Professor Marshall

LESSON 15: Religion

Lesson 15

Target Competencies (Outcomes)

Explain sociological approaches to the study of religion

Characterize major world religions

Articulate current controversies related to religion in the United States

You will demonstrate your competence by:

Completing the learning activities in this Learning Plan

Your performance will be successful when:

You can discuss historical understandings of religion from a sociological point of view

You can apply major theoretical perspectives on the sociology of religion

You can classify different kinds of religions and religious organizations

You can explain how religion can be an agent of social change

You can describe current trends in the religious sphere in the United States

Learning Activities

1. If you have not yet done so, READ Chapter 15 of your text.

3. COMPLETE the lesson below.


The study of religion has a long history in the field of sociology. It is important to note, as do Steele and Price, that sociologists are NOT concerned with "verifying the presence or absence of a supreme being or a religious explanation of life. Rather, sociologists… 'Make sense' of how people organize and construct religion and how religion influences social life" (79).

Religion has been and continues to be one of the most important social institutions known to humankind. The influence of religion over the history of humankind has been tremendous. While in the West we have become increasingly more secular (meaning we have become less religious over time), the influence of religion is still very strong.

Relying on the work of Durkheim, we can understand from a sociological point of view the influence of religion on society. Durkheim said that religion serves some significant and important purposes or functions for the members of a society. Recall that functional theory was the theory, or lens, through which Durkheim viewed society in his time. Durkheim said that religion with the collective act, including many forms of behavior in which people interact with others who are interested in religious behaviors within a social context. Durkheim further separated religious life from "other" life:

  • Sacred: elements of life which hold religious meaning, those things which are often, deserving respect and sometimes even making us fearful
  • Profane: ordinary and commonplace elements of life, those things which are not religious; everything that happens that is outside of the religious experience

Durkheim to find religion as a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred thing, and he felt that religion served several important functions for the members of society. It is important to remember that in Durkheim's time religion in the West was much more commonplace and most people practiced the same religion (Christianity), and therefore the integrative force of religion was much stronger in his time. The functions that Durkheim observed related to religion were:

  • to give meaning and purpose to life
  • to offer value, not only to the individual but also to the common good of society
  • to strengthen social integration
  • to give meaning to the collective

Since the time of Durkheim there have been many sociologists who have specialized in the study of the influence of religion on individual and on the structure of society. Furthering the work of Durkheim, scholars have also found that a function of religion allows us to feel that we can do something about calamities we face which would otherwise be outside of our control (prayer, missionary work, etc.). In addition, sometimes religion allows us to view our misfortunes as unimportant or as things which we don't have to do anything about (in other words, "it's in God's hands").

You can see, Durkheim largely viewed religion has something that was a positive force not only for the individual but also for society. Religion not only gave individuals hope but it also allowed the structure of society to be strengthened and to maintain a cohesive bearing which allow the fabric of society to function in a positive and smooth manner.

In opposition to Durkheim, Marx took up a conflict perspective with regard to his discussions of the role of religion in society. Again, we have to remember that these two men did most of their theorizing and observing in the late 1800s in the West. Marx had been concerned all along with the role of capitalism and how it would influence the everyday person over time. He saw a religion as a tool that capitalists could use to maintain their control over those who had little control in society. He called religion "the opium of the people," and felt that it promoted false consciousness:

Marx felt that this was a very dangerous place for society to be in as to exist in a state of false consciousness would encourage people to put up with their place and not try to change it. Because religion, at least at the time in the West, was being used as a mechanism to control the poor, Marx felt that it was a tool that the wealthy were using to keep the poor in place and further, to keep the poor working to support the structure of capitalist society. This in turn would make the rich richer, and keep the poor poor on the hope that they would one day see their rewards in heaven.

Thus we can see that Marx felt religion impedes social change. While religion focuses on people and otherworldly concerns, Marx felt that it lulled the masses into submission by offering them consolation for their harsh lives here on earth. From a conflict perspective therefore we could say that to whatever extent religion influences social behavior it reinforces existing patterns of dominance and inequality. This continues to be problematic for contemporary conflict theorists as we see the hierarchy within the Christian church (and within other churches and faiths around the world) with regard to gender, race, and class.

Alongside Marx, Max Weber also studied religion. Weber however took a different approach and instead came up with what is known as the "Weberian Thesis." Weber's work results in what we know today as the "Protestant work ethic." Weber studied the followers of the Protestant Reformation and he noted that they emphasized a disciplined work ethic and a rational orientation to life. What's interesting about Weber's understanding of the Protestant work ethic is how it manifests itself in the life of every day Christians in his time. Because of interpretations of Scripture, there was a belief that only certain numbers of people who had been predetermined would be able to get into heaven. Unfortunately, for everyone, no one knew those people would be. So, some people felt that if they worked very, very hard and showed that they were successful and frugal, they might be able to "work" their way into heaven. The Protestant work ethic is thought to be a byproduct of this line of thinking.

We can still see the Protestant work ethic in American society today — most of us still feel that it is essential and important to work very, very hard and to apply ourselves and take advantage of every opportunity. This way of thinking and way of life is probably ingrained in us, to some extent, with roots in the Protestant work ethic.

Religion and Education

Related our lesson on education, we also should touch on the influence of religion in the school system in America.

There are some in American society today who believe there is a role for prayer and religion in schools. Others however prefer to maintain a strict separation of church and state as is laid out by our forefathers.

However there is a controversy today over teaching theories of origin of humans and the universe. The biggest controversy comes with what is called the "theory of creationism." Creationism is accepting biblical accounts of the creation of humans and the universe together. While the First Amendment protects religious freedom, in 1962 the Supreme Court ruled that prayer in schools was "wholly inconsistent" with the First Amendment. Further, in 1987, the Supreme Court ruled that states could not compel schools to teach creationism.

Another controversy comes with the "the theory of intelligent design." Intelligent design is accepting that life is so complex that it could only have been created by intelligent design, meaning some higher being had a hand in creating life on earth.

Supporters of school prayer, creationism, and intelligent design say that there is too much separation in school between the sacred and the profane. Opponents however say that the religious majority in any particular community could impose their religious points of view which are specific to their faith at the expense of religious minorities in any given school system, community, or state. The federal courts have taken a hard line on religion in school however religion in school debates show no sign of ending in our near future. This is one of those areas that relates to the socialization of our children – if schools are allowed to be infused with religion, then religion will be socialized into our children by our educational system. This is something that everyone with children or everyone who may consider parenthood needs to think about. As an example of how difficult it would be for public schools to teach religious values to a multicultural student body, read THIS ARTICLE about a Buddhist child in a public school in a deeply religious Bible Belt community.


Carl, John. Think Sociology Second Edition. Upper Saddle River: Pearson. 2011. Print.

Schaefer, Richard. Sociology 13th Edition. Boston: McGraw-Hill. 2013. Print.

Steele, Stephen F., Jammie Price. Applied Sociology. Belmont: Thomson Wadsworth, 2008. Print.