this view, arguing that it ignores the spiritual dimension of religion and the important role it plays in the shaping of human lives. They argue that the idea of religion as an institution is a Protestant bias and that it obscures the ways in which religion is a source of societal conflict.
Others believe that the very notion of religion is flawed because it focuses on mental states that are private and unobservable. These arguments suggest that the concept of religion is a social construct that may be useful for some purposes but that it should not be used to study actual human behaviors and experience. Sociobiologists, on the other hand, argue that religions are early and successful protective systems that have been tied to the potentialities of the brain and body and to the need for survival.