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Sociology of Religion

Sociology of Religion


This lesson discusses the sociology of religion, a discipline that aims to assess religious practices and beliefs from both a descriptive/qualitative and scientific/quantitative standpoint.

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[MUSIC PLAYING] Welcome to this tutorial on the sociology of religion. Sociology of religion uses quantitative and qualitative methods to study religion. Quantitative methods refers to statistical information, information that has numbers behind it, that has surveys and statistics behind it, that can be put in a chart or a graph. Qualitative methods are descriptive methods that can use scholarly terminology or the terminology of religious practitioners themselves to describe what it is that religious people do. So the sociology of religion is going to combine these two approaches to try to understand religion as a phenomenon.

Let's compare and contrast the philosophy of religion and the sociology of religion. Philosophy of religion is interested in the truth claims of religion. It wants to see if in fact what religious people say is actually true or not. If we can really make claims about God and about the afterlife. So it wants to know about theological issues and can actually get involved in the debates that religions have internal to themselves or between different religious traditions.

Sociology of religion, on the other hand, is not interested in whether or not there really is a God or the best way of describing that God. Sociology of religion looks at religion as a social phenomenon. And sociology of religion is just not going to be interested in these theological issues. So this should help us to see the difference between the philosophy of religion and the sociology of religion.

The sociology of religion is going to combine quantitative and qualitative methods, and it's going to use a scientific method in the study of religion. That is, it's going to try to take the very successful strategies that science has used and apply them to the study of religion. So we're interested in statistical information and we're also interested in description, and we're going to combine those two and try to come up with a scientific approach to the study of religion.

As an example, we can use Emile Durkheim's classic work Suicide that was written in 1897. This was an important work in the sociology of religion and just in sociology in general. So Durkheim is what is known as a positivist. So he thought that you could really have an objective study of religion, just like you would in any scientific study.

His thesis was that suicide rates were dependent on the degree to which individuals were integrated into society. And he had for his evidence data, statistics on suicides in Europe. He was a French sociologist so he had this European data at his disposal. And to confirm his thesis, he found that people who were not married were more likely to commit suicide.

And he also found that Protestants were more likely to commit suicide than Catholics, which he thought that Catholicism exerted a greater influence on the behavior of individual Catholics than Protestantism did on the behavior of individual Protestants. So he thought that Catholicism just had better social control than Protestantism. When you think about it, Catholics go to mass. They worship as a unit, where Protestants generally have this idea of an individual relationship with God. And that individualism, he thought, led to a higher suicide rate.

This use of statistical information was really new in the study of religion and really helped to found the modern study of sociology of religion and modern study of sociology in general. So Durkheim was very successful, even though his conclusions would be disputed. For example, it could be that Catholics were just less likely to report suicide because they had social stigma attached to it. At any rate, this was a very important work in the sociology of religion.

So far we've said that sociology of religion applies quantitative and qualitative tools of social science to studying religion. We said that unlike the philosophy of religion, sociology of religion doesn't seek to ask whether a particular tradition is true or false or seek to understand the theological claims of religion. Sociology of religion uses scientific methods to study the aspects of religion. And we also talked about Emile Durkheim's study of suicide rates among Protestants and Catholics, and said that it was a founding work in the sociology of religion and in sociology in general.

Terms to Know

Referring to the qualities, or characteristics, of people, places, or things.


Referring to quantity or number.

Sociology of Religion

An academic discipline that applies the quantitative and qualitative tools of social science to the study of religion.