Religion is a term used to describe human beings’ relation to that which they regard as holy, sacred, divine, spiritual, or worthy of especial reverence. It is often thought that religion involves beliefs in gods or spirits, but can also encompass attitudes toward the broader human community and natural world. It is also possible to view religion as a set of practices that help people deal with life’s ultimate concerns.
In the 19th century, social theorists Emile Durkheim, Karl Marx, and Max Weber analyzed the impact of religion on society. They focused on the fact that people can believe in many different things, but they all share certain aspects: belief in a supreme being; rituals and ceremonies that help believers to come closer to god; and feelings of emotional and psychological well-being generated by religious beliefs and practices.
Sociologists also recognize that religion has a number of other functions: it provides meaning and purpose in life; it reinforces social unity and stability; it serves as a control mechanism; and it motivates people to work for positive social change. It is important to note that these functions do not always overlap. For example, a person may have strong emotions and beliefs but not engage in any ritual or ceremony.
In recent years, scholars have pulled back from focusing on the beliefs and inner states that are ascribed to religion in order to examine the constructed nature of this concept. They argue that defining religion as a social genus, or treating it as something inevitable that appears in all cultures, misrepresents its true nature.