In a culture as diverse as America’s, there is no shortage of opinions about religion. In general, however, people agree that it includes a belief in something or someone sacred, a code of conduct, and rituals. It also involves beliefs and ideas about spiritual concepts or the supernatural. Religion is one of the most influential and pervasive aspects of human life. It is also a major source of controversy and conflict. Despite the doubts of some psychologists, such as Sigmund Freud, and the disbelief of countless others, it still holds a powerful grip on most people.
Even though the exact definition of religion is a matter of dispute, all agree that it is important to understand its impact on society and individuals. Some social scientists are working on ways to measure and describe religion more accurately. Others are examining the effects of religion on physical and emotional well-being. For example, religious practice can reduce stress and promote mental health by helping people feel a sense of community. It can also decrease a person’s levels of depression and anxiety by providing structure and traditions to follow. Other studies show that practicing a religion can help people cope with difficult situations by giving them the idea that they are not alone and that there is a force greater than themselves.
Historically, the concept of religion has been defined as a group of social practices that share certain characteristics and therefore belong together. The most familiar examples are the so-called world religions, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. These are often considered to be the “true” religions, but in fact there are many more. Other social formations may be labeled religions as well, including ancient forms of religion such as Confucianism, and new ones that develop in modern societies such as neopagan groups and cults.
A more recent and popular approach to defining religion is the functional definition, based on what it does for individuals in a society. The first major sociologist to take this view was Emile Durkheim. He believed that religion was essential for society because it created cohesive bonds, encouraged consistency of behavior, and provided strength for people in the face of life’s challenges and tragedies. The societal role of religion is also the basis for Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion and sex.
The functional approach to defining religion can be problematic, especially for those who want to critique it. De Muckadell criticizes stipulative definitions for this reason, asserting that they are uncritical and allow scholars to accept whatever they are told is religion. She also points out that the use of stipulative definitions forces scholars to make subjective choices about what counts as religion, such as using a definition that includes such activities as ice-skating while singing.
Polythetic approaches to defining religion have become more common in recent decades, as people attempt to avoid the assumption that a social category always has an ahistorical essence. The idea is that instead of fastening on a single property to identify a religion, researchers should look at all the properties that are shared by all religions.