Religion encompasses many different experiences and practices. It is so diverse that it is difficult to determine its essential properties or whether, like such abstract concepts as literature, democracy, or culture itself, it can even be defined. Yet a study of religion remains important. It is a crucial component of any society and influences all its activities.
For this reason it has been a subject of intense study for centuries. The emergence of the social sciences in the 19th century enabled scholars to gather information about religious beliefs and practices in other cultures. This work has contributed to our understanding of the world in which we live, and of human nature in general.
Most of the scholarly approaches to the study of religion have emphasized its functional aspects rather than its belief in a particular kind of reality. Emile Durkheim, for example, viewed religion as any system of practices that unites a group of people into a moral community. This approach, known as the functional theory of religion, has continued to be widely used in studies of societies and religions.
Clifford Geertz, an American anthropologist, has also developed a functional interpretation of religion. He has defined religion as “a set of symbols that functions to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the emotions and motivations they evoke seem uniquely realistic” (Geertz 1973: 2). His definition differs from the other two in that it includes the idea of a divine plan for the world and humankind.