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The Essential Properties of Religion

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Religion is the name for a wide variety of social practices, and it has long been a topic of study in sociology. One way to understand this broad taxon of activities is to look for essential properties that define a religion. This approach has been referred to as a monothetic definition, and it has resulted in fairly clear distinctions between what is and is not religion. This approach to understanding religion has two major problems, however. First, it fails to recognize that the social world of a religion is more than just its beliefs, doctrines, and practices. It also includes people’s bodies, habits, and physical culture. In this view, all of these factors combine to create the religion in question. The concept of a religion must therefore be expanded to include this dimension.

The second problem is that a monothetic definition of religion is too restrictive. While it is often possible to find a single essential property or set of properties that defines a religion, it is also possible for these definitions to exclude some practices that are important to the religious life and that are widely shared among many different religions. For example, it may be possible to say that a religion must include belief in spiritual beings in order to qualify as such. But this definition is limiting, because it would exclude the practice of shamanism, which involves believing in spirit beings without ever mentioning God or spirits.

Some scholars have attempted to solve these problems by recognizing that religion is a complex social system rather than a collection of distinct beliefs and practices. Emile Durkheim, for example, argued that religion is more than just a source of meaning and purpose in people’s lives; it also functions to reinforce social hierarchy and to promote social conflict. The history of the world has indeed shown that religious differences can lead to persecution, hostility, and war, as well as to the maintenance of moral behavior.

A further function of religion is that it provides a map of time and space. By establishing how the universe came to be, what its structure is like, and how time works, religions enable their followers to understand their place in the universe and to deal with the many limitations that stand across their lives. For example, many religions provide a means of visiting the past in order to understand what happened and why (regressive rituals are common), and the future so that it is not wholly unknown.

Finally, a religion can offer a sense of belonging to a group or community. This is particularly important for the development of adolescents, because they are especially vulnerable to the temptations of peer pressure and of the desire to be part of a group that identifies with its values and ideals. By providing a sense of community, religious organizations can help young people to develop the courage and confidence needed for the exploration and discovery that is essential for their growth.

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