Religion is a complex of beliefs, values and practices that people hold as essential to their lives. It is often a source of strength during challenging times, direction when they feel lost, and comfort when they need love and support. It is also a major source of social service work in the world, including helping those in need and providing shelter for the homeless. In addition, recent research suggests that religious participation is good for mental health.
Many scholars have tried to understand the nature of religion by looking at its societal impact. Emile Durkheim, who is considered one of the first sociologist to study religion, argued that the concept could be defined functionally: Religion is that which binds people together (social cohesion), promotes behaviour consistency (social control) and offers support for people during life’s transitions and tragedies (meaning and purpose).
More recently, scholars have turned to reflexive analysis, where they have pulled back on the camera lens and examined how the term ‘religion’ has been constructed. This has led to a rise in ‘polythetic’ definitions of religion, which do not accept the claim that an evolving social category has an ahistorical essence.
While polythetic approaches have their place, they are not without their problems. They may overstate the case that a single property is key to the identification of a religion. This can lead to the over-simplification of an explanation of how a religion works, while also underplaying the extent to which any given set of beliefs and practices are genuinely’religious’.
Furthermore, they tend to overlook the fact that the practice of religion is not always a voluntary act. In some cases, it is a force that is imposed on people by external forces, such as by a state or a corporation. It is important to recognise that religion has a role in human society, whether or not we think it is necessary or valuable.
There is a growing recognition that, while it is important to consider the benefits of religion and its impact on society, we should also be aware of its drawbacks, such as its potential for contributing to harmful effects on the environment, and the way in which it is used as an instrument of oppression.
It is a complex task to make sense of the word religion, but there are reasons to believe that it can be understood as an abstract social taxon, just like other concepts such as literature, democracy and culture itself. This will be a more useful approach than treating it as a ‘prototype’, as is the current trend. A version of this article was originally published on LiveScience and is reproduced here with permission.