Sociology of Religion

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Sociology of Religion

The sociology of religion seeks to understand humanly constructed aspects of religion in their social context. In contrast to other viable approaches to studying religion, the sociology of religion searches for patterns and processes underlying the interdependence of religion and society. To do so, it relies on models, theories, observation, and analysis.

As an outgrowth of historical developments in Western thought—such as the Enlightenment, the industrial revolution, rationalization, and positivism—the sociology of religion suspends judgment on the transcendent truthfulness of any religion, studying instead the social genesis, roles, and meanings of religion for the people involved and for the larger society.

The history of the sociology of religion is brief. Despite earlier, isolated applications, the first major systematic studies in the sociology of religion began at the end of the nineteenth century in Europe. Émile Durkheim, Ferdinand Tonnies, Georg Simmel, Ernst Troeltsch, and Max Weber all made the study of religion central in their theories of society and their historical, comparative, and empirical research. The most active time came in the first two decades of the twentieth century, with the publication of still-influential books such as Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904–1905) and Sociology of Religion (1920–1921), Troeltsch's Social Teachings of the Christian Church (1912), and Durkheim's The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912). These works examined the role of religion in social transformation, the role of structural characteristics in religion on faith and practice, and the social cohesive functions of religion for society. Pessimistic about the fate of religion in contemporary societies, many of these works viewed modernization as corroding religious needs and beliefs.

Because these seminal European works had not yet been translated into English, the sociology of religion was rather limited in the United States in the first third of the twentieth century. Much of the engaging sociological work in religion during this time was in the tradition of community studies. These works focused on all aspects of single communities, including religious life. Many of the early American sociologists who focused specifically on religion began their careers as clergy or seminarians, and focused on social problems as their primary subject matter. As such, the sociology of religion was isolated from the larger field of sociology. For example, the publication of theologian H. Richard Niebuhr's important sociological book The Social Sources of Denominationalism (1929) went largely unnoticed by sociological journals.

In the late 1930s and early 1940s the sociological study of religion was limited primarily to members of the Catholic Sociological Society. An important exception to this pattern was Talcott Parsons, probably the most influential American sociologist of the mid-twentieth century. He translated Weber's works—including his works on religion—into English (1930), making Weber's work more accessible to English-speakers. Further, combining work from Weber and Durkheim, Parsons also incorporated religion into his theory of society.

Easier access and greater knowledge of the seminal European sociological works on religion, an increase in church participation, and an increased interest in institutional research after World War II provided a fertile environment for sociologists to focus on religion (McGuire 1997). Until the 1960s, however, sociologists focused on institutionalized religion. Religion meant the church, typically a Christian church. Individual religiosity meant participation in a church. With the exception of Parsons' writings, this narrow focus continued to isolate the sociology of religion from the larger discipline of sociology. Perhaps the most influential American sociologists of religion after World War II, but prior to the 1960s, were J. Milton Yinger, with works such as Religion in the Struggle for Power (1946), and Joseph Fichter, with works such as Dynamic of a City Church (1951) and Social Relations in the Urban Parish (1954).

In the 1960s, the sociology of religion expanded its scope and influence. Several influential books and papers were published, including Will Herberg's Protestant-Catholic-Jew (1960), Gerhard Lenski's The Religious Factor and Evelyn Underhill's Mysticism (1961), Benton Johnson's "On Church and Sect" (1963), Clifford Geertz's "Religion as a Cultural System," and Charles Glock and Rodney Stark's Christian Beliefs and Anti-Semitism (1966). In particular, 1967 was a watershed year for the sociology of religion, with the publication of Robert Bellah's "Civil Religion in America," Peter Berger's The Sacred Canopy, Thomas Luckmann's The Invisible Religion, and Alasdair MacIntyre's Secularization and Moral Change. Several of these works expanded the secularization theme running through many of the seminal works that had come out of Europe a half century earlier. These contemporary works argued that, with the advancement of science and pluralism, religion in the modern world would survive only in a weakened, individualized form, or in a secularized form called civil religion.

Soon thereafter, alternative perspectives on the fate of religion in modern societies appeared. Books such as Andrew Greeley's Unsecular Man (1972) challenged the commonly accepted framework of secularization. The debate between secularization and the persistence of religion continued throughout the remainder of the twentieth century, generating a good deal of research and theorizing.

While this central debate motivated much research in the sociology of religion, the field diversified—especially after 1980—to study all types of institutionalized and noninstitutionalized forms of religion. And it increasingly asked, "What can we understand about the nature of social life by examining religion?" (McGuire 1997).

The sociology of religion focuses on areas such as conversion, cults/new religious movements, religious marketing, personal religiosity, religious conflict, religious movements, rituals, syncretism (the combining of beliefs and practices from different traditions), organizational structure, ethnic and national expressions of religion, and the provision of meaning and belonging. Much work in the sociology of religion is concerned with how religion influences and is influenced by other aspects of society. These include religion's influence on and by the economy, education, gender roles, globalization, health, the mass media, material culture, moral attitudes, politics, social order, social change, science, and stratification.

The expansion of the sociology of religion in the English-speaking countries of the West is reflected by the growth of sociology of religion journals and annuals. Of the ten primary sociology of religion journals and annuals, only one was founded before 1950. Half of the ten originated since 1980. The increasing concern for religion's influence on and by other aspects of society is reflected in the titles of post-1990 journals and annuals, such as Religion and American Culture; Religion and the Social Order; and Religion, State, and Society.

See alsoAnthropology of Religion; Base Communities; Belonging, Religious; Psychology of Religion; Religious Communities; Religious Studies.


Johnstone, Ronald L. Religion in Society, 5th ed. 1997.

McGuire, Merideth B. Religion in the Social Context, 4th ed. 1997.

Reed, Myer S., Jr. "After the Alliance: The Sociology of Religion in the United States from 1925 to 1949." Sociological Analysis 43 (1982):189–204.

Reed, Myer S., Jr. "An Alliance for Progress: The Early Years of the Sociology of Religion in the United States." Sociological Analysis 42 (1981):27–46.

Warner, Steve. "Work in Progress Toward a New Paradigm for the Sociological Study of Religion in the United States." American Journal of Sociology 98 (1993):1044–1093.

Michael Emerson