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Durkheim and the Sociological Approach to Religion

Sociologists are interested in the social impact of religion on individuals and

institutions. Consequently, if a group believes that it is being directed by a Vision
from God a sociologist will not attempt to prove or disprove this revelation
instead, he will assess the effects of the religious experience of the group.
Emile Durkheim was perhaps the first sociologist to recognize the critical
importance of religion in human societies. He viewed religion as a collective act and
includes many forms of behavior in which people interact with one another.
He initiated sociological analysis of religion by defining religion as a unified
system of beliefs and practices related to sacred things. The sacred
encompasses those elements beyond ever day life which inspire awe, respect, and
even fear. People become a part of the sacred realm only by completing some
rituals, such as prayers or sacrifices.
He viewed religion as an integrative power in human society a perspective
reflected in functionalist thought.

The Element of Religion

The religious framework of meaning is composed of 5 basic elements:
1. Beliefs
Religious beliefs affirm the existence of a divine or supernatural order, define
its character and purposes, and explain the role of humans play in that order.
A belief is a conviction that cannot be proved or disproved by ordinary
means. Religious beliefs organize an individuals perception of the world and
serve as a guide for behavior. For example, animist religions hold that the
world is inhibited by spirits with motives and emotions like our own. This
animist belief in spirits explains the occurrence of illness or accidents and
prescribes a course of action.
According to Yinger, 1995, religious beliefs differ from other types of beliefs
in that, they are based on faith in powers and processes whose existence
cannot be proved by simple observation.
2. Rituals
Religious rituals are formal, stylized enactment of religious beliefs like
processions, chants, prayers, sacraments, and that alike. Religious rituals
differ from other religious activities in that believers attached symbolic
meaning to them. Example, lighting candles on a menorah to commemorate
the Festivals of Lights.
3. Subjective Experience
The subjective experiences of religion grow out beliefs and rituals. Beliefs
direct people to interpret certain inner states and group experience as
religious rituals may be used to involve or recall communion with
supernatural. Religious experiences range from the belief that ones life is in
the hands of divine power to intense mystical experiences that inspire terror
and awe.
Religious experiences may be intensely private and personal. Like other
experiences, they are shaped by norms. Religious beliefs, religious rituals,
and religious experiences are interrelated and help to reinforce one another.
4. Cult
Cult is a group having a sacred ideology and a set of rites centering around
their sacred symbols. It is a religious organization that accepts the legitimacy
of other religion but has a negative relationship to society.

They are more concerned with getting the individual in tune with
supernatural, and individual peace of mind than with social change. Because
the emphasis is on the individual, they tend to be more tolerant to other
According to Richardson, 1998, people join cults for different reasons. Some
recruits may be attracted to the groups philosophy; others may be
persuaded or pressured into joining.
Other may be looking for a way to meet people, a meal or a place to stay.
5. Sects
Sects can be defined as a relatively small religious group that has broken
away from some other religious organization to renew what it views as the
original vision of the faith. Sects are fundamentally at odds with society and
do not seek to become established national religion. The sects require
intensive commitments and demonstrations of beliefs by members.
Usually sects are often short lived; however, if they are able to survived, they
may become less antagonistic to society and begin to resemble
The Nature of Religion
Religion is a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the
universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency,
usually involving devotional and ritual observance and behavior.
It is a specific and institutionalized set of beliefs and practices generally
agreed upon by a number of persons or sects.
Religion is a universal and pervasive phenomenon in social life which is a part
of cultural system. Because it is an integrated part of human existence and
experience and is assumed to meet a basic need of human being.
Religion cannot be segregated from the rest of mans life. It is the reaction of
a mans whole being to the object of his highest loyalty.
Definition of Religion
The modes of religious experience are diverse; hence, religion means
different persuasions to different people. This is the reason why it is very difficult to
reach a generally accepted definition in terms of uniformity of the term religion.
Etymologically, religion comes from the latin word religare, which means
to bind together. In ancient societies, the various phenomena of nature are often
associated with a number of things or objects revered as sacred. God like
personalities befitting deities are usually believed to possess some mystical or
occult powers.
William James says, one might say that religious life consists of the beliefs
that there is an unseen order and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously
adjusting ourselves thereto. These beliefs and these adjustments are the religious
attitude in the soul.
According to Emile Durkheim, religion is a unified system of beliefs and
practices relative to sacred things.
For Evans Pritchard, religion belongs to sacred things, things protected and
isolated by prohibitions and set apart by from the mundane.

According to Giddens, all religions involve a set of symbols which arouse a

profound feelings of reverence associated with the rites or ceremonies practiced by
the community of believers.
Instrument of Religion
1. Ritual is a single definite religious act. Examples are prayers, singing sacred
songs, temple dances and making some offerings.
2. Ceremony is a complete religious performance consisting of related and
interconnected rituals. Examples are Sunday mass or religious service,
wedding ceremony, baptism, house blessing, and car blessing.
3. Taboos are prohibition to do certain acts, which if violated, may bring
punishment or misfortune to violators. Examples Catholics are prohibited
from eating meat on Good Friday; Muslim don not eat pork; Hindus are
prohibited from eating cow meat: almost all religions prohibit incest; Muslim
can have two or more wives at the same time but this is taboo to Christians.
Religion are classified according to the number of gods worshipped as follows:
1. Monotheistic. A religion is monotheistic if there is only one god or God
worshipped. Christianity is monotheistic as well as Islam.
2. Polytheistic. A religion is a polytheistic if there is more than one god
worshipped. Some religions are polytheistic.
3. Animistic. A religion is animistic if many animate and inanimate objects are
worshipped. Paganism is often animistic. Some pagan worship the moon, the
sun, a big rock and a big tree.

Functions of Religion
Horace T. Houf, professor of philosophy, identified the important functions of
1. Religion gives man assurance of superhuman help and brings comfort in
times of distress and crises.
2. Religion offers some practical explanations to the presence and meaning of
evil and provides a technique for overcoming it.
3. Religion provides a way of salvation from evil, and its best gift to men is its
actual integration of the personality of the individuals.
4. Religion motivates individuals and group life. It involves a valuing attitude
toward life, its interest and activities. It has been identified with the choosing
of values which are of group importance and the rejection of those which are
anti-social. It cultivates faith, hope, beauty, goodness and love and respect
for the human life.
5. Religion supports sound morals, it integrates and promotes group solidarity
Some sociologist enumerated a number of what they perceived as major functions
of religion. They agree that religions contributions are as follows:
1. It gives the person peace of mind through the discovery of a way to spiritual
2. It legitimizes the foundation of the culture of society and integrates its value
system by way of defining and explaining what God requires from its
adherents and providing rules and norms of conduct to regulate human

3. It justifies rationalizes and supports the sentiments that gives cohesion to a

particular society. The expression of common belief among its members
through collective action and rituals tend to reinforce devotion to realize
group goals.
4. It allays fears and anxieties from the individual by reassuring him of the care
and protection of his deity. Religion provides people with an explanation for
their frustrations and sufferings and helps them rationalize.
5. It provides norms of behaviour for proper conduct of the daily activities of the
6. It performs social activities through welfare, education and recreation
functions. Religious institutions run schools; provide welfare programs such
as hospitals, orphanages medical and dental clinics and other health-related
7. It serves as a means of social control. Religion exerts a great influence upon
an individual because he has to act according to the tenets of his religion. In
the Christian religion, for instance, a Christian usually obeys the Ten
Commandments in spirit as well as to the letter. Among the Ten
Commandments are: Thou shall not kill: Thou shall not steal; Thou shall not
commit adultery; .A Christian tries very hard not to violate such
8. It exerts a great influence upon personality development. The environment
greatly affects the personality development of an individual. Since religion is
very much part of environment, it follows that religion affects the personality
development of an individual.
9. It allays fear of the unknown. Man fear death very much because of the
uncertainty of life after death. Religious allay this fear by giving him hope of
eternal and glorious life.
10.It supplies the explanation to events or situations, which are beyond the
comprehension of man.
11.It gives man comfort, strength, and hope in times of crisis and despair. It is
the belief of religious person that his god always comes to his aid or in times
of need. This belief gives man hope and strength to bear his problems.
12.It preserves and transmits knowledge, skills, spiritual and cultural values. In
practicing the tenets of their religion all these are transmitted from
generation to generation.
13.It serves as an instrument of change. This is true especially in social order.
For example, when Christianity spread throughout the world, more humane
laws were passed by government.
14.It promotes closeness, love cooperation, friendliness and helpfulness. This is
true especially among the members of the religion and sometimes among
different religious group in the spirit of ecumenism.
15.It alleviates sufferings from major calamities. When disasters or calamities
strikes, different religious group usually send relief goods to the affected area
in the spirit of benevolence.
it provides hope for a blissful life after death. Different religions have
different versions of the kind of life after death, but almost all agree that a
blissful life awaits those who have led good lives and a tormented life awaits
those who have sinned against their god.

Some Religious Beliefs and Practices

Religious differ but there are beliefs and practices that are common to most
of the. Some of these are the following.
1. Belief in Supreme Being, all-powerful, creator, or essence of the universe.
Some religions believe in a multiplicity of supernatural beings called Gods,
Goddesses, or Deities.
2. Belief in the power of the Supreme Being to pour out blessings upon those
who obey His laws and commandments an to give punishments to those who
disobey them.
3. Belief that the performances of ceremonies, consisting of ritual such as
prayers, singing sacred songs, fasting and penance, would befit the
reverence and worship accorded to the Supreme Being that would make Him
pour out His blessings upon those who believe.
4. Belief in spiritual and morals codes. All religions have spiritual and moral
Some learn God through the wonders of science and technology. Others are
led to know God through their sufferings and difficulties. Still some are taught
about God by the church or by individual believers who feel that it is their
responsibility to share their religious experience because they have
immensely felt the presence of God in their lives. The anti-clerical and
atheists are presence of god in their lives. The anti-clericals and atheists are
indifferent and hostile towards all religious beliefs and practices. This
negative attitude towards God and religion may have been caused by their
serious analysis of the way in which religious institutions have operated in
Disadvantages of Religion
Religion has also disadvantages. Some of which are the following:
1. Religions promotes divisiveness. Sometimes, religion divides people into
enemy camps even to extent of engaging themselves in armed conflicts. It
is historical fact that early Christians were pitilessly persecuted by Roman
emperors, especially Nero, because of religion.
2. Religion promotes the concept of predestination of fatalism. Some poor
people believe that it is the will of God that they become poor and remain
poor throughout their lives, they do not struggle hard enough to improve
their lives they believe that no matter how much they struggle they will
always remain poor they are contented remaining poor because they
believe they will be compensated in heaven.