Religion is a way for people to give meaning and purpose to their lives, reinforce social unity and stability, promote psychological and physical well-being, and motivate people to work for positive social change. Religion takes many forms, from the major world religions of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism to the more localized faiths like the Chinese folk religions or Native American traditions. No matter what form it takes, however, religion has important consequences for society and the individuals in it, consequences that can be either good or bad.

The study of religion involves a complex mix of topics, including theology, philosophy, ethics, history, sociology, anthropology, and linguistics. A common way of organizing the discipline is to divide its studies into three broad areas: normative and functional analysis, comparative religions, and phenomenology.

Normative or substantive definitions of religion distinguish it from other forms of human life by focusing on the presence of belief in a distinctive kind of reality. These include theology, a belief in God and his perfections, the revelation of his will to man, and a system of rules for regulating moral behavior. They are contrasted with secularism, which entails belief in nothing more than natural laws and the absence of religious beliefs and ritual behaviors.

While these substantive definitions have their value, they run the risk of excluding other worthy forms of human endeavor. They also tend to impose an inflexible set of criteria on religion that can be seen as a kind of lowest common denominator. Furthermore, the search for a univocal definition of religion can quickly become an exercise in attempting to rank different religions as different species under one genus, a task that is at best ill-suited to a discipline that is fundamentally empirical.

The alternative to substantive definitions is the functional approach, which focuses on the ways in which religions organize people’s values and concerns. This view was introduced in the twentieth century by Emile Durkheim, who defined religion as whatever system of practices unite a group of people into a moral community (whether or not those practices involve belief in unusual realities). Paul Tillich extended this idea to a broader range of social formations and characterized religion as the “dominant axiological concern” that provides orientation for a person’s life.

More recently, a phenomenological approach has been introduced in sociology and other disciplines to replace the traditional analytical categories of normative and functional analysis. This method focuses on the experience of religion in particular historical contexts and seeks to understand how and why religions develop and evolve. The key concepts in this approach are symbolic interaction, ritual, and spiritual experience. Symbolic interaction refers to the way that symbols in a religion interact with each other and with the social and psychological environment in which they are embedded. The rituals of a religion may include crying, laughing, screaming, or trancelike conditions, and they often result in feelings of deep spirituality. Spiritual experiences can be intense and euphoric, or they may be quite mundane.