The Concept of Religion
Religion is an all-embracing term for peoples’ beliefs about the world and their relationship to that which they hold sacred, absolute, spiritual, divine, or worthy of especial reverence. It is a category-concept with paradigmatic examples like Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Confucianism, and Daoism. However, it also includes religions of less dramatic proportions and lesser visibility, such as a person’s belief about the nature of his or her own life, or his or her attitude toward an afterlife.
The concept of religion is central to the study of social organization and to the history of human civilizations. Religions differ from one another in their ideas, practices, and rituals. Religions are also different from one another in their effects on the lives of those who practice them. In the field of sociology, the study of religion focuses on these effects and on how different religious traditions are able to endure over time.
Most definitions of religion focus on the belief in a supernatural being or entities. A few have a more functional approach, focusing on the role that religion plays in a person’s life. For example, Emile Durkheim defined religion as “whatever system of practices unites a group of individuals into a moral community (whether or not those practices involve belief in unusual realities).” A more modern version of this idea is the one offered by Paul Tillich, who defines religion as whatever dominant concerns serve to organize a person’s values.
The term “religion” has become a commonplace in contemporary language, and most of the time it is used to refer to those particular traditions that are regarded as having a profound influence on peoples’ lives. The most prominent religions are the so-called world religions of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism. However, there are other traditions that have a great influence on the lives of their adherents as well, such as Confucianism and Buddhism.
A number of important social theorists have studied the impact of religion on society. One of the most influential was Karl Marx (1818–1883), who believed that religion reflected and perpetuated working-class economic suffering. He famously argued that “religion is the opium of the people.”
Emile Durkheim, another leading social theorist, focused on the effect that organized religion had on its followers. He believed that religion provided differing degrees of “social cement” for societies and cultures. It was this idea that led to the development of the sociology of religions as an independent discipline.
Some scholars argue that to understand religion in terms of beliefs reflects a Protestant bias, and that it is more accurate to view it as a complex set of societal structures. Others have argued that this is not a very fruitful approach, since it is difficult to isolate the influence of social structures on a person’s beliefs and attitudes. However, there is a significant amount of research in the field of sociology of religion that has explored the relationship between structure and agency. This approach to understanding religion has yielded some interesting insights.