Religion is a central force in human life, influencing the world’s cultures and provoking responses ranging from love and compassion to fear, hatred, and xenophobia. It has shaped social institutions, provided moral and ethical guidance, armed communities with courage to face hardship, and motivated people to work for positive social change. Its influence is even more evident today as two-thirds of the world’s population claims to belong to one of the major faith traditions.
In the history of academic study, scholars have sought to analyze religion a variety of ways. Some approaches are “monothetic” in that they hold the classical view that each instance of a social kind will accurately be described by a concept with a single defining property. Others are “functional” in that they drop the substantive requirement for what makes something a religion and define it instead by its distinctive role. Emile Durkheim, for example, defined religion by its ability to create moral community.
These functional definitions are not without their critics. For example, many have argued that they are ethnocentric because they depend on belief in supernatural beings and a dichotomy between the natural and supernatural, thus excluding the many faith traditions that emphasize immanence or oneness, such as Buddhism, Jainism, and Daoism. They also tend to downplay the power of religion as a form of social control.
Other scholars have sought to develop a social constructionist definition of religion, holding that there is no such thing as a true and unique set of beliefs that would automatically constitute a religion. This approach allows us to see that the concept itself is constructed. It is a lens that selects certain facts about the world and filters them through its assumptions, so that what is seen through it can be called a religion.
This approach also allows us to examine how religion is created and enacted, as well as how it changes over time. It is in this sense that it is a very useful tool for social scientists and other researchers.
The growing body of research on matters as diverse as the use of amulets to ward off the bubonic plague in the 17th century and religious reactions to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, attests that there is no one answer as to what defines religion. Rather, we must consider the process by which a particular group’s beliefs become recognized as a religion, and who has power to decide what counts as a religion. This will allow us to understand how and why some religious phenomena, like terrorism, can be explained by social forces while others cannot. We will also be able to see how different types of religion may be used in the same contexts for completely disparate purposes. The more we can understand the complex nature of religion, the better equipped we will be to deal with its controversies.