Sociologists generally conceive of religion as a system of symbols that evokes a sense of holistic or transcendent meaning (Bellah 1970, p. 16; Geertz 1973, pp. 90–125). This definition reflects sociology's claim that symbols are essential to the human capacity to experience and interpret reality (Berger and Luckmann 1966). Symbols are acts, objects, utterances, or events that stand for something—that is, that give meaning to something by connecting it to something else. Symbols give order and meaning to life. Without them, life would be experienced as senseless and chaotic. Indeed, research suggests that individuals are able to experience and understand only those aspects of their worlds for which they have symbols (Farb 1973).
Sociologists' emphasis on holistic or transcendent meaning as the defining feature of religion arises from their view that meaning is always contextual (Langer 1951). The meaning of a particular word depends on the other words that form its immediate context. For example, the word "courts" means one thing if it appears with the word "tennis," but something different when the word "justice" or, the word "dating" is present. Similarly, in their daily lives people give meaning to their activities by associating them with various frames of reference. Hitting a tennis ball has meaning, for example, because it is associated with the rules of the game of tennis. Each frame of reference, moreover, has meaning because it can be placed within a more encompassing symbolic context (tennis, say, within the context of physical exercise and health). But if each symbolic framework requires a broader framework to have meaning, then, some form of holistic or transcendent symbol system that embraces all of life must be present. These are what sociologists call religious orientations or religious systems (Berger 1967; Roberts 1984).
The questions that typically invoke religious symbols involve the quest to make life itself meaningful. Such questions arise at the extremities of human existence: Where did I come from? Why am I here? What happens when I die? These questions, framed at the individual level, may also be asked about the collectivity to which one belongs or about humanity in general: How did our tribe originate? Where is humanity headed? Other questions focus on the absolutes or landmarks that make life recognizable in its most basic sense: What is beauty? What is truth? How can we know truth? What is essential about the human condition? There are also questions that arise because the events they deal with make no sense to us on the surface: Why must I die? Why is there suffering in the world? What is the reason for evil?
Transcendent symbol systems address these questions at a variety of levels. Elaborate philosophical and theological doctrines sometimes supply rational answers that satisfy canons of logic and empirical evidence. In daily life these questions are more likely to be addressed through narratives, proverbs, maxims, and ikonic representations rich with experiential connotations. Religious orientations are likely to be structured less by abstract deductive reasoning than by parables that raise questions but leave open precise answers, by personal stories that link experience with wider realities, and by creeds and images that have acquired meaning through long histories of interpretation in human communities (Greeley 1982, pp. 53–70).
Like other symbol systems, religious orientations are thought to be the products of social interaction. Although the role of such factors as divine revelation cannot be ruled out, sociologists focus on the ways in which symbols come to have meaning through the interaction of individuals and groups in human communities. Sometimes these communities invent collective symbols to articulate powerful experiences they may have undergone. More commonly, communities borrow symbols available within their cultural traditions, but then adapt these symbols to their own use, giving them new meanings and interpretations. Communities also underwrite the plausibility of religions belief systems (Berger 1967, p. 45). They do so by providing evidence that such beliefs are not the product of individual imaginations alone, by encouraging the public expression of beliefs, and by creating occasions on which beliefs may be enacted and predictions fulfilled. Without the ongoing interaction of people in communities, it is doubtful whether belief systems could long be sustained. Research has also demonstrated that personal religious orientations are more likely to have behavioral consequences if these orientations are supported by communities of like-minded individuals (Roof 1978).
In defining religion as a symbol system that deals with ultimate questions, sociologists assume that humans have the capacity to question their experience and a desire to make sense of their worlds. Whether all people pursue this desire with equal intensity is more doubtful. It is possible, for example, to explain a plane crash by observing that a rivet came loose. It is also possible to let the incident raise questions about the meaning of pain, the frailty of human existence, or the meaning and purpose of one's own life. How much the quest for holistic meaning and transcendence enters into people's lives is, therefore, a matter of variation. Studies indicate that most people say they have thought about the meaning and purpose of life, but individuals vary in the extent to which they have been troubled by this issue. They also vary in the amount of explicit attention they have devoted to it and in their views about the possibility of arriving at definite answers (Stark and Glock 1968, p. 77). Agnosticism, for example, is a religious orientation that grants the importance of ultimate questions about meaning and purpose but denies the possibility of finding answers to these questions.
The kinds of symbols that come into play in relation to such questions are also matters of variation. While all such symbol systems may perform functionally similar roles, it is useful to distinguish them substantively. These substantive distinctions are usually the basis on which religious orientations are delineated in popular discourse. At the broadest level, sociologists distinguish theistic meaning systems, which recognize the existence of a God or divine being, from atheistic systems, which do not acknowledge a divine being (Glock and Stark 1965, pp. 3–17). Christianity is an example of the former; Marxism, of the latter. Insofar as it addresses the same higher-order questions about the meaning of life, Marxism would be considered functionally similar to Christianity. But this does not mean that Marxism necessarily functions this way. Just as one might study Marxism to derive economic principles, so one might study Christianity simply as an example of literature. In neither case would it be appropriate to say that a religious orientation is at work. Only as they function to evoke holistic meaning and transcendence do symbol systems become religious orientations.
The distinction between theistic and atheistic meaning systems is useful when the relevant concept is the presence or absence of a divine entity. But this distinction may be less useful in other contexts. For example, contemporary discussions in theology and in science sometimes distinguish religious orientations on the basis of whether they posit a reality that is humanly knowable or ultimately mysterious, whether reality is empirical or includes a supraempirical dimension, or whether being implies something that is not being itself but the ground of being. In these debates the boundary between varieties of ultimate meaning systems is often ambiguous.
In contemporary societies religious orientations are often distinguished in popular belief according to the dominant force or power that people perceive as governing their lives (Wuthnow 1976). Some people may conceive of this force as God; others, as luck or fate. Natural or human causes may also be considered dominant; for example, the force of heredity, of scientific law, society, or individual willpower. Whether a part of elaborate philosophical systems or simple pieces of folk wisdom, such understandings help people to make sense of their lives by identifying the causal agents that control human events.
Sociologists have insisted that religious orientations become important to the study of human behavior insofar as these orientations are internalized as part of the individual's worldview. A worldview can be defined as a person's guiding outlook on life. The essential aspects of a religious orientation are the person's beliefs and assumptions about the meaning of life and such matters as the existence and nature of God, goodness and evil, life beyond death, truth, and the human condition. These beliefs and assumptions help the individual make sense of life cognitively. They also have an emotional dimension, perhaps including a feeling of awe, reverence, fear, or peace, comfort, and security. In addition, they are regarded as behavioral predispositions that lead to various actions, each as participation in worship, prayer, or ethical decisions (Spilka et al. 1985).
The importance of religious orientations for ethical decisions has been of longstanding interest to sociologists. In the classical work of Max Weber (1963), religious orientations were conceived of as symbolic frameworks that made sense of the world, in part, by providing explanations for the existence of evil (also known as theodicies). Some religious orientations, for example, explained evil as a struggle between God and the devil, others saw evil as part of a cycle of regeneration and renewal, while still others attributed evil to the workings of an all-powerful but inscrutable deity. The implications for ethical action derived from the prescriptions for salvation implied by these different conceptions of evil. In one tradition, for example, people might be expected to pray and meditate in order to escape from the cycle of evil and regeneration; in another tradition, they might be expected to do good deeds as a way of siding with the forces of good against those of evil.
Much of the research by sociologists on religious orientations has dealt with their subjective aspects (Blasi and Cuneo 1986). Assuming that the important feature of symbolism is its meaning, researchers have tried to discover what religious symbols mean to individuals. Efforts have been made to tap the deeper predispositions presumed to underlie such religious expressions as prayer and worship, to say how deeply implanted the religious impulse is, and to classify varieties of religious outlooks and experiences.
Recent developments in sociological theory have resulted in some rethinking of this emphasis on subjective religiosity. Current research is beginning to focus more on the observable manifestations of religious symbolism itself, rather than claiming to know what lies beneath the surface in the subjective consciousness of the individual (Wuthnow 1987). Discourse, language, gesture, and ritual have become more important in their own right (Tipton 1982). The contrast between this and the earlier approach can be illustrated by comparing two statements: "I believe God exists" and "God speaks to us through the Word." A subjective approach would treat both statements as manifestations of some inner conviction of the individual. The more recent approach would pay closer attention to the language itself, noting, for example, the more personalized style of the first statement and the collective reference contained in the second.
The value of the more recent approach is that it recognizes the public or social dimension of religious orientations. Observers may not know what goes on in the dark recesses of the believer's soul. But if that person tells a story, or participates in worship, the researcher can then study the observable manifestations of that person's faith.
To account for variations in religious orientations, sociologists usually look at the social conditions to which people are exposed. They assume that most people do not make up their own religions from scratch. Rather, they borrow from the various symbol systems that are available in their environment. The most significant borrowing occurs in early childhood. Family is thus an important factor, and it, in turn, is influenced by broader conditions such as social class, levels of education, race and ethnicity, and exposure to regional subcultures.
A generation ago, sociologists often held the view that scientific generalizations could be made about the relationships between social factors and religious orientations. For example, much work was inspired by the hypothesis that theistic religious orientations were more common among persons with lower levels of education than among persons in better-educated social strata. Another common hypothesis suggested that religious orientations were likely to be associated with various kinds of social deprivation, since the deprived would presumably seek solace in otherworldly beliefs. Empirical studies have found some support for such hypotheses, but the ability to make generalizations has remained limited. Different relationships seem to be present in different communities and in different time periods.
More attention has turned in recent years, therefore, toward describing the rich and complex processes by which religious orientations and social environments intermingle. In one setting people without college educations may turn to religious views that shield them from the uncertainties of science and other modern ideas. In another setting people with high levels of education may also turn to religion, but do so in a way that combines ideas from science and Scripture or that focuses on the therapeutic needs of people working in the professions. In both settings, religious orientations provide answers to ultimate questions. But the composition of these orientations reflects ideas present in the different social settings.
An earlier generation of social theorists also sought to explain the variations in religious orientations in ways that often reduced them to little more than the by-products of social or psychological needs. Sociologists following in the tradition of Karl Marx, for example, regarded religion merely as a reflection of class struggles, while some following Émile Durkheim viewed it as a reflection of the corporate authority of society (Swanson 1960, 1967). The reductionism in these approaches consisted not only of regarding social structure as more basic than religion but also of implying that religion would gradually disappear as people became more aware of its origins (Fenton 1970). Recent work is decidedly less reductionistic in its assumptions about religion. It still assumes that religion fulfills human needs and that it is influenced by social conditions, but regards religion as a more active contributor to human experience and considers its future more viable.
In addition to the more general social conditions that may influence the religious orientations of individuals, sociologists have also been particularly interested in the institutions that devote specific energies to the promulgation of religious orientations. These institutions supply the resources needed for religious orientations to be perpetuated. Leadership, producers of religious knowledge, specialists in the dissemination of such knowledge, organizational skills, physical facilities, and financial resources are all required for religious orientations to be maintained over time. Religious institutions must compete with other institutions, such as governments, businesses, and families, for these resources.
In most modern societies competition is also present among the adherents of various religious orientations (Wuthnow 1988a). When such competition has been recognized either governmentally or culturally, we say that a condition of religious pluralism exists (Silk 1988). Pluralism often becomes a kind of religious orientation itself, imposing norms of civility and tolerance on particularistic religious traditions. When multiple religious orientations are forced to compete with one another, the plausibility of any one such tradition may be diminished as a result of believers' seeing others who hold views different from their own. At the same time, pluralism appears to contribute to the overall vitality of religious orientations in a society by encouraging competition among them for adherents and by giving believers more options from which to choose (Christiano 1987).
It has been common in the past for individuals to choose one particular religious orientation with which to identify. Often these orientations have been defined by religious institutions, such as the Roman Catholic church, or by denominational organizations, such as the Presbyterian or Methodist churches (Greeley 1972). Increasingly, however, it appears that individuals in modern societies are exposed to a variety of religious institutions and orientations. As a result, they may pick and choose particular elements from several different faiths and traditions. Their religious orientation therefore takes on a more personalized character (Bellah et al. 1985, pp. 219–249; Roof and McKinney 1987, pp. 40–71).
Although some individuals work out highly coherent religious orientations that have internal consistency and integrity, it appears that the more common result of living in religiously pluralistic settings is a form of personalized eclecticism. People become heteroglossic—that is, they gain the capacity to speak with many religious voices. Their religious orientations may not provide a guiding philosophy of life that maintains an orderly view of the world. Rather, religious orientations become tool kits (Swidler 1987) assembled from a variety of personal experiences, social contacts, books, sermons, and other cultural repertoires, and from which the individual is able to draw as he or she is confronted with the challenges of life.
At present, research studies indicate that large proportions of the population in societies like the United States hold theistic religious orientations (Wuthnow 1988a). In other societies where religious institutions have had fewer resources in the past, such orientations are less common. In all societies, though, theistic orientations are confronted by the humanistic orientations promulgated by secular institutions. The outcome appears to involve a balance between pressures to adapt, on the one hand, and tendencies by religious adherents to resist these pressures, on the other hand (Hammond 1985; Beckford 1989). Much of the struggle depends on the ability of religious leaders to articulate visions that grow out of particular confessional traditions in ways that appeal to the universalistic norms governing wider social audiences.
Although religious orientations have become more diverse and eclectic as a result of cultural contact and mass communication, evidence also suggests that in some societies a basic polarization has emerged between those whose orientation involves traditionalistic, fundamentalistic, or conservative norms, on one side, and those whose orientation involves progressive, modernistic, or liberal norms, on the other side (Wuthnow 1988a). Conservatives are characterized by adherence to the authority of traditional scriptural texts, while liberals emphasize more the relativity of these texts and the need for reason and experience in interpreting them. Liberal religious orientations have been nurtured by relativistic views in higher education, in the professions, and in the mass media in market-oriented societies, but conservative orientations have grown as well, not only in reaction to liberalism, but also as a result of conservatives gaining educational or political advantages and seizing on opportunities created by the ill effects of rapid societal change (Ammerman 1987; Hunter 1987). Whereas earlier discussions predicted the demise of fundamentalist religious orientations, current studies are more concerned with the ongoing tensions between fundamentalist and more liberal or more humanistic religious orientations.
Research on religious orientations continues to be produced. Fundamentalism and evangelicalism have been examined comparatively and through quantitative studies (Marty and Appleby 1994; Shibley 1996; Smith 1998), and conflicts between fundamentalist or orthodox views and those of liberals or progressives have been examined (Hunter 1991; Wolfe 1997). Other important currents in recent research include studies emphasizing eclecticism, individualism, and instability in contemporary spiritual orientations (Roof 1993), the apparent shift in popular thinking from beliefs rooted in organized religion toward orientations emphasizing personal spirituality (Roof 1999), and the rising importance of spiritual practices in response to uncertainties about formal religious beliefs (Hall 1997; Wuthnow 1998).
(see also: Social Philosophy; Sociology of Religion)
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