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Sociology of Religion Essay Sample

Sociology of Religion Pages
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The variety and number of religious organizations and beliefs around the world is so large that sociologists have a difficult time arriving at a single definition of religion. In Western societies, people usually identify religion with Christianity: the belief in Jesus Christ as the Son of God who promises salvation through faith and life after death. Yet religion as a global phenomenon presents a much more complex picture, because most of the world’s religions lack the core concepts of Christianity. what religion is not:

-First, religion is not necessarily monotheistic, which is the belief in monotheism, or a single deity. Instead, many religions embrace polytheism, or the belief in multiple deities. Still other religions, such as Confucianism, recognize no gods at all. -Religion is not necessarily a body of moral rules and demands concerning the behavior of believers. The notion that deities somehow keep track of how believers behave is foreign to many religions. -Religion is not necessarily a belief in the supernatural, heaven, hell, or even life after death. Confucianism, again as an example, emphasizes acceptance of the natural harmony of the world, not finding truths that lie beyond it. -Finally, religion is not necessarily an explanation of the origins of creation. The Christian story of Adam and Eve explains the origins of humanity. Many religions, but not all, have similar myths of origin. Having examined what religion is not, sociologists consider what characteristics do constitute religion. Sociologists generally define religion as a codified set of moral beliefs concerning sacred things and rules governing the behavior of believers who form a spiritual community. Judaism, Christianity, Islam, totemism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism and anemism Judaism

Judaism dates from about 1200 B.C. The first Hebrews were nomads who settled in the land of Canaan near Egypt. Unlike their polytheistic neighbors, the Jewish patriarchs (“leaders”) and prophets (“inspired” teachers) committed themselves to one almighty God. They stressed utter obedience to Yahweh in the form of a strict moral code, or law. Jews call their holy text the Tenakh, which Christians call the “Old Testament.” Within the Tenakh lie the five books of the Torah, which begins with the creation of the world by God’s word. The Torah primarily tells the story of the early Hebrews and Yawheh’s communications to Moses, which established laws on worship and daily life. The Torah plays a central role in Jewish worship. During services in the synagogue, the rabbi removes the Torah (rolled into a scroll) from the ark (a cupboard). The rabbi then carries the scroll, capped with a silver crown, in procession to a lectern, opens it, and reads from it to the congregation. Christianity

Christians believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the “Messiah” (meaning “Christ” and “Annointed One”) who saves the world. This global religion first emerged as a sect of Judaism, and in the beginning embraced many Judaic views and practices. Within decades of Jesus’ death, Christians began distinguishing themselves from their Jewish neighbors. The Bible’s (the 66 books of the Judeo-Christian Scriptures) “New Testament” (new covenant) is a collection of 26 books and letters interpreting portions of the Tenakh from a Christian point of view. The New Testament also presents a range of unique teachings, such as the writings of St. Paul, which early Christians sent to newly established churches. The authors of the Gospels, or presentations of Jesus’ life and teachings, probably wrote them decades later, though contemporary Biblical scholarship on this topic remains inconclusive. Christianity represents the largest of the world’s religions and is also more evenly spread around the globe than any other religion. Christianity claims more than a billion adherents, though Christians belong to many different denominations (groups with a particular theology and form of organization) that sharply divide the religion. The three largest Christian denominations are Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Protestantism Islam

The second largest religion in today’s world is Islam, which originated from the teachings of the 7th century prophet Mohammed. His teachings most directly express the will of Allah, the one God of Islam. Moslems, or followers of the Islamic religion, believe that Allah also spoke through earlier prophets such as Jesus and Moses before enlightening Mohammed. Messages that Mohammed received from Allah comprise the Islamic scriptures, called the Koran. (“Koran” derives from the Arabic term meaning “to recite.”) Because the prophet could not write or read, he memorized Allah’s words and later relayed them to his students. After Mohammed’s death, his followers wrote down these revelations. The Koran sets forth standards of daily behavior and the Pillars of Islam. Moslems have five primary religious duties (“The Pillars of Islam”): -Reciting the Islamic creed, which states that Allah is the one God and Mohammed is His messenger. -Taking part in ceremonial washings and reciting formal prayers five times every day. During these prayers, worshippers always face towards the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. -Observing of Ramadan—a month of fasting when Moslems may have no food or drink during daylight hours. -Giving money to the poor.

-Making at least one pilgrimage to Mecca.
Hinduism comprises so many different beliefs and rituals that some sociologists have suggested thinking of it as a grouping of interrelated religions. Hinduism teaches the concept of reincarnation—the belief that all living organisms continue eternally in cycles of birth, death, and rebirth. Similarly, Hinduism teaches the caste system, in which a person’s previous incarnations determine that person’s hierarchical position in this life. Each caste comes with its own set of responsibilities and duties, and how well a person executes these tasks in the current life determines that person’s position in the next incarnation. Hindus acknowledge the existence of both male and female gods, but they believe that the ultimate divine energy exists beyond these descriptions and categories. The divine soul is present and active in all living things. Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism

These ethical religions have no gods like Yawheh or Allah, but espouse ethical and moral principles designed to improve the believer’s relationship with the universe. Buddhism originates in the teachings of the Buddha, or the “Enlightened One” (Siddhartha Gautama)—a 6th century B.C. Hindu prince of southern Nepal. Humans, according to the Buddha, can escape the cycles of reincarnation by renouncing their earthly desires and seeking a life of meditation and self-discipline. The ultimate objective of Buddhism is to attain Nirvana, which is a state of total spiritual satisfaction. Like Hinduism, Buddhism allows religious divergence. Unlike it, though, Buddhism rejects ritual and the caste system. While a global religion, Buddhism today most commonly lies in such areas of the Far East as China, Japan, Korea, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Burma. A recognized “denomination” of Buddhism is Zen Buddhism, which attempts to transmit the ideas of Buddhism without requiring acceptance of all of the teachings of Buddha. Confucius, or K’ung Futzu, lived at the same time as the Buddha. Confucius’s followers, like those of Lao-tzu, the founder of Taoism, saw him as a moral teacher and wise man—not a religious god, prophet, or leader.

Confucianism’s main goal is the attainment of inner harmony with nature. This includes the veneration of ancestors. Early on, the ruling classes of China widely embraced Confucianism. Taoism shares similar principles with Confucianism. The teachings of Lao-tzu stress the importance of meditation and nonviolence as means of reaching higher levels of existence. While some Chinese still practice Confucianism and Taoism, these religions have lost much of their impetus due to resistance from today’s Communist government. However, some concepts of Taoism, like reincarnation, have found an expression in modern “New Age” religions. Totemism and animism are religious forms common to smaller societies. A totem is any species of plants or animals thought to possess supernatural powers. Each group within the society may have its own totem, including associated ceremonies. Totemic beliefs may not be as foreign to the Western mind as first expected; many Westerners have totems. School mascots, symbols, and emblems all constitute totems. Sociological Theories of Religion

The ideas of three early sociological theorists continue to strongly influence the sociology of religion: Durkheim, Weber, and Marx. none of these three men was particularly religious, the power that religion holds over people and societies interested them all. They believed that religion is essentially an illusion; because culture and location influence religion to such a degree, the idea that religion presents a fundamental truth of existence seemed rather improbable to them. They also speculated that, in time, the appeal and influence of religion on the modern mind would lessen. Durkheim and functionalism

Durkheim found that people tend to separate religious symbols, objects, and rituals, which are sacred, from the daily symbols, objects, and routines of existence referred to as the profane. Sacred objects are often believed to have divine properties that separate them from profane objects. Even in more-advanced cultures, people still view sacred objects with a sense of reverence and awe, even if they do not believe that the objects have some special power. Durkheim also argued that religion never concerns only belief, but also encompasses regular rituals and ceremonies on the part of a group of believers, who then develop and strengthen a sense of group solidarity. Rituals are necessary to bind together the members of a religious group, and they allow individuals to escape from the mundane aspects of daily life into higher realms of experience. Sacred rituals and ceremonies are especially important for marking occasions such as births, marriages, times of crisis, and deaths. Durkheim’s theory of religion exemplifies how functionalists examine sociological phenomena.

According to Durkheim, people see religion as contributing to the health and continuation of society in general. Thus, religion functions to bind society’s members by prompting them to affirm their common values and beliefs on a regular basis. Durkheim predicted that religion’s influence would decrease as society modernizes. He believed that scientific thinking would likely replace religious thinking, with people giving only minimal attention to rituals and ceremonies. He also considered the concept of “God” to be on the verge of extinction. Instead, he envisioned society as promoting civil religion, in which, for example, civic celebrations, parades, and patriotism take the place of church services. If traditional religion were to continue, however, he believed it would do so only as a means to preserve social cohesion and order. Weber and social change

Durkheim claimed that his theory applied to religion in general, yet he based his conclusions on a limited set of examples. Max Weber, on the other hand, initiated a large-scale study of religions around the globe. His principal interest was in large, global religions with millions of believers. He conducted in-depth studies of Ancient Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism. In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904/1958), Weber examined the impact of Christianity on Western thinking and culture. The fundamental purpose of Weber’s research was to discover religion’s impact on social change. For example, in Protestantism, especially the “Protestant Work Ethic,” Weber saw the roots of capitalism. In the Eastern religions, Weber saw barriers to capitalism. For example, Hinduism stresses attaining higher levels of spirituality by escaping from the toils of the mundane physical world. Such a perspective does not easily lend itself to making and spending money. To Weber, Christianity was a salvation religion that claims people can be “saved” when they convert to certain beliefs and moral codes. In Christianity, the idea of “sin” and its atonement by God’s grace plays a fundamental role. Unlike the Eastern religions’ passive approach, salvation religions like Christianity are active, demanding continuous struggles against sin and the negative aspects of society Marx: Conflict theory

Despite his influence on the topic, Karl Marx was not religious and never made a detailed study of religion. Marx’s views on the sociology of religion came from 19th century philosophical and theological authors such as Ludwig Feuerbach, who wrote The Essence of Christianity (1841). Feuerbach maintained that people do not understand society, so they project their own culturally based norms and values onto separate entities such as gods, spirits, angels, and demons. According to Feuerbach, after humans realize that they have projected their own values onto religion, they can achieve these values in this world rather than in an afterlife.

Marx once declared that religion is the “opium of the people.” He viewed religion as teaching people to accept their current lot in life, no matter how bad, while postponing rewards and happiness to some afterlife. Religion, then, prohibits social change by teaching nonresistance to oppression, diverting people’s attention away from worldly injustices, justifying inequalities of power and wealth for the privileged, and emphasizing rewards yet to come. Although people commonly assume that Marx saw no place for religion, this assumption is not entirely true. Marx held that religion served as a sanctuary from the harshness of everyday life and oppression by the powerful. Still, he predicted that traditional religion would one day pass away. Types of Religious Organizations:

*Religious movements and denominations- A form of social movement, religious movements involve groups of people who join together to spread a new religion or to reinterpret an old one. The agendas of many religious movements fade when their leaders lose influence, are replaced, or die. A movement that survives, though, may become a church, or denomination. In other words, the movement may become a formal organization of adherents with established symbols, rituals, and methods of governance. Millennial movements periodically come on the scene, especially at the turn of centuries and millennia. Popular among some fringe Christian sects and cults, millennialists anticipate large-scale catastrophe, disaster, and social changes—perhaps in fulfillment of Scriptural prophecies. They may also look forward to the collective salvation for a particular group of believers—usually themselves. Denominations are large and established religious bodies that have a hierarchy of religious leaders operating within a formal, bureaucratic structure. Most denominational members are born into and grow up within the body. Examples of Christian denominations include the Roman Catholic Church, the United Methodist Church, and the Antiochian Orthodox Church. *Sects and cults- Sects are smaller, less organized religious bodies of committed members.

They typically arise in protest to a larger denomination, like the Anglicans originally did to the Roman church in the 1500s. They may have few or no leaders and little formal structure. Convinced that they have “the truth” and that no one else does (especially not the denomination against which they are protesting), sects actively seek new converts. People are more likely to join sects than to be born into them. As sects grow, they may mellow and become an institutional religious body instead of a protesting group. If a sect survives over an extended period of time, it will probably become a denomination. In contrast to sects, denominations normally recognize each other as legitimate churches (though doctrinally in error) and peacefully coexist. At first cults may resemble sects, but important differences exist. Cults, the most transient and informal of all religious groups, provide havens for people who reject the norms and values of larger society. Cultists may live separately or together in communes. Social Correlates of Religion

Religious persuasion seems to relate to political persuasion. Jews and Catholics are more likely to be Democrats than are Protestants. Likewise, Jews tend to be more liberal than Catholics, who tend to be more liberal than Protestants. Membership of religious organizations also correlates positively with socioeconomic status. Baptists tend to be comparatively poor, whereas Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Jews tend to be wealthy. And Catholics, on average, have higher income than comparable members of Protestant denominations do. However, these generalizations are just that: general statements. You must interpret statistics with caution. For example, some of the poorest people in the United States belong to the Roman Catholic church, and considerable differences exist among members of the Protestant churches. Some of the wealthiest people now belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the “Mormons”). Religious Fundamentalism

One particularly notable feature of religion in the Unites Sates has been the appearance of fundamentalist religious groups. Fundamentalism refers to “black-and-white” thinking that opposes modernism, or progressive thinking about religion and other social topics. Fundamentalist groups tend to oppose anything that challenges their religious group’s interpretations and opinions. For instance, Christian fundamentalists believe in the literal inerrancy of the Bible, and often define themselves as theologically and ritually conservative, or even “not Catholic.” They see themselves as reacting against liberal theology. (Source: http://www.cliffsnotes.com)

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