Religion encompasses a broad range of beliefs and practices that people believe are spiritually significant. It also includes activities that help people express their faith and maintain a connection with tradition. It binds groups together, gives people moral guidance and provides support during times of crisis and tragedy. It provides meaning and purpose in life, promotes social control and stability, and serves as a motivation to work for positive social change. It is an important component of the human experience, and the study of religion is essential to understanding a culture.
Sociologists use tools like surveys, polls, interviews, and historical data to analyze the role of religion in a society. They want to understand the functions it serves, the problems it can reinforce and perpetuate, and the way in which it influences people’s behavior.
For more than a century, scholars have developed a variety of theoretical approaches to studying religion. The most influential was Emil Durkheim, who believed that religion is an important force in society because it binds people together, establishes a code of conduct, and helps people cope with life’s stresses and tragedies. He was the first sociologist to study religion in terms of its societal impact.
More recently, scholars have taken a “reflexive turn,” pulling back on the concept of religion and examining its constructed nature. Some have claimed that it is a modern invention, invented to serve Western colonialism, and should be replaced by more appropriate social taxons such as “belief systems” or “practices”. Others have criticized the notion of religion as a social kind at all.