Religion is a collection of beliefs and values that form the core of an individual’s identity. It can be a source of comfort and community, but it can also create divisions amongst groups of people with different religious beliefs. Religion is a universal phenomenon, taking many forms throughout the world. Sociologists study religion to gain insight into the ways in which it impacts society and the lives of its followers.
The meaning of the word “religion” has been debated since ancient times. The etymologists are divided over whether the word is derived from relegere (to treat carefully), religios (belonging to God), or ritu (ritual). Whatever its origin, the meaning of the term has always included the notion of binding to God, and the various religious phenomena that have been grouped under this heading include moral conduct, worship, and participation in rituals.
In modern history, the concept of religion has undergone a number of radical shifts. The first move was the shift from substantive definitions to functional ones. Substantive definitions based on belief in an unusual reality were dropped in favor of more general and comprehensive ones involving values, actions, and the way one organizes their life. Emile Durkheim’s definition of religion is one example; it focuses on the social function of creating solidarity. Paul Tillich’s definition, which focuses on the axiological function of providing orientation for one’s life, is another.
A number of social and cultural philosophers have discussed the nature of religion. The German philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803), a proponent of Romanticism, was the first to explore mythology as a means of conveying spiritual truths. The nineteenth century saw the emergence of social criticism with the rise of the Marxist movement. Karl Marx (1818-1883) viewed religion as a result of class stratification and the oppressive conditions that the working class endures; he described it as the opium of the masses.
Rudolf Otto’s analysis of the essence of religion was centered on his view that it is experienced as an intuitive sense of the holy. He suggested that this experience was achieved through the opposites of death and liberty, freedom and slavery, and that the human mind is instinctively made aware of this transcendent reality through its experience of their counterparts on earth.
Several alternative approaches have developed to the question of what exactly constitutes religion. These have been called “hermeneutical” and “phenomenological.” A hermeneutical approach tries to determine the truth about religion by analyzing the text of its teachings or interpreting the experiences of its followers. This kind of interpretation is usually subjective and cannot be validated objectively. A phenomenological approach tries to understand the religious experience by describing the physical environment in which it takes place, and the ways that the participants’ bodies and habits contribute to this experience. A third approach is the sociological perspective, which views religion as a social phenomenon with significant consequences for both society and individuals. These consequences can be positive and negative.