Understanding the Concept of Religion
Religion is a broad umbrella term for a range of human activities and ideas that are centered around beliefs in a transcendent or supernatural being or presence. In addition to providing a framework for moral belief and behavior, many religions also offer a sense of community and connection to tradition. Some religions are also believed to have beneficial effects on health and well-being, though the precise mechanism for these effects is often unclear.
A number of social theorists have attempted to study and define religion. The most influential of these were Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, and Karl Marx, all of whom are considered founding figures in modern sociology. They took different approaches to studying religion, but all were concerned with the relationship between religion and society.
Most scholars have analyzed religion in one of two ways: either substantively or functionally. Substantive analyses seek to identify the beliefs or practices that qualify as religion, and then examine them in light of the cultural context in which they develop. This approach has been especially influential among anthropologists and sociologists. It operates on the classical view that any instance that meets the definition of a certain concept will share a specific property that places it accurately in that category.
Functionalists, on the other hand, consider the broader aspects of the concept. This approach is largely inspired by anthropologists like Clifford Geertz, who emphasized the way in which religious symbols are embedded within cultural matrixes. While these scholars do not impose a nonrealist conclusion, they are careful to note that any particular development may not be called religion unless it has a core of fundamental belief and behavior that is common across cultures.
Some people consider themselves religious even when they do not hold any beliefs in a god or other supernatural beings. This is because the concept of religion includes not only belief in disembodied spirits and cosmological orders but also many other types of beliefs that are not traditionally associated with religion. This type of understanding of the concept of religion has helped scholars like Robert Smith and Chandra Asad critique its assumptions without arguing for a nonrealist conclusion.
Regular religious practice benefits the individual as well as society. It encourages the formation of personal moral criteria and sound judgment, and promotes such virtues as compassion, self-discipline, and humility. It also inoculates individuals against a host of social problems, including out-of-wedlock births, drug abuse, and crime, and helps to strengthen families. It also improves learning, economic well-being, self-control, and psychological health. Moreover, a positive assessment of religion on the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) is strongly associated with higher levels of mental health.
As a result, America is at a time when many Americans are becoming aware of the role that religion can play in preserving and strengthening society. This realization is reflected in the growing popularity of religion and a rise in public debate over issues such as religious freedom and the place of organized religion in society.