Religion is a collection of beliefs and practices that provide a framework for life and answer fundamental questions about the origins of the universe, human existence, and our place in it. It also serves to promote social cohesion, provide moral guidance, and give meaning to life. Religion is found in every culture throughout history and continues to be a powerful force that influences the world both locally and globally.
Many sociologists have studied the phenomenon of religion, and the concept has evolved with each new approach. It is commonly viewed today as a taxon for sets of social practices, a term that refers to a genus rather than a single species or even an individual type. The so-called “world religions” of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism are the best known examples. But the concept of religion can apply to any social practice that is common to a region or a group of people.
Sociologists have traditionally employed a realist or functionalist definition of religion. For Durkheim, the term referred to any system of beliefs and rituals that provided social cohesion. For Cooley, religion was a microfunctional need in humans, a desire to make life seem reasonable and good. Other sociologists, such as Yinger and Luckmann, defined religion in terms of a process by which individuals transcended their biological natures. Still others, such as Geertz, emphasized the role of symbols that establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing those concepts with an aura of factuality.
A problem with the use of functionalist or realist definitions is that they tend to treat the concept of religion as universal, a feature common to all human cultures. While it is true that religion appears in every culture, scholars who employ open polythetic approaches to the study of religion may, for purposes of focus and clarity, decide to define religion as a specific set of beliefs and behaviors.
Critics of functionalist or realist theories point out that many religious practices and beliefs are harmful to people. For example, some religious groups discourage poor people from striving for wealth or other material possessions, because these will not bring them the ultimate reward that will come in heaven. Moreover, these critics contend that the power dynamics that underlie many religious institutions allow the religious leaders to maintain control over their followers by imposing their interpretations of sacred texts or their own claimed direct communication from the divine.
Trying to find an adequate definition of religion is a difficult task. It is important to recognize that the definitions of the different religions are based on their own specific historical contexts. An attempt to find a generic definition could lead quickly to a minimal notion of religion, a lowest common denominator that would not be useful to the field of sociology. Likewise, a tendency to view the various religions as species of a single genus could impose a Eurocentric bias on anthropological research.