Sociological Perspectives on Religion

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Religion is a set of beliefs, practices and rites that give meaning to people’s lives.

Religion serves several functions for society (see Table 17.1 “Theory Snapshot”). These include giving meaning and purpose to life, reinforcing social unity and stability, serving as an agent of social control, promoting psychological and physical well-being, and motivating people to work for positive social change.

Sociological perspectives on religion aim to understand these functions, as well as the inequality and other problems that religion can reinforce or perpetuate. They also seek to identify the reasons why people practice their religions.

Conflict perspective: Religion encourages and models a respect for the differences in beliefs, practices and rituals that make up a culture, but not every idea, belief or behavior is of equal value. This view suggests that religions should focus on helping people live out their highest principles and ideals.

Symbolic interactionist approach: Religious rituals and ceremonies can be intense and deeply moving for many people. They may involve crying, laughing, screaming, trancelike conditions, a feeling of oneness with others, and other emotional and psychological states.

A sociological conception of religion should be open to reevaluation and modification in the light of new historical materials. Moreover, it is unlikely that a single notion of religion will ever be adequate to the vast diversity of human cultures and societies.