Religion, Sociology of

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The study of the relationship of religion to social structures and social processes. It includes the study of the relation of religion to social stability, to social change, and to the functional problems of a society. It includes also the study of the internal structure, development, and functional problems and dilemmas of religious organizations and institutions, and their relation to other social institutions. The term thus designates a specialized field of sociology, wide in scope, in which results and findings are reported in works of great variety.


Until recently the sociology of religion did not attract great scholarly attention. Although important and even basic works had been published in Europe in an earlier period, American research in the sociology of religion did not begin on any real scale until the time of World War II. Since then, interest in the field has grown considera bly, whether measured in terms of number of workers involved, number of studies published, or number of courses offered at American colleges and universities. This growth reflects the growing popularity of sociology and of the social sciences generally in American thinking, education, and policy formation in business and government. It reflects also an increase in scholarly concern with religion in academic life. Finally, it represents an increasing appreciation by people in religious organizations and church work generally of the potential contribution of the social sciences in the confrontation and solution of contemporary problems by religious bodies.

Sources of Interest in the United States. In the United States, two groups of workers have made important contributions to the field, academic sociologists who have approached religion with predominantly sociological interests and concerns, and men in religion, often in Protestant seminaries, who have used sociology to further their understanding of the religious situation and its problems both past and present. A number of Catholic sociologists, clerical, religious, and lay, have shared with those in Protestant seminaries an interest in sociological research and sociological theory as means of enriching their understanding of religious problems and developments. In methods and in aims these groups have tended to converge, to influence each other, and to unite in one body of scientific workers in the field. In Europe some attempt has been made to distinguish "religious sociology," as an empirical study ancillary to the pastoral work of the Church, from the "sociology of religion," as an objective scholarly study of religious behavior uncommitted to immediate practical ends viewed in terms of commitment to a particular faith. Such a distinction has not gained acceptance in America.

Catholic Participation. In an earlier period American Catholic sociologists were often concerned with clarifying for themselves the relation between the basic assumptions of sociological theory as the conceptual framework of an empirical social science, and Catholic philosophical and theological views of the nature and meaning of man. The early issues of the American Catholic Sociological Review, which first appeared in 1940, as well as a number of books and theses from this period testify to the significance of this effort for those involved. Although the issue is still discussed among Catholic sociologists, the development of events has solved many of the earlier problems. Within sociology the spread of the influence of Max weber has led to a view of human action that recognizes the significance of meaningful and normative elements and repudiates narrow behaviorism and dogmatic positivism. On the Catholic side, a more mature appreciation of the problems involved and a greater involvement in the general intellectual life of the discipline have prevented earlier sectarian tendencies from becoming dominant. As a result there has not developed any attempt to create a "Catholic sociology" or a "Catholic sociology of religion"; Catholic workers in the field share with others significant common elements in their understanding of the discipline, its theory, and its methods.

Diversity of Interests. The sociology of religion has produced a vast spectrum of studies, and it exhibits a variety of concerns and emphases. Works in the field include Émile durkheim's study of elementary religious forms among Australian aborigines; anthropological monographs on nonliterate cultures, such as that of Bronislaw Malinowski on the Trobriand Islands or A. R. Radcliffe-Brown on the Andamans; Max Weber's work on the importance of religious ideas in economic development; Ernst troeltsch's study of the relation between Christianity and the world, and its sociological consequences; H. Richard niebuhr's study of denominationalism in America; the work of Liston Pope and Bryan Wilson on sects; Will Herberg's analysis of Protestantism, Catholicism, and Judaism in the United States; monographs on Mormonism by Thomas F. O'Dea and on Conservative Judaism by Marshall Sklare; Robert N. Bellah's work on Japanese religion; Joseph Fichter's study of a southern United States parish, John Donovan's study of the role of the Catholic priest, and Scherer's of the Lutheran minister; the studies of Gabriel Le Bras and Fernand Boulard on the geography of religious practice among French Catholics; Andrew Greeley's study of religion and social mobility; and Seymour Lipset's concern with religion and politics. This list is merely suggestive, but its variety is striking indeed.

Nature of Sociological Investigation. All these studies have in common a concern with an empirical study of some aspect of religious life; each of them, to one degree or another, represents an attempt to apply the analytical methods and practical research techniques of sociology to the study of religious phenomena. Approaching religion as observable human activity, meaningful in that it is infused with and influenced by ideas and attitudes, the sociologist of religion employs explicit concepts and propositions in the analysis of observed empirical data. The concepts used comprise a conceptual scheme or body of theory in the scientific sense; this is useful in formulating problems, designing empirical studies, and analyzing the data obtained from such studies for the purpose of understanding and prediction. Whereas such a body of theory makes empirical work more significant by relating it to central interests shared in the discipline, the empirical work checks, reforms, deepens, and develops the theoretical structure itself. Although this conceptual instrument is in a comparatively early stage of development, some degree of sophistication has been reached. The main outline of this body of concepts presented here is drawn chiefly from the work of a minority of significant contributors, especially from Durkheim, Weber, Troeltsch, Joachim Wach, and Talcott Parsons.

Relative Autonomy of Social Systems. Sociology is the study of those uniformities of human behavior that cannot be understood simply as effects of the motivation of individual actors or of the ideas and values of the cul ture of a society. There is a relatively autonomous level of social structure, related to and integrated with both individual motivation and cultural elements, but best understood in terms of its own relative autonomy. This social structure displays a systematic quality; it is revealed as a social system whose integration is patterned and orderly, and whose elements have functional significance for each other and for the system as a whole. One important element in sociological analysis is investigation of the functional significance of various kinds of social institutions and human behavior. In presenting the theoretical body of concepts in the sociology of religion, it is well to begin with this fundamental aspectfunctional theory and functional analysis. Moreover, in its application to the study of religion, functional analysis indicates with considerable salience one important characteristic of the role of religion in social life and underlines its inherent character and operational importance in the human situation. Finally, acknowledgment of the limitations of functionalism leads directly to consideration of a more sophisticated model, which utilizes the insights of Weber and others and makes possible a more adequate approach to the sociological study of religion.

Sociology and Religious Values. Sociology is a value-free science and does not claim competence to judge the validity of religion in general or of particular religions. The sociology of religion commences with the study of religion as one kind of observable meaningful human activity; it attempts to understand the content and point of view of the religion being studied; and focusing upon the level of social structure, it examines the problems and dilemmas characteristic of this realm of human life. Among the empirical disciplines, sociology is but one, although an important one, among those relevant to the study of religion. It stands in close relation to both history and psychology: to history, because structural analysis must be understood in the context of the unique course of events in which a social system is formed, and social change must be seen in the setting of long-term historical trends; to psychology, since human motivation and human propensities to respond and to adjust are significant elements in the functioning of social structures as well as in their emergence and dissolution. The sociology of religion is also enriched by those disciplines that study the content of religious beliefs, since a sociology of meaningful behavior must appreciate the definition of the situation of action held by the groups being observed and studied. Hence, for the sociology of religion, theology and the content of commitments of faith are data that must be understood to the extent that they enter into human action by affecting both men's definitions of situations and their motivational structure (although their validity is beyond the competence of sociological analysis).

Functional Theory and Analysis

Sociological functionalism presents an analytical model in which human societies are seen as social systems, that is, as on-going, patterned equilibria of social institutions. Through such institutions human behavior is patterned on the basis of normative consensus, and such consensus is itself integrated into the world view of the culture and internalized in the motivational structure of individuals. The social system is made up of subsystems or institutional complexes that involve a patterned and legitimated allocation of functions, resources, facilities, and rewards, both material and nonmaterial. The social institutions, resting upon normative consensus, pattern and restrain human activity, including force and violence. Such institutions are interdependent with each other and with the social system as a whole. Thus functional analysis does not seek simplified cause and effect relationships, but rather recognizes multiple causation and the feedback of effect upon cause in a systemic frame of reference. Within such a model the functional questions arise: what is the contribution of each part, each institutional complex or aspect thereof, to maintenance of the structure of the whole, and what is the reciprocal relationship between the parts themselves and between them and the whole?

Functional Significance. In these terms religion is seen as one kinda strategically important and unique kindof institutionalized behavior having functional significance for the social system. This functional significance may be manifest, that is, recognized by the human actors themselves, or it may be latent, i.e., unrecognized by them. Although functional theory has given more emphasis to positive contributions to the functioning of the social system, it has also recognized that elements of the system may be dysfunctional as well. Hence functional theory raises the question: what is the contribution of religion to the functioning of the social system?

Functional theory also distinguishes two kinds of needs that characterize men in society. Men must act in a practical manner to ensure group survival; human action must be instrumental or adaptive to some degree. But men also have expressive needs, needs to act out emotions and to enter relationships. In the course of their problem-solving activities, their instrumental or adaptive behavior, men also express basic needs and characteristics. Thus out of their interaction there emerge relationships, patterns of expectations, forms of respect and deference, and expressive rituals that are valued in themselves, and not simply as means to ends. With respect to them, too, the functional question may be asked: what is the contribution of religion to the satisfaction of the expressive and adaptive needs of men?

Men act in terms of what W. I. Thomas called their definition of the situation, the existential and normative attributes of their condition as they understand them. In so acting men develop culture, a fabric of existential and value meanings, central to which is a basic definition, explicit or present by implication, of the structure and meaning of the human condition. Culture is integrated with social structure and with individual motivation in terms of the goals and ends valued and the norms patterning the proscriptions and prescriptions of the social order. The functional question arises again: what is the contribution of religion to culture and its integration?

Religion and the Human Situation. These three versions of the functional question bring into the purview of sociological theory certain of the most central characteristics of the human situation, characteristics that are of strategic significance for the development and maintenance of social systems. First, it is seen that religion is concerned with something beyond the empirical, that it transcends empirical adaptive experience. Second, it is recognized that religion is not only beyond empirical knowledge in a cognitive and problem-solving sense, but is concerned with relationship rather than problem-solving, with the acting out of attitudes and responses rather than with adaptation in the face of environmental challenges. Thus religion transcends instrumental action; it allows expression and patterns the realization of important expressive needs. Human life confronts men with aspects of reality and with problems and dilemmas that cannot be handled in terms of adaptive empirical knowledge alone. Moreover, in solving adaptive problems men establish patterns of allocation and functionin the development of political and economic institutions, for examplethat demand discipline and inhibition, cause deprivation, and inflict frustration on various strata of society that are differentiated in the process. Often such difficulties cannot be changed, for some measure of inequality and differential allocation appears inescapable; indeed, it seems to be an analytical element of the very conception of social order. Yet such hardships must be rendered acceptable and legitimated in terms of a larger understanding of the human situation and its attributes and ends.

Contexts of Uncertainty and Impossibility. The most crucial of the aleatory and frustrating elements that are derived from the insufficiency of adaptive techniques and from the inherent consequences of the functioning of social systemselements that transcend tested empirical knowledge and practical controlare those associated with contexts of uncertainty and impossibility. The uncertainty context refers to the inherent and fundamental contingency characteristic of human existence. Even with advanced technology and increasing control over conditions of life, men find the possibility of disappointment lurking everywhere, and often in situations in which human interests are deeply involved"the best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley." The impossibility context refers to the fact that certain misfortunes are humanly unavoidable; they include suffering, illness, death, and the evils that human beings intentionally or unintentionally inflict upon each other. These are the phenomena that theology classically has discussed as the "problem of evil"; they are considered sociologically in terms of their functional consequences for human society.

Functional theory recognizes the way in which both the uncertainty and impossibility contexts lead men beyond the everyday life of the workaday world. At such a beyond men come to confront the deeperthe ultimatemeaning of the human condition. Here human knowledge and mundane forms of social relations are proved totally insufficient either for providing solutions to problems or as modes of adjustment to unavoidable evils. Thus men are propelled to "breaking points" in mundane experience, and questions are raised that can be answered only by going beyond the empirical world of mundane experience.

Religion and the Sacred. Further, since man is not simply homo faber, since men are not beings that simply adapt to their environment for survival's sake, expressive needs require satisfaction and men must enter into relationships and act out responses. Such needs find outlets in the everyday world, but they also point beyond it. Durkheim has shown that men respond to reality not simply as something profane and mundane, but that they perceive another aspect of what they experience and react to it in a different modality of response. Men respond to an aspect of reality as sacred; they experience it as radically heterogeneous from the profane and give it intense awe and respect. The sacred, despite its localization in a tremendous variety of vehicles and occasions, is felt to lie beyond the appearances of things. It is something that not only elicits awe but also attracts and nurtures the worshiper. Sacred forces are seen as both propitious and dangerous, as powers that lie behind appearance and sustain being and life. The response to the sacred is the religious response, and in religion human experience breaks beyond the everyday. Thus, both in responses to the sacred and in reactions at the breaking points of personal life there is transcendence of the everyday in attitude and relationship. The religious response originates in a limit situation that transcends empirical knowledge and everyday social forms, and involves an awareness of a sacred ground of experience that elicits reaction in a relational rather than manipulational mode of response.

Implications for Social Systems. The problems of men when they are propelled into limit situations beyond everyday experience have great functional significance for societies. If the questions raised by the impossibility and uncertainty contexts are not answered meaningfully, the worth and value of human effort are rendered doubtful.

At these breaking points, what Weber called the problem of meaning is raised in its sharpest and most poignant form. It is not simply an intellectual problem, but one in which many-sided human involvement and concern are necessarily implicated. If no mode of adjustment to the frustrations and deprivations inherent in the allocations fundamental to every society is found, the established goals and norms of the society are called into question. This means that individual morale founders, the meaning of life is lost, the legitimacy of norms and the worth of ends are undermined, and society can no longer exist. Life raises for men questions that go beyond the limits of empirical knowledge and confronts them with problems that cannot be met adequately within the context of everyday relationships and modes of adjustment. Religion provides an answer, a relationship, and a mode of adjustment precisely in this limit situation.

If in this limit situation men can enter into a relationship with a sacred ground of existence and experience, and if a view of empirical reality can be developed in terms of that transcendent and sacred relationship, then both security and meaning, both adjustment and hope, can be found and maintained. Then the threat to human action and human association that life presents in limit situations can be met. Then indeed all is not in pieces and all coherence is not gone. Then are disappointment, injury, and tragedy rendered meaningful and acceptable. In relation to the deeper sacred ground men can act out their needs for a deeper relationship on which both security and worth can be based. Thus religion solves a fundamental functional problem for human societies by relating men to a supraempirical, sacred beyond. However this sacred is conceived and conceptualized in different cultures and religions, in pointing to it as the highest common factor in the relation between religion and society Durkheim has supplied an insight of great sociological significance.

Functions of Religious Rites. Functional theory calls attention not only to the attempts of men to enter into a relationship with the sacred realm, but also to their efforts to manipulate the sacred forces and bend them to human will in the service of human aspirations. Such manipulation of the sacred comprises the sphere of magic. In distinguishing religion from magic Malinowski and others have shown that men resort to magic in those endeavors that lie outside the range of human control in any secure sense and in which danger is great. Thus the Trobriand Islanders were found to utilize magic in deep-sea fishing with its combination of personal danger and uncertainty of results, but not in lagoon fishing, which was both safe and predictable. Malinowski also showed that, although magic is a manipulative affair, religion and the religious rite involve an acting out for its own sake and not for the sake of manipulation and control.

Both the cultural anthropologists and Durkheim point out that religious rites reassert the basic value consensus of the group, act out its solidarity, and thus reenact and renew the cohesiveness of the group itself. Durkheim indeed went so far in stressing this important function of the religious cult as to see the object of worshipthe sacred realm itself, or in the higher religions, Godas the projection and hypostatization of society itself. Thus Durkheim thought that in worship a society worships itself and thereby renews itself. Sociological theory today recognizes the great importance of the functional insight of Durkheim. Religious ritual in acting out and expressing attitudes toward the sacred reasserts norms and values that are often strategic to the integration of society, and it reinforces and strengthens social solidarity. There is much profundity in Durkheim's stress on the social character of much of religious activity. Yet his formulation of religion as group self-worship is crude and unacceptable.

Evaluation of Functionalism. Seen from the perspective of functional theory, religion maintains the social system by providing an answer to the problem of meaning, by justifying socially accepted goals, by renewing solidarity through ritual and cult, by deepening the acceptance of norms through their sacralization, and by providing some catharsis for frustration and making it understandable in the context of a larger religious view and a deeper religious relationship to the sacred beyond. To paraphrase the anthropologist Edward Sapir and the sociologist Durkheim, in the religious relationship human consciousness is secured and human association made possible.

Contributions. In brief, functional analysis calls attention to two fundamental aspects of the social role of religion. It shows the functional significance of religion to society in terms of its relation to the impossibility and uncertainty contexts. It shows how religion answers the problem of meaning in terms of its ramified implications for the continued functioning of societies and how it reinforces norms and strengthens solidarity. Thus functional explanations mark a distinct advance in the social sciences over those theories, based on and influenced by a naïve implicit positivism, that were common at the beginning of the 20th century, in which religion was viewed as absurd prescientific fantasy, characteristic of the ignorance and error of underdeveloped peoples or unenlightened strata. Such explanations also mark a considerable advance in comparison with theories that propounded or sought simple and sovereign causal factors to explain social phenomena.

Limitations. Yet functional theory alone presents an incomplete and inadequate sociological model for the analysis of the relation of religion to social structure and processes. Its fundamental insights were derived largely from studies of nonliterate societies at least a generation ago and are consequently inadequate for the study of the world religions and of the situation and condition of religion in complex societies. It throws little light on the problems involved in the developmental sequences or the internal functioning of the world religions, or on the complicated relationships between religious and other institutions in complex societiese.g., between church and state, church and educationthat have been the cause and occasion of severe conflict in many countries.

Moreover, while functional theory provides insights of indisputable importance into the structure and function of human groups, it has never refined these insights to provide any criteria for estimating or measuring the degree of positive or negative functionality to be accorded to religious phenomena under various societal conditions. Although it has recognized that there are dysfunctional as well as functional consequences of religious phenomena for human societies, it has emphasized the latter. It tends to direct attention to the contribution of religion to stability and to resistance to change, and to neglect the importance of religion as the setting of innovation and as an element promoting change.

Functional theory does not provide any significant insights into the process of the secularization of culture, which has been so markedly developed in modern times and which is the fundamental characteristic of the current religious situation. Consequently it has not directed attention to the study of religion surrogates in secular movements of a social or national character. Such movements perform in contemporary societies many of the functions formerly performed by religion and attributed to religion in the functionalist model, although they are based on less than ultimate experience in which the sacral elements are often disguised or latent. Prophetic religion and its creative consequences and the functional equivalent of prophecy in secular religion-surrogate movements are both neglected.

Importance. Yet the importance of functional theory cannot be denied. It formulates and makes explicit certain fundamental characteristics of the relation of religion to societyreligion as concerned with the sacred, as a relational mode of orientation, as a transcendent phenomenon made functional in the limit situation, as providing an answer to the problem of meaning and a mode of adjustment for frustration, and as sacralizing norms and legitimating institutions. These fundamental dimensions must be included in any analytical model for the sociological study of religion. All analytical models must be constructed on this groundwork. Functional theory has provided the basis on which more sophisticated models of analysis can be built. The quite justifiable emphasis on function has unfortunately tended to keep some sociological investigators from paying sufficient attention to the content of the religious experience and the doctrines and institutions derived and secondarily developed from it. Such a foreshortening of the sociological view results in a failure to recognize and comprehend many significant functional problems internal to religious organization and its development.

Developmental Theory

There exists in sociological theory a body of concepts more adequate for the analysis of religion in complex societies and of the problems involved in the development of the founded religions. The works of Weber, Troeltsch, Wach, and Parsons, among others, are the chief sources for these ideas.

Role of Religion in Social Change. Weber recognized the seriousness and importance of man's religious interests and activities, and the causal significance of religious ideas affecting human action and historical development. Unlike the functionalists who emphasized the contribution of religion to social stability, Weber investigated the role of religion in social change and the development of societies. He saw religious experience and religious thought as the sphere in which men broke through to more rational, more profound, and more adequate definitions of the human situation. This interest was the source of his concern with the charismatic leader and the prophet and his work on charisma and prophecy as sociological factors.

Charisma and Institutionalization. Weber saw charisma as characteristic of leaders who exhibit unusualness, creativity, and spontaneity in specific ways and who either through their preaching or their mode of being, or both, issue calls that attract followers and form the nucleus of religious movements. Such movements stand in important ways outside the everyday, the traditional and established forms of social life. Religious charisma possesses a sacred character and is specifically alien to routinized forms of social relations and to economic life. As recognized by Weber, charisma in the pure state is inherently unstable; therefore, the requirements of continuity result in the establishment of new social forms and new social institutions. Weber called attention to the importance of succession crises in this kind of development. After the originating charismatic moment there develops, in Weber's phrase, a routinization of charisma in which the charisma of status and office replaces the earlier unroutinized dynamic forms. This transformation is both a diminution and containment of the charisma within structured roles, rites, and procedures. The routinization of charisma may proceed in either a rational direction, giving rise to social structures of a gesellschaftliche, or modern, kind, or in a traditional direction characterized by more diffuse gemeinschaftliche social organization. It may develop in a way that combines both of these, as may be seen in the early Church with its emphases on both rationality and tradition.

Religion as a Causal Influence in History. Troeltsch's treatment of the relation between Christianity and the societies and cultures in which it existed in Europe developed further generalized categories of sociological analysis. Both Weber and Troeltsch insisted on the reality of religious interests and their causal influence in human history, in contrast with contemporary Marxist writers who reduced religious interests to socioeconomic interests and saw religion as an epiphenomenon. Troeltsch showed religious interests, religious ideas, and the social conditions in the context of which the Church exists and develops, as all exerting causal influences. The adjustment of the Church to classical society is seen as the result of Christian ideas and values, of the propensities and needs of the social strata that Christianity attracted, and of the need of the developing organization of the Church. Thus he produced a sociological model of analysis that gives adequate weight to both external and internal views of development, and recognizes the multiplicity of factors involved.

Religion and Complex Societies. In his monographs on the world religions, Weber showed that religious orientations, ideas, and values must be reckoned with as one factor involved in economic development, and under certain circumstances, as the crucial factor. He attempted to show that some Asian societies, such as China and India, were in important economic and material respects at least as prepared for the development of modern capitalism as was Europe. He explained the priority of capitalistic development in Europe by the presence in European society of certain elements in its religious outlook that fostered ethical and economic rationality.

Further, Weber explored the multiple relations characterizing religion and social structure, the differential appeal of different religious ideas to different social strata, and the importance of the inner differentiation of the religious community itself. He saw lower classes showing a tendency to embrace religious doctrines promising salvation, whereas ruling and successful classes desired doctrines legitimating their functions and justifying their status. He showed that lower middle classes, especially artisans, tend to develop rational ethical religion, whereas peasants and warriors show a much greater affinity for magical phenomena. Yet he emphasized that these were tendencies or propensities for affinity and not causally determining in any definitive sense, for a religious doctrine once established is capable, because of the elements of universality it contains, to appeal to various and diverse social strata; and even in its initial state its appeal may be widespread among varied social strata. With respect to the internal differentiation of religious bodies themselves, Weber stated that the development of rational theology must await as its necessary, though not necessarily its sufficient, condition the development of a priesthood enjoying a status apart from the laity. He also recognized the significance of the secularization of culture and of such movements as 19th-century socialism and 20th-century nationalism as religion surrogates.

Thus there is developed a scheme of analysis that deals adequately with ideas, interests, and social structure, both in the religious community and in the general society, and also with the relations between the society and the religious body, with a degree of adequacy for studying complex situations. It is a scheme that eschews reductionism and simple causal hypotheses of the single factor variety, and that makes possible the delineation of complex empirical phenomena. The content of religious doctrines, both their world views and their ethics, the social setting of religious groups and their social composition, and the internal structure of religious bodies are all seen as important factors.

Typologies of Religious Groups. Troeltsch explored the types of adjustment Christianity made to its social world in four spheres of experience: family life, economic activities, political power, and intellectual endeavor. He found in the Christian value system a basis for both acceptance and rejection of the "world" in this sense. Both responses are also found empirically, each in its own particular sociological form. Troeltsch saw the "church" form as the embodiment of an acceptance, however qualified, of society and culture, and the "sect" form as the embodiment of revolt against such a compromise. These concepts have been widely used in sociological research and have been refined in the writings of R.E. Park and E. W. Burgess, Georg Simmel and Leopold von Wiese, Niebuhr, Wilson, and others. The church form is characterized by membership in fact on the basis of birth, administration of the means of grace and its sociological concomitants, hierarchy and dogma, inclusiveness of social structure often coinciding with ethnic or geographical boundaries, universalist orientation to the conversion of all, and a tendency to compromise with and adjust to the world. The sect is a more exclusive and ascetic group characterized by separatism from the world and often defiance of it, exclusiveness in social composition and in attitude, emphasis upon a conversion experience previous to membership, and voluntary election or joining.

Although sectarianism is a protest against the compromise with the world made by churches, the sect itself tends to become routinized with time. The term denomination has been used in a technical sense to apply to such a routinized sect. Wilson has shown how sects may successfully resist routinization and accommodation over a long period of time. Wiese and Howard Becker have introduced another type of religious grouping, the cult, in which religion is more private and personal and which does not itself achieve secure viable long-term establishment. Wach has introduced another type called by him the independent group, a semiecclesiastical body that begins as a sect but develops in a churchlike direction. Although Wach suggested the Mormon Church as an example of this type, O'Dea has shown that the Mormons, acting on the model of Biblical Israel, under propitious American 19th-century conditions, produced a new religious quasiethnicity and became a "people" possessing both identity and homeland.

Although the concepts "church" and "sect" developed by Troeltsch have been fruitfully utilized and considerably refined in American sociology, his concern with more individualized responses has been neglected. Troeltsch did not propose simply a church-sect dichotomy, but a church-sect-mysticism trichotomy with reference to the response of religion to the world. Troeltsch saw mysticism as an individualized response capable of expressing indifference or revolt with respect to established religious forms. Its importance in religious history has been enormous. Today secular analogues of this response are also important, as may be seen in certain philosophical movements, such as existentialism. The neglect of this aspect of Troeltsch's work is a loss to the sociology of religion.

Developmental Sequences. Wach has developed the insights presented above in delineating the developmental sequence for founded religions. Starting with Rudolf otto's treatment of the holy in the religious experience, which in important ways parallels and complements that of Durkheim, Wach proposed a scheme of analysis that shows the religious movement proceeding from its charismatic moment of origin to the full development of an ecclesiastical structure on three levelsideational, cultic, and organizational. Thus religious ideas, religious rites, and religious organizations are seen as three interpenetrating aspects of a single developing entity. Wach introduced the idea of "protest" as a universal category of analysis for the understanding of religious movements. Adjustments to the world, specifications of doctrine, and developments in liturgy and in church organization are of differential significance to various strata of society and of the religious body itself. Some groups are unable to accept these developments and are moved to protest against them. Protest may develop into movements that secede from the parent body, or it may be organized and directed from within the parent body.

Parsons has done much to emphasize and make highly explicit the assumptions and implications of functional theory and to emphasize the role of ideas, and of religious ideas particularly, in social life. He has been an important figure in promoting the assimilation of Weber's contributions in American sociology, both through his early translations of Weber and his own later theoretical work. The work of Weber, Troeltsch, Wach, and Parsons has been supplemented by that of a host of others who have tested, refined, and developed a body of concepts that today equips the sociology of religion with considerable theoretical sophistication and empirical skill.


Wach's paradigm of the developmental sequence in the world religions opens up great possibilities of integrating work in the sociology of religion with that done by students in a number of fields. One example may be seen with respect to the studies of symbolism and myth by Ernst cassirer, Andrew Lang, Mircea Eliade, Gerardus van der leeuw, the school of Carl jung, and others. This work is closely related to sociological concern with the development of doctrine and the practice of cult and their functional significance.

Relation to Special Fields of Sociology. Moreover, specialists in other areas of sociological interest have contributed both in their theoretical construction and in their empirical findings materials of great utility to the sociology of religion. The institutionalization of religion produces formal organizations, often with a hierarchical structure. Much of the sociological study of formal organizations in economic, political, and military spheres offers models of analysis and empirical generalizations of utility to the study of religious organization. The study of social disorganization and its effects on societies and personality structures has added to knowledge of the role of religion as a factor reintegrating social life. The study of the accommodation, assimilation, and conflict involved in intergroup relations and in the Americanization of immigrants and their descendants provides models for the study of religious conflict, and often considerable data as well, since in America ethnic and religious groups are closely interrelated. The study of politics and voting behavior reveals the importance of religious identity as a factor in general political alignments and offers significant material to the sociology of religion. The same may be said for studies of achievement and social mobility that have been concerned with the religious factor. A similar relation exists between the sociology of religion and the sociology of knowledge, as Durkheim early recognized. Finally, the sociology of religion makes complementary contributions to the sociological study of movements and institutions other than religion that are based upon situationally transcendent ideals, such as the many religion surrogates in contemporary society.

Relation to Theology. The general relationship between the sociology of religion and theology has been indicated above. Sociology is an empirical social science that does not make judgments concerning the substance of theological matters or commitments of faith. The content of theology is treated as a source of data insofar as the sociological investigator must become familiar with the world view of the religion being studied and its ethical position. For theology, the sociology of religion offers data on the development of religious movements and the role and function of religion in various societal contexts; hence it contributes to theology data both on religion as a human phenomenon and on human behavior generally.

Like all empirical sciences, sociology assumes its own angle or perspective of vision and develops in its own autonomous fashion its methodology and techniques. The 19th-century idea of formulating "hierarchies of sciences"itself received from earlier periods of Western thoughthas tended to lose relevance and consequently to lose favor in the intellectual climate of scientific endeavor. The relationship of various sciences is one rather of cross fertilization and dialogue than of subordination or subsidiarity. Although many problems of concern to the philosophy of knowledge remain, the older idea that empirical sciences were ranged under and worked in terms defined by philosophical or theological views and positions has been progressively abandoned.

It is significant in this respect that the declaration on the relationship of the Catholic Church to non-Christian religions approved by vatican council ii is based first of all on a historical and sociological interpretation of empirical facts: "Men expect from the various religions answers to the unsolved riddles of the human condition, riddles that move the hearts of men today as they did in olden times: What is man? What is the meaning, what is the purpose of our lives? What is the moral good and what is sin? What are death, judgment and retribution after death? What, finally, is the ultimate, inexpressible mystery which encompasses our existence, which is the fountain as well as the destiny of our being?" This basic core of religion comprises what sociologists have been concerned with in terms of the problem of meaning and its functional significance for human society. The declaration continues: "Ever since primordial days, numerous peoples have had a certain perception of that hidden power which hovers over the course of things and over the events that make up the lives of men" (De Ecclesiae Habitudine ad Religiones Non-Christianas ). Here the sociologist recognizes the content of the sacred treated by Durkheim and accepted in sociological theory as central to an understanding of religion on the sociological level.

Generalization and Findings. What has been presented above, in addition to the chief interests and scope of the sociology of religion, is its theory in the sense of analytical models providing contexts for the conduct of empirical investigations. What is to be said about generalizations concerning religious behavior based on the findings of such studies? This is the second important aspect of theory. It is clear that a number of generalizationsconcerning the probable sequence of development, the functional significance of religion to social stability, its role in influencing innovation and change, the relationship between religious ideas and historical developments, the possible options open to religious movements and their probable consequences, to name the most importanthave been integrated into theory as a result of empirical study. They stand as probable bases for drawing conclusions and formulating hypotheses for empirical study. They are significant and important. It remains true, however, that insufficient attention has been given to systematization of theory with respect to the empirical generalizations of various degrees of validity found in the literature of the field. The field stands in need not only of more and better empirical studies, but also of a more systematic and critical integration of theory, especially through the incorporation of empirical generalizations derived from past empirical work into the theoretical model for future use in analysis and for further testing, verification, and refinement.

See Also: religion; religion (in primitive culture); religion and morality.

Bibliography: General Theoretical Background. e. durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, tr. j. w. swain (London 1915; repr. Glencoe, Illinois 1954). c. y. clock, "The Sociology of Religion," Sociology Today, ed. r. k. merton et al. (New York 1959) 153177. b. malinowski, Magic, Science and Religion (Boston 1948; repr. New York 1954). t. parsons, The Structure of Social Action (2d ed. Glencoe, Illinois 1949); "The Theoretical Development of the Sociology of Religion," Essays in Sociological Theory (2d ed. Glencoe, Illinois 1954) 197211. l. schneider, ed., Religion, Culture and Society (New York 1964). e. troeltsch, The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches, tr. o. wyon, 2 v. (New York 1931; repr. 1956). j. wach, Sociology of Religion (London 1947). m. weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, tr. t. parsons (London 1930); The Theory of Social and Economic Organization, tr. a. m. henderson and t. parsons (New York 1947); The Religion of China, ed. and tr. h. h. gerth (Glencoe, Illinois 1951); Ancient Judaism, tr. h. h. gerth and d. c. martindale (Glencoe, Illinois 1952); The Sociology of Religion, tr. e. fischoff (Boston 1963). o. r. whitley, Religious Behavior: Where Sociology and Religion Meet (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey 1964). j. m. yinger, Religion, Society, and the Individual: An Introduction to the Sociology of Religion (New York 1957). Special Substantive Treatments. r. n. bellah, Tokugawa Religion: The Values of Pre-Industrial Japan (Glencoe, Illinois 1957). f. boulard, An Introduction to Religious Sociology, tr. m. j. jackson (London 1960). j. j. kane, Catholic Protestant Conflicts in America (Chicago 1955). g. e. lenski, The Religious Factor (Garden City, New York 1961). r. lee and m. e. marty, eds., Religion and Social Conflict (New York 1964). h. r. niebuhr, The Social Sources of Denominationalism (New York 1929). t. f. o'dea, The Mormons (Chicago 1957). m. sklare, Conservative Judaism (Glencoe, Illinois 1955). k. w. underwood, Protestant and Catholic (Boston 1957). b. r. wilson, Sects and Society (Berkeley 1961). t. f. o'dea, The Sociology of Religion (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey 1966).

[t. f. o'dea]

religion, sociology of

views updated May 18 2018

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.

Sociology of religion

views updated Jun 08 2018

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.

Sociology of Religion

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Sociology of Religion

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