Religious beliefs and practices are a central part of the lives of many people. They can inspire love, compassion and goodwill, but also hatred, fear and xenophobia. Regardless of their nature, the fact that they are so prevalent and so diverse makes them an important topic for study by scholars of social science.
Sociological functionalist approaches to the concept of religion use a broad definition to cover all systems of belief and practice that function as cohesive forces for uniting people into a moral community. Emile Durkheim (see Durkheim, Emile) and his intellectual descendants have characterized the concept of religion as “a unified system of beliefs and teachings relative to sacred things which unites into one single moral community all those who hold them.”
The functionalist approach to the concept of religion is widely used, but not without criticism. Some scholars, particularly those influenced by Foucauldian or post-colonial thinking, have criticized the concept of religion as an invented category that went hand in glove with European colonialism. This criticism has led some to suggest that the only appropriate scholarly stance towards religion is one of critique and suspicion.
Other critics of the functionalist approach to the concept of religion have pushed for more precise and nuanced definitions of religion. Polythetic definitions, for example, treat the phenomenon as a complex of interacting and overlapping features, not as a set of rigidly defined elements. This approach has been inspired by Ludwig Wittgenstein (see Wittgenstein, Ludwig ) and his notion of family resemblance.