A very Concise Introduction

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The Sociology of Religion:

A Very Concise Introduction


The social sciences are not, in my opinion, hard or positivistic sciences (though we can get them closer to or further away from what we think of as “hard science”). That doesn’t mean, however, that they aren’t “scientific” and that there aren’t facts. Facts: John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas on 22 November 1963. There is such a thing as the Methodist Church. The thing that, at least in theory, differentiates the social sciences from the natural sciences, however, is that not every social scientific analyst agrees on why Kennedy was assassinated: did a lone gunman do it? Were there several shooters? Was Lee Harvey Oswald a patsy? Nor do all analysts agree on the reasons for the assassination of Kennedy: was Castro paying back Kennedy for the CIA attempts to assassinate him? Was it the mafia who assassinated JFK? Was the CIA behind the assassination attempt? Is there any unquestionably and final right answer here?

The social sciences then are, at least in part, interpretive disciplines, perhaps even art forms. Social scientists have long disagreed with each other about the stuff of human history. And social scientists have long been impacted by their own social and cultural contexts both of which influence how they read or interpret history. Me included. My “job” in this class is to teach you the facts and to interpret those facts through the lens’s social scientists and humanities scholars have normally approached human life: economics, politics, cultural, demography, and geography. You don’t have to agree with the perspectives I take or the readings I offer. However, In this class I expect that you, if you are going to argue against my perspectives, will ground your criticisms in the best available empirical evidence and I expect that you will debate with me not ignore what I say or write. So if you don’t agree with my interpretations critique my approach and offer an alternative approach as long in empirical terms and offer a point-by-point empirical, methodological, or theoretical refutation of my reading of the evidence.

So what do I mean by grounding your criticisms in empirical facts? To give you an idea of what I expect I want to talk for a bit about how we analyse and define college towns. For many college towns are any town that has a college in it. The problem with this perspective, however, is that it is in the final analysis meaningless. And meaningless categorizations are not what the humanities and social sciences (let alone the hard sciences) are all about. This definition of college towns is meaningless because it assumes that all towns with a college in them are all college towns and that they are all alike. The problem with this assumption is that it doesn’t allow us to distinguish between towns with colleges like New York City, New York, home to Columbia University, NYU, CUNY, and other colleges, and Ithaca, New York, home to Cornell University and Ithaca College.

I want to argue that there are differences, important differences, between these towns. Anyone who has ever been to Albany, New York and Ithaca, New York and gained an understanding of them knows that there is a difference between them. Ithaca is a college town. Cornell University dominates the city economically (Cornell employs one out of every three persons in Tompkins County), culturally (Cornell’s concerts, talks, exhibits dominate the city’s cultural life), demographically (those who go to Cornell and work there comprise a significant segment of the population of Ithaca and Tompkins County), geographically (Cornell constitutes a significant proportion of the geography of Ithaca), and politically (Cornell plays an important role in Ithaca politics).

Albany, New York, on the other hand, is not a college town. Albany is not dominated geographically, demographically, politically, economically, or culturally by the University at Albany, Saint Rose, or the professional schools of Union University near Albany Medical Center. It is a political town (the state is the city’s largest employer), a regional medical centre (Albany Med is the hospital for this region of upstate New York), and a regional shopping centre (people come from all around to shop at Crossgates Mall and Colonie Center).

Interestingly and importantly the factors or frames through which I have looked at Ithaca and Albany to ascertain whether they are college towns or not—geography, demography, economics, politics, and culture—are all factors that social scientists, including historians, look at the human world around them through. They are the very stuff of human life and of human history. And they are the factors that I will be emphasizing in this class to look at human life.

Fundamental to all university subjects is the fact that if you haven’t seen something you simply cannot validly analyse it. If you haven’t seen and closely analysed all of the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer or all of any TV show (or works by a particular director or author) you cannot truly analyse them. I expect every student in this class to be analytical and systematic in their comments and writings. I expect you, in other words, to be academics and intellectuals. I expect you to look at all of human history through those prisms through which all social scientists and teachers of the humanities use to explore human life—economics, politics, culture, demographics, and geography. An expression of feelings or thoughts without empirical backup is simply not acceptable in this class.


This class is a sociology class. So what is sociology? The standard definition of sociology is that sociology is the study of the social, the study of human society. These rather circular definitions may not tell us much about what sociology is, however. Some sociologists have defined sociology as the scientific study of human social life, human groups, and human society, scientific in that it approaches the stuff of human society empirically, analytically, and dispassionately if not objectively. Some have seen sociology as the art of making the familiar (human social institutions, human culture, human social stratification, human social roles) unfamiliar, strange, exotic so to make us look at what we normally take for granted in a new way. For one of the founding fathers of sociology, Emile Durkheim, sociology is the study of social facts, the study of things that exist beyond the individual human which shape the lives of individual human beings.

Whatever sociology is or isn’t, human social institutions are at the heart of the sociological enterprise or the sociological imagination. So what are social institutions? For sociologist Jonathan Turner a social institution is “a complex of positions, roles, norms and values lodged in particular types of social structures and organising relatively stable patterns of human activity with respect to fundamental problems in producing life-sustaining resources, in reproducing individuals, and in sustaining viable societal structures within a given environment.” For another sociologist, Anthony Giddens, social institutions are “the more enduring features of social life.” things like orders, modes of discourse, political institutions, economic institutions and legal institutions. For the prominent contemporary philosopher of social science, Rom Harre a social institution is “[a]n institution with an interlocking double-structure of persons-as-role-holders or office-bearers and the like, and of social practices involving both expressive and practical aims and outcomes”, things like schools, shops, post offices, police forces, asylums, religious institutions, and the British monarchy. For Dalton Conley, social institutions are groups of social positions connected by social relations, and performing a social role. Social institutions, he writes, consist of social positions, the stories we tell ourselves, social relations, the network of ties we have to others, and social roles. They are the grand narratives that unify social positions and social relations. Social, social, social.

Sociology, of course, did not originate in a vacuum. It has like everything a history. As an idea or a meaning system sociology goes back to the philosophers of ancient Greece, philosophers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, philosophers all who reflected on the origins and form of life, the origin and practise of religion, the origin and practise of politics, and the origins and practise of literary forms to pick just three examples.

It was in the Scientific Revolution beginning in the sixteenth century and its continuation into the Enlightenment of the eighteenth and beyond that sociology as a discipline has its roots. It would be the French social theorist Auguste Comte (1798-1857), a child of the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment, who would offer the first definition of “social physics” or “positivism” and of sociology, a definition that is still influential today. For Comte there were three stages of human social evolution and three stages of the evolution of human social thought: the theological, the metaphysical, and the scientific. For Comte social thought evolved from the notion that god guided human society, to the notion that natural instincts guided human social evolution, to the notion, Comte’s own notion, that scientific laws (“social physics”) governed social evolution.

The notion that sociology was the scientific study of the social remained influential in the nineteenth century. It was between the mid-nineteenth century and the twentieth century that sociology as a science and sociology as an academic discipline really took form. The nineteenth and early twentieth century saw several giants of sociology come on the scene. There was Karl Marx (1818-1883) who saw class conflict (between lords and serfs during the feudal age and capitalists and workers during the capitalist age) as the motor of human history and human society. There was Max Weber (1864-1920) who saw economics, politics, and culture as being equally responsible for the dynamics of human history and human society and who, as the father of interpretive sociology, raised questions about the validity of the positivist approach to the stuff of human society. There was Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) who explored the differences between the division of labour in mechanical or primitive societies and organic or industrial societies), who explored the tendency for anomie (a lack of social cohesion between individuals and society in organic societies) to lead to suicide, the origins of religion in totemism, sociological theory, and issues surrounding the relationship between sociology, morality, and education in his many writings, Durkheim’s influence would be significant and extensive thanks to his founding of an influential school of sociological and ethnological school of thought in France which centred around the influential and famous journal L'Année Sociologique,.

Though Marx, Weber, and Durkheim are generally considered the founding fathers of sociology others made major contributions to the development of sociology and to social scientific thought. There was the progressive Chicago School of Park and Burgess and their colleagues and students who, teaching in a university in a city that had experienced immense growth in a short period of time, the University of Chicago, and who studied, historically and ethnographically (fieldwork) urbanization, ethnicity, immigration, politics, crime, and family life. There was Talcott Parsons (1902-1979) who, while not the founder of the school of sociological and social and cultural anthropological functionalism with which he has become synonymous, became its leading proponent and spent most of his life expounding and expanding this form of sociological organicism, the notion that all parts of society evolved and functioned together to keep society together and functioning efficiently and harmoniously. Parson style functionalism would dominate sociological thinking from the 1930s through the 1950s.

While Parsonian functionalism dominated the intellectual life of sociology particularly in the US there were and are sociological countercultures that have remained vibrant throughout the nineteenth and twentieth, twenty-first centuries. Following in the footsteps of Georg Simmel (1858-1918), who emphasized small group interactions and the impact of urbanization on human beings, and philosophical pragmatism, Charles Cooley (1864-1929), George Herbert Mead (1863-1931), Herbert Blumer (1900-1987), and Erving Goffman (1922-1982) eschewed large scale macrosociology with its grand and for sometimes abstract theories for a microsociology which focused on selves and meanings and which arose out of social interaction and roles humans played in social interactions. Sociologist Robert Merton promoted and practised a mid-range sociology which eschewed grand social theories in exchange for an attempt to predict how social institutions might act by developing a series of hypotheses.

Then the 1960s happened. The tumult of the 1960s saw a revival of conflict theory, an approach which attacked Parsonian functionalism claiming that society did not evolve toward functional harmony but was the product of political conflict, economic conflict, gender conflict, and inequality and that Parsonian sociology itself was an opiate of the status quo knowledge class. By the end of the twentieth century social theorists of a postmodernist bent were beginning to raise questions about whether sociology could be a science at all arguing instead that every meaning had multiple meanings and that the notion that humans were rational beings was questionable. Today sociology remains dominated by the sociology as a science approach and its quantitative analyses but qualitative sociological countercultures remain important countercultures within the discipline.

The Rise of American Sociology

The discipline of sociology in the United States is firmly embedded in the contexts of nineteenth and twentieth century US history: the industrialization, the rise of big capitalist businesses, the rise of the captains of industry or the robber barons, the rise of muckraking, and the rise of social liberalism and its ideologies of reform and advocacy in the Gilded and Progressive Ages. Just as political reformers were emphasizing the need to apply science to American political and economic life and to reform efforts, American social scientists began to use social science to explore American society at large and, like their political and activist brethren, use their analysis to advocate for rational change.

The 1920s saw the rise of the Chicago School of Sociology at the University of Chicago and the publication of one of the ethnographic classics of American sociology and anthropology, Middletown. Chicago School sociologists like Robert Park, Ernest Burgess, Nels Andersen, Louis Wirth, John Landesco, W.I. Thomas, Florian Znaniecki, Frederic Thrasher, and Harvey Zorbaugh studied urbanism, social change, ghettos, crime and organized crime, homelessness and hobohemias, ethnicity, gangs, wealth, poverty, and bohemianism in the city through the techniques of observation and participant observation—ethnography was not the almost exclusive province of cultural anthropology yet—mostly in their home city of Chicago, Illinois. Park and Burgess were particularly important and influential in the developing field of urban sociology. In their studies they divided Chicago into dynamic concentric rings: business zones, zones of transition or slums, residential areas, and bungalow commuter areas. What their model showed more than anything else was the incredible pace of change in urban America in the 1920s and 1930s.

Middletown, written by researchers Robert and Helen Merrill Lynd, was another important community study of the era. Middletown was first published in 1929. It explores how Middletowners made a living, maintained their homes, educated their children, practiced their religion, spent their leisure time, and engaged in community activities in the 1890s and the 1920s. They found immense changes over that period of time. The Lynd’s reanalyzed Middletown again in the 1930s publishing their findings in Middletown in Transition in 1937. What they found once again was that profound change was going on in the Midwestern city Middletown, Muncie, Indiana.

In the 1930s American sociology, even at the University of Chicago, was becoming more and more scientific. By the 1950s quantitative sociology and Parsonian structural-functional sociology, the theoretical perspective that had become the foundation for quantitative and theoretical sociologists in the United States, came to dominate American sociology.

The Sociology of Religion

As sociology in general in the US was becoming more scientific, so was the quantitative analysis of religion. The 1930s saw the creation of research department within religious denomination and the growth of social science departments not only in secular colleges and universities but also in religious colleges and universities. Religious bodies would also play an important role in the rise of professional organizations with an interest in the sociology of religion. 1938 saw the founding of the American Catholic Sociological Society (CSA) later the Association for the Sociology of Religion (ASR). 1949 saw the founding of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (SSSR). 1951 saw the birth of the Religious Research Fellowship, later the Religious Research Association (RRA) which had ties to the Protestant Federal Council of Churches whose membership was initially made up of researchers from the research divisions of denominations. The 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s saw the rise of professional sociology of religion journals: the CSA’s American Catholic Sociological Review, later Sociological Analysis and then Sociology of Religion, appeared in 1940, the RRA’s Review of Religious Research in 1959, and the SSSR’s Journal for the Scientific Study of Society in 1961. Between 1960 and 1962 the membership of the SSSR grew from 200 to 800. By 1973, when the SSSR became an international organization, its membership grew to 1468. This growth in the sociology of religion would lead to the founding of the Section on Religion in the American Sociological Association, the national organization of American sociologists, in 1994.

Despite the religious origins of the CSA and the RRA those in these organizations were almost more scientific in orientation than the secularists. Most were well trained in quantitative research methods and most did graduate work in the leading universities in the United States. Virtually all of them sanctified scientific research methods and virtually all of them were obsessed with obtaining unbiased results from their study of religion to avoid being condemned for their presumed religious biases. The University of California, Berkeley became the centre of this new sociology of religion.

In Europe the story was similar. Secular social scientists largely ignored the sociology of religion assuming, Stark and Bainbridge claim, that religion was in its death throes thanks to the rise of a scientific worldview. So in 1948 16 Catholic social scientists from France, Germany, and the Netherlands organized the International Conference for the Sociology of Religion. Today that organization is no longer exclusively Catholic. Journals centred on the social scientific study of religion began to appear in the 1960s. In 1968 Religion Today and the Journal of Contemporary Religion appeared in the UK. In the 1980s the journals Archives de sciences sociale des religions and Social Compass appeared.

There was, or so Stark and Bainbridge claim, at least one problem with the new sociology of religion. Social scientists of religion, for a variety of reasons, tended to concentrate too much on small and unconventional religious groups to the exclusion of more mainstream religious groups. For example since its birth and 1985 the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion published 3 articles on Rajneesh, 2 on the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON, Hare Krishnas) but only one on Jehovah’s Witnesses, a growing more mainstream Christian group while between 1970 and 1984 Social Analysis/Sociology of Religion published five articles on the Unification Church, the Moonies, but only one on the Seventh Day Adventists, a more prominent and growing more mainstream church.

The professionalization and expansion of the social scientific study of religion arose out of the same forces that were impacting Western and American intellectual culture in general and academic culture at large—professionalization, the rise and growth of the cult of the expert, the expansion of universities and university positions particularly after World War II, increases in the number of young people matriculating at universities all across the United States after World War II, the rise in prestige of science in the post World II period.

Sociology, the Social Sciences, and the Humanities

One last issue before we get into the substance of sociology. Some of you might be wondering what the difference is between sociology and history, sociology and ethnology or social and cultural anthropology, sociology and psychology, sociology and biology, sociology and economics, and sociology and political science. Historically sociologists have distinguished history from sociology by arguing that history focuses on the unique while sociology explores abstract causality across time and space. Historically sociologists have distinguished sociology and ethnology on the basis that the former studies “modern” “developed” societies in more comparative form while the latter engages the “primitive” and its particulars. Historically sociologists have distinguished sociology from psychology by arguing that the former focuses on society while the latter focuses on the human mind and human urges, drives, and instincts. Historically sociologists have distinguished themselves from biologists by arguing that sociology focuses on society while the latter emphasizes genetics. Historically sociologists have marked themselves off from economists by noting that while economists believe humans always act rationally to maximize what they think is the greatest good sociologists maintain that humans can also selfish and altruistic, and irrational. As for political science that discipline is, to some extent, a subdivision of sociology itself, or so say many sociologists.

This Class:

This class, of course, focuses on one aspect of the social sciences, the sociology of religion. So what do sociologists of religion study? Sociologists and social scientists of religion study, as you will see during the course of this class, what religion is, how and where religion or religions originated, what form or forms religion takes, the role religion plays in social solidarity, the role religion plays in social change, the role religion plays in social movements, the relationship between religion and ethnicity, the relationship between religion and the family, religion and race, religion and gender, the role or roles religion plays in personal expressions of faith, and how these personal expressions of faith are socially patterned and reflect a dialectic between personal faith and the social world. What the sociology of religion does not explore is whether religions and their expressions of faith are true or not.

While this class is not about the truth or falsity of religion in general or some one religion or religious group in particular, the social scientific study of religion is not, as some claim, corrosive of supposed religious truth, or so Stark and Bainbridge (The Future of Religion: Secularization, Revival, and Cult Formation, 1985) contend. One can, as many “liberal” religionists claim, distinguish between the divine and human elements in religion and religious groups and argue that the social scientific study of religion focuses on the human side of religion and not on the divine and whether religion is true side of the equation.

There is a lot of information in the lectures below. Each chapter deals with some factor, force, or aspect of the sociology of religion. I don’t expect you to memorise each and every thing in this text. What I want you to get out of it, apart from what you want to get out of it, is an understanding of the broader issues in the sociology of religion, the forest.

My lectures, by the way, have a point of view. You don’t have to agree with my point of view. What you do have to do, as I have said before, is, if you want to disagree with me, to engage my arguments theoretically, methodologically, and empirically.

So off we go…

General Links for the Social Scientific Study of Religion

Here is the link to the University of Virginia’s Religious Movements webpage… http://religiousmovements.lib.virginia.edu/

Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, PBS


Huffington Post, Religion News


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