Religions are human institutions that claim to offer people a path towards some of the most important goals that can be set in life. These goals may be proximate (a wiser, more fruitful, more charitable way of living) or ultimate (the final condition of this or any other human being or of the cosmos itself). Religious goals are often associated with experiences of joy and pain and of reward and punishment.
As social institutions religions give meaning to people’s lives and they provide a framework for regulating behaviour and dealing with moral issues. They also offer guidance in times of distress or crisis. Religions are also important sources of community and identity and they provide a focus for worship, celebration, ritual and ceremonial activity. Religious beliefs, practices and traditions are the source of a variety of art forms such as music, painting, architecture and literature.
A number of scholars have tried to define religion and they have offered a wide range of definitions, which vary in the criteria used to sort practices into this category. The concept of religion is, however, an abstract one and therefore it is hard to define in terms of necessary or sufficient properties. Instead, a sociological notion of “religion” has emerged that is based on comparative study of various forms of life across cultures. This concept is often called a “family resemblance” concept and it implies that the more characteristics that a practice exhibits the more likely it is to be considered a religion.
The emergence of this concept is problematic because it gives rise to two philosophical issues. The first is the problem of stipulative definitions which are based on a shaky empirical base and that impose a particular way of viewing the world on a study of it. The second issue concerns the arbitrary nature of this concept and its application. The fact that the concept of religion is a constructed notion should alert us to its contrived character and to the extent to which it is used as an explanatory device.
In the nineteenth century European industrialized societies several social theorists studied the relationship between religion and society. The German revolutionary socialist Karl Marx believed that religion reflects the social stratification of society and maintains an unjust status quo. The French sociologist Emile Durkheim held that religion provides a false remedy for working class economic suffering and that it is a cause of the emergence of anomie. Another theorist, Max Weber, argued that religions serve a function by bringing people together and by strengthening social ties. The concept of religion was later broadened by historians to encompass the idea that all systems of belief and practice are religions in some sense. This is called a functional definition and it does not depend on the presence of a belief in a distinct kind of reality. This approach is widely used today. It seems avant garde, but it is in line with the general trend in the social sciences to break down complex concepts into components which can be analysed in detail.