Religion is a contested concept. It has been viewed as both a taxon for sets of practices that are organized into religious traditions and as a social category with an ahistorical essence.
Many scholars today take a polythetic approach, recognizing that the word religion can have several meanings and that there is much variety among religions. They therefore avoid claiming that there is such a thing as the essence of religion. Instead they describe the features that are most often seen in religions. For example, they might say that all religions believe in spiritual beings or that they all have a belief in an afterlife.
These definitions are useful for sorting the vast array of religious traditions that exist. They also enable different disciplines to study religion from their own perspectives. For instance, psychologists view religious experiences and feelings; sociologists and social anthropologists examine the institutions of religions and their relation to beliefs and values; and literary and other studies seek to elicit the meanings of myths and other symbolic items.
Durkheim’s most important insight was that religion serves several social functions. It ennobles the moral life, gives meaning and purpose to human existence, reinforces social unity and stability, serves as an agent of social control of behavior, and enables individuals to work for positive social change. More recently, conflict theorists have used sociological perspectives to understand how religious traditions contribute to religious and nonreligious conflicts. Symbolic interactionists have studied how religious rituals and activities bring people together.