Religion is a category that is both highly controversial and yet central to the lives of two-thirds of the world’s people. It is difficult to define, and its nature remains a subject of intense debate. Nonetheless, the research on this topic shows that it is one of the most powerful and enduring human phenomena in history. People need it to give meaning and value to their lives and to orient themselves in the world. They are willing to live by and even die for what they believe in. It provides for them a basis on which to establish a moral order and to answer many of life’s most profound questions.
The concept of religion has historically been defined in various ways. Some definitions focus on beliefs, others on social functions, and still others on psychological states. For example, Durkheim focused on the role of religious solidarity in society and used this as a basis for his functionalist definition. Others have used the idea of a transcendental realm as a basis for defining religion, as did Hegel and a host of later thinkers. Others have argued that it is best to approach the study of religion by searching for understandings within particular social worlds, an argument that finds expression in the methodology of ethnographic and participant observation.
While most people disagree about what religion is, there is consensus on what it does and the role that it plays in the lives of people. There is also agreement that it affects both the personal and the public sphere. Moreover, there is considerable evidence that the health benefits of religion outweigh the negative aspects of its practice. For these reasons, the importance of understanding religion should be recognized by governments, business and industry, psychotherapy, and education.
In addition, there is a growing recognition that the secularization of American life has had serious consequences for public policy and societal cohesion. For example, the stress of everyday life can become far more pronounced when it is accompanied by feelings of isolation and alienation from other people. Research shows that when people feel socially connected, they are healthier and happier than those who do not. Religious believers tend to report more social support and have higher levels of psychological well-being than non-believers.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to understanding religion. It is important to be aware of the complexities and subtleties of the phenomenon in order to analyze it properly. The best way to do this is to examine the field of religious studies and learn about the diverse approaches that scholars have taken. Fortunately, the discipline of religious studies is so broad that there are several different methods of analysis and no single method is right or wrong. Nonetheless, some criteria are necessary to distinguish different types of religious phenomena. These include stipulative definitions of the term, such as those of William James, who said that religion is whatever concerns a person’s values and leads him or her to act solemnly and reverently (1902:39). Other criteria are used by academics to classify religious phenomena. These include polytheism, henotheism and monotheism, as well as the tenets of the major world religions.