Understanding Religion

Religion is a complex and diverse phenomenon. It provides people with meaning and purpose, strengthens social bonds, encourages good coping skills, and can give individuals hope in a sometimes troubled world. In addition, it has been linked to health benefits. For all these reasons, we should understand religion, not ignore it. Totally secular approaches to public policy, psychotherapy, and education do not work well with the two-thirds of the population that identify as religious. The President should appoint, and the Senate should confirm judges who are sensitive to the role religion plays in our society.

Historically, sociologists have tried to analyze religion by using three different kinds of definitions: substantive, functional, and social constructionist. Substantive definitions are those that determine whether something is a religion by looking at some sort of distinctive property—for example, belief in a supernatural being or the presence of ritual practices. These kinds of definitions are often referred to as “monothetic” (or classical) because they operate with the assumption that any object can be accurately described by a single concept.

Others try to define religion functionally by looking at the ways in which a particular kind of life contributes to human flourishing. This approach is known as polythetic. For example, a religion could be defined as the set of beliefs and practices that unite people into a moral community (as Emile Durkheim did) or as the means by which people find their sense of self in a complex world (as Talcott Parsons did). These sorts of definitions are usually called “polythetic” because they do not operate with a classical theory of concepts, whereby every object has a unique, distinguishing feature that can be used to distinguish it from other objects.