Theories of Religion


Religion is one of the most important components in many people’s lives. It provides meaning and purpose, fosters moral values, reinforces social cohesion, promotes emotional and psychological well-being, influences political attitudes, and motivates individuals to work for positive social change. It is also a powerful response to some of the most pressing challenges facing our society, such as out-of-wedlock births, crime and delinquency, family disintegration, drug and alcohol abuse, and anxiety and prejudice.

Several theories of religion have been developed to understand this broad phenomenon. A common approach is to look at the functions that religion serves and the social problems it can reinforce and perpetuate. Other approaches try to understand the relationship between religious beliefs and mental states such as perceptions, emotions, motivations, and moods. Still others seek to understand the role religion plays in shaping culture.

One of the first attempts to define religion was made by French philosopher Blaise Pascal in his Pensees (1670). He argued that faith could be rational only if it were based on the belief that God existed, and that this was the best bet for human beings.

Other definitions have been developed by anthropologists, such as Clifford Geertz (1926-2006). He described religion as “a system of symbols that functions to establish powerful and pervasive moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality as to make them seem uniquely real”. Other scholars have used functionalist or ethnographic approaches to understanding the role of religion in different cultures.