Understanding Religion As a Social Phenomenon


Religion is a system of beliefs and practices that bind people together in an organized group. It includes the belief in one or more gods, religious rituals and ceremonies, and a set of moral principles that adherents follow. Many millions of people around the world follow one of the major religions: Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam.

The origins of religion are unclear, but some theories suggest that it may have emerged in prehistory as a result of the discovery that magical rituals were ineffective and that supernatural beings need to be propitiated to work with human purposes. The British folklorist Edward Burnett Tylor (1871-1939) was an important contributor to the development of this theory.

Tylor believed that religion should be defined as “the conscious recognition of an objective factor or power and the feel- ing of dependence upon it.” He also argued that religious beliefs and practices were common in all known societies.

Nonetheless, Tylor recognized that these were not the only elements of religion and that it was also necessary to distinguish the specific characteristics that make it unique. For example, Tylor emphasized the importance of supernatural beings and the fact that they need to be propitiated.

Other aspects of religion that must be taken into account include the social context, the degree to which people are willing to participate in religious activities, and the nature of religious institutions. Ultimately, religion has to be differentiated from nonreligious social phenomena such as capitalism and scientism.

A monothetic approach to religion involves the application of a single definition, such as that of Alston (1967: 146). Such an approach can be useful for developing an understanding of religion as a phenomenon because it allows one to identify a threshold number of properties that must be present for religion to exist (see above). But a monothetic approach may not be appropriate for studying a complex social phenomenon such as religion, since it can become prone to arbitrariness and unintentional biases.

Polythetic approaches to religion involve applying a multiplicity of definitions, such as those of the philosopher Rodney Needham (1975: 361) or J. Z. Smith (1982: ch. 1). Such approaches can be useful in the study of religion because they can reveal surprising patterns that can lead to explanatory theories.

Sociological perspectives on religion attempt to understand the functions that religion serves and the inequality it can reinforce and perpetuate. These include giving meaning and purpose to life, reinforcing social unity and stability, serving as an agent of social control, promoting psychological and physical well-being, and motivating people to work for positive social change.

Some sociological perspectives on religion focus on a particular group’s view of religion and the problems that it can produce, such as the role of religious institutions in promoting discrimination, repression, or violence. Other perspectives, such as symbolic interactionists, look at the ways in which religion can be transformative for individuals or groups of people, such as through religious experiences such as meditation or mystical experience.