A Sociological Definition of Religion


Religious beliefs, values, and practices differ widely among cultures. However, all religions share a few key features. These include an ultimate concern about life and death, a focus on the supernatural or spiritual, a code of morality, the belief that there is one true god or gods, and a set of cultural or mystical traditions and texts. Moreover, many religions have provided people with coping strategies for dealing with the stresses of daily living. Research has shown that religious and spiritual coping improves health, learning, economic well-being, self-control, empathy, and so on. In short, religions are good for individuals, families, societies, and the world.

Sociologists study religion for its social impact. They want to understand the functions religion serves, its role in reinforcing inequality and other problems, its influence on behavior, and what it does to help people cope. They also want to understand how and why religions change over time.

Some scholars use a functionalist definition of religion, which focuses on the way in which a person’s values and concerns are organized. In this view, religion is whatever dominates a person’s life, whether or not it involves belief in unusual realities. Others use a symbolic interactionist definition, which focuses on the ways in which a person experiences religious feelings and beliefs. This approach emphasizes the importance of the ritual aspects of religion, such as rites, ceremonies, and other symbolic activities.

Other scholars argue that functionalist and symbolic interactionist approaches to religion are too narrow. They argue that these approaches fail to account for the fact that some faith traditions have no belief in supernatural beings, or that there are different forms of a religion such as Buddhism, Jainism, and Daoism, which emphasize immanence rather than transcendence. They also argue that these approaches have a Protestant bias, and that to understand religion in terms of beliefs and other subjective states ignores the importance of the structure/agency debate and the way in which the world is shaped by culture and history (Schilbrack 2024).

A more nuanced view of religion is offered by Clifford Geertz (1973), who uses a mixed definition of religion. This view combines elements of the symbolic interactionist and functionalist approaches, focusing on how a person’s worldview and ethos are grounded in a particular religion.

For example, a religion provides people with a sense of meaning and purpose, defines what is important in life, reinforces the social fabric, serves as an agent for social control, promotes psychological and physical well-being, and may motivate people to work for positive social change. It also teaches people how to deal with their anxieties and other issues by providing them with a framework for understanding the universe, life, and the afterlife. This, in turn, helps them develop coping skills and create meaning and hope for their lives. A religion provides a context in which the answers to these ultimate questions are discovered, even though they may be found only through imperfect and fallible human means.