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The study of religion is a core component of sociology, from its substantive place in the classical theorizing of Max Weber and Emile Durkheim, to comprising one of the most vibrant areas of research among contemporary sociologists. The sociology of religion is not interested in speculating about the existence of God or in assessing the validity and coherence of religious belief. It is concerned, rather, with how individuals, social institutions, and cultures construe God or the sacred, how these ideas penetrate public culture and individual lives, and with the implications of these interpretations for individual, institutional, and societal processes. Thus sociologists of religion draw on the full range of research methodologies available to explore theoretically informed questions about the relevance, meaning, and implications of religion in local, national, and global socio-historical contexts. Standardized indicators include finely differentiated measures of religious affiliation and beliefs, frequency of church attendance, private prayer and religious reading, the self-perceived importance of religion in an individual’s life, and personal images of God. In addition to quantitative indicators, there is also a strong tradition of ethnographic research documenting the multiple and varied ways in which religious meanings and identities evolve for particular religious collectivities (e.g., congregations) and in individual lives.
A dominant theme in the sociology of religion and vigorously engaged by scholars on both sides of the Atlantic is secularization. The term is conceptualized differently by various scholars, but for the most part, refers to the constellation of historical and social processes that allegedly bring about the declining significance of religious belief and authority in society. The secularization thesis has its roots in the writings of both Weber and Durkheim. Weber predicted that the increased rationalization of society — bureaucratization, scientific and technical progress, and the expanding pervasiveness of instrumental reason — would substantively attenuate the scope of religion, both through the specialization of institutional spheres (of family, economy, law, politics) and as a result of disenchantment in the face of competing rationalized value spheres (e.g., science). Durkheim, although a strong proponent of the centrality of the sacred in maintaining social cohesion, nonetheless predicted that the integrative functions performed by religious symbols and rituals in traditional societies would increasingly in modern societies be displaced by the emergence of differentiated professional and scientific membership communities.
Weber’s secularization thesis was highly influential in the paradigm of social change articulated by Talcott Parsons and modernization scholars in the 1960s, predicting religion’s loss of institutional and cultural authority in the face of economic and social development. Nonetheless, there was persistent empirical evidence (especially in the USA) that secularization was not an all-encompassing force.
The scholarly reassessment of secularization was also prompted by the increased public visibility of religious-political movements (e.g., the Moral Majority in the USA, Solidarity in Poland, and the religious roots of the Iranian Revolution), theoretical challenges to modernization theory, and by greater scholarly awareness, largely driven by feminist sociologists, to the critical importance of nonrational sources of meaning and authority in everyday life (e.g., emotion, tradition). Advancing this paradigm reassessment, the application of rational choice theory to the study of religion resulted in an intense, empirically informed debate about the ways in which competitive (pluralistic) religious environments (religious economies) produce religious vitality and church growth. This approach rejected the assumptions of secularization theory, arguing that they were more appropriate for the historically monopolized religious contexts (markets) found in Europe, but at odds with the American context of religious pluralism and religion freedom. Today, any generalized assessment of secularization must be attentive to the large body of empirical data demonstrating the continuing significance of religion in the public domain and in individual lives, and the coexistence of these trends with equally valid empirical evidence indicating selectivity in, and reflexivity toward, the acceptance of religion’s theological, moral, and political authority.
Much of the contemporary research on religion highlights the complexity and multidimensionality of religion as it is lived out across diverse contexts. The scope and cultural hold of religion is documented in research on the increased prominence of global religious movements such as Pentecostalism and Islam; the political legitimacy of faith-based social movements and organizations; the significant impact of religion on voting and on everyday health and social behavior independent of other social factors (e.g., ethnicity, social class); and the influential presence of religious worldviews in shaping public policy debates and activism (e.g., on abortion, gay rights, stem cell research). One of the newer areas of study is the attempt to systematically differentiate between, and investigate the social implications of, church-based religion and deinstitutionalized, individual spirituality. Increasingly too, the issue of religious diversity is coming to the fore, prompted especially by the emergence of public controversies, mostly in Europe, over the accommodation of Islamic religious symbols and practices in the allegedly secular public sphere. The resurgence of religion in western societies previously considered as secular (e.g., France, England), is inspiring new intellectual debates about how the role of religion in civil society should be construed, and whether it is meaningful to talk of post-secular society.
The overarching methodological challenge in studying religion involves the ongoing monitoring of the validity of existing measures of religious and spiritual behavior across all levels of analysis (individual, institutional, and societal). Researchers need to be simultaneously attentive to the substantive content of religious and spiritual beliefs, the specific contexts in which religion and spirituality emerge and are practiced, and to identifying the mechanisms informing how different aspects of religion and spirituality impact social outcomes (e.g., voting, concern for others, violence).
Contemporary sociological theorists, on the other hand, should be cautioned that any theory of society that does not give due recognition to the nuanced diversity that characterizes contemporary forms of religion and spirituality will lack explanatory relevance in today’s global society.
- Dillon, M. & Wink, P. (2007). In the Course of a Lifetime: Tracing Religious Belief, Practice, and Change. Berkeley: University of California Press, CA.
- Finke, R. & Stark, R. (2005) The Churching of America, 2nd edn. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ.
- Habermas, J. (2008) Notes on a post-secular society. New Perspectives Quarterly 25:4.
- Warner, R. S. (1993) Work in progress toward a new paradigm for the sociological study of religion. American Journal of Sociology 98: 1044—93.