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Understanding Religion From a Sociological Perspective

Praying Is Like Meditation

Applying the Sociological Perspective to Religion

Religion has not civilized man, man has civilized religion. (Ingersoll)

By definition, the sociological perspective is "an approach to understanding human behaviour by placing it within its broader social contexts", (J.M. Henslin, A. Nelson), "seeing the general in the particulars" (Peter Burger). The sociological perspective is comprised of three major theoretical perspectives: symbolic interactionism, structural functionalism, and conflict theory.

Religious Symbols


Symbolic Interactionism

Symbolic interactionism offers a view of social life as interaction determined by symbols, where symbols are things, material or immaterial, to what people attach meaning. These symbols are the building blocks of human society and they consist of ideas, notions, and conceptions; whether they are positive or negative, they will encourage or discourage people to behave a certain way. With symbolic interactionism, everything is a symbol: self, parents, other members of society, marriage, religion, state.

In symbolic interactionism, religion by itself is a symbol, but as this theory focuses on micro level, on interaction of individuals in one another's presence, religion must be divided into many sets and subsets of smaller symbols. The God or Gods are usually symbols of unquestioned authority. The God or Gods are viewed as creators of the world, therefore they have the right to rule the world, to dictate how to behave, reward those who behave properly with granting an afterlife in paradise and punish those who break the rules with placing them in hell for eternal burning.

Religious people always asked gods for something by paying some fee, they felt was appropriate. Whether it was sacrificing of ritual animals or even human beings or monetary or any material donations or behaving the way the God requires, up to devoting the whole life to the God as a priest or a monk (a nun). Heaven is a symbol of unearthly felicity, therefore sometimes life on earth is considered short, temporary and unimportant in comparison with eternal afterlife. Some nations are more religious, than the others.

In my impression, Muslims, for example, will not tolerate joking about religion, whereas Russian Orthodox believers will involve more common sense and humour, resulting in the proverb "put your trust in God, but rely on yourself". Frankly, Russian Orthodox believers nowadays are more hypocritical than ever, they go along with the flow, play the religious game, but deep in their hearts, they remain unmoved by religion. Their faith is only a façade and not very good one at that. But symbols are aplenty. Crosses, going to the church, righteous talk, rituals, meaning of which has been forgotten.

Structural Functionalism

Structural functionalism, another theoretical perspective, focuses on the macro level and sees the human society as a living organism or mechanism, where each part or component is essential and has a particular function and purpose. Society is "healthy", "stable", "normal", only if all the parts function together in harmony. Therefore, there should be both structure (anatomy) and functions. Functions from which society benefits are considered positive, functions that cause negative consequences for society are considered dysfunctions. Positive functions may be intended (manifest functions) or unintended (latent functions).

If we apply structural functionalism to religion, we will see that religion is one of the most important components of social life. Religion is as old as society and can be viewed as an "inborn" social function. Voltaire even said: "If God didn't exist it would be necessary to invent him." Religion originates primarily out of fear of the inexplicable and supernatural, therefore one of the positive (manifest) functions of religion is that it explains the inexplicable and provides the answers for the most perplexing questions, such as meaning of life or the existence of afterlife.

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So, religion determines the relationship of society with the supernatural matters. Also, it gives comfort and consolation to those who suffer through life. Religion provides the ground for the unity within the nation or nations, which share the same religion, such as Christianity or Mohammedanism. Religion sets the norms of behaviour, prohibitions and vetoes for congregations, which is also a manifest function. One of the latent functions of religion is that it produced great thinkers and philosophers, for they were trying to find the answers for the eternal questions and thus were analyzing the society and social laws. There are also some dysfunctions of religion, such as persecution and war, obscurantism, intolerance, fanaticism and narrow-mindedness. For example, Christianity prohibits killing; however, the history of Christian society is a history of blood, where the Church gives its approval to kill the unfaithful and those who do not conform to the prescribed rules (religious wars, Crusades, Inquisition, massacres, such as Bartholomew's night, bloodcurdling executions and tortures).

Conform or else!

Religion may unite, but way too often it is a fertile ground for conflict within the nation or between nations

Religion may unite, but way too often it is a fertile ground for conflict within the nation or between nations

Conflict Theory

Conflict theory, the third theoretical perspective, offers a view of social life as the constant struggle between classes, social groups, and individuals for power and resources on the macro level. Religion impedes such struggle, because it always provides justification for the present social order and prohibits any attempts to change it. However, religion was neither able to prevent social disturbances and revolutions, nor prevent people from escaping into atheism. Different religions can compete for the dominant roles in the country or in the world, often without much success. One religion might embrace a certain territory, but never a whole world (not yet, anyway). The Church might compete with the state for the dominant role in the country, for clergymen are not less ambitious than statesmen.

Unquestioned Authority


Which perspective is superior?

Each of these theoretical perspectives offers a different lens through which we can look at society and analyze social patterns. Since social life is too complex and has too many variables to take into account, it is hardly possible to give exhaustive explanations of human behaviour in the groups, while using only one theoretical perspective. None of these perspectives can be considered superior. If we draw an analogy with multidimensional space, let each theoretical approach represent a coordinate axis, combination of them will form a frame of reference, in which we might come to better understanding of society, as a multi-dimensional object.

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Continued Education



© 2011 kallini2010


kallini2010 (author) from Toronto, Canada on July 04, 2012:

Don't worry, it's unlikely that I will write about her, it's just she combines the three major themes (my top performers) - beauty (debatable, but that article was a debate), religion and a historical figure (like Kim Il Sung).

Sort of a literary Molotov's cocktail. Well, who knows? Maybe in the future - I rarely forget my ideas. I just as rarely finish them.

I hope you have a wonderful Independence Day!

[Daniel looked at the calendar and asked me "What is independence?" It is something about the movie, either he watched it or heard about it without knowing what independence actually is.]

I am glad you stopped by. Always a pleasure.

Augustine A Zavala from Texas on July 04, 2012:

Joan of Arc, a religious beauty?

kallini2010 (author) from Toronto, Canada on July 04, 2012:

Augustine, I can't believe you can say you are sorry.

Don't be. There is so much written about everything and about religion as well. I have a book "Mythology" - it is so thick you can kill with it (I did not read much from it), but it talks about different religions (not Judaism, Christianity or Islam). There were so many gods, so many stories, so many...

Religion is almost like philosophy - inevitable... I don't want to compare religion to a disease, but religion to human society is like a disease to a body. Sometimes everyone gets sick, sometimes something goes wrong... We have brains, we are socialized into having minds and we are brainwashed into particular beliefs. And the weirder/the more absurd the belief, the more powerful it is.

A human society could not have survived only on rational thoughts.

Please don't hate. With the same rate you can hate politicians - wars are fought over ideas... societies are based on ideas and who said which one is better?

I find the topic of psychology and sociology fascinating.

And thank you for the compliment - I really don't think I have something super clever here. But the article finally got some traffic - now it ranks second in my list.

Beauty first, Religion second... and Canadian Manifesto or Kim Il Sung - third.

I am pondering - what I should write about (when I get back to it) to get at least some traffic?

Joan of Arc? Religious Beauty?

Augustine A Zavala from Texas on July 03, 2012:

I can't believe I missed this gem.

You're view and arugument is concise, clear, and to the point.

I abhore religion. It's caused so much death and suffering. It has given credence to hate, subjugation, and a total disdain for our fellow human beings.

I'm sorry I missed this earlier, but am always fascinated by your thoughts and arguments.

kallini2010 (author) from Toronto, Canada on July 03, 2012:

Thank you, jadesmg, for reading and leaving a comment. I cannot address your comment properly because religion is such a phenomenon that is larger than life.

So much has been written and it all depends on a perspective and a framework. It depends what your religion is if any, what education you have if any (I am not saying you personally, I mean anyone), what time you were lucky or unlucky to be born into.

You can very well became a Joan of Arc, if all circumstances come together and I am sure her views on religion were quite different from mine.

The reason I mention Joan of Arc is that she and I (supposedly) share the same personality type. When she lived, there was no such discipline as psychology either.

It is such a deep, deep well - religion.

If you wish, you can explore the subject more and write an article on it - I can guarantee it will get some traffic.

Religion is an ever-green subject.

Good luck,

Jade Gracie from United Kingdom on June 30, 2012:

I always viewed religion as a social construct with the purpose of setting a moral code, a set of common rules and behaviours for a society to follow. I guess most like the structue-functionalist perspective. It just seems that it has always been a meanso uniting people into similar common sense ideas. The problems arise though when the ideals of the religion are not as adaptable as the society itself which often seems to be the case, i would argue most commonly in written religious texts but i don't know if this is true. Very interesting hub, thanks

kallini2010 (author) from Toronto, Canada on May 09, 2012:

On behalf of GOD thou shall not speak for nobody gave you this right...its sad that you know what GOD thinks and will do but stay unaware of some spelling and grammar rules.

Why does Religion and Insanity goes hand in hand? A good topic for sociologists? doctors?

kallini2010 (author) from Toronto, Canada on September 01, 2011:

Thank you, JMartin1344, for reading and leaving a comment.

Religion is a sensitive topic and I prefer not to discuss it. I see the difficulty in that simple fact that there are too many religions. Every generation had some beliefs only now the ones that are no longer "valid" are called myths and mythology. I have a book "Mythology" - it is so big and heavy that it is almost a weapon - if I hit someone on the head... What I am trying to say - you can imagine how many Gods existed before Christianity.

Religion or faith is essentially an ideology, a god, the God is an idea and all ideas exist in our minds. Just like mathematics and physics - they are ideas. The universe operates according to these laws, but it does not know them. There is no x + y = 42 in the Universe's mind.

If you are interested in religion, then you will find a way how to reconcile your faith with the inconsistencies. There is plenty written on the subject. Faith is always a personal journey.

I don't believe in God/Gods, I am not religious, but I do not deny the possibility that God exists. I took the same approach as you (God knows that I am a good person and let him judge me) in my article about names. If you want, you can read it.

Thank you again and all the best on HubPages.

jmartin1344 from Royal Oak, Michigan on September 01, 2011:

Another fantastic hub.

I personally consider myself a Christian and do believe in God. However, I find myself having huge issues with my religion, for many of the reasons you mention above with regards to Structural Functionalism. I believe in God, and I have faith in God.

However, I do not trust that everything we are told in Church or read in the current Bible is God's word because I know that much of it was probably man made for the purpose of control/power/and even peace...and I also do not believe that repenting and truly believing in God is the only way to reach Heaven. I believe that God knows who deserves heaven and who is truly a good person, regardless of their beliefs.

When I explain to friends that I do not trust what is written in religious texts 100% I am told "this is where you have to have faith" but I reply that I do have faith. I have faith that I am living my life in such a way that God can see I am a good person. If this isn't the case then perhaps my religion isn't what I thought it was...