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Sociology of Religion

Sociology of Religion

Author: Ted Fairchild

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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Hello. Welcome. In this tutorial, we're going to look at these two terms, and we're going to see how they fit together, sociology and religion. Well, within the broad diversity of the world's religions, there are many different ways of approaching the material of religion, the customs, and the beliefs, and the questions, and maybe even the doubts that sometimes accompany religious faith.

Well, sociology is a social science that looks at human societies, their institutions, group and individual behavior, and many things related to the history and the current state of human development. Because religion has been such an integral part of human societies for such a long time, sociology naturally has an interest in the social phenomena.

However, like the other social sciences, sociology and the sociology of religion only became a formal academic discipline in the 19th century. And this was principally through the work of French sociologist Emile Durkheim.

What launched this discipline was Durkheim's sociological investigation into suicide rates among different religious groups. It was published in 1897. It was the first study of its kind that applied quantitative and qualitative research methods and analysis to specific behaviors concerning religion and religious affiliation.

Sociology in general, and Durkheim's pioneering work in the sociology of religion in particular, was unique in that it attempted to present an objective study of this specific behavior, namely suicide rates, among different religious groups.

Some of the quantitative tools he applied were age, socioeconomic factors like class, the role in society, comparative rates of suicide between men and women. And examples of qualitative factors that he was interested in included things like education level, geographic location, which might also have quantitative elements, and wartime versus peacetime suicide rates.

This kind of study is different from the philosophy of religion, for example, because it isn't concerned with the presuppositions and the possible truth or falsity of religious belief. From a distance, it looks at the structure and the phenomena of religion, religious practice, and how it might interact with the larger picture of society and culture.

The sociologist of religion generally isn't occupied with the philosophical and theological predicaments that a philosopher of religion might spend time on. He or she isn't going to dig for answers or analyses of difficult questions, existential, and religious questions.

He or she wants to understand the myriad ways that such religious intentionality impacts individuals and societies. How the structure of belief and practice that religion presents can be understood objectively without having to submit to the constraints of any particular religious tradition.

So now we can review, recap, and go over the key terms. Sociology of religion really began in the 20th century with the pioneering work of French sociologist Emile Durkheim. He was interested in studying suicide rates among different religious groups, and he applied both qualitative and quantitative research methods to do that.

These are the distinguishing marks of sociology of religion. And it's set apart from the philosophy of religion in the sense that philosophy of religion might be more concerned about these questions of religion and also about the truth and falsity of certain religious beliefs. Sociology of religion isn't preoccupied with that, but rather hopes to look from the outside objectively at the phenomena of religion and how it relates to the individual and society.

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.