Sociology of Religion

Religion refers to people’s relationship to that which they regard as holy, sacred, absolute, spiritual, divine, or worthy of especial reverence. For some, this is a belief in gods and spirits; for others, it is a view of the human world or a natural environment. Often it involves rituals, teachings, and practices.

Sociologists study religion to understand the functions it serves, the problems it can reinforce and perpetuate, and its role in our lives. They use a variety of approaches and methods, including ethnography, history, anthropology, sociology, and theology. They also study the influence of religion on society, for example, how it can lead to social injustice or even violent persecution, such as the Inquisition and the Salem witch trials.

A scholarly debate is ongoing about the nature of religion. One approach focuses on the three “Cs” of religion: the true, the beautiful, and the good. Another tries to add a fourth C: community. Catherine Albanese may have been the first to argue that a definition of religion must include a sense of community, but Ninian Smart’s famous anatomy of religion includes the concept as well.

Some scholars, particularly those with a critical social theory perspective, believe that religion is an artificial construct. They point out that the meaning of a word shifts as the cultural context changes, and that a word can be defined in different ways with each definition having its own set of problems. They call for a more reflexive approach that examines the constructed nature of concepts that are previously taken for granted as unproblematically “there.” They argue that this kind of investigation can provide insights into how societies change and grow.

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