The Concepts and Frameworks of Religion


Religion is the common ground that connects people of all races and ages around the world. It provides them with hope, direction, courage, and a sense of meaning in life. It helps them to live together and to face death and the afterlife. Despite the current secular trend in society, about two-thirds of Americans say they consider themselves to be religious and many report that their beliefs and practices play a major role in their lives. Yet, many social scientists who study religion rely on concepts and frameworks that are alien to these believers and are thus unable to understand their experiences fully or communicate them effectively.

One way of defining religion is functionally, as the way people organize their values in order to create cohesion and provide orientation. This is the approach of Durkheim and Paul Tillich, among others. Another way of defining religion is substantively, as the belief systems that have supernatural referents and are concerned with ultimate meaning. This is the approach of Glock and Stark, among others.

The problem with both approaches is that they have to start with a working definition of religion, so that researchers know what to look for. This makes it difficult to conduct research because the definitions are biased and may affect results (see Berger 1967). Moreover, definitions can also get in the way of the study of religion by driving theory and conclusions and so some social scientists prefer to proceed with study without first fashioning a definition (Harrison 1912; Weber 1922). Nonetheless, there are those who argue that any true or lexical definition will be useful for research on religion and that it is not possible to correct a stipulative or real definition of religion (cf. Southwold 1978: 367).

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