Religion is an organized set of beliefs, values, and practices that a group of people practice. It may include rituals, worship, moral conduct, and the belief in supernatural beings. It can also include devotional activities such as meditation, prayer, or contemplation. It often enjoins its followers to perform religious service, and to participate in the organization of its institutions. Historically, the term religion has referred to a specific faith or denomination; today it is more commonly used as a broad classification of belief systems and institutions that are based on supernatural beliefs and teachings.
Sociologists use the concept of religion to describe and analyze human cultures. They are interested in the role religion plays in the lives of individuals and groups, and the impact it has on societies. Sociologists study religion using social science methods, which are primarily empirical in nature. This includes observing and interviewing members of a culture, studying its written texts, and conducting surveys of cultural behavior.
Many scholars, particularly anthropologists and historians, approach religion with a hermeneutical focus, which focuses on the interpretation of symbols and their meaning. This can lead to a tendency to focus on the subjective aspects of religion, such as religious experience and mythology. This can be problematic, because the subjectivity of these concepts creates problems when it comes to interpreting social data.
Other scholars, such as Clifford Geertz and Carl Jung, take a more functionalist view of religion. They believe that religion is an unconscious projection of humans’ aspirations, and that it plays a significant role in the formation of class distinctions and hierarchies within societies. They also emphasize the role that religion plays in a process of individuation, where people seek to break free of the material world and escape into the transcendent or spiritual realm.
This understanding of religion was reinforced by the 19th century theories developed by the German philosopher Friedrich Engels and the English social philosopher Herbert Spencer. They developed a system of evolution that associated religion with the development of classes, and sought to place it alongside science as an empirically observable phenomenon.
More recently, the sociologists Emile Durkheim and Émile Weber have argued that there are important social functions served by the practice of religion. They argue that it promotes good health, learning, economic well-being, morality, family stability, and social cohesion. It reduces the incidence of social pathologies, including out-of-wedlock births, crime, delinquency, and drug and alcohol addiction.
Despite the importance of religion to society, the concept is difficult to define. Scholars have debated whether it should be defined in terms of its beliefs and practices, or in more abstract ways such as the way that it organizes itself into institutions and other structures. The debate has been intensified by the rise of new empirical disciplines such as ethnology and anthropology, which have contributed to the increased knowledge about human cultures and their diverse beliefs. Today, the most common definitions of religion are polythetic, which avoid the claim that a social category has an essence, and monothetic, which fasten on a single property to classify a practice as being religious.