Religion is an omnipresent aspect of life, a force that shapes people’s beliefs and values. It influences their morality, culture, and approach to writings, persons, and places. Religion binds them into communities of likeminded people and provides them with social support and a sense of meaning in their lives. It can also be a source of conflict and stress.
The study of religion has developed in two broad directions since the 19th century. The first trend was towards a more comparative treatment of religion, as people became aware of the vast variety of practices and beliefs that could be described as religious. This opened the door for the modern sociological and historical approaches to religion that we now have.
A second development was the rise of functionalist and structural interpretations of religion. Sociological functionalists, such as Emile Durkheim, defined religion as the unified system of a person’s worldview and ethos. Paul Tillich used a similar definition to define religion as whatever dominant concern organizes a person’s values.
Structuralists, such as Ninian Smart, argue that to understand religion solely in terms of institutions and disciplinary practices is to miss the point. They claim that the study of religion should include a fourth dimension, namely community. They also point out that the Protestant notion of religion is inadequate and that scholars should shift attention away from hidden mental states and focus on visible structures. However, the distinction between substantive and functional approaches to religion remains a live issue, and some scholars prefer a closed polythetic model to an open one.