Religion is a word that has been used to describe a wide variety of practices and beliefs. Some of these have been referred to as world religions, while others are more local. In addition, there are a number of different approaches to what constitutes religion that have been developed by sociologists and other scholars. These have ranged from functional definitions to social constructivist approaches. The definition of religion that is chosen by a researcher will have profound implications for the kind of data gathered and how it is interpreted.
In the past, most attempts to define religion were “monothetic” in that they operated on the classical theory of concepts in which every instance that accurately falls under a particular concept will share one or more defining properties. For example, Emile Durkheim defined religion as whatever system of practices unite people into a moral community (whether or not they involve belief in any unusual realities).
More recently, there has been an increasing emphasis on the idea that what is considered religious is a socially constructed phenomenon. This is sometimes referred to as the “constructionist turn” in social analysis. This movement has challenged the prevailing assumptions that underlie much of modern social science and humanities research and has led to new ways of viewing historical events.
Whether or not the constructionist approach is valid, it has had significant consequences for how researchers define and study religion. One of the most fundamental issues is that of what it means to be religious. This is a very complex issue that has to do with the way a person thinks about the universe and the place of humans within it, as well as their feelings about God or other supernatural entities. The fact that the notion of what is religion can be construed so differently by different individuals, however, suggests that it is not possible to develop a single definition of the concept.
A more productive approach has been to focus on the functions that religion serves in society. These include generating solidarity, providing meaning and purpose to life, reinforcing and stabilizing social structure, promoting physical and psychological well-being, motivating social change, and providing a code of conduct for living. It is these functions that are the concern of sociologists studying religion.
While there is a great deal of overlap between the views of religion held by various social sciences, each discipline has contributed its own unique perspective to the field. The following is a brief survey of the major sociological perspectives on religion:
This view stresses the role that religion plays in promoting social inequality and engendering social conflict. It also maintains that there is a link between the nature of religion and the ways in which it can be violently enforced. This view is based on the work of Emile Durkheim.