Beginning the Study of Religion: wk 7

In this week’s seminar, we focused on the sociology of religion. We looked at the different sociological definitions of religion, and how they can be criticised. We also briefly looked at the ideas of sociologists like Karl Marx, Max Weber and Emile Durkheim, who are considered the ‘founding fathers’ of modern sociological study.

Durkheim is of the opinion that religion is a social phenomenon – that we would not be religious ‘on our own’. The likes of Marx and Weber stress the relationship between religion and the economic and social structure of society. These sociologists would use both qualitative and quantitative methods in their research.

We saw that the sociological study of religion is different to the philosophical study of religion in the sense that the sociological study does not attempt to assess the validity of truth claims in religion, whereas the philosophical type of study is focused on trying to verify or falsify claims in religion. Modern sociology can also include the sociology of ‘irreligion’, the likes of secular humanism or civil religion. Sociology tends to consider the notion of religion as non-rational as there is no evidence, and therefore claims cannot be proven.  Sociologists ask questions like ‘how does religion affect society as a whole?’; ‘how does religion affect social institutions like marriage, economy etc?’; ‘how does one measure religiosity?’ and so on.

We then moved on to look at some definitions in the sociology of religion:

Functionalism – considers the functions religion has for society and consider how religion can encourage social stability. From this perspective, the existence of non-rational accounts of reality (such as religion) can be explained by the benefits they offer society.

Rationalism – objects to the functionalist and phenomenological approach. This theory says that people are religious, not for psychological comfort (like functionalists like Malinowski believe), but because they think they are actually correct.

Conflict theory -describes religion as the ‘opiate of the masses’ (Karl Marx), a way for the elite to reinforce lower class oppression. Religion is used by the bourgeoisie to justify things like racism, sexism, oppression of minorities etc. Focus on rewards in the afterlife blinds people to current oppression according to conflict theorists. Religion provides a false consciousness for the oppressed in society.


We also looked briefly at Max Weber and his typologies. Weber classifies religious groups as: ecclesias, which describes religions that are all-embracing , enmeshed with the political and economic structure of society; denominations, which refers to when the ecclasia loses the monopoly (truth); sects, which come about as a protest of parent denominations; cults, which are new religious movements (NRMs) described as non-traditional religious groups usually based on a belief in a divine element within the individual. An example of a cult is the Scientology movement, which focuses on self-actualisation and development, and trying to show its followers that they have capabilities within themselves, not given to them if they ask some sort of deistic figure.

We found in the seminar, that there were differing focuses of sociological studies, with some sociologists focusing on particular religious communities and their relationship with society, while others focus on the makeup of particular religious groups. Max Weber is an example of this type of thinking. He conducted a study into the correlation between Protestantism and capitalism. He discovered that one particular branch of Protestantism – Calvinism – can explain how the religion and social structure are linked. Calvinism preaches the idea of predestination, meaning that God has already decided who can enter Heaven and who can not. People who believed this thought that by working hard and making a profit, they would be sure of a place in Heaven, and therefore would make a profit and then reinvest their money to make an even bigger profit. As one would suspect, Weber found that ‘Protestant’ countries prospered more. For Weber, this explains capitalism from a religious point. Weber’s book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism explains his theory in more detail.

We briefly touched on modern sociology and how it differs. Early sociologists saw religion as being in decline,whereas modern thinkers such as Stark and Bainbridge believe religion will never disappear from society. Their theory of the ‘secularisation cycle’ explains how religion can be doubted sometimes, but will always end up having people turning to it.


As one would suspect, with so many sociological theories on religion, there are a fair amount of criticisms. In our seminar we looked at a few of the main ones that tend to crop up time and time again on the subject. There is the idea that the theories are too ‘eurocentric’ as many conclusions are based around Christianity, or at least the Abrahamic faiths. There is also the criticism that the idea of a compensator in the form of an afterlife does not correspond with Dharmic religions and their emphasis on imminence.

The conclusions drawn from this week’s seminar are that diversity of religious belief is not what sociologists find problematic, but rather why non-scientific beliefs exist in the first place. We also saw how the increase in spirituality in eastern societies has reversed the predicted trend of secularisation, and how because of this, sociologists now try to explain why religion still exists, not why they think it will decline.



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