The Definition of Religion

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Religion is a belief in a transcendent power or spirit that gives meaning and value to life. It enables people to orient their lives and to find answers to life’s biggest questions. It can also reinforce and perpetuate inequality and other problems in society, but it can also serve to bring people together and motivate them to work for positive social change.

Historically, scholars have approached the definition of religion in several ways. Some scholars have favored a “substantive” approach, defining religion as any belief in a special type of reality. Others have favored a “functional” approach, defining it as any activity that makes people feel that they belong to a moral community. Emile Durkheim took this latter view, arguing that any dominant concern that unites a group of people is religious, whether or not it involves belief in unusual realities.

A third approach defines religion as any societal system that organizes values and beliefs to achieve a common purpose. This view has been defended by people such as George Herbert Mead and Max Weber, who saw religion as a vital part of any society.

More recently, sociologists have emphasized the symbolic interactionist perspective. This approach looks at religious activities such as rituals and ceremonies, which can involve tears, laughter, screaming, trancelike conditions, a feeling of oneness with other participants, and other emotional and psychological states. It argues that these activities illustrate how religion brings people together and creates a sense of moral community, which is one of its major functions.