Religion encompasses all the beliefs, practices, and moral codes that people use to organize their lives. It can be a source of strength and social cohesion, but it can also be a source of division and stress. The role of religion in society is a subject of intense debate.
Many approaches to understanding religion take a scientific or philosophical slant. Psychologists and neuroscientists, for example, argue that religion fulfills human needs such as a fear of death or a desire for meaning and purpose.
Other approaches are more historical. The sociologist Clifford Geertz, for example, argued that religions are culturally specific and historically contingent and that they provide stability and continuity to societies. His work paved the way for scholars who view religion as a social phenomenon.
Still others take a functional approach to the concept of religion. They define religion as whatever systems of belief and practice unite a group into a moral community, whether or not these systems involve beliefs in unusual realities. This kind of definition has been largely dominant in the social sciences since Emile Durkheim’s 1912 theory of religion as a social genus.
Some critics of this functional approach to religion argue that it neglects the fact that not all religious traditions are based on beliefs in extraordinary realities. They point out that, for example, even the “philosophy-like” religions such as Buddhism — developed by Siddartha Gautama (c. 563-483 bce) — fit the functional definition of religion.