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religion, sociology of

religion, sociology of The scientific study of religious institutions, beliefs, and practices had its origins in Marxism and the neo-Hegelian critique of religion, but it is primarily associated with the late nineteenth-century research into religious phenomena by Emile Durkheim, Georg Simmel, William Robertson Smith, Ernst Troeltsch, and Max Weber. A psychoanalytic theory of religious behaviour was also developed by Sigmund Freud (in, for example, Civilization and its Discontents, 1930). The sociology of religion should be distinguished from religious sociology, which has been employed by the Roman Catholic Church to improve the effectiveness of its missionary work in industrial societies, but it is related to both the phenomenology and anthropology of religion.

The sociology of religion should be seen as a critique of nineteenth-century positivist theories, which were concerned to explain the origins of religion on rationalist and individualistic assumptions. This positivist tradition regarded religion as the erroneous beliefs of individuals which would eventually disappear when scientific thought became widely established in society. It was assumed, for example, that Darwinism would undermine the religious belief in a divine creator. Religion was thought to be irrational.

The sociology of religion, by contrast, was concerned with religion as nonrational, collective, and symbolic. It was not interested in the historical origins of religion in ‘primitive society’. Religion was not based on erroneous belief, but responded to the human need for meaning. It was not individualistic but social and collective. It was about symbol and ritual rather than belief and knowledge. The growth of scientific knowledge was therefore irrelevant to the social functions of religion.

Émile Durkheim's The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912) is the classical statement of this sociological perspective. He defined religion as ‘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’. By ‘elementary forms’ Durkheim meant the basic structures of religious activity; he rejected as unscientific any inquiry into the primitive origins of religion, concentrating instead on the social functions of religious practices. He rejected also the rationalist critique of belief by focusing on practices relevant to the sacred. His approach has remained fundamental to a sociological understanding of religion.

The sociology of religion has thus been bound up with the problem of defining religion and distinguishing religion from magic. It has largely abandoned the idea that religion is a collection of beliefs in God. There has been an emphasis instead on practice in relation to the sacred. Alternative perspectives have defined religion as the ultimate concern which all human beings have to address. Many sociologists have subsequently identified the religious with the social.

There are two generally contrasted traditions in the sociology of religion: those of Durkheim and Weber. Whereas Durkheim was interested in the social functions of religion in general, in relation to social integration, Max Weber was primarily concerned with the problem of theodicy (any explanation of the fundamental moral problems of death, suffering, and evil) and the comparative study of the salvation drive. Weber identified two major religious orientations towards the world—mysticism and asceticism—in his The Sociology of Religion (1922). He was especially interested in religious attitudes towards economics and eroticism. He argued that inner-worldly asceticism (or the ethic of world mastery) represented the most radical attempt to impose a rational regulation on the world. He explored this theme in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905).

Some sociologists have claimed that, in modern societies, there has been a profound process of secularization (or religious decline) as a consequence of urbanization, cultural pluralism, and the spread of a scientific understanding of the world. This thesis has also been challenged by sociologists who argue that religion has been transformed rather than undermined.

The sociology of religion was originally at the theoretical core of sociology as a whole, because it was concerned to understand the character of rational action, the importance of symbols, and finally the nature of the social. It has been argued, however, that contemporary sociology of religion has lost this analytical importance, because it has concentrated on narrow empirical issues such as the pattern of recruitment to the Christian ministry. The comparative study of world religions, which was fundamental to Weber's approach, has been neglected.

Bryan Wilson's Religion in Sociological Perspective (1982) and Steve Bruce's Religion in Modern Britain (1995) both offer an excellent introduction to most of the topics raised in this entry and to the field as a whole. See also CIVIL RELIGION; INVISIBLE RELIGION; PRIVATE RELIGION; PROTESTANT ETHIC THESIS; RELIGIOUS INNOVATION; RELIGIOUS REVIVAL; SECT.

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Sociology of religion

Sociology of religion. The study of religion in its social aspects and consequences, undertaken in all parts of the world. Emerging as part of the 19th-cent. nomothetic ambition sociologists of religion have in general been committed to a would-be scientific analysis of the role played by religion in the emergence, persistence, and evolution of social and cultural systems. In the main, they subscribe to two fundamental propositions: (i) that the study of religion is absolutely essential to the understanding of society and (ii) that the investigation of society is an indispensable prerequisite to the comprehension of religion.

The sociology of religion reflects the main theoretical and methodological divisions among professional sociologists, including functionalism, Marxism, Freudianism, symbolic-interactionism, phenomenology, structuralism, and post-modernism, together with rational-choice, market, world-systems, and globalization theories, all coexisting more or less peacefully. As a creation of the Enlightenment, sociology has characteristically conceptualized religion in Judaeo-Christian terms, and has largely restricted its investigations to a Christian (mostly Protestant) context despite the monumental comparative initiative of Max Weber.

Although usage of the term tends to follow a number of basic formulae, there is no explicit or universal consensus among sociologists of religion regarding what ‘religion’ is. The problem of defining religion (see further, Introduction), and of doing so in a manner which adequately addresses its profoundly social character, is one which still periodically surfaces to challenge scholars anew regarding the fundamentals of their enterprise.

Durkheim and Weber may justifiably be regarded as the founding fathers whose divergent approaches still supply the main axes of intellectual tension within subdisciplinary theoretical discourse. Durkheim's primary concern with religion's role in social cohesion, group stability, and the reproduction of socio-cultural forms is strategically complemented by Weber's preoccupation with its part in radical, large-scale social and cultural transformation. Thus, for a broad range of current research topics (including sectarianism, millennialism/millenarianism, civil religion, invisible religion, new religious movements, and secularization), they remain influential.

The issue of whether modern religious (or irreligious) reality can still be analysed within a classic framework or whether, on the contrary, it requires radical reconceptualization is nowhere more pertinent than in the perennial ‘secularization debate’, for which see SECULARIZATION. Whatever the ultimate fate of the concept of secularization, the richness of current research cannot be denied. A new generation of sociologists of religion is profitably engaged in a wide variety of investigations into topics as diverse as Latin American Pentecostalism, New Age ideology, early Christianity, spiritual healing practices, Islamic fundamentalism, and the prospects of religion in former iron-curtain countries. For more than twenty years, considerable empirical and theoretical attention has been devoted to the beliefs, practices, composition, organization, and influence of so-called new religious movements (NRMs), more popularly known to the mass media as ‘cults’ (obvious examples are the Moonies (Moon), Rajneeshis, Scientologists, Transcendental-Meditationists, Hare Krishnas (see INTERNATIONAL SOCIETY FOR KRISHNA CONSCIOUSNESS), and Wiccans (see WITCHCRAFT)). Despite their own exaggerations and the moral panic on the part of outsiders which so often accompanies their activities, such groups represent a minuscule proportion of religious believers in their host societies. Sociological rationales for their study thus tend to stress their embryonic character, evolutionary potential, and capacity for revealing, in microcosm, wider truths about religion and society.

Continuing their examination of religion's myriad mutual relationships with other social institutions (e.g. the family, the economy, the polity, and the law), sociologists of religion are increasingly alert to its elusive, problematic, and precarious contemporary character. In circumstances where commitment appears to have acquired the fragmentary, syncretic, consumerist qualities of bricolage, belief is increasingly divorced from belonging and religion becomes less a social institution than a broad, pliant cultural resource at the disposal of autonomized individuals. Whether religion's heightened privatization or individualization will continue or whether its old capacity as a source of authoritative meaning will inspire new, lasting, and significant forms of collective and public spiritual expression remains to be seen.

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"Sociology of religion." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Retrieved August 18, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/sociology-religion

Sociology of Religion

Sociology of Religion


See Sociology

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