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.
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, 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.
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!
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.
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.
Personal Attestation - a Phenomenal Course!
- Cultural Literacy for Religion: Everything the Well-Educated Person Should Know
Cultural Literacy for Religion is a course of 24 engaging lectures that gives you a chance to learn everything a well-educated person should know about religion from a historical, theological and cultural point of view.
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- Amendment to Weber's Model of Social Class
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© 2011 kallini2010