Religion is a concept that people commonly use to describe their relation to something which they regard as holy, sacred, absolute, spiritual, divine or worthy of especial reverence. It also includes the way in which people organize their beliefs and practices around this thing.
It can be a source of meaning and purpose in life, reinforce social unity and stability, help to control behavior, promote physical and psychological well-being, and encourage people to work for positive social change (see Table 17.1 “Theory Snapshot”). Religious views of religion differ widely from one another.
Durkheim explained that religion is an important agent of socialization because it gives people a common set of beliefs and thus increases their ties to other people. It strengthens social stability in two ways: first, by providing a shared sense of belonging and identity that motivates people to interact with others; second, by providing a place where they can communicate about their beliefs and other important issues.
Sociologists who study religion have many perspectives, but all tend to agree that religion is an essential element of society. Despite its powerful role, social sciences have often found it difficult to understand religion.
As a result, scholars have begun to engage in what is known as a “reflexive turn” to analyze the constructed nature of concepts. This has led to a new type of research called polythetic approaches that reject the classical view that every instance of a concept will share a defining property. Instead, these researchers believe that a prototype structure of the concept exists and that the defining properties of the term can shift as concepts change.