Religion is a social phenomenon with a variety of functions. It may help people cope with life’s problems, establish moral beliefs and behaviors, provide a sense of community, connect them to tradition or history, or even affect health and well-being. But some people dismiss religion as antiquated practices and a source of conflict, while others embrace it as an essential part of their lives. In either case, there is no question that religion is far more widespread than many people realize.
Throughout human history, religion has left a strong imprint on culture and politics. Religious beliefs and practices have influenced language, music, art, dress code, food, and countless other aspects of daily life. The most profound and lasting influence of religion, however, may be in the way it shapes and empowers a person. This is evident in the many ways that people enlist religious beliefs to help them achieve their goals: as sources of strength and courage, as models for personal growth and success, as a framework for moral behavior, and as an explanation of why things happen (cf. Smith 2001).
The word religion comes from the Latin religio, which means “scrupulousness,” “spiritual observance,” or “a feeling of devotion and piety.” Religion is also a social genus that exists in some cultures but not in all; for example, it is common for people today to worship multiple gods or to lack views of an afterlife or supernatural beings. Smith defines religion as a complex of culturally prescribed rituals based on premises about the existence and nature of superhuman powers, in the hope of realizing human goods and avoiding bad outcomes.
Other scholars have developed definitions of religion that use either substantive or functional criteria. Edward Tylor, for example, defined it as belief in spiritual beings, and Paul Tillich used ultimate concern. These single criterion monothetic definitions were intended to undermine assumptions that the world’s indigenous peoples, as depicted by missionaries in Europe, were less intelligent than Europeans.
A more recent development in the study of religion has been the reflexive turn, which seeks to expose how the concept of religion has been constructed and to examine its power in society. This movement has been largely driven by the work of Talal Asad, who urges scholars to shift their attention to how the concept of religion is inherently political and how assumptions baked into the concept shape our understanding of historical realities.
Smith argues that the primary purpose of religion is to create and sustain a formative causal power, which generates and strengthens cultural and political movements. He identifies secondary features and powers such as identity, community, meaning and expression, social control, and legitimacy as the cause of this power and argues that religion is not unique in possessing these characteristics. But he adds that other aspects of social life, such as the physical culture of the group and its evaluative systems, can produce similar forms of power and influence.