A sociological Analysis of Religion Characteristics of Religion




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TitleA sociological Analysis of Religion Characteristics of Religion
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Common Themes of Religion



A Sociological Analysis of Religion

  • Characteristics of Religion

    • Common Elements:
    • Beliefs
    • The Sacred and Profane
    • Rituals and Ceremonies
    • Personal Experience
  • Functions of Religion

    • Social Cohesion
    • Social Control
    • Provides Meaning and Purpose




A Sociological Analysis of Religion

  • Beliefs – Convictions that certain things are true. There are mysteries that confound and mock our abilities to understand them. (Name some?) Religion serves a function for society in providing answers to those mysteries, and by providing meaning and hope to people who might otherwise feel hopelessly insignificant and lost. These answers, however, sometimes are more abstract and difficult to understand than the mysteries themselves, and require a level of belief that is often referred to as faith; unquestioning belief in God, religion, and other things sacred.





A Sociological Analysis of Religion

  • Beliefs are found in all religions, and include the Christian belief that Jesus is the son of God, and that Jesus arose from the dead after crucifixion; the Judaic belief in the “covenant” under which the Jews became God’s chosen people; the Islamic belief that there is only one God (monotheism), and that Mohammad, and Jesus, were only messengers; and the Hindu belief, not in a single deity, but in a spiritual force, “dharma”, that resides everywhere in the universe (pantheism) and in several deities (polytheism) who have influence over different aspects of our existence.

  • Historically religious beliefs are not subject to the laws of science or philosophical inquiry, and many “heretics” of all religions have felt the power of religious rebuke, including death.



Sociological Analysis of Religion

  • Polytheism -



Sociological Analysis of Religion

  • Pantheism -



Sociological Analysis of Religion

  • Monotheism -



A Sociological Analysis of Religion

  • The Sacred and the Profane – According to Durkheim, all religions distinguish between the sacred, those things which have supernatural significance and qualities, and the profane, those things which are regarded as part of ordinary life. The sacred includes items that are symbols of other holy things, thus in Christianity, the cross is a common symbol for the act of Jesus dying for our sins. (Things inside and outside the temple)













A Sociological Analysis of Religion

  • Moral Communities – religious groups that share common beliefs and values.

  • A religious community serves several functions:

    • provides continuity form one generation to another (education or indoctrination?)
    • allows the laity to look after the profane matters while an elite tend to the sacred
    • provides social support
    • in times of threat, religious communities can offer some protections


A Sociological Analysis of Religion

  • Personal Experience – religion can provide the interpretations for understanding one’s own behaviors, the personal meanings of these interpretations, and the resolve to do something about these problems or feelings that vex them. Individuals can feel that a “divine message” has been received personally, or has been received by one or more of their community members. A religious experience can be liberating in terms of guilt, depression, or any other number of maladies. A common expression is to give oneself up to God, Allah, or dharma. Individual problems and issues are absorbed by something bigger than themselves. These experiences can be very individualistic, yet also be consistent with the religious beliefs of the religious community as a whole.



Personal Experience



Personal Experience

  • Losing ourselves in contemplation











A Sociological Analysis of Religion

  • Religious Organizations

    • Church – 1) organized bureaucratically, 2) has a large membership,
    • 3) follows well-established rituals, and, 4) accepted by society even if not practiced
    • Denomination – as contrasted with an ecclesia, which is the official state religion, such as the Church of England, a denomination is a religion that maintains friendly relations with the government and other religions but does not claim to be the nation’s only legitimate religion
    • Sects – rejects the accepted form of a church, has little bureaucratic organization, follows emotions rather than rituals, are very committed to their beliefs, and may advocate violence to gain their ends.
    • Cults – has little to do with traditional religion, develop around a charismatic leader, often reject the greater society




A Sociological Analysis of Religion

  • Religious Organizations

    • Denomination – a religious group larger than a sect, but smaller than a church. The term denomination is used to describe a recognized religious organization that is self-governing and has doctrinal autonomy.
    • Religion- Christianity
    • Churches-Catholicism, Protestantism, Eastern Orthodox
    • Denominations (Protestantism)
      • Baptists
      • Presbyterians
      • Lutherans
      • Anglicans (Church of England)
      • Seventh Day Adventists
        • Sects – Shakers, Mennonites, Amish








A Sociological Analysis of Religion

  • Bureaucratic and Political Organization

  • Roles

    • Clerics
    • Laity
  • Political Structure

    • Authoritarian
    • Democratic
  • Power

    • Centralized
    • Diffused
























A Sociological Analysis of Religion

  • Functional Perspectives

    • Religion is just one the social institutions that contribute to the stability of a society through the social processes of:
      • Societal cohesion
      • Social control – religion applies authority and direction to important points of a person’s life cycle including marriage, birth, and death
      • Provision of purpose – religion helps reduce social anxiety by providing answers to broad questions about the meaning of life, existence, and non-existence


A Sociological Analysis of Religion

  • Conflict Perspectives

    • like all the other social institutions, religion can be used by the powerful to legitimate their authority, keep themselves in power, and keep the other classes “in line”
    • official religious belief (dogma) can reduce the importance of the here-and-now, and stress the importance of the other-worldly, leading to an acceptance of the status quo, even if inequality and exploitation is obvious (a form of false consciousness) This is what Marx had in mind when he referred to religion as the “opiate of the masses”.
    • religious belief can be used to validate the political and economic institutions of a society, and even lead to the incorporation of the religious into civil institutions such as law, education and the political order; Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism


A Sociological Analysis of Religion

  • Conflict Perspectives

    • a humanistic perspective, a bit different than a true conflict perspective, is critical of the effect that religious dogma can have on the development of the pursuit of knowledge and freedom of expression. When Spinoza, a Jewish philosopher, suggested that instead of taking the Bible literally, we should see it as allegory; and instead of seeing God as separate from nature, we should see God in all things, including nature, he was driven from his synagogue and excommunicated. He wrote: “Those who wish to seek out the causes of miracles, and to understand the things in nature as philosophers, and not to stare at them in astonishment like fools, are soon considered heretical and impious, and proclaimed as such by those whom the mob adore as the interpreters of nature and the gods. For these men know that once ignorance is put aside, that wonderment would be taken away which is the only means by which their authority is preserved.”






A Sociological Analysis of Religion

  • Conflict Perspectives

    • another humanistic perspective was offered by Nietzsche (passage from Gay Science) Can humans exist without the social institution of religion? Nietzsche felt that it was extremely difficult, but possible. But where would individuals turn to for answers to the unanswerable?
    • Marx – religion is used by the powerful to control the classes; “opiate of the masses”. Classical religion can be replaced with spiritualism.
    • The “Ethicalist” movement can be seen as a transition stage in which individuals emphasize living a “good” life, treating others with respect and altruism, instead of worshiping a deity.


A Sociological Analysis of Religion

  • Symbolic Interaction

    • religious identity serves as a reference point which affect the political choices, sexual relationships, and other aspects of daily life for many individuals. It is incorporated into their self, and they see themselves as acting as a Christian/Jew/Muslim/Hindu/Buddhist.
    • radical changes in faith may involve entire belief systems, self identity, and one’s positions in society.


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