Sociology of Religion Research Paper

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The task of building a scientific understanding of religion is a central part of the sociological enterprise. Indeed, in one sense the origins of the sociology can be attributed to the efforts of nineteenth-century Europeans to come to grips with the crisis of faith that shook Western society during the revolutionary upheavals of its industrial transformation. Most of the great European intellectuals of this era sought to formulate some sort of rational scientific paradigm to replace the religious foundations of Western culture, and such founding sociologists as Comte, Marx, and Durkheim were no exceptions.



Since the early sociologists were trying to break free from the hegemonic religious paradigm that had long dominated European thought, it is not surprising that they were fascinated with the phenomena of religion itself. As they became increasingly aware of the fecund diversity of religious life around the world, a number of basic questions arose that still lie at the heart of the quest for a sociological understanding of religion. Why are religious beliefs and practices so universal? Why do they take such diverse forms? How do social forces help shape those beliefs and practices? What role does religion, in turn, play in social, economic, and political life?

What is Religion?

The first step in understanding religion is obviously to decide what it is, but as is so often the case, defining this basic concept is a far more difficult business than it appears at first glance. A good place to start is with Émile Durkheim.According to this classic sociologist, religion is a “unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say things set apart and forbidden—beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them” (Dukheim [1915] 1965:62). Although this definition clearly requires some surgery to remove its Eurocentrism, it shows remarkable insight into the fundamental sociological characteristics of religion. The most obvious change that needs to be made is to remove the word “church,” because that normally refers only to Christian religions. There are, however, some more fundamental problems especially with Durkheim’s inclusion of the concept of the sacred in his definition. While “sacred things” play a major role in most religions, they are certainly not the sine qua non of religious life. In the Buddhist view, for example, there is nothing “set apart and forbidden” about meditation, ethical behavior, the cultivation of wisdom, or the other central tenets of their beliefs and practices. On the other hand, however, it doesn’t seem justified to call any system of beliefs and practices a religion. The Christian theologian Paul Tillich’s (1967) contention that religion involves issues of “ultimate concern” is far more broadly applicable (see Kurtz 1995:8–9).

For sociological purposes, at least, we can then say that religion involves three key elements: beliefs, practices, and a social group. Although religious beliefs are not always as systematically organized as Durkheim seemed to believe, those beliefs do deal in some way or other with the questions of ultimate concern the believers face. The realm of religious practice is too vast to enumerate here, because it involves everything from rituals and ceremonies to dietary and behavioral standards and various spiritual disciplines, but it is clearly a central part of religious life. Finally, religion is a social phenomenon that involves groups of people. The solitary philosopher does not become a religious figure until one shares his or her ideas with a group of people.

Sociological Theories Of Religion

Sociology starts with the rather eccentric figure of August Comte (1798–1857). Like many young intellectuals of his time, Comte believed that religion was an archaic holdover from the past. Comte held that in the course of history, theological thinking gave way to metaphysical thinking, which in turn gave way to scientific thinking or what he called “positive philosophy.” Science, then, was the replacement for religion. When applied to the systematic study of society, it could be used to construct a rational social order guided by the sociologists that would eliminate the ancient problems that plagued humanity. Ironically, this determined opponent of religion suffered a mental breakdown toward the end of his life and refused to read anything but a medieval devotional text known as The Imitation of Christ.


Marx (1818–1883) was of course far more influential than Comte, and he was the first of the sociological giants to address the issue of religion. Although he shared the idea with many nineteenth-century thinkers that religious faith was an unscientific holdover from earlier times, his economic determinism and revolutionary commitment gave his views a particular slant. Religion in his perspective was merely part of the ideological superstructure erected on and shaped by the underlying economic realities and had no kind of independence of its own. Nonetheless, religion does play an important and clearly negative social role. For Marx (1844), religion was a profound form of social alienation because

the worker is related to the product of his labor as to an alien object. . . . The more the worker expends himself in work the more powerful becomes the world of objects which he creates in face of himself, the poorer he becomes in his inner life, and the less he belongs to himself. It’s just the same as in religion. The more of himself man attributes to God the less he has left in himself. (P. 122)

Religion in capitalist society provides a comforting illusion that obscures the realities of class conflict and class interest and, thus, is a profound example of false consciousness. By consoling the frustrated and oppressed, it helps prevent collective action to change the real source of their problems. Thus, religion was, in Marx’s famous phrase, “the opiate of the masses.”

Others in the Marxist tradition have taken a more nuanced position on religion, including his benefactor Fredrich Engels. Engels recognized that religion in some circumstances actually supported the struggle of the oppressed, as he felt was the case with early Christianity (Marx and Engels 1957). Most contemporary Marxists follow Engels’s position holding a general skepticism and suspicion of religious institutions, but recognizing that some religious developments, such as liberation theology in Latin American Catholicism, can be a progressive force.

Durkheim and the Functionalists

While religion was of only a passing concern to Marx, it was central to the foundational French sociologist Émile Durkheim (1858–1917). In his major work on the sociology of religion, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Durkheim ([1915] 1965) studied the religious life of the Australian aborigines on the questionable assumption that it was more primitive and simple than in the European nations and thus reflected religion in its most basic forms. Durkheim was particularly fascinated with the totemistic aspects of aboriginal religion. He concluded that the totems, objects or animals held in special awe by a particular clan, actually had little to do with the supernatural but were in fact symbols of the social group. He went on to argue that if the totem “is at once the symbol of the god and of the society, is that not because the god and the society are only one?” (Durkheim [1915] 1965:236). Thus, even in European society, Durkheim saw the worship of God to be nothing more than the worship of society. Society is the transcendent reality that religion symbolizes, and it not only has its own needs but even takes on a kind of anthropomorphic form in some of his writings. Society personifies itself in the form of totems or Gods to be revered and worshiped because it needs to reaffirm its legitimacy and worth to its members. And just as the Gods symbolize society, the soul is the symbol of the social element within the individual that lives on long after the people themselves.

Although the almost metaphysical elements in Durkheim’s thought were not particularly influential, his idea that religion functioned to meet basic social needs became a sociological truism. Over the years, functionalist theory grew more complex and sophisticated and is now one of the most widely used theoretical paradigms in the sociology of religion. Of particular importance was the contribution of Robert Merton (1957), who introduced the concept of the dysfunction. In his view, social institutions not only perform functions for society, but they also have dysfunctional consequences. Over the years, functionalists have developed a long list of the functions and dysfunctions of religion. Following O’Dea (1966:4–18), we can divide the human needs that religion meets into two categories—expressive and adaptive. Religion helps meet our expressive emotional needs by providing a supernatural context in which the hard realities of human life— powerlessness, uncertainty, injustice, and the inevitability of death—can be given meaning and purpose. Religion provides support and consolation, and its cult and ceremonies can encourage a sense of security and identity with something larger than the self. According to the functionalists, religion’s most important adaptive function is the way it sacralizes and reinforces the norms and values on which social order depends. Common rituals and common beliefs also help bind people together into a common community. In a different context, however, each function can become a dysfunction. By comforting and consoling people, religion may also discourage action for the needed social change. By making norms and values sacred, it not only strengthens them, but it may make them much harder to change when the times require it.

Weber and the Historical-Comparative Approach

Like Durkheim, Max Weber (1864–1920) devoted a great deal of his enormous intellectual energy to the study of religion. Ever the rationalist, however, he was disinclined toward Durkheim’s kind of philosophical speculation or Marx’s political partisanship. If there is one underlying objective of Weber’s richly detailed historical and comparative examination of religion, it was to understand the relationship between religion and economic life. Where Marx saw a simple economic determinism, Weber saw a complex reciprocal interaction. In his most famous work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber (1930) argued the revolutionary thesis that Puritanism was one key factor in the Industrial Revolution. It was not, as Weber’s argument is sometimes misconstrued, just that Puritanism encouraged hard work (a strong work ethnic is certainly found in many non-European cultures). But also that Puritanism saw economic success as a sign of divine favor while demanding extreme rational self-control and a frugal lifestyle—conditions ideally suited to encourage the capital accumulation needed for the process of industrialization. Weber subsequently expanded his studies by examining the obstacles to economic rationalization posed by the religious and cultural traditions in other parts of the world, especially in China (1951) and India (1958).

Weber (1952, 1963) saw the influence of socioeconomic forces on religion in terms of what he called elective affinities. Weber felt that people in social groups with different lifestyles had an affinity for different kinds of religious beliefs. Those affinities may be based on the characteristics of entire societies, such as the tendency for foragers to believe in nature spirits or the appeal to monotheism for pastoralists. Or they may affect smaller-status groups, such as merchants who are attracted to rational calculating religions, or privileged elites with their proclivity for elaborate ritual and ceremony. However, Weber saw these relationships only as affinities, not as fixed and deterministic. Historical forces such as a foreign conquest can induce persons from a particular status group to adopt a religion for which they do not have a natural affinity.

The Sacred Canopy

One of the most popular of the more recent sociological theories of religion is built around Peter Berger’s (1969) metaphor of the “sacred canopy.” Drawing on the phenomenological and interactionist traditions, Berger holds human society to be an enterprise of world-building. It is, in other words, an effort to create a meaningful reality in which to live. This is a dialectical process that has three underlying movements. The first is “externalization,” which “is the ongoing outpouring of human beings into the world, both in the physical and the mental activities of man” (Berger 1969:4). Next comes the process of “objectivation,” which gives the products of this activity a reality and power that is independent of those who created it. Finally, individuals take this socially constructed reality into their own inner life in the process of “internalization.” Through this process society creates a nomos—a meaningful order that is imposed on the universe. The most important aspect of this socially established nomos is that it is “a shield against terror” protecting us from the “danger of meaninglessness” (Berger 1969:22).

Religion plays a key role in this process because it is the human enterprise by which a sacred cosmos is established. It is, in turn, the awesome mysterious power of the sacred that confronts the specter of chaos and the inevitability of death. According to Berger (1969), the “power of religions depends, in the last resort, upon the credibility of the banners it puts in the hands of men as they stand before death, or more accurately, as they walk inevitably, toward it” (p. 51).

The Religious Marketplace

Despite the powerful way Berger’s theory links the existential and the social dimension of religion, the idea that religion provides a single scared canopy over today’s pluralistic societies has it limitations. A number of current scholars are now using a different theoretical paradigm— rational choice theory—to construct a model that explicitly recognizes the reality of religious diversity (Stark and Bainbridge 1985; Finke and Stark 1992; Warner 1993; Iannaccone 1994). The basic idea is that the kind of consumer decision making analyzed by economic theory also applies to religious behavior. This approach looks at the public as consumers of religious who are out to satisfy their needs by obtaining the best “product.” Religious organizations are entrepreneurial establishments competing in a religious marketplace ruled by the laws of supply and demand.

Although religious “merchandise” is considered in just the same way as any other product, there is one important difference. The costs and benefits the consumers must weigh are often supernatural (such as the promise of an afterlife) and therefore cannot be empirically proven. This leaves the religious organization free to make almost any kind of claims it wishes, but it also creates the problem that the consumers are often uncertain about whether or not they will actually receive the benefits it promises.

Thus, demanding groups that require high commitment often have the most attractive product, because they create greater feelings of certainty among consumers that they will actually receive the promised rewards. Another important point stressed by these theorists is that greater religious pluralism will encourage greater religiosity among the public, because it stimulates competition among different religious groups to improve their “product” in order to protect and expand their market share. Societies with a state religion, on the other hand, will tend to have less religious vitality because the established religion will be less responsive to the needs of the public (Finke and Stark 1992).

The metaphor of the marketplace is a useful tool for sociological analysis, but it can also be seriously misleading because there are also some fundamental ways in which religion is unlike an economic commodity. One of the most obvious is that the majority of people stay in the religion into which they were born and do not change even if another religion in the “marketplace” offers more benefits and less costs. Moreover, “religious products” are not really subject to market exchange, because they have no direct monetary value. A church cannot put its product on sale if the customers don’t come. Finally, as in other aspects of human life, rational choice theory fails to recognize the deep emotional forces involved in religious life that are often quite impervious to the beckonings of reason.

The Social Psychology Of Religion

This examination of the theory of religion would not be complete without mentioning one other great nineteenthcentury thinker, Sigmund Freud (1856–1939). His thinking contains many similarities to the more sociologicaloriented theorists who have grappled with the problem of religion. Like Berger, for example, Freud saw religion as an attempt to deal with the fundamental problem of human existence. For Berger, that problem was the need for meaning, whereas for Freud, it was our inability to obtain the things we want and need. Religion in Freud’s (1957) words “is born of the need to make tolerable the helplessness of man” (p. 54). Religion helps create a world in which we feel less threatened and more at home. But like so many other social scientists of this time, Freud felt that while religion may be comforting, it is a comforting illusion. Thus, religion is a kind of infantile wish fulfillment. In the face of our helplessness and defenselessness, we crave the solace and support we received from our parents when we were children, so we project a father figure into the heavens and call it God. While more recent psychological thinkers do not necessarily share Freud’s metaphysical position, the idea that the patriarchal God of Western monotheism is a father figure and that the female Goddesses in other traditions are symbolic representations of the mother is widespread.

The Religious Experience

Because these sociological and psychological theorists focus on the roles religion plays and the needs it meets, they often lose sight of the experiential foundations of religious life. But no matter how skeptical one may be about their meaning, there is no doubt that many people have religious or mystical experiences. Indeed, most of the world’s major religions trace their origins to such events. The experience Moses had when Yahweh gave him the Ten Commandments, Mohammad’s experience as the Angel Gabriel revealed Allah’s words in the Koran, and Siddhartha Gautama’s great enlightenment experience under the Bodhi tree are just a few examples of religious experiences that have literally changed the course of human history. But how, then, is the social scientist to understand such events? Freud, Durkheim, and Marx along with many of the other founders of the sociology of religion would dismiss such experiences as hallucinations, but that hardly seems to do such momentous events justice. Believers in the various faiths founded on such visions would say their accounts of what happened are literally true, but that of course leaves the problem that the “truths” revealed in one religious tradition often contradict the “truths” of another. The inescapable fact is that fact experiences that lie completely beyond the bounds of the ordinary must be still expressed in terms of the cultural expectations, assumptions, and language of the individuals who try to report them.

In his classic study The Idea of the Holy, Rudolf Otto (1923) argues that religious experiences involve what he calls mysterium tremendum et fascinosum. That is, the experience of the holy is one of a terrifying power, fascinating yet absolutely unapproachable and wholly other. Ironically, most mystics in the Asian tradition and many Westerners as well describe such peak experiences in just the opposite way—a complete dissolution of the bounds of the normal self that produces an absolute unity with the entire universe (see Anonymous 1978; Kapleau 1989).

Of course, all religious experiences are not so overwhelming and profound. Like other experiences, they come in all ranges of intensities and in countless different forms. The feeling of holiness and tranquility one feels when entering a beautiful church or the sense of wonder and joy when seeing a mountain sunset are milder forms of religious experience, as are the states produced by effective rituals that invoke a sense of reverence and awe in the participant.

There is often a considerable difference in the importance placed on religious experience even among religious groups with relatively similar backgrounds. Among Protestant Christians, for example, the Pentacostalists give great importance to the direct emotional experience of the spirit of God, whereas the Puritans reject such emotionalism in favor of Bible studies and ethical discipline.

Religion and Identity

In societies with a single dominant faith, religious affiliation often becomes a taken-for-granted assumption and does not necessarily play a significant role in personal identity. The more religiously divided a society is, however, the more central the religion is likely to become in defining who one is. In pluralistic countries such as the United States, religious affiliation commonly provides a sense of belonging amid the anonymous institutions of mass society.

Religious identity is often mixed with ethnic identity— to be an Arab in many parts of the world is to be a Muslim, just as Serbs are identified with Orthodoxy, Croatians with Catholicism, and Thais with Buddhism. This combination can be an explosive one in areas with high levels of ethnic conflict. Religious differences aggravate ethnic conflict by providing emotionally charged symbols, systems of meaning that compete for cultural dominance, and a certain tendency to see one’s own group as having a monopoly on the truth.

Religion can play another role in personal identity by reinforcing a definition of oneself as a particular kind of person. Those with high levels of religious involvement and commitment often define themselves as more moral, more spiritual, or more wise than other people. Many religious groups hold that their faith is the one true faith, and even that fellow believers are an elite group that will receive heavenly rewards in the afterlife, whereas all others will suffer horrible torments. So the members of such groups tend to see themselves as part of a special elite of the “saved.” Although such beliefs can obviously reinforce self-esteem, they can also foster fear and anxiety if one fails to live up to the expectations of the religious group or begins to doubt the truth of its doctrines. They can also encourage a sense of hostility or even violence toward nonbelievers.

Religion may also have a critical role in sustaining identity change. In most societies, religiously rooted rites of passage publicly declare and reinforce changes in social status and the new identity that goes with them, for example, coming of age or marriage ceremonies. Religious groups may play a critical role in helping individuals make other radical changes in their lives as well. Religious organizations have often succeeded in helping drug abusers and compulsive gamblers where other programs have failed, because they offer an attractive new identity and a strong community to support it. A religious conversion or recommitment often follows various kinds of personal crises for much the same reasons.

Conversion and Commitment

Although there is a considerable amount of sociological research about “religious conversion,” the concept is in some ways an unfortunate one for it seems to imply an allor-nothing dichotomy. One is a member of one religion and then “converts” to a different one. In many cases, however, a “conversion” is more like a renewal or return to existing religious beliefs. Moreover, despite the exclusivity of many Western religions, there is no particular reason to assume that people must leave their old religion before joining a new one. A substantial percentage of the population of Japan would, for example, identify themselves as both Shintoists and Buddhists.

Most of the sociological research on conversion and commitment focuses on one of two types of religions— fundamentalist Christians and members of what are called the new religious movements. The most striking finding of the research on conservative Christian faiths is that most of their “converts” actually came from the same kind of conservative Christian background. Richardson and Stewart’s (1978) study of the Jesus Movement in the 1960s and 1970s found that most of their converts were “hippies” who were returning to their original fundamentalist roots. Bibby and Brinkerhoff’s (1974) study of fundamentalist churches in a large metropolitan area in the United States also found that most converts were already religious insiders from evangelical backgrounds. Unlike the popular image of religious conversion, Zetterberg (1952) found that only 16 percent of converts to the Christian Church he studied experienced a sudden change in lifestyle. For most of his subjects, religious “conversion” was more like a “sudden role identification” in which they identified themselves more clearly in religious terms.

The media attention in the 1960s and 1970s to religious cults that appeared to be brainwashing young converts stimulated considerable sociological attention on this subject. To avoid the stigma attached to the term cult, however, sociologists now more often use the term new religious movements (NRMs) (see Roberts 2004:187–197). But somewhat confusingly, the term does not apply to any new religion only but to groups outside the religious mainstream that have an intense encapsulating community and often a strong charismatic leader. The most well-known study of conversion to NRMs is John Lofland’s work on the Unification Church of Reverend Sun Myung Moon. Lofland (1966) found that conversion to the Unification Church followed a series of stages. First, the potential convert was “picked up” by members of the group, then he or she was showered with attention and “hooked.” In the next stage, they are “encapsulated”—isolated from contacts with those outside the group—and the final result is “commitment” to the group. Lofland’s model has been criticized for giving potential converts too passive a role in the process, something he himself later recognized (Snow and Phillips 1980; Lofland and Skonovd 1981).

Like other researchers, Lofland (1966) concluded that people with high levels of emotional tension and dislocations are more prone to religious conversions. Conversion or a renewed religious commitment is, then, one possible response to intractable personal problems. Thomas O’Dea (1966) argued that religious conversion was also part of a “quest for community.” Migrants, marginalized people seen as deviants by mainstream society, and others suffering from anomie and social disorganization are therefore prime candidates for a transforming religious commitment.

Sociologists, however, often neglect the obvious point that in addition to the desire to deal with pressing personal difficulties and to be part of a supportive community, people also make religious conversions for religious reasons. That is, they seek some kind of spiritual growth or religious experience. The members of the Western Buddhist groups that Coleman (2001) surveyed ranked the desire for spiritual growth as a more important reason for getting involved in Buddhism than a desire to deal with personal problems or to be with other members of those groups. More tellingly, the average respondent reported that they began to meditate about four years before they joined a Buddhist group—obviously, not something we would expect of someone whose primary goal was to find a supportive social community.

Religious Movements

There is probably no other sphere of human life in which more effort is made to maintain unchanging traditions than in religion. Yet religious life everywhere is in a constant state of dynamic change. Even in the most stable eras, religious beliefs and practices are undergoing continual change from generation to generation, and new religious movements often spring up unexpectedly to challenge orthodox views.

Weber traced the origins of most religious movements to charismatic leaders, who are often the bearers of radical new religious ideas. The charismatic leader, according to Weber (1947), has “a certain quality of . . . individual personality by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities” (pp. 358–59). The qualities and insights of the charismatic leader are creative, out of the ordinary, and spontaneous, and as such she or he is a major source of social change and innovation. When the charismatic leader issues a call, people follow, and things change. Thus, charismatic leaders are often seen as a threat to established religion, which may respond with various repressive measures.

In its early days, the charismatic religious movement draws its legitimacy and inspiration from its leader. But once the charismatic leader dies, the movement is thrown into crisis. If the movement is to survive, it must undergo a process Weber termed the “routinization of charisma.” The special inspiration and magical quality of the leader must be incorporated into the routine institutionalized structures of society. In literate societies, the words and actions of the leader are written down and become revered holy books. The followers who gathered around the leader are typically subsumed into a formalized religious institution with the charismatic figure’s inner circle as its leaders. Rules, rituals, and specialized roles are developed to keep the leader’s message and the religious movement going.

This process of institutionalization is essential if the movement is to survive, but ironically, it can also sap its religious vitality and even subvert the intentions of the founder. As religious institutions become more powerful and more bureaucratic, the goals of the leaders are often displaced from spiritual objectives to the maintenance and enhancement of their own positions. Rituals and practices that were once vital and alive become stale, and the enthusiasm of the original converts is replaced by the complacency of those born into the faith. As this trend continues, the religion often generates revival movements that seek to shake things up and return to the original message of its charismatic founder.

The success of a new religious movement depends on both the qualities and skill of the charismatic leader and its sociological context. The religious message of the successful movement must have a stronger affinity to the needs and aspirations of particular status groups than competing religions. Political power is often critical to the expansion of the religion, as when conquering Islamic warriors propagated their faith across North Africa and the Middle East, or when the Christian faith of the European colonialists was spread throughout the vast empires they subjugated.

Religion and Social Structure

The most widely used typology of religious organization is probably Weber’s church-sect dichotomy. This useful, if somewhat Eurocentric, typology has been the subject of repeated elaborations and refinements over the years. Niebuhr (1957) added a third category, the denomination, between the first two, and some add a fourth (the cult), while still others have created subcategories within each broad type (Troeltsch 1931; Yinger 1970; Stark and Bainbridge 1985). Unfortunately, as the categories proliferated and their contents were elaborated in different ways by different sociologists, the classificatory scheme has become increasingly unwieldy.

The basic idea behind Weber’s original classification is, however, still a valuable one especially when conceptualized as a continuum rather than a series of ideal types. At one end is the “church” or, less Eurocentrically, the “established religion.” It is broad and universal and its members are usually born into the faith. It is well accommodated to the established order and, indeed, often receives official state support. At the other end is the sect, which is small and exclusive. Membership in the sect is by choice, and it demands a high degree of commitment and involvement. The roots of sectarianism are usually in some kind of protest movement, and in contrast to the established religion, there is an ongoing tension between the sect and the social order. As time goes by, however, both extreme types of religious organization tend to move more toward the middle. As the original members of the sect are succeeded by later generations, it tends to accommodate itself with the dominant social order, while established religions eventually split or see their hegemony eroded by new religious competition. European Christianity, for example, started as a sect, grew into an established religion, and then fragmented into multiple denominations.

Sectarian movements are most popular among the poor and disprivileged, groups that are naturally in a greater state of tension with the established order. But there are significant class differences even within established religions. In general, lower social strata have an affinity for emotional and expressive religion, while the middle and upper middle classes prefer more selfcontrolled rationalistic practice, and the upper class shows an attraction to elegant ceremony. In traditional Japan, for example, devotional Pure Land Buddhism was most popular among the peasants, and the disciplined Zen sect among the samurai, while the ritualistic Shigon held special appeal to the royalty.

Religion commonly plays another important role in the stratification system by legitimizing social inequality. One classic example concerning class inequality is the Hindu belief that someone who diligently carries out the obligations of their caste will be reborn into a higher caste in the future. Religion often plays a similar role in perpetuating gender inequality. First, many religious doctrines explicitly relegate women to subordinate positions. The Koran, for example, instructs women but not men to obey their spouse, dress modestly, and limit themselves to a single marital partner. Second, religious organizations often themselves discriminate against women as a matter of official policy. In Christianity, for example, the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and many Protestant churches categorically exclude women from the clergy. Many religions, especially in the Western tradition, also encourage or even require discrimination based on sexual orientation. However, because organized religion has often sided with the privileged and the powerful, it does not mean that it always does, and there are also numerous examples of religious movements that sought to overturn or reform an unjust social order.

The relationship between religion and politics is therefore a complex one. In some cases, religious groups are an oppositional force challenging the established order, although some form of accommodation or active support is far more common. But even in the latter case, the relationship between religion and government takes many forms. At one extreme we have the theocracy, such as contemporary Iran, in which religious elites dominate state organization. At the other extreme are the totalitarian states that rigidly control religious practice, as occurred in most of the Communist countries, or that use religion as a tool of government policy, as was the case with State Shinto in Meiji Japan. Religion offers a way to legitimize ruling elites in much the same way as it does for the overall stratification system as, for example, in the European belief in the divine right of kings. Equally important, it can provide a palate of powerful symbols that can be used to justify specific government actions. In the contemporary conflicts in the Middle East, for example, one side justifies its actions in terms of an Islam Jihad, whereas the other does the same in terms of what Bellah (1970) termed America’s “civil religion” (the belief that God supports America and that it has a moral duty to spread freedom and democracy around the world).

Religion in an Age of Globalization

Like all social institutions, religion has undergone a sweeping transformation as a result of the Industrial Revolution and the global changes it has wrought. Many of the early founders of the sociology of religion saw this religious change in relatively simplistic terms as a process of secularization in which old religious ideas and institutions were being replaced by new rational-scientific ones. Over the years, the advocates of this secularization thesis moderated their claims holding merely that the influence of religion on society and social life has declined as a result of this process of modernization (Roberts 2004:305–28). More recently, a number of scholars have challenged this thesis holding that people are as religious as they ever were and that the process of secularization has ground to a halt (e.g., Stark and Bainbridge 1985). Such claims touched off a powerful counterattack, and this remains one of the most hotly debated issues in the sociology of religion (Bruce 1996).

Much of the differences between the contestants rest on conflicting definitions of secularization, and, polemics aside, several points seem clear. First, although the trend is more marked in the core than the periphery, societies in all parts of the world are becoming more secular if by that we mean mythical and magical thought is being replaced by rational-scientific thought in many (but certainly not all) areas of social life. The world, in Max Weber’s term, is being “disenchanted.”

Second, there has been a sharp decline in the political and social hegemony of organized religion in European societies as they have undergone the process of modernization. This trend is, however, much less pronounced or nonexistent in other parts of the world. In societies where hegemonic monotheism never took root, religion played a much weaker political role from the start. The Animistic religions do not have much in the way of distinct religious institutions, and Asian societies have always tended more toward totalitarianism than theocracy. For example, the Chinese government under Mao Tse-tung began a harsh repression of organized religious activities before any significant process of modernization had taken place, and since then has slowly been loosening its grip as industrialization has proceeded. In recent years, religion has also become an organizing principle for various movements reacting against the contradictions and dislocations caused by the process of modernization and the global spread of consumer capitalism. The Islamic fundamentalist movement is a political/religious response both to the relegation of the Islamic cultures to a peripheral position in the world system with the foreign domination that that implies and to the spread of Western consumer values. Interestingly, Islamic fundamentalism was stimulated to a significant degree by the success of another political/religion movement, Zionism, in taking control of formerly Islam territories. And the growing militancy of Islamic fundamentalism, in turn, stimulated a counterreaction in India sometimes known as Hindu fundamentalism. Even the United States, with its hegemonic position in the world system, has seen the growth of its own political/religious movements. The rise of the religious right in America was, however, obviously not the result of foreign domination, but a response to changes in traditional family institutions and sexual mores that resulted from the growth of consumer capitalism.

Third, although individual religiosity is difficult to measure, there seems little reason to believe that people are any less interested than they ever were in the matters of “ultimate concern” that are the foundation of most religions. Of course, social crises can stimulate a change or intensification of religion interests. The rise of Sufism after the Mongolian conquest of the Middle East is one example, as was the rapid growth of new religions known as the “rush hour of the Gods,” which occurred in Japan following its devastating defeat in World War II. Nonetheless, no matter what form of social organization we adopt and what our historical circumstances are, the existential dilemmas that give rise to the religious impulse remain a fundamental part of the human condition.

The Future of the Sociology of Religion

Whatever the excesses of its early days, the sociology of religion played a vital role in establishing the independence of the social sciences from the religious worldview that dominated European thought. By making religion an object of scientific investigation like any other social phenomena, it broke through a deep cultural barrier to the understanding of the social world. Today, this critical freedom is often taken for granted, but it ranks as one of the major successes of the sociological enterprise.

As the twenty-first century unfolds, the challenges before the sociology of religion are quite different ones. The roots of the global political economy go back at least as far as the fifteenth century, but only with relatively recent advances in communications and transportation are we seeing the emergence of a truly global community. As the peoples of the world are bound ever more inextricably together, the protective social distance between the hegemonic claims of different religious groups have evaporated and smoldering conflicts burst into flame. The critical task of the sociology of religion in this new era is to free itself from its remaining bonds of Eurocentrism and to provide a balanced vantage point from which to begin unraveling the twisted knots of religious claims and conflicts. It is relatively easy for sociologists to laud the contribution that different religions have made to the common weal. It is a far greater challenge to point out the ways in which they foster violence, bigotry, and intolerance without fanning the flames of sectarian conflict. The sociology of religion is, nonetheless, in a unique position to provide the kind of cool rational voice needed to help foster a just pluralistic foundation for the emerging world community. But the success of this enterprise depends on sociology’s ability to live up to its own illusive ideals of objectivity and impartiality.


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