Understanding the Anatomy of Religion


Religion is a complex and multidimensional social practice.

Many researchers are trying to figure out what religion is, and how it works in people’s lives. It is a critical part of social life and has a strong influence on the way people relate to one another, think about themselves, and understand the world.

Traditionally, scholars have tried to analyze the anatomy of religion in terms of fides, fiducia, and fidelitas (or “faith,” “belief,” and “intellectual commitment”). These four features are often treated as a monothetic-set definition.

Durkheim, for example, defines religion as “whatever system of practices unites a number of people into a single moral community” (1912), a functional approach. The functions of this definition are to create solidarity, unite people against the evils of society, and provide direction for life.

However, many sociologists have criticized this approach. They believe that this approach does not accurately reflect the reality of religion, which is a contested, diverse phenomenon that appears in every human culture.

A polythetic-set approach to religion is also gaining interest. The social sciences and humanities are now examining how social groups and their beliefs emerge from people’s mental states, which are not easily seen or understood.

These mental states are always accompanied by feelings and other affective experiences. Some of these can be highly intense, such as a feeling of ecstasy or spirituality. Others are less intense, such as a feeling of oneness or connection with others. Some are noncognitive, such as a trancelike state or a deep cry.

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