Religions serve many functions in human societies. They reassure people of their place in the universe, provide moral guidance and ethical standards, strengthen social cohesion and stability, foster psychological and physical health, promote social change, and offer a sense of purpose and meaning to life.
One signpost on the road to understanding religion is the sociological functional definition formulated by Emile Durkheim, who wrote that any unified system of beliefs and practices can be considered a religion “if it functions as a cohesive force binding together into a moral community all those who adhere to it.” This definition has been influenced greatly by the anthropological work of Clifford Geertz. His concept of a religion describes a complex set of signs that act to establish powerful and pervasive moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of the general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that they become highly credible.
For a long time, religious studies scholars have tried to analyze the nature of these signs, how they function, and what they accomplish for those who engage in them. The result has been a “reflexive turn” in the social sciences and humanities, as scholars pull back the camera to examine the constructed nature of what they had previously taken to be unproblematically “there.”