August 07, 2019

Sociology and Religion

author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

I’m not an expert in the sociology of religion, but it is a fascinating area within the study of sociology. Religion is a topic that many other disciplines examine, including anthropology, history, and philosophy. So what is the focus of sociologists who study religion?

Rather than investigating religious doctrines, sociologists study the role that religion plays in social life. We don’t debate the virtues of any one religion, but instead look at how followers make meaning through the texts of their religious traditions. Émile Durkheim, one of the first sociologists, noted that religions distinguish between the sacred from the profane, or the holy from the everyday rituals and practices.

Durkheim also discussed how religion serves as a central source for connecting people to the larger society and thus is one of the most important social institutions. It is one of the ways in which we create rules and conformity, develop a shared sense of morality, and feel a connection to other worshippers and a larger spiritual realm. (Other key figures in sociology, like Max Weber and Karl Marx have also written a great deal about religion.)

You don’t have to be a follower of any one religion—or any religion at all—to apply the sociological imagination to the study of religion. You might explore how regular involvement in a congregation affects people’s health and well being, as a study published in 2017 by researchers at Vanderbilt University did:

Understanding religious participation as a form of civic engagement also expands the kinds of research questions sociologists might ask while studying religion. Sociologists who study social movements explore how religious participation might spur activism for various types of causes. We might consider how religious participation might reduce social isolation.

Religion can be a source of social division and discrimination, as people might stereotype others based on their religious affiliation, or in some situations, commit hate crimes against others. The FBI collects data on hate crimes which you can easily access online. In 2017, the most recent year for which data are available, 22 percent of all hate crimes were anti-religious; of those, 58 percent were anti-Jewish and nearly 19 percent were anti-Muslim. Sociologists who study crime might look at these trends in greater depth, perhaps studying the incidents to learn more about the contexts of religious-based hate crimes.

As I have written about previously, one of the main concepts within sociology is Weber’s notion of verstehen, or understanding. Central to the study of sociology, understanding the lives and perspectives of others gives us a broader base of knowledge about people who might have experiences different from our own.

The Pew Research Center recently released the results of a study where they asked Americans basic questions about the major world religions. The study found that while most respondents were familiar with some basic ideas about Christianity, “Americans are less familiar with some basic facts about other world religions, including Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism.” (You can take a sample quiz by clicking here to see how well you do.)

Not surprisingly, education is one of the biggest factors predicting answering more questions correctly. “Those who say they have taken a world religions class (e.g., in high school or college) answer 17.3 questions correctly, on average, compared with 12.5 among those who have not taken such a class,” according to the report.

Perhaps most interesting, the people who scored highest on the quiz reported knowing more people from a variety of religious backgrounds, and also report more favorable views of those religious groups. This tells us that learning more about a variety of different religions may reduce discrimination and contribute to a greater understanding of religious diversity. (Click here for more religion-related reports from the Pew Research Center.)

Whether you are an ardent believer or committed atheist, the sociological study of religion has an important place in understanding our society better. Since religion is a central organizing feature across many—if not most—societies your sociological imagination will be stronger by understanding the role of religion in the world around us.


This content was very informative to how sociology plays a role in religion that I wasn't aware of. I especially thought the video was interesting and brought about some statistics of the effect religion has on your life span. I attend mass every Sunday, so hearing that it will increase my life span was a jovial thought. This article helped me apply sociology to religion by distinguishing between the holy from the everyday rituals and practices. This article also differs from news reports because you chose to focus on the positive aspects of religion instead of pinning religions against each other in an attempt to separate society.

Thank you for your post. I have read through some similar topics! However, your article gave me a very special impression, unlike other articles. I hope you continue to have valuable posts like this or more to share with everyone!

Je ne suis pas non plus un expert mais je pense que ce que vous nous proposez est très bien et très enrichie personnellement je pense que le mieux est de méditer et de se relaxer le plus souvent possible personnellement je médite dans mon jardin devant uns statues de bouddha d'extérieur

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