The Nature of Religion

Religion is a set of beliefs and values, as well as practices, that a person holds sacred or considers spiritually significant. It embodies an individual’s relationship with a transcendent being and often includes a sense of obligation, morality, ritual, and prayer. It is also a social force that can help bind communities together or cause them to break apart. It is so central to the lives of most people that it should be a subject of study and debate by academics, politicians, and citizens alike. Totally secular approaches to such issues as public policy, psychotherapy, and education tend to ignore the religious dimension of these problems.

A definition of religion that merely provides a lexical meaning is inadequate for most purposes, as it fails to provide a framework for the study of forms of life across cultures and time. Several of the most influential thinkers in history, such as Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, and Max Weber, attempted to examine religion as a phenomenon of society. Their work provided a general framework for a genuinely historical typology of religions.

In their early work these theorists emphasized the power of religion to shape and mold societies. However, as they developed their ideas, their perspectives shifted. Marx, for example, believed that religion reflects the social stratification of society and maintains inequality by perpetuating an unjust status quo. He famously argued that religion “is the opium of the people.”

Durkheim, on the other hand, saw religion as a primarily social force that creates community through shared beliefs and practices. He felt that a belief in a divine plan or destiny provides an individual with the motivation and means to live life well, a purpose that helps individuals overcome a sense of helplessness.

For Weber, who was influenced by Hegel’s idealism, the goal of religion is to develop a personal relationship with an absolute spirit that possesses the qualities of good and beauty and whose presence inspires confidence. This faith in a transcendent Absolute is the basis of all religions.

The varying perspectives on the nature of religions have resulted in the development of several approaches to studying them. These approaches range from monothetic (viewing a concept as having a single defining property) to polythetic, which uses the concept of family resemblance to sort cultural types. This approach is useful because it recognizes that the concepts we use to study religion will always be shaped by the historical materials with which they interact, and that these will not necessarily remain constant over time. The study of religions has thus been a continuous process of revision since its inception in the 19th century.