Sociology of religion

In this lecture, I’ll talk about the early interest of
sociologists in religion, some of the reasons why
sociologists are interested in this topic, what a sociological perspective on religion
involves, and the issue of whether religion can
be fully explained in sociological terms. Sociologists have studied religion right from the
beginning of the discipline in the nineteenth
century. It was a central concern of the first generation of
sociological thinkers and those who influenced
them. Major figures in the history of the discipline, such
as Auguste Comte, Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim,
Max Weber and Georg Simmel all contributed in various ways to the sociology of
religion. The French philosopher, Auguste Comte, who
coined the term ‘sociology,’ even saw sociology as a replacement for
existing religions, as a new ‘religon’ of
‘positivism’. For Comte, positivism was the view that only the
methods of the natural sciences could provide
knowledge of human nature and society. He thought positivism was valuable for its
potential to solve social problems and to
reorganise society. He even developed a blueprint for a new social
order which had a ‘religion of humanity’ as its
ethical basis. Comte also recognised the importance of religion
in creating social bonds between people. However, his work has been largely
overshadowed by the work of other scholars in
the sociology of religion, such as Karl Marx, Max Weber and Emile
Durkheim. Later work in the sociology of religion has often
been developed in dialogue with the work of
these early scholars. Just to pick one example, one of the most famous
works in the sociology of religion, Max Weber’s
The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, was concerned with the question of the role
played by religion in social change. Weber wanted to understand why a system of
rational capitalism developed in the West, from
about the seventeenth century onwards, when it didn’t develop in other countries, such as
China and India, which were more economically
and technologically developed than the West. A key part of his explanation was that the
Reformation of the Catholic Church in the
sixteenth century, and the rise of Protestantism in Europe, changed
people’s attitudes to work, business and money-
making. These, in turn, enabled people to take advantage
of the economic opportunities capitalism provided
to make money with a good conscience. Sociologists are interested in studying religion for
at least three main reasons. The first, fairly obvious, reason, is that religion is
simply very important in the lives of many people
around the world. About 85 per cent of the world’s population affirm
some kind of religious belief with Christians, Muslims and Hindus making up
the three largest religious groups. In Australia, according to the 2011 Census, 68 per
cent of the population affirmed a religion with Christians making up 61
per cent of the Australian population. Religious ideas help people to interpret their
experiences. Religious values influence many people’s actions,
and religious organisations and communities provide many people with fellowship, aid and
support. Sociologists seeking to understand people’s
culture, forms of social organisation and practices can’t avoid, then, understanding
the role religion plays in their lives. They also need to understand the consequences
of religious beliefs and practices for the wider
society which might contain non-religious elements or a
diversity of faiths. Second, religion seems to exist in all known
human societies, but it takes different forms. This was perhaps first noticed by the ancient
Greek philosopher, Xenophanes, who noted that Ethiopian gods ‘were black and
had stub noses’ while Thracian gods had red hair
and light blue eyes. The difference in religious beliefs and practices
between societies is something that is noticeable
and it needs explanation. Third, religions change over time in response to
different social conditions. Older religions may decline in membership or
popularity and new religions emerge. One theme in the sociology of religion in Australia,
for example, is the rise of New Age religions and
spiritual movements as well as neo-paganism. Established religions may also change as a result
of crisis, scandal or changing social conditions. The child sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic
Church, for example, has exposed the institutional failure of the church
to protect children from harm, and to report
perpetrators of sexual abuse to the police. It has been immensely damaging to public trust
and confidence in the church. This can lead people to abandon their faith, leave
the church altogether or to decide against
becoming a priest or nun. A sociological perspective on religion is
concerned with understanding religion as a social
phenomenon. A sociological interpretation of religion will
emphasise that quite apart from the supernatural
or spiritual dimensions of religion, its expression remains anchored in human ideas,
symbols, feelings, practices and organisations, as well as being an active influence on social
interactions, structures and processes. Social scientists are interested, then, both in the
way that society affects religion, and the way
that religion affects society. Finally, an important question in the sociology of
religion concerns its appropriate scope and limits. In other words, can the sociology of religion fully
explain religious phenomena or are there aspects of religion that transcend
sociological explanation? One way to think about this is to ask whether the
beliefs of a particular religion like Christianity are
‘true’ in the same sense that, say, the figure provided for the population of Australia
is ‘true’. Many sociologists would be reluctant to face this
question head on, and might say that it is not a
legitimate issue for them to deal with. After all religions usually make at least some
claims about the world which are not empirically
testable. These might include claims about the existence of
God, the existence of an after-life or claims that God has divinely revealed aspects
of His divine plan to chosen human beings. For many sociologists, these claims would not
have any objective answers. Instead, they should simply be taken as true
relative to the social group they emanated from. The general tendency would be to bracket off the
question of whether religious beliefs are ‘true’, because of
the difficulty of empirically testing them, or because it’s not seen as part of sociology’s
responsibility in the first place. Instead, one can accept the fact that religious
people have beliefs about things, including
supernatural phenomena, and see the sociologist’s role as one of
investigating the social causes of those beliefs. However, this approach can also be problematic,
because for religious believers themselves, the most important thing about their beliefs is
precisely their ‘truth’. If sociologists completely ignore this and explain
people’s beliefs purely in terms of the social
factors which caused them, then they’re implicitly raising the possibility that
those beliefs are false. Needless to say, the adherents of any religion are
unlikely to be very responsive to this sort of
interpretation of their own religion. What this issue indicates, is that it is important for
sociologists to be aware of the problems that can
arise from the bracketing of religious truth claims, and to be reflexive about the extent to which
religion can be explained entirely in sociological
terms. In this way, sociologists will be able to contribute
a great deal to the understanding of religion with
their theories and empirical research, without necessarily assuming that religion is
purely and simply a product of social factors and


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