An Analysis of Religion
Religion is, broadly speaking, human beings’ relation to that which they regard as holy, sacred, absolute, spiritual, divine, or worthy of especial reverence. It is usually seen as consisting of beliefs, practices, rituals, and symbols, as well as the attitudes and emotions that are associated with these. Religion is often seen as a source of comfort and strength in times of need, such as when a loved one dies or when facing life’s other hardships.
Religious beliefs and practices are not necessarily supernatural or “supernaturalistic.” Indeed, it has been argued that the term ‘religion’ should not be limited to belief in God, as some people believe in other deities or do not believe in the existence of a God at all. Other religions may not include prayer, but rather focus on a certain way of behaving or a particular set of ethical guidelines. This is sometimes referred to as a “practice religion.”
In the field of sociology, the most influential analysis of religion was conducted by Émile Durkheim. He viewed religion as a social phenomenon that serves several functions in society: it gives meaning and purpose to life, it reinforces social unity and stability, it helps promote and control moral behavior, and it may motivate people to work for positive social change.
Another important analysis of religion is that conducted by Talal Asad. Adopting Michel Foucault’s genealogical approach, Asad seeks to show that the concept of religion operating in contemporary anthropology is shaped by assumptions that are Christian (insofar as it treats beliefs as mental states characteristic of all religions) and modern (insofar as it defines religion as essentially distinct from politics).
For scholars who embrace this Foucauldian perspective, to understand what it means for something to be religious one must understand the power dynamics that shape that belief system. For example, many people who have faith in a God or higher power are likely to have been taught by their parents or teachers how to behave and what to believe.
This is the kind of analysis that would be done in a study of religions such as Hinduism or Shinto. It also applies to non-religious beliefs, such as the ten commandments or the Golden Rule, which can still be interpreted and acted upon as religious by people who adhere to them.
A final important way to understand religion is to look at how it is “lived.” That means paying attention to the ways in which ordinary people engage, express, use, and create religion and spirituality as part of their everyday lives. It is a form of qualitative research, similar to the work that is done with other cultural phenomena such as folklore or art. This type of research is called the symbolic interactionist approach to religion. It involves studying how religious rituals and ceremonies are performed and analyzing what sorts of emotional and psychological responses they evoke in people. Examples of these ceremonies and rituals include crying, laughing, screaming, trancelike conditions, and feelings of oneness with those around them.