Religion is a complex phenomenon, one that encompasses many different aspects of human life. The term is so broad that some argue that there is no such thing as a “religion”. In this view, the notion of religion does not correspond to any form of life operating in the world. Others go further, claiming that the concept was invented by European colonialism and that we should therefore cease treating it as though it has any substance.
The vast majority of religious people, however, do not take this view. In fact, most people who believe in religion do so because they believe that it has something to do with their lives and that it is important to them. This is why they are so committed to it, despite the fact that it has often been a source of conflict and violence.
Many social scientists have sought to understand religion, and some of them have come up with what are called monothetic definitions. These definitions impose one single criterion on the concept of religion: for example, Edward Tylor’s minimal definition focuses on belief in spiritual beings and Paul Tillich’s functional approach defines it as whatever dominant concern provides a framework for a person’s life (whether or not this concerns involve belief in unusual realities).
Another anthropological perspective on the concept of Religion traces its roots to the work of Clifford Geertz. In his book The Interpretation of Cultures, he defines religion as a system of symbols that act to establish powerful and pervasive moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of the general order of existence and clothing them with such an aura of factuality that they seem uniquely realistic.
A third way of defining Religion is to look at the functions it performs for people and for societies. Emile Durkheim’s sociological analysis of religion emphasized the ways that it creates solidarity and gives meaning to people’s lives. His insights continue to shape sociological thinking on the role of religion today.
The final approach is to consider the ways in which a particular religion creates and transmits its stories. Stories are a powerful tool for encoding religious beliefs, and they help people to recognize the many different kinds of limitations that face any project of living. They allow people to see that even if they are unlikely to achieve the proximate goals of their religious systems (such as salvation from hell) they may still have the power to overcome difficult situations in life.
The most important thing that religious people do, then, is to show their love for God by the way they treat each other. This is why it is so important to elect Presidents and Senators who are sensitive to the role that religion can play in society and who will not erode our civil rights, religious freedoms, or constitutional guarantees of equal treatment of all citizens. It is also why we need to ensure that courts respect the roles that religions can and do play in our democratic societies.