Religion is a large and important part of many people’s lives. It gives them a sense of purpose and morality, provides social structure and stability, and promotes physical and psychological well-being. It can also motivate people to work for social change.
For most of its history scholars have tried to define religion. Most of the attempts have been “monothetic,” operating on the classical view that a concept accurately describes all instances it is applied to, whereas a description that leaves out cases from the category would distort rather than report. George Herbert Mead, for example, defined religion as a form of social life in which there is a belief in gods. Other definitions have emphasized specific acts, such as prayer or fasting.
Other scholars have developed more sophisticated approaches. Simmel, the founder of formal sociology, argued that religion was a cultural form and that no content possessed in itself the logical properties needed to make it a religious form. He suggested that a religion should be distinguished from other forms of valuation, such as knowledge and morality, because those features are not logically necessary to the form.
Anthropologists, with their interest in tribal and other “primitive” societies, have been particularly active in trying to understand the genesis of religion. Freud, in particular, offered explanations of the genesis of religion in Totem and Taboo and other writings. He speculated that religion originated in the primordial stage of human development, when small groups were dominated by fathers and sons and incest taboos were created to discourage intrafamily sexual behavior.