Main Body

Chapter 15. Religion

Ron McGivern

Figure 15.1. These sacred items inside a Hindu temple include a dancing Shiva; his consort, Pavarti; and, in front, elephant-headed Ganesh. (Photo courtesy of McKay Savage/flickr)

Learning Objectives

15.1. The Sociological Approach to Religion

  • Discuss historical view of religion from a sociological perspective
  • Understand how the major sociological paradigms view religion

15.2. Types of Religious Organizations

  • Explain the differences between various types of religious organizations
  • Understand classifications of religion, like animism, polytheism, monotheism, and atheism

15.3. Religion and Social Change

  • Describe current North American trends of secularization and religious belief

Introduction to Religion

Why do sociologists study religion? For centuries, humankind has sought to understand and explain the “meaning of life.” Many philosophers believe this contemplation and the desire to understand our place in the universe are what differentiate humankind from other species. Religion, in one form or another, has been found in all human societies since human societies first appeared. Archaeological digs have revealed ancient ritual objects, ceremonial burial sites, and other religious artifacts. Much social conflict and even wars have resulted from religious disputes. To understand a culture, sociologists must study its religion.

What is religion? Pioneer sociologist Émile Durkheim described it with the ethereal statement that it consists of “things that surpass the limits of our knowledge” (1915). He went on to elaborate: Religion is “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say set apart and forbidden, beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community, called a church, all those who adhere to them” (1915). Some people associate religion with places of worship (a synagogue or church), others with a practice (confession or meditation), and still others with a concept that guides their daily lives (like dharma or sin). All of these people can agree that religion is a system of beliefs, values, and practices concerning what a person holds sacred or considers to be spiritually significant.

Religion can also serve as a filter for examining other issues in society and other components of a culture. For example, after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, it became important in North America for teachers, church leaders, and the media to educate citizens about Islam to prevent stereotyping and to promote religious tolerance. Sociological tools and methods, such as surveys, polls, interviews, and analysis of historical data, can be applied to the study of religion in a culture to help us better understand the role religion plays in people’s lives and the way it influences society.

15.1. The Sociological Approach to Religion

From the Latin religio (respect for what is sacred) and religare (to bind, in the sense of an obligation), the term religion describes various systems of belief and practice concerning what people determine to be sacred or spiritual (Durkheim 1915; Fasching and deChant 2001). Throughout history, and in societies across the world, leaders have used religious narratives, symbols, and traditions in an attempt to give more meaning to life and understand the universe. Some form of religion is found in every known culture, and it is usually practised in a public way by a group. The practice of religion can include feasts and festivals, God or gods, marriage and funeral services, music and art, meditation or initiation, sacrifice or service, and other aspects of culture.

While some people think of religion as something individual because religious beliefs can be highly personal, religion is also a social institution. Social scientists recognize that religion exists as an organized and integrated set of beliefs, behaviours, and norms centred on basic social needs and values. Moreover, religion is a cultural universal found in all social groups. For instance, in every culture, funeral rites are practised in some way, although these customs vary between cultures and within religious affiliations. Despite differences, there are common elements in a ceremony marking a person’s death, such as announcement of the death, care of the deceased, disposition, and ceremony or ritual. These universals, and the differences in how societies and individuals experience religion, provide rich material for sociological study.

In studying religion, sociologists distinguish between what they term the experience, beliefs, and rituals of a religion. Religious experience refers to the conviction or sensation that one is connected to “the divine.” This type of communion might be experienced when people are praying or meditating. Religious beliefs are specific ideas that members of a particular faith hold to be true, such as that Jesus Christ was the son of God, or believing in reincarnation. Another illustration of religious beliefs is that different religions adhere to certain stories of world creation. Religious rituals are behaviours or practices that are either required or expected of the members of a particular group, such as bar mitzvah or confession (Barkan and Greenwood 2003).

The History of Religion as a Sociological Concept

In the wake of 19th century European industrialization and secularization, three social theorists attempted to examine the relationship between religion and society: Émile Durkheim, Max Weber, and Karl Marx. They are among the founding thinkers of modern sociology.

As stated earlier, French sociologist Émile Durkheim (1858–1917) defined religion as a “unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things” (1915). To him, the sacred meant extraordinary—something that inspired wonder and which seemed connected to the concept of “the divine.” Durkheim argued that “religion happens” in society when there is a separation between the profane (ordinary life) and the sacred (1915). A rock, for example, isn’t sacred or profane as it exists. But if someone makes it into a headstone, or another person uses it for landscaping, it takes on different meanings—one sacred, one profane.

Durkheim is generally considered the first sociologist who analyzed religion in terms of its societal impact. Above all, Durkheim believed that religion is about community: it binds people together (social cohesion), promotes behaviour consistency (social control), and offers strength for people during life’s transitions and tragedies (meaning and purpose). By applying the methods of natural science to the study of society, he held that the source of religion and morality is the collective mind-set of society and that the cohesive bonds of social order result from common values in a society. He contended that these values need to be maintained to maintain social stability.

Religion then provided differing degrees of “social cement” that held societies and cultures together. Faith provided the justification for society to exist beyond the mundane and partial explanations of existence as provided in science, even to consider an intentional future: “for faith is before all else an impetus to action, while science, no matter how far it may be pushed, always remains at a distance from this.” (Durkheim 1915, p. 431).

But what would happen if religion were to decline? This question led Durkheim to posit that religion is not just a social creation but something that represents the power of society: when people celebrate sacred things, they celebrate the power of their society. By this reasoning, even if traditional religion disappeared, society wouldn’t necessarily dissolve.

Classical Sociology: Émile Durkheim

Figure 1.9. Émile Durkheim (1858–1917) Wikimedia Commons. (photo courtesy of wikimedia commons)
Figure 15.2. Émile Durkheim (1858–1917) Wikimedia Commons. (photo courtesy of wikimedia commons)

Durkheim’s father was the eighth in a line of father-son rabbis. Although Émile was the second son, he was chosen to pursue his father’s vocation and was given a good religious and secular education. He abandoned the idea of a religious or rabbinical career, however, and became very secular in his outlook. His sociological analysis of religion in The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912) was an example of this. In this work he was not interested in the theological questions of God’s existence or purpose, but in developing a very secular, sociological question: Whether God exists or not, how does religion function socially in a society? He argued that beneath the irrationalism and the “barbarous and fantastic rites” of both the most primitive and the most modern religions is their ability to satisfy real social and human needs. “There are no religions which are false” (Durkheim 1912) he said. Religion performs the key function of providing social solidarity in a society. The rituals, the worship of icons, and the belief in supernatural beings “excite, maintain or recreate certain mental states” (Durkheim 1912) that bring people together, provide a ritual and symbolic focus, and unify them. This type of analysis became the basis of the functionalist perspective in sociology. He explained the existence and persistence of religion on the basis of the necessary function it performed in unifying society.

Whereas Durkheim saw religion as a source of social stability, German sociologist and political economist Max Weber (1864–1920) believed it was a precipitator of social change. He examined the effects of religious belief on economic activities and noticed that heavily Protestant societies—such as those in the Netherlands, England, Scotland, and Germany—were the most highly developed capitalist societies and that their most successful business and other leaders were Protestant. In his writing The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), he contends that the Protestant work ethic influenced the development of capitalism by overturning the traditional anti-materialist Christian values of poverty.

Weber noted that certain kinds of Protestantism supported the pursuit of material gain by motivating believers to work hard, be successful, and not spend their profits on frivolous things. Material wealth was no longer seen as a sign of sin, but as a sign of God’s favour. (The modern use of “work ethic” comes directly from Weber’s Protestant ethic, although as Weber noted, the compulsion to work hard in one’s calling had by the 19th and 20th centuries largely lost its religious connotations.) As he summarized, “In [Puritan theologian Richard] Baxter’s view the care for external goods should only lie on the shoulders of the ‘saint like a light cloak, which could be thrown aside at any moment.’ But fate decreed that the cloak should become an iron cage” (Weber 1905, p. 181).

The Protestant Work Ethic in the Information Age

Max Weber (1904) posited that, in Europe in his time, Protestants were more likely than Catholics to reflect the values of hard work and savings conducive to capitalist ideology. Focusing on Calvinism, he showed that Protestant values influenced the rise of capitalism and helped create the modern world order. Weber thought the emphasis on community in Catholicism versus the emphasis on individual achievement in Protestantism made a difference. Weber’s century-old claim that the Protestant work ethic led to the development of capitalism has been one of the most important and controversial topics in the sociology of religion. In fact, some scholars have found little merit to his contention when applied to contemporary society (Greeley 1989). (As an aside, if you enjoy “who done it” detective novels and are interested in Catholicism, the sociologist Reverend Andrew Greeley referenced here was also a prolific best-selling novelist, whose protagonists Father Blackie Ryan and psychic Catholic Nuala McGrail solve complex crimes while maintaining, even rejoicing in, their faith.)

What does the concept of work ethic mean today? The work ethic in the information age has been affected by tremendous cultural and social change, just as workers in the mid to late 19th century were influenced by the wake of the Industrial Revolution. Factory jobs tend to be simple and uninvolved and require very little thinking or decision making on the part of the worker. Today, the work ethic of the modern workforce has been transformed, as more thinking and decision making is required. Employees also seek autonomy and fulfillment in their jobs, not just wages. Higher levels of education have become necessary, as well as people management skills and access to the most recent information on any given topic. The information age has increased the rapid pace of production expected in many jobs.

Working hard also doesn’t seem to have any relationship with Catholic or Protestant religious beliefs anymore, or those of other religions; information age workers expect talent and hard work to be rewarded by material gain and career advancement. As this is becoming an empty promise for many in Western societies, especially youth, attention has turned to more critical analyses of the place and power of religion in society.

German philosopher, journalist, and revolutionary socialist Karl Marx (1818–1883) also studied the social impact of religion. He believed religion reflects the social stratification of society and that it maintains inequality and perpetuates the status quo. For him, religion was just an extension of working-class (proletariat) economic suffering: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people” (1844).

For Durkheim, Weber, and Marx, who were reacting to the great social and economic upheaval of the late 19th century and early 20th century in Europe, religion was an integral part of society. For Durkheim, religion was a force for cohesion that helped bind the members of society to the group, while Weber believed religion could be understood as something separate from society. Marx considered religion inseparable from the economy and the worker. Religion could not be understood apart from its ideological role in perpetuating or mystifying the inequalities of capitalist society. Despite their different views, these social theorists all believed in the centrality of religion to society.

Classical Theory: Max Weber

Figure 1.10. Max Weber (1864-1920) Wikimedia Commons. (Photo courtesy of wikimedia commons)
Figure 15.3. Max Weber (1864-1920) Wikimedia Commons. (Photo courtesy of wikimedia commons)

Weber is known best for his 1904 book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. He noted that in modern industrial societies, business leaders and owners of capital, the higher grades of skilled labour, and the most technically and commercially trained personnel were overwhelmingly Protestant. He also noted the uneven development of capitalism in Europe, and in particular how capitalism developed first in those areas dominated by Protestant sects. He asked, “Why were the districts of highest economic development at the same time particularly favourable to a revolution in the Church?” (i.e., the Protestant Reformation (1517–1648)) (Weber 1904). His answer focused on the development of the Protestant ethic—the duty to “work hard in one’s calling”—in particular Protestant sects such as Calvinism, Pietism, and Baptism.

As opposed to the traditional teachings of the Catholic Church in which poverty was a virtue and labour simply a means for maintaining the individual and community, the Protestant sects began to see hard, continuous labour as a spiritual end in itself. Hard labour was firstly an ascetic technique of worldly renunciation and a defence against temptations and distractions: the unclean life, sexual temptations, and religious doubts. Secondly, the Protestant sects believed that God’s disposition toward the individual was predetermined and could never be known or influenced by traditional Christian practices like confession, penance, and buying indulgences. However, one’s chosen occupation was a “calling” given by God, and the only sign of God’s favour or recognition in this world was to receive good fortune in one’s calling. Thus material success and the steady accumulation of wealth through personal effort and prudence was seen as a sign of an individual’s state of grace. Weber argued that the ethic, or way of life, that developed around these beliefs was a key factor in creating the conditions for both the accumulation of capital, as the goal of economic activity, and for the creation of an industrious and disciplined labour force.

In this regard, Weber has often been seen as presenting an idealist explanation of the development of capital, as opposed to Marx’s historical materialist explanation. It is an element of cultural belief that leads to social change rather than the concrete organization and class struggles of the economic structure. It might be more accurate, however, to see Weber’s work building on Marx’s and to see his Protestant ethic thesis as part of a broader set of themes concerning the process of rationalization. Why did the Western world modernize and develop modern science, industry, and democracy when, for centuries, the Orient, the Indian subcontinent, and the Middle East were technically, scientifically, and culturally more advanced than the West? Weber argued that the modern forms of society developed in the West because of the process of rationalization: the general tendency of modern institutions and most areas of life to be transformed by the application of instrumental reason—rational bureaucratic organization, calculation, and technical reason—and the overcoming of “magical” thinking (which we earlier referred to as the “disenchantment of the world”). As the impediments toward rationalization were removed, organizations and institutions were restructured on the principle of maximum efficiency and specialization, while older, traditional (inefficient) types of organization were gradually eliminated.

The irony of the Protestant ethic as one stage in this process was that the rationalization of capitalist business practices and organization of labour eventually dispensed with the religious goals of the ethic. At the end of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber pessimistically describes the fate of modern humanity as an “iron cage.” The iron cage is Weber’s metaphor for the condition of modern humanity in a technical, rationally defined, and “efficiently” organized society. Having forgotten its spiritual or other purposes of life, humanity succumbs to an order “now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production” (Weber 1904). The modern subject in the iron cage is “only a single cog in an ever-moving mechanism which prescribes to him an essentially fixed route of march” (Weber 1922).

Theoretical Perspectives on Religion

Figure 15.2. Functionalists believe religion meets many important needs for people, including group cohesion and companionship. (Photo courtesy of James Emery/flickr)

Sociologists often apply one of three major theoretical perspectives. These views offer different lenses through which to study and understand society: functionalism, symbolic interactionism, and critical sociology. Let us explore how scholars applying these paradigms understand religion.


Functionalists contend that religion serves several functions in society. Religion, in fact, depends on society for its existence, value, and significance, and vice versa. From this perspective, religion serves several purposes, like providing answers to spiritual mysteries, offering emotional comfort, and creating a place for social interaction and social control.

In providing answers, religion defines the spiritual world and spiritual forces, including divine beings. For example, it helps answer questions like “How was the world created?” “Why do we suffer?” “Is there a plan for our lives?” and “Is there an afterlife?” As another function, religion provides emotional comfort in times of crisis. Religious rituals bring order, comfort, and organization through shared familiar symbols and patterns of behaviour.

One of the most important functions of religion, from a functionalist perspective, is the opportunities it creates for social interaction and the formation of groups. It provides social support and social networking, offering a place to meet others who hold similar values and a place to seek help (spiritual and material) in times of need. Moreover, it can foster group cohesion and integration. Because religion can be central to many people’s concept of themselves, sometimes there is an “in-group” versus “out-group” feeling toward other religions in our society or within a particular practice. On an extreme level, the Inquisition, the Salem witch trials, and anti-Semitism are all examples of this dynamic. Finally, religion promotes social control: it reinforces social norms such as appropriate styles of dress, following the law, and regulating sexual behaviour.

Critical Sociology

Critical theorists view religion as an institution that helps maintain patterns of social inequality. For example, the Vatican has a tremendous amount of wealth, while the average income of Catholic parishioners is small. According to this perspective, religion has been used to support the “divine right” of oppressive monarchs and to justify unequal social structures, like India’s caste system.

But humankind has a way of responding to perceived injustices and religions that lose relevancy. One of the fastest growing arenas of global Christianity are the evangelical churches that are making formidable inroads not only in North America, but even more so in South America. This growth has been at the expense of the Catholic Church, long a bastion of strength in Latin and South America. Latin America refers to countries in the subregion of the Americas where Romance languages, primarily Spanish and Portuguese, are spoken. As Christina Vital, an anthropologist at the Institute of Studies of Religion in Rio de Janeiro points out,

[Evangelical] churches adopt less-rigid rules than the Catholic Church … they adapt to the customs and values seen today in our society, such as the importance of financial prosperity, importance of entrepreneurship to reach this prosperity, importance of discipline (Fieser and Alves 2012).

At the same time, evangelical and fundamentalist Christian sects often introduce foreign belief systems that are homophobic or undermine family planning and anti-AIDS strategies. The persecution of gays in Uganda through the Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Act (2014) was prompted by the influence of American evangelicals in the country (Gentleman 2010).

Conversely, the power of Weber’s theories of sociology to help understand religious history was brought to contemporary public and academic audiences in the publication of the seminal work by Norman Gottwald, The Tribes of Yahweh: A Sociology of the Religion of Liberated Israel, 1250-1050 BCE (1999). Gottwald elucidates this relationship even more clearly in his book The Politics of Ancient Israel, which was a response to the question posited in Weber’s 1921 classic Ancient Judaism: “how did Jewry develop into a pariah people [guests hosted by larger societies] with highly specific peculiarities?” (Gottwald 2001, Weber 1921). Even critics of Gottwald’s approach such as Kenton Sparks provide alternative Weberian interpretations to early Israel’s survival:

Israel’s survival can be equally attributed to religious innovations of the state-era mono-Yahwistic prophets, who interpreted foreign oppression as the hand of Yahweh and so preserved Israel’s religious faith and ethnic distinctiveness in contexts where it might otherwise have perished (Sparks 2004 p. 126).

There is still a rich debate on the utility of Weberian theory in the interpretation of social behaviour, including social behaviour dating back thousands of years. Weber still has relevancy in the sociology of religion.

Critical theorists are concerned about the way many religions promote the idea that one should be satisfied with existing circumstances because they are divinely ordained. It is argued that this power dynamic has been used by religious institutions for centuries to keep poor people poor, teaching them that they should not be concerned with what they lack because their “true” reward (from a religious perspective) will come after death. Critical theorists also point out that those in power in a religion are often able to dictate practices, rituals, and beliefs through their interpretation of religious texts or via proclaimed direct communication from the divine. In recent history, the statement by George W. Bush that God told him to “end the tyranny in Iraq” is a case in point (MacAskill 2005). A key element in the Enlightenment project that remains central to the critical perspective therefore is the separation of church and state. Public policy that is based on irrational or a-rational religious belief or “revelation” rather than scientific evidence undermines a key component of democratic deliberation and public scrutiny of the decision-making process.

South Lawn Arrival Ceremony of Pope Benedict XVI
Figure 15.3. Feminist theorists focus on gender inequality and promote leadership roles for women in religion. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

The feminist perspective focuses specifically on gender inequality. In terms of religion, feminist theorists assert that, although women are typically the ones to socialize children into a religion, they have traditionally held very few positions of power within religions. A few religions and religious denominations are more gender equal, but male dominance remains the norm of most. But even this assertion is carefully scrutinized by feminist scholars. Those for example following the seminal work of Elaine Pagels’s The Gnostic Gospels have been instrumental in rediscovering the place of women in Christian history (1979). Merlin Stone’s When God was a Woman (1976) traces the pre-history of European society back to feminine-centred cultures based on fertility and creator goddesses. It was not until the invasions of the Kurgans from the northeast and Semites from the south in the fifth millennium BCE that hierarchical and patriarchal religions became dominant.

Symbolic Interactionism

Rising from the concept that our world is socially constructed, symbolic interactionism studies the symbols and interactions of everyday life. To interactionists, beliefs and experiences are not sacred unless individuals in a society regard them as sacred. The Star of David in Judaism, the cross in Christianity, and the crescent and star in Islam are examples of sacred symbols. Interactionists are interested in what these symbols communicate. Additionally, because interactionists study one-on-one everyday interactions between individuals, a scholar using this approach might ask questions focused on this dynamic. The interaction between religious leaders and practitioners, the role of religion in the banal components of everyday life, and the ways people express religious values in social interactions—all might be topics of study to an interactionist.

It is important to understand that the above theoretical paradigms each provide only a partial explanation of religious beliefs and behaviours.

15.2. Types of Religious Organizations

Religions organize themselves—their institutions, practitioners, and structures—in a variety of fashions. For instance, when the Roman Catholic Church emerged, it borrowed many of its organizational principles from the ancient Roman military, turning senators into cardinals, for example. Sociologists use different terms, like ecclesia, denomination, and sect, to define these types of organizations. Scholars are also aware that these definitions are not static. Most religions transition through different organizational phases. For example, Christianity began as a cult, transformed into a sect, and today exists as an ecclesia.

Figure 15.4. How might you classify the Mennonites? As a cult, a sect, or a denomination? (Photo courtesy of Frenkieb/flickr)

Cults, like sects, are new religious groups. In popular usage, this term often carries pejorative connotations. Today, the term “cult” is used interchangeably with the term new religious movement (NRM). However, almost all religions began as NRMs and gradually progressed to levels of greater size and organization. In its pejorative use, these groups are often disparaged as being secretive, highly controlling of members’ lives, and dominated by a single, charismatic leader.

Controversy exists over whether some groups are cults, perhaps due in part to media sensationalism over groups like polygamous Mormons or the Peoples Temple followers who died at Jonestown, Guyana. Some groups that are controversially labelled as cults today include the Church of Scientology and the Hare Krishna movement.

A sect is a small and relatively new group. Most of the well-known Christian denominations in North America today began as sects. For example, the Presbyterians and Baptists protested against their parent Anglican Church in England, just as Henry VIII protested against the Catholic Church by forming the Anglican Church. From “protest” comes the term Protestant.

Occasionally, a sect is breakaway group that may be in tension with larger society. They sometimes claim to be returning to “the fundamentals” or to contest the veracity of a particular doctrine. When membership in a sect increases over time, it may grow into a denomination. Often a sect begins as an offshoot of a denomination, when a group of members believes they should separate from the larger group.

Some sects evolve without growing into denominations. Sociologists call these established sects. Established sects, such as the Hutterites or Jehovah’s Witnesses in Canada fall halfway between sect and denomination on the ecclesia–cult continuum because they have a mixture of sect-like and denomination-like characteristics.

A denomination is a large, mainstream religious organization, but it does not claim to be official or state sponsored. It is one religion among many. For example, The Church of England in Canada, the Presbyterian Church, the United Church, and Seventh-day Adventist are all Christian denominations.

The term ecclesia, originally referring to a political assembly of citizens in ancient Athens, Greece, now refers to a congregation. In sociology, the term is used to refer to a religious group that most members of a society belong to. It is considered a nationally recognized, or official, religion that holds a religious monopoly and is closely allied with state and secular powers. Canada does not have an ecclesia by this standard.

One way to remember these religious organizational terms is to think of cults (NRMs), sects, denominations, and ecclesia representing a continuum, with increasing influence on society, where cults are least influential and ecclesia are most influential.

Types of Religions

Scholars from a variety of disciplines have strived to classify religions. One widely accepted categorization that helps people understand different belief systems considers what or who people worship (if anything). Using this method of classification, religions might fall into one of these basic categories, as shown in Table 15.1.

Table 15.1. One way scholars have categorized religions is by classifying what or who they hold to be divine.
Religious Classification What/Who Is Divine Example
Polytheism Multiple gods Ancient Greeks and Romans
Monotheism Single god Judaism, Islam
Atheism No deities Atheism
Animism Nonhuman beings (animals, plants, natural world) Indigenous nature worship (Shinto)
Totemism Human-natural being connection Ojibwa (First Nations)

Note that some religions may be practised—or understood—in various categories. For instance, the Christian notion of the Holy Trinity (God, Jesus, Holy Spirit) defies the definition of monotheism to some scholars. Similarly, many Westerners view the multiple manifestations of Hinduism’s godhead as polytheistic, while Hindus might describe those manifestations are a monotheistic parallel to the Christian Trinity.

It is also important to note that every society also has nonbelievers, such as atheists, who do not believe in a divine being or entity, and agnostics, who hold that ultimate reality (such as God) is unknowable. While typically not an organized group, atheists and agnostics represent a significant portion of the population. It is important to recognize that being a nonbeliever in a divine entity does not mean the individual subscribes to no morality. Indeed, many Nobel Peace Prize winners and other great humanitarians over the centuries would have classified themselves as atheists or agnostics.

15.3. Religion and Social Change

Religion has historically been a major impetus to social change. In early Europe, the translation of sacred texts into everyday, non-scholarly language empowered people to shape their religions. Disagreements between religious groups and instances of religious persecution have led to mass resettlement, war, and even genocide. To some degree, the modern sovereign state system and international law might be seen as products of the conflict between religious beliefs as these were founded in Europe by the Treaty of Westphalia (1648), which ended the Thirty Years War. As outlined below, Canada is no stranger to religion as an agent of social change.


At the same time that religion is still a major force in Western society, it is within a backdrop of societies becoming more and more secularized. Secularization as a social and historical process has been outlined by the sociologist Jose Casanova as three interrelated trends, all open to debate: 1) the decline of religious beliefs and practices in modern societies, 2) the privatization of religion, and 3) the differentiation of the secular spheres (state, economy, science), usually understood as “emancipation” from religious institutions and norms (Casanova 2006).

Historical sociologists Émile Durkheim, Max Weber, and Karl Marx and psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud anticipated secularization, claiming that the modernization of society would bring about a decrease in the influence of religion. Weber believed membership in distinguished clubs would outpace membership in Protestant sects as a way for people to gain authority or respect.

Conversely, some people contend that secularization is a root cause of many social problems, such as divorce, drug use, and educational downturn. U.S. presidential contender Michele Bachmann even linked Hurricane Irene and the 2011 earthquake felt in Washington D.C. to politicians’ failure to listen to God (Ward 2011).

While some scholars see the Western world, including Canada, becoming increasingly secular, others observe that religion is still all around us. For example, recent statistics show that about 75 percent of Canadian marriages still involve a religious ceremony. But this varies from a a high of 90 percent in Ontario to less than 40 percent in British Columbia (Black 2007, B.C. Vital Statistics 2011).

At the time of this writing, religion impacted post-secondary education in Canada. Trinity Western University, a respected private Christian university in British Columbia, is embroiled in controversy as several provincial bar associations have voted not to accept graduates of Trinity’s proposed law program. One of the central issues is the “covenant” the university requires its students to sign that forbids sex unless it is within a marriage between a man and a woman. The university intends to take the bar associations in British Columbia, Ontario, and Nova Scotia to court “to respond to what it calls threats against freedom of religion” (CBC 2014). At this time, law societies in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Nunavut have decided to accept Trinity Western’s graduates.

This is not a new battle for Trinity Western University. In 2001, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled against the B.C. College of Teachers in its bid to uphold the original decision not to accept Trinity Western graduates into the teaching profession. This action would have effectively blocked Trinity graduates from teaching in British Columbia (Wikipedia N.d.). The 2001 court decision makes for an interesting read, even providing insights into Trinity’s next legal battle to assert its rights as a religious organization (Supreme Court of Canada 2001).

Religious independent schools teaching from kindergarten to grade 12 receive varying degrees of public funding across Canada. In British Columbia, these schools are countering the student population declines found in the public schools and have generally increased enrolments annually (B.C. Ministry of Education 2014).

Compared to other democratic, industrialized countries, Canada is generally perceived to be a fairly religious nation. Whereas 42 percent of Canadians in a 2009 Gallup survey said religion was an important part of their daily lives, 65 percent make this claim in the United States. The numbers were also higher in Spain (49 percent), but lower in France (30 percent), the United Kingdom (27 percent), and Sweden (17 percent) (Crabtree and Pelham 2009). Secularization interests social observers because it entails a pattern of change in a fundamental social institution.

The above data on the importance of religion in daily lives tell us much about our views on other issues. For example, countries such as Canada that have a lesser level of impact from faith on our day-to-day routine are more tolerant, even accepting of, homosexuality (Trinity Western University notwithstanding). A recent study shows that countries where religious influence is low are generally also the richest countries (Pew Research 2013). They are more accepting of homosexuality than poor countries where religious influence is high. Predominantly poor and/or Muslim countries have almost no levels of acceptance of homosexuality. There is a strong relationship between a country’s religiosity and opinions about homosexuality. The fact that Canada has become more secular is evidenced in the 10 percent increase in acceptance of homosexuality over the last decade.

While less than half of Canadians state that religion is important, 80 percent of Canadians claim a religious affiliation (Statistics Canada 2011). Canada is known for its religious diversity, yet it is predominantly Christian, with 72 percent declaring membership in one of its denominations or sects. Catholicism stands out as the most popular choice with almost 50 percent of Christian Canadians. Religious affiliations among recent immigrants to Canada are similar for Christians and those claiming no religion, according to statistics gathered between 2001 and 2011 (Statistics Canada 2011). Other common affiliations for new immigrant are Muslim (18 percent), Hindu (8 percent), and Sikh (5 percent).

The power of the sociological study of religion goes well beyond how we think and behave over religion. These views and behaviours spill over in fundamental ways into other important arenas within our lives. Whether we consider our views on politics, homosexuality, or our children’s education, the sociological study of religion provides valuable insights into our collective behaviour.

Key Terms

animism the religion that believes in the divinity of nonhuman beings, like animals, plants, and objects of the natural world

atheism belief in no deities

cults religious groups that are small, secretive, and highly controlling of members and have a charismatic leader

denomination a large, mainstream religion that is not sponsored by the state

ecclesia a religion that is considered the state religion

established sects sects that last but do not become denominations

interactionists individuals who believe that experiences are not sacred unless individuals in a society regard them as sacred

monotheism a religion based on belief in a single deity

new religious movement (NRM) see “cult”

polytheism a religion based on belief in multiple deities

religion a system of beliefs, values, and practices concerning what a person holds to be sacred or spiritually significant

religious beliefs specific ideas that members of a particular faith hold to be true

religious experience the conviction or sensation that one is connected to “the divine”

religious rituals behaviours or practices that are either required for or expected of the members of a particular group

sect a small, new offshoot of a denomination

symbolic interactionism study of the symbols and interactions of everyday life.

totemism belief in a divine connection between humans and other natural beings

Section Summary

15.1. The Sociological Approach to Religion
Religion describes the beliefs, values, and practices related to sacred or spiritual concerns. Social theorist Émile Durkheim defined religion as a “unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things” (1915). Max Weber believed religion could be a force for social change. Karl Marx viewed religion as a tool used by capitalist societies to perpetuate inequality. Religion is a social institution because it includes beliefs and practices that serve the needs of society. Religion is also an example of a cultural universal because it is found in all societies in one form or another. Functionalism, conflict theory, and interactionism all provide valuable ways for sociologists to understand religion.

15.2. Types of Religious Organizations
Sociological terms for different kinds of religious organizations are, in order of decreasing influence in society, ecclesia, denomination, sect, and cult. Religions can be categorized according to what or whom its followers worship. Some of the major types of religion include polytheism, monotheism, atheism, animism, and totemism.

15.3. Religion and Social Change
Many of the classical sociological theories predicted that levels of religiosity in Western societies would decline due to the process of secularization. However, while society has certainly become more secular, a large majority of people in Canada still claim religious affiliation. The clash of secular and religious values in modern society produces issues that are difficult to resolve.

Section Quiz

15.1. The Sociological Approach to Religion
1. In what ways does religion serve the role of a social institution?

  1. Religions have a complex and integrated set of norms.
  2. Religious practices and beliefs are related to societal values.
  3. Religions often meet several basic needs.
  4. All of the above

2. A cultural universal is something that:

  1. Addresses all aspects of a group’s behaviour
  2. Is found in all cultures
  3. Is based on social norms
  4. May or may not be of value in meeting social needs

3. Which of the main theoretical perspectives would approach religion from the micro-level, studying how religion impacts an individual’s sense of support and well-being?

  1. Functionalism
  2. Symbolic interactionism
  3. Conflict theory
  4. Feminism

4. Which perspective most emphasizes the ways in which religion helps to keep the social system running smoothly?

  1. Functional perspective
  2. Symbolic interactionist perspective
  3. Conflict perspective
  4. Feminist perspective

5. Which socialist perspective most emphasizes the ways in which religion helps to maintain social inequalities within a society?

  1. Functional
  2. Symbolic interactionist
  3. Conflict theory
  4. Feminist perspective

6. Which of the following do the functionalist and conflict perspectives share?

  1. Position that religion relates to social control, enforcing social norms
  2. Emphasis on religion as providing social support
  3. Belief that religion helps explain the mysteries of life
  4. None of the above

7. The Protestant work ethic was viewed in terms of its relationship to:

  1. Evolution and natural selection
  2. Capitalism
  3. Determinism
  4. Prejudice and discrimination

15.2. Types of Religious Organizations
8. What are some denominations of the Christian Protestant church?

  1. Catholic and Jewish
  2. Jehovah’s Witnesses and the United Church of Canada
  3. Scientology and Hare Krishna
  4. The Church of England (Anglican) in Canada and the Roman Catholic Church

9. A sect:

  1. Has generally grown so large that it needs new buildings and multiple leaders
  2. Often believes it must split from the larger group to return to important fundamentals
  3. Is another term for a cult
  4. All of the above

10. The main difference between an ecclesia and a denomination is:

  1. The number of followers or believers is much larger for denominations
  2. The geographical location varies for ecclesia versus denominations
  3. Ecclesia are state-sponsored and considered an official religion
  4. There are no important differences; the terms are interchangeable

11. Some controversial groups that may be mislabelled as cults include:

  1. Scientology and the Hare Krishna
  2. the Peoples Temple and Heven’s Gate
  3. the Branch Davidians and the Manson Family
  4. Quakers and Petecostals

15.3. Religion and Social Change
12. Secularization refers to a number of interrelated trends including:

  1. The Protestant work ethic
  2. Television ministries
  3. Separation of church and state
  4. Liberation theology

13. The percentage of people in Canada claiming a religious affiliation is:

  1. 50 percent
  2. 12 percent
  3. 95 percent
  4. 80 percent

Short Answer

15.1. The Sociological Approach to Religion

  1. List some ways that you see religion having social control in the everyday world.
  2. What are some sacred items that you’re familiar with? Are there some objects, such as cups, candles, or clothing, that would be considered profane in normal settings but are considered sacred in special circumstances or when used in specific ways?
  3. Consider a religion that you are familiar with and discuss some of its beliefs, behaviours, and norms. Discuss how these meet social needs. Then research a religion that you don’t know much about. Explain how its beliefs, behaviours, and norms are like/unlike the other religion.

15.2. Types of Religious Organizations

  1. Consider the different types of religious organizations in Canada. What role did ecclesia play in the history of Canada? How have sects tended to change over time? What role do cults have today?
  2. What is your understanding of monotheism, polytheism, and animism? What are examples of these belief systems in Canada? How do these different belief systems affect relationships to the environment, sexuality, and gender?
  3. In Canadian society, do you believe there is social stratification that correlates with religious beliefs? What about within the practitioners of a given religion? Provide examples to illustrate your point.

15.3. Religion and Social Change

  1. Do you believe Canada is becoming more secularized or more fundamentalist? Comparing your generation to that of your parents or grandparents, what differences do you see in the relationship between religion and society? Why do you think Canada differs from the United States in the role that religion plays in public and political life?

Further Research

15.1. The Sociological Approach to Religion
For more discussion on the study of sociology and religion, check out the following blog: The Immanent Frame is a forum for the exchange of ideas about religion, secularism, and society by leading thinkers in the social sciences and humanities.

Read more about functionalist views on religion at, symbolic interactionist view on religion at, and women in the clergy at

Some would argue that the Protestant work ethic is still alive and well in North America. Read British historian Niall Ferguson’s view at

15.2. Types of Religious Organizations
PBS’s Frontline explores “the life of Jesus and the rise of Christianity” in this in-depth documentary. View the piece in its entirety here:

Sorting through the different Christian denominations can be a daunting task. To help clarify these groups, go to

Ayahuasca (“the vine of the soul”) is a ceremonial tea used traditionally in animistic healing practices in the Amazonian basin. It is an entheogen that induces visions. For more on how ayahuasca ceremonies have come to the attention of North Americans and Europeans as a promising healing modality, see the CBC Nature of Things episode “Jungle Prescription”:

15.3. Religion and Social Change
What are megachurchs and how are they changing the face of religion? Read “Exploring the Megachurch Phenomena: Their Characteristics and Cultural Context” at

Secularization is an ambiguous trend, not least because the concept of secularization suggests that being secular or being religious is an either/or proposition. For an exploration of contemporary relationship between secularism and religion see the CBC Ideas series “After Atheism: New Perspectives on God and Religion”:


15. Introduction to Religion
Durkheim, Émile. 1947 [1915]. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, translated by J. Swain. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.

15.1. The Sociological Approach to Religion
Barkan, Steven E. and Susan Greenwood. 2003. “Religious Attendance and Subjective Well-Being among Older Americans: Evidence from the General Social Survey.” Review of Religious Research 45:116–129.

​Durkheim, Emile, 1915, “The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life”, The Project Gutenberg EBook #41360, p. 431, Release Date: November 13, 2012. Retrieved May 15, 2014: (

Durkheim, Émile. 1933 [1893]. Division of Labor in Society. Translated by George Simpson. New York: Free Press.

Durkheim, Émile. 1947 [1915]. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Translated by J. Swain. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.

Fasching, Darrel and Dell deChant. 2001. Comparative Religious Ethics: A Narrative Approach. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwel.

Fieser, Ezra, and Alves, Lise, 2012, Latin evangelicals’ explosive growth, May 08, Catholic San Fransisco, Retrieved June 18, 2014 from

Gentleman, Jeffrey. 2010. “America’s Role Seen in Ugandan Anti-Gay Push.” New York Times. January 3. Retrieved July 6, 2014, from

​Gottwald, Norman. 1999. The Tribes of Yahweh: A Sociology of the Religion of Liberated Israel, 1250-1050 BCE, Bloomsbury Academic.

​Gottwald, Norman. 2001. The Politics of Ancient Israel. Louisville, Westminister : John Knox Press.

Greeley, Andrew. 1989. “Protestant and Catholic: Is the Analogical Imagination Extinct?” American Sociological Review 54:485–502.

MacAskill, Ewen. 2005. “George Bush: ‘God told me to end the tyranny in Iraq’.” The Guardian. October 7. Retrieved September 23, 2014, from

Marx, Karl. 1973 [1844]. Contribution to Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Pagels, Elaine, The Gnostic Gospels, (1979) Random House, New York.

Sparks, Kenton, 2004. “Review of The Politics of Ancient Israel.” Journal of the American Oriental Society, Volume 124, 1.

Weber, Max. 1967 [1921]. Ancient Judaism. Hans H. Gerth (ed.), Don Martindale, Free Press.

Weber, Max 1958 [1905]. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, translated by Talcott parsons. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

15.3. Religion and Social Change
B.C. Ministry of Education. 2014. Independent School Reports. BC Ministry of Education Website. Retrieved June 14, 2014 from

B.C. Vital Statistics. 2011. “Selected Vital Statistics and Health Status Indicators.” British Columbia Vital Statistics Agency. Retrieved September 23, 2014, from

Black, Debra. 2007. “Marriages rise in Ontario, B.C. while Canadian rate plateaus”. The Star Newspaper. January 18, 2007. Retrieved June 18, 2014 from

​Casanova, Jose. 2006. “Rethinking Secularization: A Global Comparative Perspective.” The Hedgehog Review, Spring and Summer, 06. Retrieved May 22, 2014 from

CBC News. 2014. “Trinity Western launches court action to defend law school.” BC News. May 06, 2014. Nova Scotia. Retrieved June 12, 2014 (

Crabtree, Steve and Brett Pelham. 2009. “What Alabamians and Iranians Have in Common.” Gallup World. February 9. Retrieved February 21, 2012 (

Pew Research. 2013. “The Global Divide on Homosexuality Greater Acceptance in More Secular and Affluent Countries.” Pew Research Global Attitudes Projec., June 2013. Retrieved June 18, 2014 (

Statistics Canada. 2011. Religion, Immigrant Status and Period of Immigration, 2011 National Household Survey. Retrieved June 25, 2014. (

Supreme Court of Canada. 2001. Trinity Western University v. British Columbia College of Teachers, Supreme Court Judgements, May 2001 Retrieved June 25, 2014 (

Ward, Jon. 2011. “Michele Bachman Says Hurricane and Earthquake Are Divine Warnings to Washington.” Huffington Post. August 29. Retrieved February 21, 2012 (

Wikipedia. N.d. “Trinity Western University v. British Columbia College of Teachers” Wikipedia. Retrieved September 23, 2014, from

Solutions to Section Quiz

1. D | 2. B | 3. B | 4. A | 5. C | 6. A | 7. B | 8. D | 9. B | 10. C | 11. A | 12. C | 13. D |


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Introduction to Sociology - 1st Canadian Edition Copyright © 2014 by Ron McGivern is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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