Religion is a multifaceted, complex phenomenon. It is commonly defined as human beings’ relation to that which they regard as holy, sacred, absolute, spiritual, divine, or worthy of especial reverence. In more theistic forms of religion, this concern is often expressed in terms of a relationship to gods or spirits; in more naturalistic and humanistic forms it may be directed toward a broader moral community or the natural world.
Many social theorists have attempted to examine the nature of religion and its impact on society, including Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, and Karl Marx. These 19th century thinkers developed a framework for studying religion in which it was understood as a collective mind-set that brings people together and provides stability for them throughout their lives. Their work laid the foundation for modern sociology.
The study of religion requires a commitment to recognize that assumptions baked into the concept are distorting our grasp of historical realities. It also demands an openness to consider how a range of different traditions could be recognized as religions, even if they are not widely acknowledged today (e.g., Scientology or the Cargo cults).
For example, research shows that regular religious practice can reduce stress, increase feelings of wellbeing, and strengthen coping skills. In addition, there is growing recognition that a religious frame of reference can support prosocial actions, such as providing early hospitals, health centers, schools, and homes for those with special needs. This can help create a more just and equitable world.