Religion is a social structure that helps people make sense of their lives and the world around them. It gives meaning and purpose to life, encourages social unity and stability, promotes psychological and physical well-being, serves as an agent of social control, and may motivate people to work for positive social change.
A variety of approaches to the study of religion have been developed in recent years. These approaches vary from a monothetic approach, in which properties are set at the same level of abstraction as the concept being defined, to a polythetic approach, in which properties are set at different levels of abstraction.
Traditionally, most academic work has been done using a monothetic approach. However, a more polythetic definition of the term is often more accurate in terms of understanding how the concept operates in the world. This is particularly true for conceptualizations of sociologically complex systems (see Alston 1967, for example).
Some scholars have criticized functional definitions of religion, which are often used to categorize societies according to their religious orientation. These scholars argue that the functional approach entails a passive image of human beings, wherein the religious person is viewed as a transmitter of charisma or legitimacy to others in the society. This is a form of ideological, or moral, hegemony that is sometimes portrayed as beneficial to the society.
One way to counter this is to apply a substantive definition of religion, which entails a more active role for the religious person in the society. This is especially true if the function of the religion is to promote moral values or a system of punishment and reward for misbehavior in the society.
This kind of definition has often been criticized, but it does not rule out the possibility that such an approach might be useful in some instances. For example, a monothetic account might be useful to distinguish a plethora of religious practices that are similar but not identical and that differ in important ways.
Another type of approach to the study of religion is a verstehen approach, in which concepts are compared within social worlds rather than across them. This kind of research is usually associated with ethnographic and participant observation methods, which have been widely used in the study of religion.
These methods have not necessarily yielded any new insights into how a concept operates in the world, but they do reveal certain patterns of understandings that are not always apparent in the analysis of individual practices. In addition, these studies often reveal the influence of culture on social actors’ understandings and behaviors.
A third kind of approach to the study of religion is based on symbolic interaction theory, which suggests that religions involve a high degree of symbolic activity. This includes rituals and ceremonies, which can be deeply emotional or even trancelike for many people. These experiences can be extremely rewarding, as well.
Moreover, many of these rituals can be very empowering, as they can provide structure and traditions for the followers that can help them stay connected to their faith in the face of a chaotic and confusing world. They can also be a means of social integration and support, as people are drawn to similar communities.