Religion is a social institution that people use to make sense of their lives and the world around them. It can help them cope with a wide variety of situations, from death to conflict. It can also provide a sense of community and tradition.
In the late nineteenth century, three prominent social theorists studied the role of religion in society: Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, and Max Weber. Although they had different opinions about the relationship between religion and society, all believed that religion was an essential part of society.
For Marx, religion served to maintain inequality and perpetuate an unjust status quo; it was the “opium of the people” (1844). It also acted as a form of “social control” by influencing behavior.
This view has been criticized by many scholars, who argue that religion is more than just a belief system; it is a way of life. It is a cultural universal that is found across all societies and social groups.
The most basic definition of religion is that it is a set of beliefs, values, and practices concerning what people consider to be spiritually significant or sacred. Examples of religions include Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, and Shinto.
Some of these beliefs are highly personal and unique to a person’s culture or religious affiliation. Others are more general and common in all cultures.
Most religions are based on belief in a supreme deity or god, though some worship other things as well. Other religious traditions are centered on the worship of celestial bodies or forces in nature.
During the 20th century, the study of religion moved from being primarily concerned with ecclesiastical history to a more sociological perspective. This perspective focuses on how people use religion to make sense of their lives, the functions it serves for them, and how they can create social change through their religion.
Sociological perspectives on religion aim to understand how religion helps people find meaning and purpose in their lives, reinforces social unity and stability, helps promote psychological and physical health, and may encourage people to work for positive social change (Emerson, Monahan, & Mirola, 2011). It is important to note that there are several perspectives on religion, each with its own unique ways of looking at the subject.
One signpost within anthropology, crafted by American anthropologist Clifford Geertz (1926-2006), presents a more complex and holistic approach to making sense of religion. He says that a religion is a system of symbols that establishes powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in people. He calls this a “symbolic interactionist” approach.
Another signpost in anthropology, crafted by German anthropologist Max Werth (1904-1987), presents a more functional approach to making sense of religion. He says, “A religion is a system of symbols that acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting feelings and emotions in people by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that they seem uniquely realistic.”
The social science field of religious studies has been characterized as a multidisciplinary and cross-disciplinary field. It has included researchers from a variety of fields, including psychology, anthropology, sociology, and philosophy.