Religions are groups of people with a shared set of beliefs and practices. They are often social entities that ideally serve several functions: they give meaning and purpose to life, reinforce social unity and stability, promote psychological and physical well-being, and motivate people to work for positive social change.
The word “religion” itself is defined by dictionary definitions as “a religious system or way of living; the belief in God, a supreme being, or other divine powers.” It is also commonly used to refer to different kinds of spiritual practices and belief systems that are practiced in various cultures around the world. These practices and beliefs often include rituals and ceremonies, theological concepts, and belief in the existence of a higher power.
Traditionally, scholars have been engaged in a debate about how to define religion. Some have argued that religions are simply people with a particular set of beliefs, while others argue that they are socially organized structures.
Some have favored the approach of Emile Durkheim, who emphasized that religion is any system of practices that unite a number of people into a single moral community and does not involve any belief in unusual realities (see Chapter 2 “Epilogue”). Other scholars, including Abraham Smith (1993), Daniel Asad (2006), and Michael Laurence and David Margolis (1998), have adopted a phenomenological approach to understanding religion, which emphasizes the significance of the religious experiences and symbols in people’s lives.
The academic study of religion is a complex subject that encompasses a variety of approaches, which are discussed in the following sections. It is important that students understand that religion is an aspect of culture and human experience, and that they gain a critical understanding of the many ways that it functions in society.