Understanding Religion From a Sociological Perspective


Religion has taken many forms throughout history, but one feature is that all religions have important consequences for individuals and societies. These consequences can be either good or bad for the people who practice them. A sociological perspective emphasizes these consequences and looks at how religion shapes the world around us.

Traditionally, scholars have looked at the nature of religion through a substantive definition. This approach determines whether something is a religion by looking for belief in a distinctive kind of reality. In the twentieth century, however, there has been an emergence of a different approach. This approach drops the requirement for a belief in an unusual kind of reality and defines religion by its functions. One sees a functional definition in Emile Durkheim’s (1912) definition, which states that religion is whatever system of practices unite a number of people into a single moral community (whether or not those practices involve belief in any unusual realities).

Other approaches define religion by looking at its consequences for societies and individuals. These consequences are examined from a variety of social perspectives, which include sociology, history, and anthropology. A number of theories have been developed to explain the causes of these consequences. One theory, the neo-Marxist, argues that religion is the root of much of the evil in the world. It is the source of indifference, intolerance, bigotry, and social oppression that can be seen in the twentieth century. Other theories, such as those derived from the work of Max Weber and others, examine how religion can serve as a foundation for productive activity in society.

A third approach focuses on the way that religion is experienced. These experiences, or “religious phenomena,” can be very intense and often involve crying, laughing, screaming, trancelike conditions, and a sense of oneness with the universe. These experiences have been a resource and inspiration for all of human culture. Religions have inspired art and architecture, music, literature, poetry, and even scientific exploration of the natural world.

Religious experiences also provide motivation to work for positive social change, which can be seen in the work of religious activists, such as pacifists, labor organizers, and civil rights leaders. Religions also are the source of many of the most profoundly moving and emotionally stirring of human activities, such as mystical experience and the art of music and dance.

The phenomenologist’s task is to try and understand the religious experiences of others by using what is called an introspective method of analysis. Some people have tried to correct this type of analysis by arguing that certain religions cannot be called religions because they are not true or false in any objective sense. However, this view misses the point that the study of religion is a social science and should be judged by its own criteria for success.