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.

Dictionary of sociology. 2013.

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