Religion has a profound impact on the lives of people throughout the world. It is a source of love, compassion and goodwill as well as hatred, intolerance and fear. It can bring peace, stability and prosperity or war, chaos and misery. It encompasses the sublime moral and spiritual teachings of humanity as well as a legacy of slavery, genocide, racism and intolerance. Yet it can also contain the seeds of human potential for tolerance, equality and enlightenment. In a world that is increasingly religiously diverse and multi-religious, it is more important than ever to understand religion and how it can help us to live together in peace.
Religions are not just belief systems but entire societies characterized by their values, beliefs, practices, attitudes, social structures and institutions, and cultural and spiritual traditions. They may also include specific writings, places or persons that are regarded as holy. Hence, they are highly complex phenomena that vary greatly from one culture to another and across time. Yet despite their enormous diversity, they all share a common root in human evolutionary history. Religions have become a treasure chest of moral and spiritual teachings that are powerful tools for making a positive difference in the world and the human condition.
As the study of religion developed, some scholars took a narrower approach and focused on what makes up a religion: its practices, beliefs and attitudes. This approach is sometimes referred to as the “functionalist definition” of religion. Emile Durkheim argued that religion is whatever system of practices unite a group of people into a moral community, whether or not it requires belief in supernatural beings. Others, such as Ninian Smart, define religion in terms of the three pillars of the true, the beautiful and the good. A fourth pillar, or dimension, is often added to this model: community.
Nevertheless, even a functionalist definition has its problems. First of all, it is extremely difficult to establish the criterion that separates something that counts as a religion from something that does not qualify as one. A second problem is that it tends to overlook the influence of the physical and material reality of a person’s life in shaping his or her values, attitudes, and beliefs.
Consequently, some have admonished sociologists and other scholars to shift their attention away from the subjective states that are supposedly at the heart of understanding religion. Instead, they argue that a sociological understanding of religion should focus on the socially constructed nature of a society’s religiosity. This view, however, is often criticized for its lack of depth and for being influenced by a Protestant bias. Moreover, it may overlook the fact that there are many religious experiences that do not involve belief in any supernatural beings.