The Concept of Religion

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Religion isn’t right for everyone, but it offers benefits like community, structure and moral guidance. It can also help people cope with life’s challenges, and it may improve physical health. Research shows that many religious people have greater psychological well-being, are less prone to depression and are more likely to take care of their bodies.

The concept of religion is used today for a wide range of social practices, ranging from the so-called world religions of Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Hinduism to local faiths such as Bahá’ and Tibetan Buddhism. This wide semantic range poses two philosophical issues for the concept: whether we should understand religion as a taxon, a category-concept with necessary and sufficient properties, or whether we should consider it as a family resemblance concept.

Many scholars who study religion use the symbolic interactionist approach to understanding it, emphasizing how different beliefs and practices are interpreted in rituals and ceremonies that are designed to be deeply meaningful and transformative. This is illustrated by the wide variety of religious experiences that people have, including crying, laughing, screaming, trancelike conditions and a feeling of unity with others around them.

Sociologists such as Emile Durkheim emphasized how all societies need some aspect of religion to provide meaning and support, encourage morality, sustain cultural heritage, keep society stable and cohesive, promote mental and physical health and encourage participants to work for social change. While this functionalist account of religion is still widely accepted, more recent scholarship has challenged it.