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Encyclopedia > Sociology of religion



Portal · History Sociology (from Latin: socius, companion; and the suffix -ology, the study of, from Greek λόγος, lógos, knowledge) is an academic and applied discipline that studies society and human social interaction. ... Sociology is a relatively new academic discipline among other social sciences including economics, political science, anthropology, and psychology. ...

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The sociology of religion is primarily the study of the practices, social structures, historical backgrounds, development, universal themes, and roles of religion in society. There is particular emphasis on the recurring role of religion in nearly all societies on Earth today and throughout recorded history. Sociologists of religion attempt to explain the effects of society on religion and the effects of religion on society; in other words, their dialectical relationship. // Foundations The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism Max Weber Die protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus, 1904 Online version Description: In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber puts forward a thesis that Puritan ethic and ideas had influenced the development of capitalism. ... This is a list of terms in sociology. ... A practice refers to a way that something is done. ... See Social structure of the United States for an explanation of concepts exsistance within US society. ... HIStory - Past, Present and Future, Book I is a double-disc album (one half greatest hits, one half studio album) by American musician Michael Jackson released in June of 1995 by the Epic Records division of Sony BMG. The first disc, (HIStory Begins) contains fifteen hit singles from the past... There are a number of models regarding the ways in which religions come into being and develop. ... In literature, a theme is a broad idea in a story, or a message or lesson conveyed by a work. ... Young people interacting within an ethnically diverse society. ... This article is about Earth as a planet. ... Broadly speaking, a dialectic (Greek: διαλεκτική) is an exchange of propositions (theses) and counter-propositions (antitheses) resulting in a disagreement. ...

Typology of religious groups

Main article: Church-sect typology

According to one common typology among sociologists, religious groups are classified as ecclesias, denominations, cults or sects. Note that sociologists give these words precise definitions which are different from how they are commonly used. Particularly the words 'cult' and 'sect' are used free from negative connotations by sociologists, even though the popular use of these words is often pejorative. In the sociology of religion, church-sect typology is a method of classifying religious organizations. ... This article may be confusing for some readers, and should be edited to be clearer. ... A religious denomination (also simply denomination) is a subgroup within a religion that operates under a common name, tradition, and identity. ... This article does not discuss cult in its original sense of religious practice; for that usage see Cult (religious practice). ... A sect is generally a small religious or political group that has branched off from a larger established group. ... It has been suggested that this article or section be merged with pejoration. ...

History and relevance today

The classical, seminal sociological theorists of the late 19th and early 20th century were greatly interested in religion and its effects on society. These theorists include Émile Durkheim, Max Weber, and Karl Marx. Like Plato and Aristotle from Ancient Greece, and enlightenment philosophers from the 17th through 19th centuries, the ideas posited by these sociologists continue to be addressed today. More recent prominent sociologists of religion include Peter Berger, Michael Plekon, Rodney Stark, Robert Wuthnow, James Davison Hunter, and Christian Smith. Emile Durkheim. ... For the politician, see Max Weber (politician). ... Karl Heinrich Marx (May 5, 1818 – March 14, 1883) was a 19th century philosopher, political economist, and revolutionary. ... Peter Ludwig Berger (born March 17, 1929) is an American sociologist well known for his work The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (New York, 1966). ... Rodney Stark is an American sociologist of religion. ... Robert Wuthnow is a sociologist at the Princeton University, where he is the Andlinger Professor of Sociology and Director of Center for the Study of Religion. ... Christian Smith, a sociologist of religion and culture, is the William R. Kenan, Jr. ...

Despite the claims of many classical theorists and sociologists immediately after World War II, religion has continued to play a vital role in the lives of individuals worldwide. In America, for example, church attendance has remained relatively stable in the past 40 years. In Africa and South America, the emergence of Christianity has occurred at a startling rate. While Africa could claim roughly 10 million Christians in 1900, recent estimates put that number closer to 200 million. The rise of Islam as a major world religion, especially its new-found influence in the West, is another significant development. In short, presupposed secularization (the decline of religiosity) might seem to be a myth, depending on its definition and the definition of its scope. For instance, some sociologists have argued that steady church attendance and personal religious belief may coexist with a decline in the influence of religious authorities on social or political issues. Secularization or secularisation is a process of transformation as a society slowly migrates from close identification with the local institutions of religion to a more clearly separated relationship. ... Religiosity is a comprehensive sociological term used to refer to the numerous aspects of religious activity, dedication, and belief. ...

A major issue in the sociology of religion is its power to predict social trends. Many sociologists predicted a rise in religiosity [citation needed] when cultural and philosophical figures were claiming "God is dead." Of course, many in each group also disagreed. Other examples include:

–James Hunter, noteworthy for predicting the "Culture Wars" of the late 20th century, especially its religious character.
–Sociologists who predicted the rise of fundamentalist Islam and its connection with terrorism.

Among many other predictive endeavors, sociologists of religion (notably Robert Wuthnow) are currently attempting to predict the success of U.S. federal funding of Faith-based charities. The term culture war has been used to describe ideologically-driven and often strident confrontations typical of American public culture and politics since at least the 1980s. ... In the USA the term Faith-based (literally, based on religious faith) has come into public use as an abbreviation of faith-based initiative, e. ...

The view of religion in classical sociology

Durkheim, Marx, and Weber had very complex and developed theories about the nature and effects of religion. Durkheim and Weber specifically are often difficult to understand, especially in light of the lack of context and examples in their primary texts. Religion was considered to be an extremely important social variable in the work of all three:

Karl Marx

Despite his later influence, Marx did not view his work as an ethical or ideological response to nineteenth–century capitalism (as most later commentators have). His efforts were, in his mind, based solely on what can be called applied science. Marx saw himself as doing morally neutral sociology and economic theory for the sake of human development. As Christiano states, "Marx did not believe in science for science’s sake…he believed that he was also advancing a theory that would…be a useful tool…[in] effecting a revolutionary upheaval of the capitalist system in favor of socialism." (124) As such, the crux of his arguments was that humans are best guided by reason. Religion, Marx held, was a significant hindrance to reason, inherently masking the truth and misguiding followers. As we will later see, Marx viewed social alienation as the heart of social inequality. The antithesis to this alienation is freedom. Thus, to propagate freedom means to present individuals with the truth and give them a choice as to whether or not to accept or deny it. In this, "Marx never suggested that religion ought to be prohibited." (Christiano 126)

Central to Marx's theories was the oppressive economic situation in which he dwelt. With the rise of European industrialism, Marx and his colleague Engels witnessed and responded to the growth of what he called "surplus value." Marx’s view of capitalism saw rich capitalists getting richer and their workers getting poorer (the gap, the exploitation, was the "surplus value"). Not only were workers getting exploited, but in the process they were being further detached from the products they helped create. By simply selling their work for wages, "workers simultaneously lose connection with the object of labor and become objects themselves. Workers are devalued to the level of a commodity – a thing…" (Ibid 125) From this objectification comes alienation. The common worker is told he or she is a replaceable tool, alienated to the point of extreme discontent. Here, in Marx’s eyes, religion enters. Friedrich Engels (November 28, 1820 – August 5, 1895) was a German social scientist and philosopher, who developed communist theory alongside his better-known collaborator, Karl Marx, co-authoring The Communist Manifesto (1848). ...

As the "opium of the people," Marx recognized that religion served a true function in society – but did not agree with the foundation of that function. As Marx commentator Norman Birnbaum stated, to Marx, "religion [was] a spiritual response to a condition of alienation." (Ibid 126) Responding to alienation, Marx thought that religion served to uphold the ideologies and cultural systems that foster oppressive capitalism. Thus, "Religion was conceived to be a powerful conservative force that served to perpetuate the domination of one social class at the expense of others." (Ibid 127). In other words, religion held together the system that oppressed lower–class individuals. And so, in Marx’s infamous words, "It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo." (Marx, Introduction) Religion is the opium of the people (translated from the German ) is one of the most frequently quoted (and sometimes misquoted as opiate of the people or opiate of the masses) statements of Karl Marx, from the introduction of his 1843 work Contribution to Critique of Hegels Philosophy of...

Emile Durkheim

Emile Durkheim placed himself in the positivist tradition, meaning that he thought of his study of society as dispassionate and scientific. He was deeply interested in the problem of what held complex modern societies together. Religion, he argued, was an expression of social cohesion. David Émile Durkheim (April 15, 1858 - November 15, 1917) is known as the founder of modern sociology. ...

In the fieldwork that led to his famous Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Durkheim, who was a highly rational, secular Frenchman himself, spent fifteen years studying what he considered to be "primitive" religion among the Australian aborigines. His underlying interest was to understand the basic forms of religious life for all societies. In Elementary Forms, Durkheim argues that the totemic gods the aborigines worship are actually expressions of their own conceptions of society itself. This is true not only for the aborigines, he argues, but for all societies.

Religion, for Durkheim, is not "imaginary," although he does strip it of what many believers find essential. Religion is very real; it is an expression of society itself, and indeed, there is no society that does not have religion. We perceive as individuals a force greater than ourselves, which is our social life, and give that perception a supernatural face. We then express ourselves religiously in groups, which for Durkheim makes the symbolic power greater. Religion is an expression of our collective consciousness, which is the fusion of all of our individual consciousnesses, which then creates a reality of its own.

It follows, then, that less complex societies, such as the Australian aborigines, have less complex religious systems, involving totems associated with particular clans. The more complex the society, the more complex the religious system. As societies come in contact with other societies, there is a tendency for religious systems to emphasize universalism to a greater and greater extent. However, as the division of labor makes the individual seem more important (a subject that Durkheim treats extensively in his famous Division of Labor in Society), religious systems increasingly focus on individual salvation and conscience. Universalism refers to any concept or doctrine that applies to all persons and/or all things for all times and in all situations. ... The Division of Labour in Society, written by Émile Durkheim in 1893, was influential in advancing sociological theories and thought, with ideas which in turn were influenced by Auguste Comte. ...

Durkheim's definition of religion, from Elementary Forms, is as follows: "A religion is 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." (Marx, introduction)

This is a functional definition of religion, meaning that it explains what religion does in social life: essentially, it unites societies. Durkheim defined religion as a clear distinction between the sacred and the profane, in effect this can be parralelled with the distinction between God and humans.

This definition also does not stipulate what exactly may be considered sacred. Thus later sociologists of religion (notably Robert Bellah) have extended Durkheimian insights to talk about notions of civil religion, or the religion of a state. American civil religion, for example, might be said to have its own set of sacred "things": American flags, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, etc. Other sociologists have taken Durkheim in the direction of the religion of professional sports, or of rock music. Robert Neelly Bellah is a sociologist at University of California at Berkeley and author of a number of books including Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. ... The intended meaning of the term civil religion often varies according to whether one is a sociologist of religion or a professional political commentator. ...

Max Weber

Max Weber differed from Karl Marx and Emile Durkheim in that he focused his work on the effects of religious action and inaction. Instead of discussing religion as a kind of misapprehension (an "opiate of the people,") or as social cohesion, Weber did not attempt to reduce religion to its essence. Instead, he examines how religious ideas and groups interacted with other aspects of social life (notably the economy). In doing so, Weber often attempts to get at religion's subjective meaning to the individual.

In his sociology, Weber uses the German term "Verstehen" to describe his method of interpretation of the intention and context of human action. Weber is not a positivist -- in the sense that he does not believe we can find out "facts" in sociology that can be causally linked. Although he believes some generalized statements about social life can be made, he is not interested in hard positivist claims, but instead in linkages and sequences, in historical narratives and particular cases.

Weber argues for making sense of religious action on its own terms. A religious group or individual is influenced by all kinds of things, he says -- but if they claim to be acting in the name of religion, we should attempt to understand their perspective on religious grounds first. Weber gives religion credit for shaping a person's image of the world, and this image of the world can affect their view of their interests, and ultimately how they decide to take action.

For Weber, religion is best understood as it responds to the human need for theodicy and soteriology. Human beings are troubled, he says, with the question of theodicy -- the question of how the extraordinary power of a divine god may be reconciled with the imperfection of the world that he has created and rules over. People need to know, for example, why there is undeserved good fortune and suffering in the world. Religion offers people soteriological answers, or answers that provide opportunities for salvation -- relief from suffering, and reassuring meaning. The pursuit of salvation, like the pursuit of wealth, becomes a part of human motivation. This article or section does not cite any references or sources. ... Soteriology is the study of salvation. ...

Because religion helps to define motivation, Weber believed that religion (and specifically Protestant Calvinism) actually helped to give rise to modern capitalism, as he asserted in his most famous and controversial work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Capitalism.

In Protestant Ethic, Weber argues that capitalism arose in the West in part because of how the belief in predestination was interpreted by everyday English Puritans. Puritan theology was based on the Calvinist notion that not everyone would be saved; there was only a specific number of the elect who would avoid damnation, and this was based sheerly on God's predetermined will and not on any action you could perform in this life. Official doctrine held that one could not ever really know whether one was among the elect.

Practically, Weber noted, this was difficult psychologically: people were (understandably) anxious to know whether they would be eternally damned or not. Thus Puritan leaders began assuring members that if they began doing well financially in their businesses, this would be one unofficial sign they had God's approval and were among the saved -- but only if they used the fruits of their labor well. This led to the development of rational bookkeeping and the calculated pursuit of financial success beyond what one needed simply to live -- and this is the "spirit of capitalism." Over time, the habits associated with the spirit of capitalism lost their religious significance, and rational pursuit of profit became its own aim.

The Protestant Ethic thesis has been much critiqued, refined, and disputed, but is still a lively source of theoretical debate in sociology of religion. Weber also did considerable work on world religions, including Hinduism and Buddhism.

See also

The intended meaning of the term civil religion often varies according to whether one is a sociologist of religion or a professional political commentator. ... In the terminology of some scholars working in sociology, a political religion is a political ideology with cultural and political power equivalent to those of a religion, and often having many sociological and ideological similarities with religion. ... The scope of social psychological research. ... Sociology (from Latin: socius, companion; and the suffix -ology, the study of, from Greek λόγος, lógos, knowledge) is an academic and applied discipline that studies society and human social interaction. ... Nations with state religions:  Buddhism  Islam  Shia Islam  Sunni Islam  Orthodox Christianity  Protestantism  Roman Catholic Church A state religion (also called an official religion, established church or state church) is a religious body or creed officially endorsed by the state. ... This article or section does not cite any references or sources. ...

Study of religion

The anthropology of religion involves the study of religious institutions in relation to other social institutions, and the comparison of religious beliefs and practices across cultures. ... // Foundations The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism Max Weber Die protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus, 1904 Online version Description: In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber puts forward a thesis that Puritan ethic and ideas had influenced the development of capitalism. ... Psychology of religion is psychologys theory of religious experiences and beliefs. ...


  • Kevin J. Christiano, et al, (2001), Sociology of Religion: Contemporary Developments, AltaMira Press, U.S.
  • Marx, Karl. 1844. A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right, Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher, February.
  • Max Weber, Sociology of Religion
  • Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Los Angeles: Roxbury Company, 2002.

For the politician, see Max Weber (politician). ...

External links

  Results from FactBites:
Marx, Religion, and Sociology of Religion (3869 words)
The consequences of human action on religion and religion on men are the proper locuses of attention for social inquiry, unfettered by recourse to "belief" or "faith." Sociologically, faith must be viewed from the perspective of human existence, not the reverse.
Systematically ignored is Marx's insight that the critique of religion is the premise of all critlcism.
Because religion sanctions this alienation, because religion and religious institutions have had such a powerful influerce in the lives of humans, it is necessary to criticize the "effect" in order to get to the source.
  More results at FactBites »



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