Online College Courses for Credit

Religion and Society

Religion and Society


This lesson will discuss the role played by religion in the greater society, with emphasis on the often symbiotic relationship between religion and society.

See More
Fast, Free College Credit

Developing Effective Teams

Let's Ride
*No strings attached. This college course is 100% free and is worth 1 semester credit.

29 Sophia partners guarantee credit transfer.

310 Institutions have accepted or given pre-approval for credit transfer.

* The American Council on Education's College Credit Recommendation Service (ACE Credit®) has evaluated and recommended college credit for 27 of Sophia’s online courses. Many different colleges and universities consider ACE CREDIT recommendations in determining the applicability to their course and degree programs.


Video Transcription

Download PDF

[MUSIC PLAYING] Welcome to this tutorial on religion and society. You'd be hard pressed to find a society in which religious belief was completely absent. Even in today's societies, where church attendance is down and more and more people identify themselves as unaffiliated or atheist, we could say that religion still plays a large part in people's lives. And I suppose that if an atheist has a skeptics' meeting, say, that he or she goes to, then even atheism could qualify for being a religion.

Religion is one of the oldest pillars of power in society. Of course, back in the Middle Ages, it was the twin poles of church and state. In today's liberal democracies, the power of the church has decreased somewhat. And yet this old power option is still there. Religion is still one of the major power centers in society.

At least in Western nations, religion doesn't really wield the full force that it used to. But it's still a major form of social glue that holds society together. It's a unifying framework. It's another place where communities can be held together. And as we've said in some of the other tutorials, it gives meaning and purpose to individuals while strengthening families.

When we're at the family level, the family is held together of course, by shared blood and by mutual affection and love. But when we get up to a little bit larger level, it gets harder to tie together these larger units simply with love and affection. What about when we have 10 families? What about when we have 100 million families? How are we going to tie them all together? How are we going to make sure that they remain a society?

Well, one way is through religious groupings-- these larger social families. And on this little diagram, they are overlapping. So it's not as though a Hindu and a Christian, say, aren't going to have anything in common. But their religious identities can help them to hold together within their groups. And then these overlapping regions are going to tie the smaller groupings together.

Of course, that's when everything is functioning as it should. And we all know that it doesn't always happen that way-- that, in fact, intergroup tension can get pretty ugly. And that's when violence arises.

Note, first of all, that we don't need complete peace between groups in order to have stability in society. All we really need is for that violence to be kept to a minimum. We can have periodic outbreaks of intolerance. And the overall equilibrium will remain the same.

Violence only threatens society when it escalates, like happens in a civil war or an ethnic cleansing-- say, communal violence in India or the Northern Ireland troubles or many situations around the world-- maybe Jerusalem, for example, where violence has truly, truly gotten out of hand and escalated into war. And until those groups can find an equilibrium, the violence keeps on going.

Oddly enough, a certain amount of intergroup tension may actually tighten the cohesiveness within groups, like rival street gangs, for example. We can expect that two religious groups that are fighting it out with each other-- that their level of observance will actually go up as they enter into this intergroup violent dynamic.

So these intergroup tensions are actually incubators for fundamentalism, where people hold to a really rigid practice of religion. But as long as that fundamentalism remains in check-- as long people are willing to let their religious identity coexist with other community ties, then religious violence is held at bay-- as long as I'm willing to have multiple markers of identity-- say, one person can be Christian, but they also play tennis at a certain tennis club and work at such and such an office. As long as they're willing to have multiple markers of identity-- as long as religion doesn't become the sole marker of identity, then that violence will be held at bay.

So that's all for this tutorial on religion and society-- just a small look at how religion functions in society to hold the society together and also the role that religion plays in intergroup violence.

To summarize what we've already said, religion exists within every single society that has ever been on the face of the Earth. And we would be hard pressed to find a society in which religion was completely absent.

Religion provides a unifying framework within a society. It gives meaning and direction to the individual. It binds together families. And it provides what we might call social glue for the larger community.

Given the widely disparate interests and goals of individuals, the very existence of social units larger than the family requires some force to keep that society together. Oftentimes, religion is that driving force-- the common framework of beliefs that provides a basis for avoiding conflicts among groups and individuals. At the same time, in larger societies, conflict becomes inevitable as different worldviews clash, creating religiously motivated violence, terrorism, and war.

The vocabulary terms for this lesson are atheist, an adherent of atheism, or one who believes that God does not exist. And agnostic, an adherent of agnosticism-- one who either has not decided whether or not God exists or who believes that the existence or nonexistence of God can never be known. We could even say that atheism and agnosticism are forms of religious belief.

Terms to Know

An adherent of agnosticism; one who either has not decided whether or not god exists, or who believes that the existence or non-existence of god can never be known.


An adherent of atheism; one who believes that god does not exist.