Religious belief and practice are a vital part of many people’s lives. They provide meaning and purpose, support families and communities, reduce stress, promote social cohesion, ease the passage into death, and help with dealing with major life crises. They also play a major role in addressing social problems such as family dissolution, alcohol and drug abuse, out-of-wedlock births, poverty, prejudice, and war. Research shows that religious beliefs and practices are associated with better health outcomes, including reduced risk of depression and anxiety, as well as higher levels of social capital.
Nevertheless, many religious practices have been associated with social problems such as discrimination and violence. Sociologists have developed a range of theories to explain these problems, and to understand the role religion plays in society. These theories include the conflict perspective, the functionalist perspective, and the symbolic interactionist perspective.
The term “religion” was originally used to describe a social genus, a category for sets of cultural practices that share certain characteristics such as the presence of a belief in gods or spirits. Since the 19th century, however, it has been more common to use the term to describe a variety of social phenomena. These include a belief system (myths, beliefs), an ethos (moods and values of the community), a worldview, rituals, ceremonies, and symbols that encapsulate and communicate the faith.
Many sociologists have adopted a functionalist approach to religion, defining it as whatever dominant concerns serve to organize a person’s values, regardless of whether or not these concerns involve beliefs in unusual realities. This approach is influenced by Emile Durkheim’s emphasis on the social functions of religion. It is similar to a definition offered by Paul Tillich, who defines religion as whatever dominates a person’s values and provides orientation for his or her life.
This approach is often criticized by scholars who argue that it has a strong Protestant bias and treats internal human states as if they were something independent of social structure. These critics argue that understanding religion by focusing on beliefs and other subjective mental states obscures the complex and powerful structures that create them. A related debate focuses on whether religious behavior is a product of structure or a function of agency, or a combination of both.
Despite these criticisms, research on religion continues to grow. It is a diverse field that encompasses a wide array of religious beliefs and behaviors, from Christianity, Islam, and Judaism to Hinduism, Buddhism, and Shinto. Most studies in this area find that people who participate regularly in their religion have lower rates of suicide and drug addiction and are less likely to engage in criminal behavior, experience out-of-wedlock births, or become involved in child prostitution. These positive social effects are partly due to the fact that religious practice is accompanied by moral teachings, community service, and charitable activity. However, research also indicates that some negative consequences of religion can arise when these traditions are misinterpreted or implemented in inappropriate ways.