Understanding Religion

Religion describes various systems of beliefs and values that define what people believe to be sacred or spiritual. It is an important part of the human condition and it plays many social functions such as providing meaning and purpose in life, reinforcing community cohesiveness and stability, promoting healthy lifestyles, and motivating people to act for positive social change. It also helps people understand the world around them.

Sociological perspectives on religion seek to understand the functions that religion serves, the inequality and problems that it can perpetuate or reinforce, and its role in our lives. Theories about religion vary but all share a common foundation in the concept of symbolic interaction.

The first step in understanding religion is to realize that it is a complex. Most definitions of religion operate with a monothetic set in which the more a phenomenon displays these defining characteristics the more likely it is to be accepted into this category. The inverse is also true; the less a phenomenon demonstrates these defining characteristics the more likely it will be viewed as magic, sorcery or cult rather than religion.

More recently, scholars have sought to move beyond this simple model of a monothetic set of properties. This has been a result of a reflexive turn in the field as scholars pull the camera back and examine the construction of categories that were previously taken for granted. For example, it is now commonly held that to treat any belief system as a religion implies that one is imposing a western religious framework upon a culture and this reveals a bias.