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Sociological Perspective of Religion
Sociologists deal with matters that are empirical, research based, things that can be measured and observed. In terms of religion sociologists study the effect religion and religious beliefs have on individuals’ lives and are not concerned with the truth in terms of religious beliefs. Religion is composed of beliefs, practices, and a moral community. We can view religion from our three sociological perspectives. By utilizing our sociological perspectives we can analyze religion from different viewpoints and objectively examine the issues.
To begin with we need to look at some recent data on religion as sociologists investigate trends in religion over time then we will move on to understanding the sociological perspectives of religion.
(PEW Research, 2015)
As you can see from this chart there have been changes to religious affiliations since 2007. When reading this chart you want to focus on the overall trends such as where we see a decrease (in all religious affiliations) and where we see an increase (Non-Christian faiths and Unaffiliated).
(PEW Research, 2015)
This is a more detailed chart indicating the trends in religious affiliation over the years again indicating an overall trend in a decrease (some slight) in people stating affiliation with most of the major religions and an increase in those identifying as “Unaffiliated”. Focus on the last column and the overall change.
(PEW Research, 2015)
In this chart we can see that a majority of those who occupy seats in the Congress (House of Representatives and Senate) identify with a specific religious affiliation, most are either Protestant or Catholic, and that few decline to state a religious affiliation (DK/Ref) or stated “Unaffiliated”. This data is an indication of the extent that religion and politics are intertwined with one another and the cultural norm religion has in our society. Due to this strong social norm think about the likelihood that a person running for office in a top position (President, Vice President, House, Senate,…) that stated that she or he was unaffiliated, agnostic, or atheist would be elected.
(PEW Research, 2015)
In this study we can see that many U.S. adults feel that science and religion conflict but also feel that science does not conflict theory their own religious beliefs. Those who identify as highly religious were less likely to view a conflict between science and their faith.
Sociological Perspectives of Religion
Structural Functionalist Perspective
The functionalist perspective focuses on how religion fulfills specific functions for individuals and society and how those functions are fulfilled.
Functions of Religion
- Religion answers questions about the meaning or purpose of life and gives followers a sense of purpose.
- Religion provides a means of emotional comfort for individuals
- Religion brings people together into a community of shared values (social solidarity)
- Religion provides people with guidelines for everyday life (for example the ten commandments)
- Religion is a means of social control (limits individuals’ behaviors)
- Religion often resists social change (to maintain the social order) but in some instances it has been the forefront of social change (civil rights movement)
Dysfunctions of Religion
- Religion can act as justification for persecution (witch-burning from 1200-1800)
- War and terrorism: historically wars have been based on religion (Crusades)
Symbolic Interactionism/Symbolic Interactionist Perspective
- Social solidarity
- Condensed way of communicating
- Religious experiences
Religious symbols provide people with meanings, social solidarity with others, and provides a condensed way of communicating (Star of David, the cross). Religious rituals, repetitive practices and ceremonies, help to unite followers (prayer, traditions, ceremonies). Religious beliefs provide values, explain what is considered good, and explains how individuals should live their lives. Religious experiences such as being “born again” is also part of symbolic interactionism.
The Conflict Perspective
Conflict theorists often explain religion as supporting the status quo and maintaining social inequalities in society. Conflict theorists view religion historically as being used as a means of social control, it was used to limit and control individual’s behaviors. As society has evolved and we now have strict laws to control behaviors conflict theorists see the decreasing need for religion.
The Opium of the Masses (or opium of the people): religion is used as a drug to help people forget about their oppression and suffering and not revolt from their oppressors (and the inequalities they are facing in society) with the view that they will be rewarded in the afterlife.
Legitimation of Social Inequalities: religion legitimates the social inequalities found in the greater society. Those who occupy the lower positions in the greater society also occupy lower positions within religion (the divine right of kings in the Middle Ages; caste system; women).
Symbolic Interactionist Perspective
The above chart notes the key terms and concepts associated with each of our three main theoretical perspectives of religion.
India’s Sacred Cow
Read the article “India’s Sacred Cow”
Questions to ask yourself while you are reading the article:
Is this Hindu belief an irrational ideology or functional for this society? How can you apply functionalism and the functions of religion to this issue? What about the dysfunctions of religion? How can you apply conflict theory to this article/issue? How can you apply symbolic interactionism to this article/issue?
Jim Jones and Jonestown
Search the web for information on “Jim Jones” and “Jonestown”. Read about Jim Jones and what he called “Jonestown” in Guyana. Then view the film on Jim Jones and Jonestown. While you are reading the information and viewing the film think about how our theories (structural functionalism, symbolic interactionism, and conflict theory), as they apply to the institution of religion, can be applied to Jim
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