Religions have made a strong imprint on culture. This is seen in rites and rituals, festivals, food and drink, music and art, dress codes and ways of living together. Some religions teach a moral code that governs human relationships and societies, while others emphasize doing good for fellow humans, the natural world or both. Religions also give meaning to people’s lives and provide them with a sense of purpose. They can promote or reinforce inequality and social conflict, foster loyalty and belonging, and help to control behaviour. But they can also foster health and well-being, enhance self-control and self-esteem, encourage empathy, and support positive social change.
The concept of Religion has evolved as social scientists have tried to make sense of it. Most definitions include a belief in an unusual kind of reality. However, some social science scholars have opted to define religion in terms of a distinctive role that a form of life can play in society–a functional definition. This approach, influenced by Emile Durkheim, is still widely used today.
Other researchers, especially American anthropologist Clifford Geertz (1926-2006), took an even more radical approach. He argued that a Religion is “a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive moods and motivations in men by clothing them with conceptions of a general order of existence.” His model is different from the traditional view but is an important contribution to understanding how religions work. It is particularly helpful for understanding religion in the context of modernity.