Introduction to Religion

Religion is one of the most powerful, deeply felt, and influential forces in human society. It
has shaped people’s relationships with each other, influencing all aspects of family,
community, economic and political life. With religious beliefs and values motivating human
action, religion has become a significant aspect of social life and in turn, the social dimension
has become an important part of religion.
For centuries, humankind has sought to understand and explain the “meaning of life.” Many
philosophers believe this contemplation and the desire to understand our place in the universe
are what differentiate humankind from other species. Religion, in one form or another, has
been found in all human societies since human societies first appeared. Archaeological digs
have revealed ritual objects, ceremonial burial sites, and other religious artefacts. Social
conflict and even wars often result from religious disputes.
Because religion is such a central part of societies and human experience since time
immemorial, sociologists are very interested in studying it. Pioneer sociologist Emile
Durkheim described it with the ethereal statement that it consists of “things that surpass the
limits of our knowledge” (1915). He went on to elaborate:
Religion is “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say
set apart and forbidden, beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral
community, called a church, all those who adhere to them” (1915).
Some people associate religion with places of worship (a synagogue or church), others with a
practice (confession or meditation), and still others with a concept that guides their daily lives
(like dharma or sin). All of these people can agree that religion is a system of beliefs, values,
and practices concerning what a person holds sacred or considers being spiritually significant.
Sociological tools and methods, such as surveys, polls, interviews, and analysis of historical
data, can be applied to the study of religion to help us better understand the role religion plays
in people’s lives and the way it influences society.

The Sociological Approach to Religion

From the Latin religio which stands for, respect for what is sacred and religare which means,
to bind, in the sense of an obligation, the term religion describes various systems of belief and
practice concerning what people determine to be sacred or spiritual. Throughout history, and
in societies across the world, leaders have used religious narratives, symbols, and traditions in
an attempt to give more meaning to life and understand the universe. Some form of religion is
found in every known culture, and it is usually practiced in a public way by a group. The

Émile Durkheim: As stated earlier. Despite differences. or believing in reincarnation. and Karl Marx. a secular Frenchman. such as bar mitzvah or confession. meditation or initiation. The History of Religion as a Sociological Concept In the wake of 19th century European industrialization and secularization. such as announcement of the death. and ceremony or ritual. and rituals of a religion. care of the deceased. or another person uses it for landscaping.” Durkheim argued that “religion happens” in society when there is a separation between the profane (ordinary life) and the sacred. and norms centred on basic social needs and values. behaviours. His underlying . looked at anthropological data of Indigenous Australians. Durkheim. disposition. sacred meant extraordinary— something that inspired wonder and which seemed connected to the concept of “the divine. While some people think of religion as something individual because religious beliefs can be highly personal. In the fieldwork that led to his famous Elementary Forms of Religious Life. one profane. These universals. three social theorists attempted to examine the relationship between religion and society: Émile Durkheim. French sociologist Émile Durkheim defined religion as a “unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things”. Religious beliefs are specific ideas that members of a particular faith hold to be true.practice of religion can include feasts and festivals. funeral rites are practiced in some way. Social scientists recognize that religion exists as an organized and integrated set of beliefs. sacrifice or service. religion is a cultural universal found in all social groups. although these customs vary between cultures and within religious affiliations. In studying religion. Max Weber. Religious rituals are behaviors or practices that are either required or expected of the members of a particular group. Moreover. sociologists distinguish between what they term the experience. religion is also a social institution.” This type of communion might be experienced when people are praying or meditating. such as that Jesus Christ was the son of God. beliefs. for example. For instance. To him. But if someone makes it into a headstone. in every culture. music and art. Religious experience refers to the conviction or sensation that one is connected to “the divine. and other aspects of culture. isn’t sacred or profane as it exists. provide rich material for sociological study. They are among the founding thinkers of modern sociology. marriage and funeral services. there are common elements in a ceremony marking a person’s death. and the differences in how societies and individuals experience religion. A rock. it takes on different meanings—one sacred.

with the question of theodicy – the question of how the extraordinary power of a divine god may be reconciled with the imperfection of the world that he has created and rules over. he says. In Elementary Forms. We then express ourselves religiously in groups. For Weber. Durkheim is generally considered the first sociologist who analysed religion in terms of its societal impact. The Religion of China: Confucianism and Taoism (1915). he is not interested in hard positivist claims. it is an expression of society itself. or answers that provide opportunities for salvation – relief from suffering. but instead in linkages and sequences. Weber is not a positivist – in the sense that he does not believe we can find out "facts" in sociology that can be causally linked. Weber uses the German term "Verstehen" to describe his method of interpretation of the intention and context of human action. Religion. which is our social life. in historical narratives and particular cases. and offers strength for people during life’s transitions and tragedies (meaning and purpose). and give that perception a supernatural face. He gives religion credit for shaping a person's image of the world. which for Durkheim makes the symbolic power greater. People need to know. he argues. and ultimately how they decide to take action. Weber argues for making sense of religious action on its own terms. for example. This is true not only for the Aborigines.interest was to understand the basic forms of religious life for all societies. Religion is an expression of our collective consciousness. Durkheim argues that the totems the Aborigines venerate are actually expressions of their own conceptions of society itself. there is no society that does not have religion. By applying the methods of natural science to the study of society. Above all. but for all societies. promotes behaviour consistency (social control). for Durkheim. We perceive as individuals a force greater than ourselves. which is the fusion of all of our individual consciousness’s. which then creates a reality of its own. why there is undeserved good fortune and suffering in the world. Religion offers people soteriological answers. and this image of the world can affect their view of their interests. He contended that these values need to be maintained to maintain social stability. he held that the source of religion and morality is the collective mind-set of society and that the cohesive bonds of social order result from common values in a society. Durkheim believed that religion is about community: It binds people together (social cohesion). and . The Religion of India: The Sociology of Hinduism and Buddhism (1915). In his sociology. is very real. Max Weber Max Weber published four major texts on religion in a context of economic sociology and his rationalization thesis: The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905). religion is best understood as it responds to the human need for theodicy and soteriology. and indeed. Human beings are troubled. Although he believes some generalized statements about social life can be made. and Ancient Judaism (1920).

and is alienated to the point of extreme discontent. becomes a part of human motivation. there was only a specific number of the elect who would avoid damnation. this was difficult psychologically: people were (understandably) anxious to know whether they would be eternally damned or not. Weber noted. journalist. Not only were workers getting exploited..") while those who suffer oppression and poverty in this life. Weber argues that capitalism arose in Europe in part because of how the belief in predestination was interpreted by everyday English Puritans. in Marx's eyes. From this objectification comes alienation. Puritan theology was based on the Calvinist notion that not everyone would be saved.reassuring meaning. Christianity teaches that those who gather up riches and power in this life will almost certainly not be rewarded in the next ("it is harder for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven than it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. as it soothes them and dulls their senses to the pain of oppression. Because religion helps to define motivation. Karl Marx German philosopher. but in the process they were being further detached from the products they helped create. Here. and rational pursuit of profit became its own aim. Thus Marx's famous line . and revolutionary socialist Karl Marx also studied the social impact of religion.. and this was based on God's predetermined will and not on any action you could perform in this life. By simply selling their work for wages. will be rewarded in the Kingdom of God. workers were devalued to the level of a commodity – a thing. In The Protestant Ethic. while cultivating their spiritual wealth. Marx saw rich capitalists getting richer and their workers getting poorer. Official doctrine held that one could not ever really know whether one was among the elect. religion enters. like the pursuit of wealth. This led to the development of rational bookkeeping and the calculated pursuit of financial success beyond what one needed simply to live – and this is the "spirit of capitalism." Over time. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. With the rise of European industrialism and capitalism. Weber believed that religion (and specifically Calvinism) actually helped to give rise to modern capitalism."religion is the opium of the people". Thus Puritan leaders began assuring members that if they began doing well financially in their businesses. Practically. The common worker is led to believe that he or she is a replaceable tool. as he asserted in his most famous and controversial work. The pursuit of salvation. the habits associated with the spirit of capitalism lost their religious significance. Capitalism utilizes our tendency towards religion as a tool or ideological state apparatus to justify this alienation. . this would be one unofficial sign they had God's approval and were among the saved – but only if they used the fruits of their labor well.

comfort. who were reacting to the great social and economic upheaval of the late 19th century and early 20th century in Europe. it helps answer questions like “How was the world created?” “Why do we suffer?” “Is there a plan for our lives?” and “Is there an afterlife?” As another function. From this perspective. . Religious rituals bring order. Because religion can be central to many people’s concept of themselves. For example. religion was a force for cohesion that helped bind the members of society to the group. like providing answers to spiritual mysteries. and vice versa. and significance. offering a place to meet others who hold similar values and a place to seek help (spiritual and material) in times of need. religion promotes social control: It reinforces social norms such as appropriate styles of dress. religion provides emotional comfort in times of crisis. The various communal riots in India are all examples of this dynamic. and regulating sexual behaviour. in fact. Marx considered religion inseparable from the economy and the worker. One of the most important functions of religion. For Durkheim.Ergo. In providing answers. Finally. These views offer different lenses on religion through which society could be understood: functionalism. Weber. and Marx. and organization through shared familiar symbols and patterns of behaviour. Moreover. it can foster group cohesion and integration. religion serves several purposes. sometimes there is an “in group” versus “out group” feeling toward other religions in our society or within a particular practice. Theoretical Perspectives on Religion Modern-day sociologists often apply one of three major theoretical perspectives. and creating a place for social interaction and social control. It provides social support and social networking. Karl Marx believed religion reflects the social stratification of society and that it maintains inequality and perpetuates the status quo. offering emotional comfort. Despite their different views. Functionalism Functionalists contend that religion serves several functions in society. while Weber believed religion could be understood as something separate from society. these social theorists all believed in the centrality of religion to society. religion defines the spiritual world and spiritual forces. depends on society for its existence. Religion. value. In Conclusion: For Durkheim. conflict theory and symbolic interactionism. from a functionalist perspective. following the law. is the opportunities it creates for social interaction and the formation of groups. religion was an integral part of society. including divine beings.

This power dynamic has been used by Christian institutions for centuries to keep poor people poor. Conflict theorists also point out that those in power in a religion are often able to dictate practices. religion has been used to support the “divine right” of oppressive monarchs and to justify unequal social structures. the cross in Christianity. Additionally. The interaction between religious leaders and practitioners. According to this perspective. The Star of David in Judaism. denomination. The feminist perspective is a conflict theory view that focuses specifically on gender inequality. Conflict theorists are critical of the way many religions promote the idea that one should be satisfied with existing circumstances because they are divinely ordained. symbolic interactionism studies the symbols and interactions of everyday life. while the average income of Catholic parishioners is small. feminist theorists assert that. For example. and the crescent and star in Islam are examples of sacred symbols. teaching them that they shouldn’t be concerned with what they lack because their “true” reward (from a religious perspective) will come after death. the role of religion in the banal components of everyday life. although women are typically the ones to socialize children into a religion. a scholar using this approach might ask questions focused on this dynamic. to define .Conflict Theory Conflict theorists view religion as an institution that helps maintain patterns of social inequality. like India’s caste system wherein the highest caste of Brahmins dominate the whole society. rituals. like ecclesia. Sociologists use different terms. Interactionists are interested in what these symbols communicate. In terms of religion. practitioners. because interactionists study one-on-one everyday interactions between individuals. and sect. and beliefs through their interpretation of religious texts or via proclaimed direct communication from the divine. To interactionists. and the ways people express religious values in social interactions—all might be topics of study to an interactionist. and structures—in a variety of fashions. beliefs and experiences are not sacred unless individuals in a society regard them as sacred. but male dominance remains the norm of most. Types of Religious Organizations Religions organize themselves—their institutions. A few religions and religious denominations are more gender equal. they have traditionally held very few positions of power within religions. Symbolic Interactionism Rising from the concept that our world is socially constructed. the Vatican has a tremendous amount of wealth.

Hinduism is the third-largest of the world’s religions. In its pejorative use. It is one religion among many. like sects. Some groups that are controversially labeled as cults today include the Church of Scientology and the Hare Krishna movement. charismatic leader.these types of organizations. It is considered a nationally recognized. Christianity began as a cult. Occasionally. . Vaishnavism and Shaktism are all Hindu denominations. Denomination is a large. and today exists as an ecclesia. They sometimes claim to be returning to “the fundamentals” or to contest the veracity of a particular doctrine. Hinduism originated in the Indus River Valley about 4. Some have been short-lived. mainstream religious organization. In modern world.500 years ago in what is now modern-day northwest India and Pakistan. almost all religions began as cults and gradually progressed to levels of greater size and organization. However. or official. now refers to a congregation. are new religious groups. denominations. highly controlling of members’ lives. with increasing influence on society. Greece. and ecclesia represent a continuum. the term is used to refer to a religious group that almost all members of a society belong to. These religious organizational terms . Hindus believe in a divine power that can manifest as different entities. these groups are often disparaged as being secretive. The term ecclesia. It arose contemporaneously with ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian cultures. Hinduism The oldest religion in the world. Three main incarnations—Brahma. These definitions are not static. Following are the seven of the world’s major religions. In sociology. With roughly 1 billion followers. For example. while others have persisted and grown. this term often carries pejorative connotations. Sects are small and relatively new groups. Vishnu. originally referring to a political assembly of citizens in ancient Athens. sects. transformed into a sect. where cults are least influential and ecclesia are most influential. but it does not claim to be official or state sponsored. Most religions transition through different organizational phases. Cults. and Shiva—are sometimes compared to the manifestations of the divine in the Christian Trinity.cults. The World’s Religions Religions have emerged and developed across the world. and dominated by a single. For example. religion that holds a religious monopoly and is closely allied with state and secular powers. Shaivism. a sect is breakaway group that may be in tension with larger society.

collectively called the Vedas. Buddhism Buddhism was founded by Siddhartha Gautama around 500 B. 3) suffering ceases when attachment to desires ceases.E. who lived on the sixth and fifth centuries B. Kung Fu-Tzu developed his own model of religious morality to help guide society. .C. Buddha’s teachings encourage Buddhists to lead a moral life by accepting the four Noble Truths: 1) life is suffering. contain hymns and rituals from ancient India and are mostly written in Sanskrit.” The concept of “middle way” is central to Buddhist thinking. Buddhism also tends to deemphasize the role of godhead. which refer to one’s duty in the world that corresponds with “right” actions. until it was officially abolished when communist leadership discouraged religious practice in 1949. or the notion that spiritual ramifications of one’s actions are balanced cyclically in this life or a future life. or “enlightened one. and he later established a monastic order. In fact.C. The religion was developed by Confucius. its teachings were developed in context of problems of social anarchy and a near-complete deterioration of social cohesion.Multiple sacred texts. Hindus generally believe in a set of principles called dharma. he became known as Buddha.E. At the age of 35. upper-class life to follow one of poverty and spiritual devotion. which encourages people to live in the present and to practice acceptance of others. and 4) freedom from suffering is possible by following the “middle way. After this experience.C. and jen (the kind treatment of every person)—were collected in a book called the Analects. An extraordinary teacher. Siddhartha was said to have given up a comfortable. nor does it have formal objects. respect for authority and tradition. Hindus also believe in karma. Some religious scholars consider Confucianism more of a social system than a religion because it focuses on sharing wisdom about moral practices but doesn’t involve any type of specific worship. instead stressing the importance of personal responsibility Confucius Confucianism was the official religion of China from 200 B. Dissatisfied with the social solutions put forth. he famously meditated under a sacred fig tree and vowed not to rise before he achieved enlightenment (bodhi). 2) suffering arises from attachment to desires.” Followers were drawn to Buddha’s teachings and the practice of meditation. his lessons—which were about self-discipline.E.

who lived sometime in the sixth century B. As with Christianity’s Old Testament.Taoism In Taoism.” The sacred text for Muslims is the Qur’an (or Koran). born in Mecca. is an important element of Judaism.E. Jews emphasize moral behaviour and action in this world as opposed to beliefs or personal salvation in the next world. often called “pillars”: 1) Allah is the only god and Muhammad is his prophet. Tao is usually translated as “way” or “path. a nomadic society. Saudi Arabia. The Jews’ covenant. 3) helping those in poverty.C. Talmud refers to a collection of sacred Jewish oral interpretation of the Torah.C. or the way of modern life in harmony with the former two. Christianity began 2. The central concept of Tao can be understood to describe a spiritual reality. Taoist beliefs emphasize the virtues of compassion and moderation.. Christianity Today the largest religion in the world.E. not as a divine being. which Christians also follow as the first five books of the Bible. who is divine. Islam Islam is monotheistic religion and it follows the teaching of the prophet Muhammad. but all Muslims are guided by five beliefs or practices. The yin-yang symbol and the concept of polar forces are central Taoist ideas. Taoism is concerned with a more spiritual level of being” Judaism After their Exodus from Egypt in the 13th century B. became monotheistic. with Jesus of Nazareth. . and 5) pilgrimage to the holy centre of Mecca. and their sacred text is the Torah. a charismatic leader who taught his followers about caritas (charity) or treating others as you would like to be treated yourself. in 570 C. many of the Qur’an stories are shared with the Jewish faith.000 years ago in Palestine.” The founder of the religion is generally recognized to be a man named Laozi. the order of the universe. or promise of a special relationship with Yahweh (God). the purpose of life is inner peace and harmony. Islam means “peace” and “submission. 4) fasting as a spiritual practice.E. in China. Muhammad is seen only as a prophet. worshipping only one God. Some scholars have compared this Chinese tradition to its Confucian counterpart by saying that “whereas Confucianism is concerned with day-to-day rules of conduct. Divisions exist within Islam. Jews. and he is believed to be the messenger of Allah (God). The followers of Islam are called Muslims. 2) daily prayer.

such as divorce. Jews and Muslims disagree. Additionally. which decry acts considered sinful. arguing that religion has continued to play a vital role in the lives of individuals worldwide. In Africa. In the United States. their traditions don’t believe he’s the son of God. claiming that the modernization of society would bring about a decrease in the influence of religion. especially its new-found influence in the West. it is suggested that the son of God—a messiah—will return to save God’s followers. presupposed secularization as a decline in religiosity might seem to be a myth. drug use. Conclusion . including theft. some people contend that secularization is a root cause of many social problems. Although monotheistic. and their faiths see the prophecy of the messiah’s arrival as not yet fulfilled. some sociologists have argued that steady church attendance and personal religious belief may coexist with a decline in the influence of religious authorities on social or political issues. While Christians believe that he already appeared in the person of Jesus Christ. In their shared sacred stories. many contemporary theorists have critiqued secularisation thesis. Christians. The Holy Spirit is a term Christians often use to describe religious experience. The rise of Islam as a major world religion. their beliefs verge. and adultery. While they recognize Christ as an important historical figure. and the Holy Spirit. Secularization Classical sociologists Émile Durkheim. and Muslims share many of same historical religious stories. Weber believed membership in distinguished clubs would outpace membership in Protestant sects as a way for people to gain authority or respect. the son (Jesus). Despite these claims. While Jews. In that sense. church attendance has remained relatively stable in the past 40 years. For instance. religion may be seen as declining because of its waning ability to influence behavior. or how they feel the presence of the sacred in their lives. In short. murder. the emergence of Christianity has occurred at a high rate.The sacred text for Christians is the Bible. In other words. Christians often describe their god through three manifestations that they call the Holy Trinity: the father (God). there might be still a growing in numbers of members but it does not mean that all members are faithfully following the rules of pious behaviors expected. is another significant development. and educational downturn. One foundation of Christian doctrine is the Ten Commandments. the regular attendance or affiliation does not necessarily translate into a behavior according to their doctrinal teachings. depending on its definition and the definition of its scope. in particular. Conversely. Max Weber. and Karl Marx and psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud anticipated secularization.

For it is religion that provides us with great insights about the structure. the way of life.Religion has a major impact on the lives of all people and their relationships with each other. or are crippled by mental or emotional illness. where they encounter persecution. or live in abject poverty: those for whom the rigours of this life are only manageable because they hold out the hope that beyond the immediacy of this world and their personal circumstances there exists a place where suffering and hardship will be at an end. Although I follow no particular religion. or struggle with long-term physical disability. according to me. it seems that the believer’s ‘hope’ is a very good thing – that religion indeed is a real blessing within a society in which humanist solutions have not readily provided all the answers to the dysfunctional aspects of life. If all the hardships and suffering in the world are made more bearable to people because they believe that God is aware of their situation and will rescue them in time then. This is perhaps because religion. Without studying religion. our knowledge about the society would be incomplete. I regard the idea of religion with great reverence. . provides a vestige of ‘hope’ to millions of people who live in impossible situations. the beliefs and the values governing a particular society. and which brings meaning and significance to the trials being endured.