Theories of Religion


Religion is a cultural system of beliefs and practices that gives believers a sense of the sacred, or something worthy of devotion, and a code of moral conduct. It also provides a way for people to cope with life’s ultimate concerns.

Whether or not scholars agree about what defines a religion, they generally agree that it is a complex phenomenon. Various theories focus on different aspects of this complexity. For example, some focus on religious beliefs and others focus on religious practices. Some theories try to understand religion as a cognitive process, and some attempt to explain it in terms of social structures and institutions.

Other theories of religion attempt to analyze it in its historical creativity. These approaches often seek to understand the nature of religious ideas and beliefs by analyzing how they are interwoven with particular sociocultural, political, and individual contexts. In doing so, they often focus on the ways that religions are governed and organized.

Still other theories of religion examine the impact of religion in society. Several nineteenth century social theorists, including Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, and Max Weber, focused on this aspect of religion. They analyzed how religion reflected and reinforced social stratification, promoted social conflict, and contributed to hostility and violence between different groups of people.

It is important to realize that any definition of religion will be influenced by the particular social milieu in which it was developed. Therefore, it is important to study all cultures and not only those that are considered to be “religious” by a Western definition.