The Sociological Study of Religion
What is religion? Religion is a system of beliefs and practices (rituaIs)-based on some sacred or supernatural realm-that guides human behavior, gives meaning to life, and unites believers into a single moral community (Durkheim, 1995/1912). Religion is one of the most significant social institutions in society, As such, it consists of a variety of elements, including beliefs about the sacred or supernatural, rituals, and a social organization of believers drawn together by their common religious tradition (Kurtz, 1995).
Th is system of beliefs seeks to bridge the gap between the known and the unknown, the seen and the unseen, and the sacred ("holy, set apart, or forbidden") and the secular (things of this world). Most religions attempt to answer fundamental questions such as those regarding the meaning of life and how the world was created. Most religions also provide comfort to persons facing emotional traumas such as illness, suffering, grief, and death. According to the sociologist Lester Kurtz (1995: 9), religious beliefs are typically woven into a series of narratives, including stories about how ancestors and other Significant figures had meaningful experiences with supernatural powers. Moreover, religious beliefs are linked to practices that bind people together and to rites of passage such as birth, marriage, and death. People with similar religious beliefs and practices often gather themselves together in a moral community (such as a church, mosque, temple, or synagogue) where they can engage in religious beliefs and practices with similarly minded people (Kurtz, 1995). Given the diversity and complexity of religion, how is it possible tor sociologists to study this social institution? Most sociologists studying religion are committed to the pursuit of "disinterested scholarship," meaning that they do not seek to make value judgments about religious beliefs or to determine whether particular religious bodies are "right" or "wrong." However, many acknowledge that it is impossible to completely rid
themselves of those values and beliefs into which they were socialized (Bruce, 1996). Therefore, for the most part, sociologists study religion by using sociological methods such as historical analysis, experimentation, participant observation, survey research, and content analysis that can be verified and replicated (Roberts, 2004). As a result, most studies in the sociology of religion focus on tangible elements that can be seen, such as written texts, patterns of behavior, or individuals' opinions about religious matters, and thAt can be studied using standard sociological research tools. According to the sociologist Keith A. Roberts (2004: 28), beliefs constitute only a small part of a sociological examination of religion:
Recently, more U.S. scholars have started examining religion from a global perspective to determine "ways in which religious ideas are performed on the world stage" (Kurtz, 1995: 16). As Kurtz (1995: 211) points out. conflicts in the global vi\1agc are often deeply intertwined with religious differences: "In the twentieth century. the twin crises of modernism and multiculturalism ... added a religious dimension to many ethnic. economic. and political battles. providing cosmic justification for the most violent struggles." Of course. contlict is not always inherently bad. it can be the source of constructive change in communities and societies. How docs the sociological study of religion differ from the theological approach? Unlike the sociological approach. which primarily focuses on the visible aspects of religion. theologians study specific religious doctrines or belief systems, including answers to questions such as what the nature of God or the gods is and what the relationship is among supernatural power. human beings. and the universe. Many theologians primarily study the religious beliefs of a specific religion (such as Christianity. Judaism. Buddhism. or Hinduism), denomination (such as the Baptists, Catholics. Methodists, or Episcopalians). or religious leader (such as the Reverend Sun Myung Moon or LRon Hubbard. founder of Scientology) so that they can' erpret this information for laypersons who seek answers f9r seemingly unanswerable questions about the mean of Life and death.