Religion ideally serves several functions: it gives meaning to life, reinforces social unity and stability, promotes positive social change, and improves the physical and psychological well-being of individuals.
Despite this ideal function, it can also have negative effects on people’s lives. Specifically, religious commitments can cause conflict among adherents and contribute to social disorganization.
To understand how religion operates in the real world, it is necessary to consider its history. This history shows that the concept originally referred to scrupulous devotion to a particular god or gods.
However, it is now used to refer to a variety of social practices. These practices range from the cosmic to the functional and include a broad array of beliefs, rituals, ceremonies, and social structures.
If one is not familiar with this history, the term can be confusing and even misleading. This confusion is a result of how the concept has been changed over time.
In the classical view, each instance of a concept is defined by a defining property that makes it distinct from other instances of that concept. The emergence of a polythetic approach that abandons this classical view has led to the emergence of a new type of definition for the concept of religion.
The polythetic approach is based on the idea that a class of concepts, including religion, has a prototype structure that can reveal patterns and properties that are shared by members of the class. This approach can help to identify a set of threshold properties that separate religion from nonreligious instances.