Religions are belief systems that often involve a supernatural being at their center. Different sociologists define what constitutes a religion, but all share an interest in understanding how religion serves important functions for people: (a) giving meaning to life; (b) reinforcing social cohesion and stability; (c) providing moral guidance; (d) serving as an agent of social control; and (e) motivating people to work for social change.
Some sociologists use a “substantive” definition of religion, which requires that a practice be founded on beliefs in unusual realities. Emile Durkheim used this definition and emphasized that all religions share one important feature: they all divide the world into sacred and profane, or holy and unholy. This division sets religion apart from the natural world of the profane, and creates a sense of the uniqueness of the divine.
Other sociologists prefer a definition that drops the requirement for unusual reality. They call this a “functional” definition. For example, Paul Tillich defines religion as whatever system of practices serves to organize a person’s values (whether or not those practices include beliefs in unusual realities).
Still others, particularly those who use interpretivist methodologies, focus on how societies recognize certain beliefs and behaviors as religions. These views are referred to as “social constructionist” perspectives. They acknowledge that different societies can recognize and accept very different beliefs as being religions, and they are interested in how the recognition of a set of beliefs as a religion changes over time.