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Today we’re turning our sociological eye to another major social institution: religion. We’ll use symbolic interactionism to help us understand the dichotomy of the Sacred vs. the Profane. We’ll compare the perspectives of structural functionalists and conflict theorists on whether religion improves social cohesiveness or increases social stratification. We’ll also explore how religious practice in the US differs across race and class lines.

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Sociology by John J. Macionis, 15th edition (2014)

Pew Research Center Religious Landscape Survey (2014)


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CC Kids:
Religion might not seem like something a sociologist could study. After all, religion is about personal beliefs, right? So sociology won't give you any answers about the existence of god or how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. But sociology can help you think about religion as a social institution. In the same way that we might study the family or the government, we can ask questions about religion's role in society. Like how do different religions influence social norms in a society? What's the function of religion in a society? Does it improve social cohesiveness or entrench inequalities? Before we try to answer those big questions, let's start with a simpler one. What is religion?


To understand how sociologists think about religion, we need to go back to the work of our old friend, French sociologist Emile Durkheim. Durkheim defined religion not in terms of gods or supernatural phenomena, but in terms of the sacred: things that are set apart from society as extraordinary, inspiring awe, and deserving of reverence. He claimed that in all societies, there's a difference between the sacred and the profane, or the mundane, everyday parts of life.

Religion, then is a social institution that involves a unified system of beliefs and practices that recognizes the sacred. But this isn't a setup between good and evil. Sacred doesn't mean good and profane doesn't mean bad. Instead, recognizing something as sacred is about seeing a certain place, object, or experience as special and creating markers that separate it from your day-to-day life. It's natural then to think about religion from the perspective of symbolic interactionism, which thinks about society in terms of the symbols that humans construct. And all religions rely on the use of symbols to create the sacred.

Rituals, for example, are a form of symbolic practice that highlight faith. Many religions use certain actions during prayer that symbolize deference to god, such as Catholics making the sign of the cross before prayer, or Muslims supplicating themselves and facing Mecca, the birthplace of the prophet Mohammed.

Many religions also practice ritual ablution, or washing certain parts of the body during a religious ceremony. For example, in the religious practice of baptism, water is a symbol of people's belief that faith cleanses the soul.

Objects can also take on sacred meaning. Symbols like the cross or the star of David are considered totems, objects that we have collectively defined as sacred. Types of dress or grooming practices, such as men's beards in Islam or Orthodox Judaism, also become sacred indicators of faith because they are visible symbols of religious belief. In this way, totems confer in-group membership to those who wear or use these symbols because they provide a way for people to demonstrate their faith and recognize that faith in others.

But the role of religion in society goes beyond influencing our symbolic practices. In addition to defining the sacred and the profane, Emile Durkheim also looked at religion through the lens of structural functionalism, and he identified three major functions of religion that contribute to the operation of society.

First, religion helps establish social cohesion by uniting people around shared symbols, norms, and values. Durkheim argued that religious thought promotes norms like morality, fairness, charity, and justice. Churches act as gathering places, forming the backbone of social life for many people. In fact, membership in a church is the most common community association for Americans.

Second, Durkheim said societies use religion as a form of social control. People behave well not only out of fear of their friends and families disapproving, but also out of a desire to remain in their god's good graces. Christianity and Judaism, for example, have the Ten Commandments, a set of rules for behavior that they believe were sent directly from god. But these commandments aren't just rules about how to worship. Many of them match up with societal norms, like respecting your parents, or not committing adultery, or with secular laws, which prohibit murder and theft.

Third, in a functionalist perspective, religion provides people with a sense of purpose in life. Sometimes it can fell like our lives are such tiny blips in the grand scheme of the universe, it can seem hard to imagine why your actions matter. Religion gives people a reason to see their lives as meaningful, by framing them within the greater purpose of their god's grand plan.

But while Durkheim's framing demonstrates the many ways religions promote social unity, religion can, of course, also be a force of division. Social conflict theory perspectives understand religion in terms of how it entrenches existing inequalities. Karl Marx saw religion as an agent of social stratification, which served those in power by legitimizing the status quo and framing existing inequality as part of a divine plan.

Rulers in many societies were believed to be given their right to rule by divine right. Chinese emperors were believed to have a mandate from heaven, and were given the title "son of heaven" to indicate their divine authority to rule. In Europe, heads of state were often also the head of the church. In fact, to this day, the British monarchs are the formal heads of the Church of England. And some Christian religions, such as Calvinism, espouse predestination, or the belief that god pre-ordains everything that comes to pass, including whether you get into heaven. So by this logic, having wealth and power was seen as an indication of god's good favor. So for these reasons, Marx saw religion as a huge barrier to revolutionary change, referring to it as "the opiate of the masses." After all, it's hard to convince people to rise up against the elites if they believe that the elites have the power of god behind them.

In addition to entrenching political and economic inequalities, conflict theory perspectives also explore how religion contributes to gender and racial inequalities. Let's go to the Thought Bubble to look at how feminist theory and race conflict theory help us understand religion's effects on these kinds of inequality.

If you walk around any major museum in the Western world, you're pretty much guaranteed to find some art depicting religious figures from Judaism or Christianity. And in these paintings, god is pretty much exclusively an  old white man with a beard. And in fact, divine figures and their prophets in most religions are male. Virtually all of the world's major religions are patriarchal, with religious texts often explicitly describing men in the image of god and women in subordinate roles to men. For example, in Christianity, the first man, Adam, was created in god's image, whereas the first woman, Eve, was created from Adam's rib to serve and obey Adam. Many religions also position women as immoral beings in need of male constraint. In the Bible, Eve committed the original sin by tempting Adam to eat the forbidden fruit and got both of them booted from Paradise.

Many religions ban women from the clergy, including Catholicism, Orthodox Judaism, and Islam. Religion has also been used as a way to control women's behaviors, requiring them to dress modestly or not allowing women to speak in church or be alone with men outside their family. Religion has also been used to uphold another type of social inequality, racial inequality. Slavery in the United States, for example, was framed as morally justifiable based on various texts from the Bible, most prominently the story of Cain and Abel, in which god marked Cain for murdering his brother, which was interpreted to mean marking him as sinful with darker skin. But that's not to say that religion is always on the side of oppression.

Quakers, a sect of Christianity, were leaders in the Abolition movement and in the Women's Suffrage movement of the nineteenth century. The Civil Rights movement of the 1960s was led by many with ties to the Black religious community, most notably the Southern Christian Leaderhip Conference, a civil rights organization headed up by a Baptist minister that you might have heard of, named Martin Luther King Jr. Thanks, Thought Bubble.

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