Religion is a set of beliefs, ideas and practices that give meaning to people’s lives and help them cope with life’s challenges. It also provides a framework for moral behavior. It has been the cause of many wars, but it can also provide compassion and social connection, and a sense of belonging. Despite the bad press that organized religion gets, research shows that people who regularly attend religious services have lower rates of depression, anxiety and substance abuse.
A number of theories about the origins of religion have been proposed. Some anthropologists (scientists who study human cultures and human origins) think that religion developed in response to a biological or cultural need. For example, it may have evolved as a way to deal with the fact that death is inevitable and that there might be a spiritual afterlife.
Other theorists, like Emile Durkheim (1858-1926), focused on religion’s function as a means to create solidarity. He argued that people need to believe in something larger than themselves to feel a sense of community. In addition, he said that people have to feel they are part of a group in order to cope with the stress and loneliness of modern living.
Whether or not this theory is valid, the functional perspective continues to be influential in sociological analysis of religion. Other theorists, such as Paul Tillich (1957), took a similar approach. He defined religion as whatever dominant concern organizes a person’s values, and whether or not those concerns involve belief in unusual realities.
These theorists viewed religion as a multifaceted complex, and many modern social scientists agree. They look for patterns and connections between different religions and try to understand why some religions are more successful than others.
One approach is to use a monothetic definition, which looks for the basic characteristics that all religions must have in common. This includes the belief in a supreme being, a sacred text or a prophet. It also includes a moral code that is considered universally true. Several religions fit this model, including Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Judaism.
A polythetic approach tries to capture more of the complexity of religion. It takes into account not only the belief in a supreme being, but also the many ways that religions act in their daily lives, including prayerfully, devotedly, generously, ecstatically, ritualistically, puritanically and superstitiously. It also recognizes that religion is a cultural phenomenon and has to do with people’s bodies, habits, physical culture and social structures.
It might seem avant garde to discuss a polythetic definition of religion, but this is how scholars have long classified religions. It is important to acknowledge the multiple dimensions of religion because it allows researchers to better understand how and why religion has such a strong impact on people’s lives. This knowledge can be used to improve public policy, psychotherapy and education. It can also reduce the stigma against religion and foster tolerance between different faiths. Totally secular approaches to these issues risk ignoring the deep-seated religious beliefs of two-thirds of the world’s population.