Religion has a profound impact on the lives of most Americans. Yet purely secular approaches to many issues—from public policy to psychotherapy — fail to take into account the role religion plays in most people’s lives. This failure to recognize the importance of religion undermines efforts to promote tolerance and understanding across religious differences, and fuels prejudice and violence.
Historically, scholars have debated how to define religion. Some have favored stipulative definitions that focus on a particular belief or practice. Others have favored functional definitions that focus on the functions religion serves for societies. A third approach has focused on the way individuals interpret their religious experiences.
For example, some scholars like Clifford Geertz emphasize how religious beliefs and rituals serve as a basis for moral beliefs and behaviors. These scholarly perspectives have been influential in sociological thinking about religion.
Other scholars, like Sigmund Freud, have characterized religious beliefs and behaviors as pathological. Despite the doubts of psychologists and other skeptics, religion continues to play an important role in the lives of most people.
Some scholars have emphasized how religion is a social genus that appears in all cultures, regardless of whether it has a particular belief or practice as its core. The notion of a social genus is controversial because it may seem to suggest that a human phenomenon exists even before it can be accurately described and named. For this reason, some scholars, like Adam Smith and Chandra Asad, critique the concept of a social genus by arguing that the assumptions baked into it have distorted our grasp of historical reality.