Religion provides a moral code that guides human behavior and gives meaning to people’s lives. It tells its followers to choose good over evil, to be kind and compassionate, and to believe in truth. In some cases, religion is also a social glue that brings people together in harmony. Religion has been a major source of strength for many cultures throughout history.
Religious people often claim that their beliefs and practices are sacred. This reflects the belief that if something is sacred, it must be of high importance and provide special significance to people’s lives. It also explains why some people are so dedicated to their religion that they would even sacrifice their life for it.
Sociologists have argued that religion has specific functions in society that it fulfils regardless of how individuals practice their own particular faith. Emile Durkheim’s definition of religion hinged on this point and continues to dominate sociological thinking on the topic. Other sociologists have opted for polythetic approaches that use a master list of “religion-making” features (likely prototypes) and claim that if a phenomenon has enough of these features, it is a religion.
Critics argue that functionalist definitions ignore the role of spirituality in the lives of non-religious people. They also tend to exclude religions that do not believe in supernatural beings or that emphasize a sense of immanence or oneness, such as certain forms of Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, and Daoism. Other criticisms are that substantive definitions are ethnocentric, based on the peculiarity of Western religions and not taking into account religions in other parts of the world.