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Bryan Luu

Can Sociology Study Religion?


Sociology is the scientific study of how and why society or groups behave or develop as they do.
It is an evidence based study and, therefore, an objective one. For most sociological studies, there is a
common approach (simplified here): Define the problem, formulate a hypothesis, design an experiment,
and collect results. On the contrary, religion is unique because it is subjective to each its practitioner.
Moreover, if this religion revolves around an intangible deity, this prevents the sociologist from
objectively studying the primary factor which drives the religion. As a result, it is difficult to see how
religion can possibly be studied to completion by sociology. Yet, while sociology might not entirely
unravel religion, I argue that sociology is able to study certain aspects of religion which cause observable
effects in society.
Sociology can begin to study religion by first identifying which parts of it are objective and which
are not. This will give insight into what can be and cannot be studied effectively. For instance, a
subjective matter might be an individuals relationship with his or her deity and how that affects his life
style. On the other hand, an objective matter might consider the external effects religion might have on
a persons interaction with his environment. The first scenario cannot be observed because evidence of
effect is based on personal experience. The latter, however, allows room for sociological questioning.
For example: Does a person first practice religion by habit before she views it as personal and
sentimental? How much of religious values are carried into everyday behaviors? To what extent does
denomination play a role on individual behavior? How much time do individuals spend studying their
religion? Is there any commonality of behavior between those who spend similar amounts of time
studying religion? The answers to these questions can be observed, measured, surveyed, and presented.
In this manner, a sociologist will study religion.
While it is unlikely that such data would change how religion continues to influence relations on
a societal level, this information might be purposeful for an individual. At the level of an individual,
awareness of the interaction between the religious and the nonreligious might facilitate communication
with both groups. Or, it might help a church planter understand to which demographic region religion
seems to most appeal. However, in the grand scheme of societies, this data will not make more
religious persons nor de-convert those that are religious. It may be insightful information, but it is
largely inconsequential information. This is because Sociology cannot study the why of religion. It
cannot explain why people need religion, what causes convictions, and the reason for faith based living.
That requires a description of personal experience which is not presentable as scientific evidence. Yet, it
is personal experience which is most often the strongest motivation for change. Personal experience is
what moved Martin Luther King Jr. to become a leader for the Civil Rights Movement. It is what drives
the family of a suicide victim to initiate a suicide awareness organization. Therefore, Sociologys inability
to study this aspect of religion also limits sociology as a tool to study religion.
No one aspect of human social development can be studied by one approach, as is with religion.
In that light, sociology can be utilized to understand how religious persons interact with their religion as
a practice. In turn, one can study how that influences the way they interact with their environment. As
a small insight, this knowledge can be useful in certain scenarios where it can serve as means to
facilitate understanding of religious groups. However, it makes small contribution to society in terms of
creating long term change. The sociological approach fails to discover a piece of religion that is
consequential because it is constrained from studying the personal experience of religion, which is,
arguably, the most significant part.