Understanding the Phenomenon of Religion


Whether religion provides meaning and purpose to life, reinforces social unity and stability, promotes psychological and physical well-being, or motivates people to work for social change, it remains an important part of the lives of most Americans. In fact, the vast majority of Americans identify as religious, and many are involved in organized religious activities, including prayer, worship, charity and observance of holidays.

But how can one explain this remarkably diverse phenomenon? Historically, scholars have sought to understand religion by defining it in terms of beliefs or, more generally, in terms of any subjective states. But this approach reflects a Protestant bias that overlooks the role of institutions and disciplinary practices. It also obscures the ways in which religious belief is generated by and conditioned by the social structures that produce it.

Other scholars have sought to understand religion by focusing on the function that it performs in a given culture. In the language of anthropology, this is called a functionalist or “practical” definition. The most common example of this is Emile Durkheim’s assertion that whatever system of practices unite a group of people into a moral community (whether or not those systems involve belief in unusual realities) is a religion.

The function-oriented perspective on religion has gained in popularity in recent decades because of a growing body of empirical research showing that it is good for the human spirit and good for society as a whole. It improves education, health and economic well-being, promotes social control and civility, and fosters moral behavior, such as empathy and altruism. In addition, it reduces societal pathologies such as crime, out-of-wedlock births, drug and alcohol addiction, and prejudice.

Scholars have debated over how best to categorize the phenomenon of religion, and there is still no consensus on what it consists of. Some take the view that to define religion in terms of any belief is to confuse it with metaphysical concepts like faith or belief, and that the word “religion” should be confined to the social practice of worship. This is the view of scholars such as Jonathan Z. Smith and Asad, who argue that the concept of religion is a useful fiction created for analytical purposes only by the act of naming, and that it should be replaced by more neutral terms such as social genus or cultural type.

Others, such as Luhrmann, take a different approach and propose that the puzzle of religion is not so much about how people come to believe as about what makes those beliefs endure. She offers the story of Blaise Pascal’s Pensees to illustrate her point: He argued that it was mathematically rational to believe in God because the potential reward – an eternity of happiness and peace – far outweighed any loss, including death – which might result from such a belief. In other words, the act of believing – or worshipping – is the real thing that makes gods and spirits real to humans.