Religion is a powerful force in the lives of many Americans. It influences their views on family and work, morality, spirituality, and ethics. It is the root of their fears, anxieties, and hopes. Its practice enhances health, learning, economic well-being, self-control, and personal happiness. Yet it is often neglected in the public debate and in schools, psychotherapy, and other professional fields. Totally secular approaches to public policy, psychotherapy, and education fail to take into account the role of religion in the lives of two-thirds of America’s population.
In academic studies of religion, a major point of disagreement centers on whether to adopt a polythetic or monothetic approach to the concept. Polythetic definitions attempt to classify a social genus by listing a number of properties that the group shares. These include beliefs in disembodied spirits and cosmological orders, a sense of the transcendent, rituals, ethics, scriptures, and institutions to manage society. Some argue that the mere fact that a particular group does not have all of these characteristics means it is not a religion. Thus, for example, one might claim that the western discovery of Buddhism demonstrates that Tylor’s monothetic definition of religion is wrong (Southwold 1978: 367).
In contrast, sociologists like Clifford Geertz and Emile Durkheim emphasize the functions that a religion serves for its members and their societies. Durkheim’s work is still influential today. These functions include providing meaning and purpose for life, sustaining or promoting social unity and stability, fostering a sense of community, generating and controlling a group’s internal conflicts, and motivating people to work for positive social change.