Ten Books on Sociology of Religion:
The following includes notes
on ten main books in the field of sociology of religion.
These notes are not complete summaries
but highlights of the material covered.
1. The Heretical Imperative by Peter Berger
2. The Sacred Canopy by Peter Berger
3. The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life by Emile Durkheim
4. Theology and Sociology: A Reader by Robin Gill
5. Religion as Social Vision by Mark Juergensmeyer
6. The Future of Religion: Secularization, Revival and Cult Formation by Stark and Bainbridge
7. Sociology of Religion by Georg Simmel
8. A Sociable God by Ken Wilber
9. Religion in Sociological Perspective by Bryan Wilson
10. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism ( includes a section on Weber's
Sociology of Religion) by Max Weber
Texts: The Heretical Imperative and
The Sacred Canopy by Peter Berger
- Society is a human production established by a three-fold process: externalization (the projection of the individual into the world made possible by the a prior social nature of humans); objectivation (the hypostatization of an "out-there" reality inherent with specific social roles and hence a sense of identity for the individual); internalization (the re-absorption of societal structures into oneís personal consciousness as internal to oneís self).
- Religion serves as a tool for societal legitimization: it validates social order by giving it ontological status (divine structure). And religious rituals allow for a sense of community.
- Religion then is a sacred canopy that protects us from facing our own existential angst.
- The modern person faces this angst as traditional religion loses its grip (secularization thesis). There is not a plurality of worldviews; heresy (choice) is the universal and the taken-for-granted sense of reality is shattered.
- There are three main reactions to this crisis: deduction, reduction and induction.
- An example of deduction comes from Karl Barth; Rudolph Bultman demonstrates reduction; and Berger supports induction (phenomenology).
- Deduction is an attempt to reassert religious certainty. Classic examples are neo-orthodoxy, fundamentalism and evangelicalism.
- Reduction is an attempt to critically evaluate religion in a social context. Religion is then seen as a product of its material culture.
- Induction is a phenomenological approach to religion. It takes seriously religious experiences and describes and compares them.
Text: The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life by Emile Durkheim
Religions do have one characteristic: a bipartite division of the world into the sacred and profane.
How did the concept of the sacred develop? Animism and naturalism are both criticized as explanations. The more correct answer for the origin of religion is: totemism. The belief in totems is the first form of religion. It was part of a clan social group. The totem represented the sacred and bonded the clan members. The collective totem preceded the individual totem.
Religion has social origins. Humans project societal forces outside of themselves in the form of the sacred. God then is just a personification of society. Social life is made possible as rituals and rules reinforce proper behavior and community feeling.
Durkheim represented the functionalist school; that is, religious serves a necessary social function: social bonding and social order. Religion then is an expression of human existence and satisfies social needs.
Religion also contributes to the forming of human intellect. Concepts are products of collective thought and have religious origins. Humans are social beings who acquire knowledge as a result of being a member in society.
Overall, Durkheim argues there is an objective cause of religion and the scientific method can be employed. Sociology of religion can in fact be considered a science.
- Durkheim begins by examining what religion is. He rejects the claim that religion is an experience with the "mysterious." For primal beings there is no recognized natural order of the universe so they were not attempting to explain unexplainable events of nature. Also, religion does not require a belief in gods, since some religions are in fact atheistic.
Text: Theology and Sociology: A Reader by Robin Gill
- Gill: he argues that the sociology of religion is not a value-free science following a purely descriptive model. It should offer a prognosis or a prescription as well. He offers a new approach to combine social reductionism with a theological position. The scholar can describe but also prescribe. Gill does not support positivists or functional analysts but argues there is an interaction between theology and society. He calls his approach praxis theology, an examination of the dynamic relationship between faith and practice. Orthodoxy and orthopraxis go hand in hand. He connects the social effect of the faith to the validity of the faith. Religion is true in sense it is a social reality with pragmatic effects. It is a genuine human response.
- Weber: he points out that there are social effects on theology in his classic study on Protestantism and capitalism. The ideals of Protestantism (frugality, worth ethic, industry) make capitalism in the West possible.
- Troeltsch: he differentiates three types of religious institutions: churches, sects and mysticism. The differences concern their relation to secular order, their size and social status and their ethical orientation. Churches tend to be conservative and accept secular order, whereas sects are smaller and usually renounce the world. This typology was utilized by Niebuhr, but he argues that the sect type compromises in the second generation and becomes more church like. The cycle continues as new sects emerge in reaction.
- R. Martin: he reminds us that the founding fathers of this field (Durkheim, Weber, Marx) combined the scientific method with philosophical humanitarian concerns or moral considerations, namely, the corrosive effects of the industrial revolution on the development of the individual and society at large. There need not be the radical split between reductionism and humanism but an integration of the two. Social diagnosis and prognosis should come together as it did with the 19th century theorists.
- Karl Manneheim: he protests the positivist approach, arguing that the scholar can never really be objective despite the pretense. One is a product of a particular historical existence and so evaluates data based on frames of references or categories of a given historical moment. The scientific paradigm itself has its own ontological, metaphysical and ethical presuppositions. We are never fully emancipated from them but evaluate based on particular frames of reference. The scholarís approach is relationalism, the evaluative participation of the researcher. This is a good thing, if kept in check, to help humanize society.
- P. Berger: he rejects neo-orthodoxy and reductionism. Instead he looks to the liberal theology approach.
- R. Bellah: he differentiates three sociological approaches: historical realism (rationalism), symbolic reductionism (full of symbols of unconsciousness as Freud would argue), and symbolic realism. Bellah accepts the latter since it is a combination of the other two. It allows us to see religious systems as both objects and subjects; reductionism is incorporated with a phenomenological approach. The radical split between theology/religion and society no longer tenable. Scientific objectivity and political/ethical concerns are connected.
- G. Baum: he also argues against value neutrality and opts for symbolic realism. Jungian ideas are prevalent here. Value free research is not possible. We must realize own place in hermeneutical circle.
- T. Radcliffe: he is a theologian who argues against social reductionism. He disagrees with Gill that theology and sociology work together. Theology, he says, is interested in articulating meaning (creative praxis). There is some benefits to connecting the two but, unlike Durkheim, he does not think that one can equate order with meaning.
- G. Green: he argues that religion shapes society and so theology and sociology must work together. But he does not want to treat religion as a mere epiphenomenon. We should look at external action so of religion but also the inner realm of religious experience.
Text: Religion as Social Vision by Mark Juergensmeyer
- A successful way to promote social change is through religious movements. Oppressed groups may turn to religion as a vehicle for social improvement. It is sometimes more affective than political movements since religion offers a stronger sense of cohesion and ideas of a religious utopia.
- This text offers a case study of how a "political religion" works. The Untouchables of India have embraced a religion of their own that counters the classic Hindu caste system. In other words, they fought religion with religion.
- The Ad Dharm movement, an Untouchable religion, was founded by Mangoo Ram in the 1920s. Its goal was the liberation of the Untouchables and it used religious mythology to accomplish this. They claimed to be the original people of India that were subjugated by the Aryan invaders. The caste system then was set up to justify political take over of the indigenous people.
- The Ad Dharm was marked as a distinct group in the 1931 census. There was a positive relationship with the British: the British appreciated that they were not a Hindu nationalistic organization and the Ad Dharm received recognition as a distinct group and received government benefits.
- The movement took a turn for the worst when it became too political and lost its religious vision. Politicians pursued personal ambitions and secular interests.
- A new Ad Dharm was set up in the 1970s by Mangu Ram Jaspal. Its numbers are still growing today.
- Unlike Marxís view, religion can sometimes serve to emancipate instead of oppress. Religion was in this case used as an instrument for social change.
Text: The Future of Religion: Secularization, Revival and Cult Formation by Stark and Bainbridge
- Religion is never static but is constantly changing and evolving. There is a never ending cycle of change: conservative religions become more moderate; moderate religions become more liberal; liberal religions become more secular; and sects develop in reaction to all of this.
- Cults also play a role in changing the religious scene. They are new religious movements, either brought in from another country or springing up for the first time.
- There are three types of religious bodies: established religions, sects and cults. None of these are static. For a cult or a sect to be successful it must evolve into an established religion.
- The secularization thesis, which claims that we are becoming an irreligious society, is challenged here. Secularization in fact feeds religious revival. Religions (cults and sects) emerge in reaction to secularization. A classic example of this is the emergence of Christian fundamentalist and evangelical groups that developed in response to modernity.
- Cults cannot be blamed on the 60s as many have tried to do. They are, rather, an essential element of the whole process of religion and are found throughout history in all societies. Christianity itself could have been classified as a cult during its beginnings. And when it is transported into a foreign country it is again of cult status.
- The future of religion does not look grim. Instead we should expect a continuation of secularization, religious revival and cult formation.
- Magic and pseudoscience, on the other hand, may possibly die out since they are subject to disproof. Religion tends to make nonfalsifiable claims (general compensators relating to the supernatural like claims of an afterlife) and so is free from scientific investigation.
- Some groups start as magical groups but become religions (Scientology is an example). The point is that religious change is a constant in society.
Text: Sociology of Religion by Georg Simmel
Simmel is a classic functionalist who asserts that religion allows society to properly function.
Religion offers social norms and rules, guaranteeing some sense of order to the world. Proper social religions become absolutized as they are projected to the realm of the transcendental.
Religion also offers group cohesiveness. Social hierarchies are broken down when members engage in festivals and pilgrimages. One can experience an escape from oneís social position.
The idea of a god is the projection of the social forces at play. God personifies the necessary ingredients for group solidarity. This god demands that we follow a set of pre-ordained rules.
Belief in a god serves another function as well. It offers a hope for the future, for as long as god exists so does the community. Knowing that the group will survive in time gives a greater incentive to form a properly function society.
The god of the group reflects the actual social structure of the group. For example, when the Jewish tribe was more singular god was viewed as a father figure who looked after his children. But when the community grew and the Jewish people established their own kingdom the image of god was also transformed. God was now a kingly figure demanding loyalty. Thus, god changes to fit social needs. One can even predict a communityís god by observing its social organization.
Overall, Simmel as a sociologist of religion is trying to ground religion in material culture. His objective is not to de-value religion but to show the necessity of it in terms of society. Religion, he says, has sociological roots.
- Simmel argues that humans are by nature religious. These religious feelings surface as one faces the wonders of the universe and embarks on the existential quest for the meaning of life. The greatest source of religion, however, comes from social relations. Living in a community requires cohesion that only religion seems to offer.
Text: A Sociable God by Ken Wilber
Reductionistic trends of the 19th century have been countered with phenomenology and hermeneutics in the 20th century. But transpersonal concerns must also be included. Transpersonal psychology can make a great contribution to sociology.
The major approaches to religion are: the primitization theory (religion as primitive and childish; Freud fits here; problem: pejorative view of religion); functionalism (religion serves manifest and latent function; Durkheim and Simmel fit here; problem: reductionistic); phenomenological-hermeneutics (empathetic interpretation which takes religious symbols seriously; Bellah fits here; problem: all religions are seen as true and so there is not critical appraisal).
There is an alternative to these however that Wilber embraces: developmental structuralism drawing from Piaget, Kolhberg, Habermas, etc. This approach allows for a hierarchy of stages and attempts to adjudicate developmental levels.
The developmental stages Wilber discusses are: prerational, rational, transrational. To understand the spectrum of consciousness he draws from both eastern and western teachers. He contends that this approach is multi-disciplinary and comprehensive. Marx deals with the social-material level; Freud is helpful to understand the emotional-sexual level; etc.
Wilber argues we can evaluate religions. A "legitimate" religion is one which validates translation (proper social structure; surface structure); and an "authentic" religion is one which validates transformation to a higher spiritual-psychological level (deep structure). Religion, then, can be judged on two scales.
Wilber contends that there is a difference between belief, faith and experience. Belief is the lowest since there is no room for doubt; faith is beyond belief since it allows for doubt; but experience is the highest.
The increase of rationalism and secularism is a good thing, argues Wilber. It is a necessary step in the evolution to the transrational. There is a decrease in the mythic mind and egocentrism.
Bellah also argues against reductionism but he lacks a critical edge. He seems to glorify the pre-rational and fails to distinguish authentic and legitimate religions. All religions are thrown into the same soup; there is no vertical hierarchy with Bellahís "symbolic realism".
Dick Anthony and Thomas Robbins replace symbolic realism with structuralism. But they make one grave mistake: they only recognize one deep structure and not three or four.
New religions represent the many types of religions. Some are secular-rational; some transrational (eastern yogic traditions); and others are pre-rational (fundamentalism). To the untutored eye the prerational and transrational are the same. Sociology of religion needs transpersonal psychology to discriminate between types of religions.
Wilber even suggests that the scholar of religion can attempt to verify transrational states if one follows the scientific method of injuction, apprehension and communal confirmation in collecting the necessary data. Mystical insight, he says, is open to all and science should not shy away from an investigation.
- Wilber offers a non-reductionistic approach to religion. He wants to understand religion in terms of developmental-evolutionary stages. Wilber claims it is a fallacy to collapse the hierarchy and see all religions as the same (pre and trans). In his analysis he draws from many divergent theorists, including functionalists, structuralists, mystics, etc.
Text: Religion in Sociological Perspective by Bryan Wilson
- Wilson takes a strong functionalist stance arguing that religion satisfies important social needs. The manifest, or obvious, function of religion is that it gives a sense of hope. The latent function serves an even greater purpose: social cohesion. Religion is necessary for a properly functioning society. It establishes morals and social rules and maintains social control.
- Wilson fears that in the contemporary Western world religion is becoming more and more extinct, a result of both pluralism and secularism. He certainly is supporting the secularization thesis here.
- Without religion playing its essential role, society may become unlivable, devoid of goodwill and a sense of community. A societal breakdown is predicted for the future.
- He offers several signs that point to a societal breakdown: an increase of violence, the rise of divorce rates, disrespect for the elderly, addictions to drugs and gambling, etc.
- In the East a societal breakdown may be avoided since diversity is built into the religious system, allowing for alternative morals and ideologies. Social control is somewhat muted there.
- The rise of new religions in the West will not remedy the problem. Why? New religions are less concerned with transforming wider society and instead focus their energies on their own group.
- There are many problems with Wilsonís analysis. For one, he seems to glorify the past a bit too much. He also assumes the secularization thesis is true and there are strong arguments against it.
Texts: The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism; The Sociology of Religion by Max Weber
Main Points: (Protestant Ethic)
- Weber argues that religious ideology can be an instrument for social change. This contrasts Marx who says that social position determines ideology. Weber looks to religion to see how it alters oneís socio-ecomonic stance.
- Weber examines how Protestantism played a significant role in initiated modern capitalism. Protestantism offered a work ethic. It also rejected asceticism and offered instead an inner worldly approach.
- Calvinism is a prime example of a Protestant-Capitalist mindset. It suggested oneís duty was to glorify god through hard work and self-control. Oneís success was a sign of godís stewardship. Profit was not to be spent but reinvested, since frugality was promoted.
- Weberís study serves as a model of the interactionist approach, suggesting a mutual interaction between ideas and behavior.
Main Points: (Sociology of Religion)
- Weber coined the term "religionssoziologie" (sociology of religion). He was interested in the effects of religion on social life. Unlike Durkheim, he was not concerned with religion as a reinforcement of stability in society but with religion as a source of social change. For instance, Weber examines how charismatic breakthroughs challenge normative order.
- He also contends ethical prophets lead to more social change than exemplary ones. Ethical prophets impart demands and normative duties to follow; exemplary prophets, on the other hand, serve as models of personal virtue. We find ethical prophets more in the West and exemplary ones more in the East.
- There are four main religious paths and each lead to different social positions and reactions: inner and outer worldly mysticism, inner and outer worldly asceticism. The outer worldly types are not favorable to social change. Asceticism is a path of mastery and mysticism is one of indifference. The position that lead to the greatest social change is inner worldly asceticism (an example is Protestantism).