Religion gives meaning and purpose to life, provides a sense of identity and community, reinforces social unity and stability, promotes psychological and physical well-being and may motivate people to work for positive social change. It is also a powerful force in promoting peace and justice. Unfortunately, religion has also been used to justify hatred, intolerance and oppression, as well as to undermine human rights. The study of religion is therefore a vital and urgent endeavor.
Sociologists use a variety of tools to examine the role religion plays in the lives of individuals and in the culture as a whole. One important tool is a survey. This method involves asking questions about religious beliefs and practices, such as what one believes, how often one attends church services or worships, and whether one prays or meditates. Survey results can be used to compare different cultures and religions, or as a source of data to explain trends in society.
A recurring problem in the study of religion is how to define it. Many scholars have used functional definitions, which distinguish religion from other aspects of society by evaluating how the concepts of God and the supernatural are incorporated into the daily lives of individuals. Others have tried to define religion by identifying its various characteristics or attributes, such as belief in God or the afterlife. Such monothetic definitions are susceptible to the same problems as functional ones, however, since they fasten on a single attribute and can miss other, equally important ones.
The alternative to these two approaches is to take a polythetic approach. This means recognizing that the concept of religion is an evolving, multifaceted complex rather than a static entity that has an ahistorical essence. It also recognizes that different social categories share some properties or are reminiscent of each other, as reflected in the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s notion of family resemblance.
A polythetic approach can help avoid the dangers of functionalist and substantive definitions by acknowledging that social phenomena are shaped by the very process of studying them. As a result, some sociologists have moved away from studying religion as a set of mental states and towards examining its institutional structures and disciplinary practices. This is a shift that some scholars see as reflecting a Protestant bias in the study of religion.
Other sociologists have used symbolic interaction theory to examine the way in which religion is shaped by its members, and by their interactions with each other. This approach emphasizes the importance of ceremonies and rituals, which can be intense experiences for participants. These can involve crying, laughing, screaming, trancelike conditions, a feeling of oneness with others and even death. These are some of the key aspects that are common to all religions, although they may be presented in different ways. For example, every religion has some form of funeral rites, although the details differ between cultures and within religious affiliations. However, some elements are common to all ceremonies, such as the announcement of a death, the care of the dead body and its disposition, and the ceremonial aspect.