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Sociology of Religion

Sociology of Religion

Understanding religion is much more than knowledge of the beliefs and practices of an individual's faith. Understanding religion also involves understanding the sociology of religion, or how a person's religious beliefs, or lack thereof, impact the way they function as a part of a larger society. Sociology of religion involves both qualitative and quantitative studies of how religion exists in the larger facets of the public society as well as how it impacts individuals and their relationships with others.

Sociology of religion is largely rooted in the works of the following two philosophers:

  1. Emile Durkheim
  2. Max Weber
  3. Karl Marx

Each of these philosophers were fascinated by the power that religion has over the lives of so many individuals. Durkheim discussed the sociology of religion through the lens of functionalism, or how religion impacts the day-to-day existence of people. From reverence for sacred objects to the sense of kinship that develops among individuals who share a belief system, Durkheim concluded that the role of religion is highly impactful fulfills a vital need for many people.

Weber, in contrast, looked at the bigger picture and considered how religion shaped belief systems and entire societies. He ultimately found that the roots of some of the most common modern institutions, including capitalism, can be traced back to early belief systems and how these tenets influenced people to behave a certain way. The Protestant work ethic, for example, gave rise to the earliest practices of modern-day capitalism, and the Christian notion of saving people from their sins contributed to the rise of great conflict wherein a larger western society works to force its ethical principles on a weaker society.

It is interesting to note that Karl Marx, perhaps sociology's most cited theorist, scarcely addressed religion directly in his writings. However, seeing religion as a by- product of his critiques on capitalism, he touched upon it frequently in his work. Marx believed "religion is an expression of material realities and economic injustice". Problems in society caused problems in religion. It was not the disease but rather a symptom of the disease.

His disdain for religion was based on the idea that religion is a delusion that disguises reality. By accepting religion, a person rendered himself servile, making him more accepting of the status quo. This acceptance allowed the proletariat to be further oppressed by the bourgeoisie.

Marx's most famous statement on religion is found in the preface of his 1843 Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right: It (religion) is the opium of the people. Often misunderstood, Marx's true meaning is that religion allows people to justify their economic disparities. While it may provide solace, like any opiate, religion fails to fix the injury or the root of the problem. The underlying social problems that lead to economic inequality are still there. However, by turning to religion, one's pain is "soothed" and therefore, no true social change can come about.

Max Weber extended Marx's views with his own direct study of religion and its effects on society. Both theorist presumed "that the triumph of a market society would lead to the destruction of the fabric of civil society, including the secularization of religion, and a dystopian collapse of communal solidarity traditional values".

Weber asserts that it is the Puritan idea that influenced the development of capitalism. Values that favored the rational pursuit of economic gain had positive spiritual and moral meaning in Protestantism. The "spirit of capitalism" was the by product of this "Protestant ethic" which in modern commentary has become the idea of "work ethic."

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