Religion is a social phenomenon that affects individuals and society in many ways. It can bring people together but also cause division and stress. People need meaning and value in their lives and often find it in their Religions. They are willing to live according to their Religions and even die for them.
Sociologists have developed definitions of Religion to help understand it better. One approach is to use a functional definition that defines a religion by the functions it performs. Another is to use a heuristic definition that identifies certain properties of Religions as important. Using a heuristic definition can be more useful than a strict definition because it allows researchers to look at different examples of Religions and identify what they have in common, and what distinguishes them from other forms of human life.
The word “religion” has been used for a long time to refer to scrupulous devotion. It was used in antiquity to describe a range of activities, and in the Middle Ages it was applied to monastic orders that required members to take vows and live by a particular set of rules. It was not until the twentieth century that a substantive definition of religion emerged, and that defined it as an entity that believes in a distinctive kind of reality.
Substantive definitions of religion are criticized because they rely on beliefs in disembodied spirits and cosmological orders, and ignore non-theistic traditions like Buddhism and Jainism (see History of Buddhism ). They also tend to reflect a Western worldview that emphasizes the dichotomy between nature and the supernatural, and fail to include faith traditions that emphasize immanence or oneness, such as some forms of Islam.
A more recent approach, called polythetic or open polythetic, uses a broad set of properties to define what is religious. This avoids the claim that a religion has an ahistorical essence, but it still limits which kinds of forms of life are compared. This type of definition can be difficult to evaluate, however, because it is easy for one property to dominate and obscure others.
The most famous functional definition of religion was developed by Emile Durkheim in 1912. He described it as whatever system of beliefs and practices unites a group of people into a moral community, whether or not they believe in unusual realities. This type of definition has been used by sociologists to study a variety of phenomena, and it is still one of the most widely used approaches today.
Both substantive and functional definitions of Religion are flawed in different ways, but they all depend on the premise that the existence of a social genus requires the existence of a language for it. This is true, but the development of a concept for a social genus does not wait for its application to any particular culture or period of history. Moreover, the language for social genuses can develop even in cultures that do not possess any of the other characteristics of that genus.