Sociology of Religion

The sociologist of religion is interested in the vast range of differences and similarities in beliefs and practices. Therefore his definition of religion cannot be the specific definition of any one religious cult. The only possible alternative is a functional definition which concentrates upon the function of religion and ignores the basic faith presuppositions. This is acceptable only if the sociologist realizes what he has done in the construction of his definition. Milton Yinger, taking this approach, defines religion as “a system of beliefs and practices by means of which a group of people struggle with the ultimate problems of human life.”

If one defines sociology as the study of man in society and accepts the position that a complete analysis of human action requires the study of social, cultural, and personality facts, then sociology of religion may be defined as the scientific study of the reciprocal influences of religion and society, culture, and personality.

Sociology of religion is a very young science and as such is experiencing the growing pains of youth. Much interest is being shown, but little scientific theory is being developed, yet it takes time and competent, interested researchers to develop sound theory. At times sociological inquiry into religion has been central to the most important work being done in sociology; this was true at the turn of the century during the “golden era” of Ernst Troeltsch,* Max Weber, and Emil Durkheim. However, during the period between World Wars I and II, little attention was given to this field of endeavor. Since World War II there has been a resurgence of interest; even more recently hope has been rekindled by the establishment of dialogue between the three principal types of persons addressing themselves to the problem: college and university professors, seminary professors, and religious researchers. The right questions are beginning to be asked at both empirical and theoretical levels.

The earliest scientific approaches to a study of religion were highly influenced by August Comte's hierarchy of intellectual disciplines. Theological thinking was primitive and completely outmoded in the positive society. Religion would survive only in the form of liturgy based on science rather than revelation. In America two different groups developed. One viewed religion as a type of cultural lag and was antireligious in nature. A second group, of whom Walter Rauschenbusch* is a striking example, saw the possibilities for a “Social Gospel.” Sociology could form the basis of a religious, social reform. Many of the early American sociologists were recruited from the ranks of the Protestant clergy. However, this “cult of progress” phenomenon vanished under the onslaught of two world wars and a world depression.

The development of functional sociology began to have its effects upon the sociological study of religion in the early twentieth century. In Germany this was marked by the works of Weber, Troeltsch, and Georg Simmel. The French parallels to these social theorists were Durkheim and Robert Will. In the USA, the attack upon the positivistic views of religion came from the field of anthropology. Bronislaw Malinowski found that primitive man was forced to seek answers to the unknown in order to adjust to his cultural environment. Therefore religion had a functional value in enabling man to meet the problems of life, and religious ritual strengthened the moral beliefs and social cohesion essential to community life.

The work of Talcott Parsons represents an attempt to systemize the ideas of the structure-function approach, and it allowed the American sociologists to make a break with the Comtian emphasis on religion as a passing phenomenon. Parsons prepared the way for an understanding of socioreligious organization, while detailed sociological analysis of relevant phenomena was carried on by William I. Thomas, Florian Znaniecki, M.E. Gaddis, Arthur E. Holt, Samuel Kincheloe, W. Lloyd Warner, and others. Systematic treatments with broad perspective have been undertaken more recently by Pitirim Sorokin and Joachim Wach.

The sociological theorists who have been most concerned with religion are usually identified as functionalists. In the struggle to relate religion to society, culture, and personality they have been able to isolate at least six basic functions of religion.

(1) Religion provides support, consolation, and reconciliation. In the face of uncertainty, men need support; the pain of disappointment demands consolation; alienation from the goals and norms of society gives rise to a longing for reconciliation.

(2) Through cultic practices and formal worship, religion offers a transcendental relationship which provides security in the midst of contingency.

(3) The norms and values of established society are sacralized by religion. This allows the group goals to be maintained over individual wishes.

(4) In contradiction to the above, religion can also provide a prophetic function as it provides the standards of value in terms of which institutionalized norms may be critically examined and found seriously wanting.

(5) Religion performs important identity functions. It is within the realm of religion that many are able to find the answers to who they are and what they are.

(6) Finally, there is a relationship between religion and maturation. Religion sacralizes norms and ends which support the expectations for each age level.

The functionalist is not without his critics, and even he is willing to admit that this approach has its weaknesses. Yinger points out that functional analysis is sometimes used to “prove” the ultimate validity of some specific practice or belief. This empirical proof of a nonempirical proposition is impossible.

The field of sociology of religion branches out into several specific areas of interest: Religion and the Economic Order, Religion and Family, Religion and Social Stratification, Religious Leadership and Authority, Religion and Conflict, Religious Attitudes, Typology of Religious Institutions, etc. The growing edge of the discipline is interested in religious organization, leadership, and authority. The sociological theories of organization, bureaucracy, and role-playing are being incorporated into the study of religious organization, leadership, and authority.

The immediate future holds much promise for the work on religion more akin to social psychology than sociology. Here the relationships between religious values and other kinds of values in the culture will be explored. Recent developments in methodology such as small-group research, interviewing techniques, survey research, and conceptual analysis have paved the way for this type of study.

E. Troeltsch, The Social Teachings of the Christian Churches (2 vols., 1931); J. Wach, Sociology of Religion (1944); E.K. Nottingham, Religion and Society (1954); T.F. Hoult, The Sociology of Religion (1958); G. Simmel, Sociology of Religion (ET 1959); P. Benson, Religion in Contemporary Culture (1960); G. Vernon, Sociology of Religion (1962); O.R. Whitley, Religious Behavior: Where Sociology and Religion Meet (1964); T. O'Dea, The Sociology of Religion (1966); J.M. Yinger, The Scientific Study of Religion (1970).