How Should Religion Be Defined?


Religious belief and practice often contribute to greater psychological and physical well-being. People who regularly attend religious services, participate in spiritual practices, or support their faith with charity work often feel less anxiety and stress and have better coping skills. Religious faith also often gives them a sense of belonging, fostering their social connections with like-minded people and making them feel more content with life.

However, religion can also foster social conflict. It may lead to the oppression of those who don’t share the same beliefs, as illustrated by the Puritans’ persecution of non-Puritans, or to hostility and violence over disputed religious beliefs, such as seen in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. This is why many scholars believe that religion should be understood primarily as a source of cultural cohesion, not as a cause of violence and bloodshed.

Several different ways of understanding religion have been developed over the years. One approach, favored by sociologists such as Emile Durkheim, defines religion as a set of beliefs and practices that generates cohesion in societies and provides orientation for them. This “monothetic” definition of religion is sometimes criticized, because it assumes that all societies have such beliefs and practices.

A different approach, which is more polythetic, defines religion as a class of behaviors with certain shared characteristics. This definition is helpful because it does not presuppose that all of the behaviors are necessarily sacred, or even that they are necessarily beliefs. A number of researchers have used a polythetic definition of religion to study religious diversity and find commonalities between different religious cultures around the world.

Posted in: Gambling