Religion is the esthetic and moral ordering of life by people in societies throughout the world. This ordering can include beliefs, teachings, practices, and symbols. It can be seen as a way to give meaning and purpose to life, reinforce social unity and stability, provide a framework for ethical behavior, promote physical and psychological well-being, and motivate people to work for positive social change. However, religion can also cause inequality and other problems, including conflict, persecution, and war.
The concept of religion is so broad that many scholars argue that it is not possible to construct a real definition of the term. They point out that it is possible to have a belief in a supreme being without that belief being religion and that there are people in the world who do not have views of an afterlife, supernatural beings, or explicit metaphysics. The fact that there are so many different phenomena with the label “religion” has led to an interest in examining whether those phenomenon share common features, which might help explain their universality.
One approach to defining religion is to use what are called polythetic set definitions. These are based on the notion that different characteristics co-appear in different social forms and that there are gradations between the various social forms, with some having more of these properties than others. The anthropologist William Alston uses this approach in his study of religion. The advantage of this approach is that it allows for the inclusion of the belief in supernatural beings and the cosmological ordering of things, as well as the rituals and other manifestations that have been traditionally associated with religion.
It is important to distinguish between these two approaches to the definition of religion. A polythetic set is a group of characteristics that are all present in some form or another, while an anchored definition is a stipulative definition that stipulates that a particular characteristic must be present for something to be considered religious. For example, an anchored definition of religion might require that there be belief in the existence of God or spirits.
Sociologists who use the polythetic definition of religion are interested in understanding the functions that religion serves, the inequality and other problems that it can reinforce and perpetuate, and its role in our daily lives. This is a large and complex subject, but a number of general themes have emerged from the sociological studies of religion. These include: