Religion is a societal term that refers to a set of beliefs and practices that ideally gives meaning and purpose to life, reinforces social unity and stability, promotes behavior consistency, and provides strength during life’s transitions and tragedies. It also serves as an agent of social control, promotes psychological and physical well-being, and may motivate people to work for positive social change.
Religious traditions differ widely from one another in their definition of the divine, in the number of mystical and metaphysical components they include, in their interpretation of the nature of the spiritual world, in their use of language, and in the way they structure their worship services and rituals. However, they share a common aim: to give meaning and purpose to human lives by connecting humans with the divine through prayer, rituals, and worship.
The study of religion is an ongoing multidisciplinary conversation that cuts across a variety of fields, including anthropology, history, philosophy, psychology, and religious studies. It is therefore essential to take a balanced, multidisciplinary approach to the subject.
A general definition of religion can be distilled from these widely varied experiences as “a system connected to spiritual and/or supernatural components that uniquely impacts the adherent’s worldview, behavior, belief, culture, morality, and approach to certain writings, persons, or places.” This is not a narrow view but one that captures a large range of beliefs and practices.
Symbolic interactionists believe that religion reflects the values, goals, and priorities of society as a whole. They emphasize that religion is a conservative form of conserving and reinforcing existing values and attitudes, but that it may be able to accommodate and preserve new ones as well.
Many scholars have analyzed religion from the perspective of social psychology, and this is a useful approach because it is often easier to understand people’s views and behaviors through a sociological lens. Durkheim, for example, regarded religion as a source of societal unity and cohesion, and he believed that social values are essential to promoting these cohesive bonds.
In this regard, religion is a more sophisticated form of valuing than nearly anything else. Those who adopt it do so for the same reason that most people value science or art–it gives them a framework for understanding their own lives and for making sense of the world around them.
Sociologists who study religion from this perspective consider it to be a social genus that is inevitably present in all cultures, and they believe that the function of religion is to unite people as a unit and to give them a sense of identity. The sociologists who have most influenced the development of this perspective, however, have been those who have defined religion as an idealized form of valuing–an essential element of human existence that binds and unifies, provides direction and stability, and offers strength during life’s transitions and tragedies.
There is a growing body of research that supports this approach to the study of religion. These efforts have been conducted by a number of different scholars, from anthropologists to cognitive scientists. Among the most important of these contributions are those by Durkheim, who argued that the collective mind-set of a society is a crucial source of religious and moral convictions and that these beliefs and practices help to establish cohesive social bonds.