Whether in the form of prayers, rituals, or ceremonies, religion is an important aspect of many people’s lives. It can bring people together, but it also can be a source of tension and stress. In some cases, religious beliefs and practices can even be the source of hostility or violence. Religion has a complex influence on the world, and it is important for scholars and others to understand its role in society.
One way to make sense of this complexity is to look at how the meaning of the concept of “religion” has shifted over time. The term began as a synonym for scrupulous devotion, and it has since come to encompass a wide variety of social practices.
Some of these social practices are purely functional. Emile Durkheim, for example, defined religion as whatever dominant concern serves to organize a person’s values (whether or not the concerns involve belief in unusual realities). Other sociologists have taken a more substantive approach to understanding religion.
One example is the work of American anthropologist Clifford Geertz, who defined religion as a system of symbols that “contains conceptions of the order of life and clothes them in such an aura of factuality that they seem uniquely realistic” (Geertz 1966: 2). This definition emphasizes the power of religious ritual and ceremony to create strong emotional bonds between people and to establish a sense of community. It also stresses the importance of a person’s individual interpretation of these spiritual experiences.