What Is Religion?


Religions offer a map of time and space, help people cope with death and other life-changing events, promote psychological and physical well-being, and may motivate people to work for positive social change. Many religious experiences can be deeply intense. They can involve crying, laughing, screaming, trancelike conditions, a sense of oneness with others, and other emotional and psychological states. For some, these experiences can be transformative. Others, however, are not transformative and may only provide comfort or reassurance.

Sociologist Emil Durkheim argued that religion is a social phenomenon characterized by a cohesive group mind-set that binds people together, provides consistency in behavior, offers strength during difficult life events (meaning and purpose), and creates meanings that give shape to the world around them. He is generally considered the first sociologist to analyze religion in terms of its societal impact.

In more recent times, scholars have offered different definitions of what a religion is. Some scholars have been “monothetic,” applying the classical view that every instance that accurately describes a concept will share a single defining property that puts it in a particular category. Other scholars have been “polythetic,” using the notion of a prototype structure that allows for the existence of a variety of types of phenomena within a given class.

A polythetic approach allows for a more flexible, inclusive concept of religion. This is especially important for the study of contemporary religions, which are often complex in their beliefs and practices, making comparison difficult.