Religion is a complex and varied phenomenon that appears in many different forms and with varying degrees of intensity. Its most basic definition includes belief in a divine power and ritual behavior expressing that belief. It also typically involves a group of people organized into a community with a leader or priest and sacred books, symbols, holidays, and rites that are performed. It often encompasses some form of salvation, whether in the literal sense of heaven after death as in Christianity or in a more symbolic way such as nirvana as practiced by Buddhists. Most religions teach some form of moderation and encourage good deeds, which can help to stabilize society. In addition, they have historically been responsible for founding educational institutions and hospitals, providing a strong basis for social welfare networks worldwide.
Religions appear to have universal appeal, as evidenced by the fact that more than half of the world’s population is affiliated with one of them. Even among people who say they do not believe in a God, more than 16 percent report attending religious services at least occasionally. In addition, there are a number of specific studies which demonstrate that religious beliefs and practices contribute to the well-being of individuals, families, communities, and nations. They can improve health, education, economic development, the strength of marriages, family ties, self-control, and empathy, and reduce the incidence of such social pathologies as out-of-wedlock births, crime, drug abuse, and mental illness.
Social science research on religion has a long tradition of using a variety of approaches to definition and understanding. Substantive definitions are those that seek to categorize different religions by a set of primary and secondary traits. This approach can easily degenerate into a simple ranking of different religions and may lack any practical usefulness. Functionalist definitions, on the other hand, tend to be more inclusive and more meaningful for purposes of study. They can provide a structure within which particular religious facts can be classified and thus make it easier to understand them.
Both substantive and functionalist definitions of religion have problems. The formal strategy is likely to yield a minimal notion of religion, a lowest common denominator, and the functionalist approach may end up with a stifling of creativity in the field of religious research.
A dialectical approach is required that combines the rigor of substantive and functionalist definitions with the methodological flexibility of Verstehen approaches to social understanding (Hannah 1974). It involves studying religion in its historical creativity, in its specific social context, and in the sense in which it is relevant for the individuals involved. This type of definition is implicit in much ethnographic and participant observation work in the field of religion. It is sometimes referred to as the “hermeneutical” method. It is the best approach for constructing an adequate concept of religion.