Professor Deborah Carr
Wednesday April 7, 2010
I. The sociological study of religion
A. What is religion?
1. There are no known societies that lack religion; religious beliefs and
practices vary across cultures, and across time periods.
2. Religion comprises:
a. Forms of culture, including shared beliefs, values, norms, and
material conditions/objects (crosses, menorahs, religious tracts) that create a common
identity among group members.
b. Beliefs take the form of ritualized practices (e.g., prayer,
confession, rites associated with weddings, christenings, funerals,
c. Provides feeling that life is ultimately meaningful. Persons who
often experience adversity are thus more likely to turn to religion. Levels of religiosity
often increase after a tragic event which people cannot make sense of (e.g., death of a
child; tragedy like 9-11 which triggered high levels of attendance at religious services in
the months following the attacks).
B. How Do Sociologists Study Religion?
1. Not concerned with whether a set of religious beliefs is “true” or
“false.” This is not the job of a social scientist.
2. Concerned with the social organization of religion; such as how people
practice, the hierarchy or level of decentralization of a particular religious group, and the
processes through which people join or leave a particular denomination.
3. Views religion as a major source of solidarity in that they offer a
common set of norms and values. Research dating back to Durkheim shows that people
involved in a religious community and who regularly attend services have better mental
and physical well-being than less religious persons (although researchers now recognize
that studies have not ascertained the direction of causation. It is possible that only healthy
people are capable of attending services!)>
4. Explain the appeal of religion in terms of social forces, rather than
personal, spiritual, or other individual-level psychological factors.
II. Theories of Religion
1. Sociological approaches to religion have been heavily influenced by
classic theorists including Marx, Durkheim, and Weber.
a. All three believed that religion is fundamentally an illusion;