Religion is a system of beliefs and practices that people use to give meaning to their lives. It often deals with ultimate concerns, such as a belief in a creator or in life after death. It also commonly involves a code of moral behavior, sacred texts or scriptures, religious holidays, symbols, and places that are deemed to be holy.
Many attempts to analyze religion have used a “monothetic” approach, in which membership in a category is determined by the presence of a set of defining properties. However, over the past few decades, scholars have shifted to what is called a “polythetic” approach. Polythetic approaches treat the concept of religion as a social genus rather than as a monolithic entity.
A common view of a religion is that it has four characteristics: a) a transcendent deity or spirits, b) a code of conduct, c) a group of believers who hold the same beliefs and values, and d) some sort of social organization to manage those beliefs and practices. While this definition is a valid one, it is important to note that, as mentioned above, the concepts of religion are culturally constructed and not universally applicable.
Sociological perspectives on religion focus on understanding the functions that it serves and the problems, such as inequality, that it can reinforce and perpetuate. A summary of the major views can be found in Table 17.1. The conflict perspective focuses on how people use religion to resolve conflicts and the symbolic interactionist perspective focuses on how religion creates and sustains social groups.