Chapter 15. Religion

Chapter 15 Resources and Activities

Key Terms

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

assimilation: A response to religious diversity that welcomes people of different faiths into the majority culture on the condition that they leave their beliefs behind and adopt the majority’s faith as their own.

atheism: A belief in no deities.

church: A large, bureaucratically organized religious organization that is closely integrated into the larger society.

collective consciousness: The combined mental contents of a society that manifests itself through a religious framework.

collective effervescence: A feeling experienced by individuals when they come together to express beliefs and perform rituals together as a group.

compensator: A promise of a reward at a later, unspecified date.

creationism: The religious belief that the Universe and life originated “from specific acts of divine creation.” For young Earth creationists, this includes a biblical literalist interpretation of the Genesis creation narrative and the rejection of the scientific theory of evolution.

cult or New Religious Movement: A small religious organization that is at great odds with the norms and values of the larger society.

Darwinian evolutionary theory: A theory stating that all species of organisms arise and develop through the natural selection of small, inherited variations that increase individual organism’s ability to compete, survive, and reproduce.

deity: A god or a goddess.

denomination: A religious organization that is closely integrated into the larger society but is not a formal part of the state.

disenchantment of the world: The process by which magical and superstitious understandings of the world are replaced by scientific calculation and technical control.

dualist theodicy: Suffering is explained as a consequence of the struggle between the dual powers of good and evil, gods and demons, in which evil occasionally wins out.

ecclesia: A church that has formal ties with the state.

exclusion: A response to religious diversity which denies new religions entry into society.

family resemblance definition: A type of definition that defines a phenomenon based on a series commonly shared attributes or family resemblances — not all family members equally share these attributes or resemblances.

functional definition: A type of definition that defines a phenomenon by what it does or how it functions in society.

individual secularization: The decline in religious belief and practice of individuals.

karma: The accumulated effects of acts committed in former lives and their influence on fortunes and suffering in this life.

Mecca: The birthplace of Muhammad; a city located in Hejaz, in what is now known as South Arabia; the holiest city of the Islamic religion, and is the center of Islamic faith.

monotheism: A religion based on belief in a single deity.

misogyny: A hatred of women.

new religious movement (NRM): See “cult.”

nomos: (In sociology) a stable, predictable, and normative order.

organizational secularization: The efforts made by religious organizations to update their beliefs and practices, to reflect changes in contemporary life.

phenomenology: A sociological perspective that argues that all phenomena appear spontaneously and immediately within the experience and awareness of individual subjects before they become the basis for subjective and objective reality.

pluralism: A response to religious diversity that welcomes every religious practice regardless of how divergent its beliefs or social norms.

polytheism: A religion based on belief in multiple deities.

post-Christian society: A previously Christian society in which Christianity becomes just one among many religious beliefs.

predestination: The belief that the gods predetermine the fate of individuals.

profane: Everyday objects, states of being or practices that do not hold any spiritual or religious significance.

Protestant ethic: The duty to “work hard in one’s calling.”

rational choice theory: A theory which states that human action is motivated by individual self-interest and that all social activities are a product of rational decision making that weighs costs against benefits.

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 diversity: A condition in which a multiplicity of religions and faiths co-exist in a given society.

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

religious nones: Persons who choose the category “none” on surveys about religious affiliation.

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

sacred: Objects, states of being, or practices that are set apart and considered forbidden because of their connection to divine presence.

sacred canopy: A divinely grounded cultural system.

sati: The Hindu ritual in which a widow sacrifices herself by burning alive on the funeral pyre of her deceased husband.

sect: A small religious body that forms after a group breaks away from a larger religious group like a church or denomination.

secularization: The process by which religion and the sacred gradually have less validity, influence, and significance in society and the lives of individuals.

societal secularization: The shrinking relevance of institutionalized religion for the integration and legitimation of everyday life in modern society.

substantial definition: A type of definition that delineates the substantial or crucial characteristics that define what a phenomenon is and is not.

theocracy: A system of government in which ecclesiastical authorities rule on behalf of a divine authority.

theodicy: An explanation for why the Gods allow suffering, misfortune, and injustice to occur.

totem: A plant, animal, or object that serves as a symbolic, material expression of the sacred.

totemism: The most basic, ancient form of religion based on reverence for totemic animals or plants.

ultimate legitimation: An unquestionable foundation that establishes the legitimacy of a social order.

Section Summary

15.1 The Sociological Approach to Religion
Religion describes the beliefs, values, and practices related to sacred or spiritual concerns. 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. 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.

15.2 Sociological Explanations of Religion
Whereas psychology defines and explains religion in terms of the nature of individual religious experience, sociology explains it in terms of the underlying social relationships it sustains of serves. Social theorist Émile Durkheim defined religion as a “unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things” (1964 [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.

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. Religion has become more pluralistic in nature in Canada, both in the number of religions that Canadians practice and in the style of religious or spiritual practice they engage in.

15.4 Contemporary Fundamentalist Movements

The clash of secular and religious values in modern society produces issues that are difficult to resolve. The fundamentalist form that many different religions have adopted today makes these issues even more intransigent.


Quiz: Religion

15.1 The Sociological Approach to Religion

  1. What are theodicies?
    1. The study of religious truths.
    2. The justifications provided as to why God allows bad things happen to good people.
    3. The “rules” that a Catholic must follow in order to get into heaven.
    4. Types of questions that are concerned with the nature of reality, being and existence.
  2. Which of the four dimensions of religion explains how religion is experienced as a social phenomenon?
    1. community
    2. belief
    3. unique spiritual experience
    4. ritual
  3. Which of the following options is NOT one of the 5 pillars of Islam?
    1. Daily prayer five times a day.
    2. Month long fast on the 9th month of the Islamic calendar.
    3. Making offerings to the deities.
    4. Pilgrimage to Mecca.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. Some controversial groups that may be mislabelled as cults include:
    1. Scientology and the Hare Krishna.
    2. The Peoples Temple and Heaven’s Gate.
    3. The Branch Davidians and the Manson Family.
    4. Quakers and Pentecostals.

15.2 Sociological Explanations of Religion

  1. What is the reason for the origins of religion according to evolutionary psychology?
    1. Religion enhances human survival.
    2. Religion is a meme.
    3. The origins of religion are unique to each culture.
    4. Religion is a product of tacit social agreements.
  2. 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.
  3. Which of the following social functions does religion NOT serve in society?
    1. Determines the magnitude of your sinfulness and judges you accordingly.
    2. Ensures social cohesion.
    3. Enforces norms and expected behaviors.
    4. Answers universal questions that other institutions cannot answer.
  4. Which of the following statements is incorrect according to Rodney Stark’s theory of religion?
    1. Religions can be distinguished from non-religious organizations by their belief in a supernatural power or force.
    2. Religion is on a slow but steady decline and will eventually become extinct.
    3. A religious compensator is an IOU written by God.
    4. Religious belief is a rational choice made by humans seeking scarce rewards.
  5. Mary Daly’s proposition that “if God is male, then the male is God,” suggests that:
    1. All sacred texts were written by males.
    2. All Gods, irrespective of religion, are male.
    3. All individuals are socialized within their respective religions to see gender in specific ways.
    4. All men are liars.

15.3 Religion and Social Change

  1. 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.
  2. The percentage of people in Canada claiming a religious affiliation is:
    1. 50%
    2. 12%
    3. 95%
    4. 80%

15.4 Contemporary Fundamentalist Movements

  1. What are “The: Fundamentals: A Testimony of Truth”?
    1. A religious film which highlighted the core values of Christian Fundamentalism in the early 20th century.
    2. A famous legal case that took place in Tennessee in 1925 which made it illegal to teach evolution in the
    3. American public education system.
    4. A widely distributed pamphlet that listed the basic values of Protestantism in the 20th century.
    5. The title of Pope Pius’s’s encyclical condemning the modernization of the Catholic church.
  2. Scientific knowledge replaced religion because it was able to fulfill society’s                               needs:
    1. ultimate
    2. social
    3. material
    4. spiritual
  3. Which group of Christians believe and accept evolutionary theory, while still maintaining their faith and religious followings of the Bible?
    1. Protestant Fundamentalists
    2. Naturalists
    3. Liberal Christians
    4. Evangelicals
  4. Which of the following statements is INCORRECT regarding the practice of sati?
    1. Sati was outlawed in India by British officials in 1829.
    2. The word sati refers both to the act of a widow burning on her husband’s funeral pyre and the widow (i.e., a “sati”) herself.
    3. All Hindu sacred texts make mention of sati and condone the practice.
    4. Roop Kanwar’s sati in 1987 was used to both mobilize and condemn a fundamentalist version of Hinduism.

[Quiz answers at end of chapter]

Short Answer

15.1 The Sociological Approach to Religion

  1. What aspects of religion are sociologists primarily interested in?
  2. What are the strengths and weaknesses of substantial and functional definitions of religion? Do family resemblance definitions resolve these weaknesses?
  3. 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?
  4. What are the four dimensions of religion?
  5. What are the four noble truths of Buddhism?
  6. 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?

15.2 Sociological Explanations of Religion

  1. From an evolutionary psychology point of view, how does religion aid in human survival?
  2. How does the collective practice of ritual contribute to social solidarity?
  3. According to Rodney Stark’s theory, how is religious belief in the supernatural based on rational choices made by humans?
  4. Why is a feminist perspective important to the study of religion?

15.3 Religion and Social Change

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

15.4 Contemporary Fundamentalist Movements

  1. How can we explain the rise of religious fundamentalism in contemporary societies?
  2. The example of Galileo is one well-known historical example of a clash between religion and science. Can you think of other, more recent, examples? What, for example, is the main debate or controversy between creationists and evolutionists?
  3. What characteristics of fundamentalism can be seen in the pro-sati movement that followed Roop Kanwar’s immolation?

Further Research

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

PBS’s Frontline explores The life of Jesus and the rise of Christianity in this in-depth documentary.

The Theology Pathfinder website can help clarify the different Christian denominations.

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.

15.2 Sociological Explanations of Religion

Read more about functionalist views on religion and women in the clergy.

Some would argue that the Protestant work ethic is still alive and well in North America. Read British historian Niall Ferguson’s, Work Ethic & Work Ethic, on the PBS website, which is an excerpt from his book Civilization: The West and the Rest.

15.3 Religion and Social Change
What are megachurches and how are they changing the face of religion? Read Scott Thumma’s online article Exploring the Megachurch Phenomena: Their Characteristics and Cultural Context on the Hartford Institute for Religion Research website.

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”.


15.0 Introduction to Religion

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List of Contributors to Chapter 15: Religion

Introduction to Religion — Benjamin Wilson

15.1 The Sociological Approach to Religion

The Four Dimensions of Religion — Hannah Mitchell

Table 15.2 The Religions of the World — Mikaiya Austin

Residential Schools and the Church — Courtney Locker

Types of Religious Organization — Marvin Moses Omoding

Brother XII and the Aquarian Foundation — Robyn Erickson

15.2 Sociological Explanations of Religion

Evolutionary Psychology — Tahir Chatur

Émile Durkheim — Emma Keene

Rodney Stark — Allegra Wolansky

Feminist Approaches to Religion — Mikaiya Austin

15.3 Religion and Social Change

Secularization — Shirin Souzanchi

Religious Diversity — Samantha Ballew

Muslim Women:The Niqab, Hijab and Burka — Zubaida Khan

Is Rastafarianism a Religion? — Jeff Nishima Miller

15.4 Contemporary Fundamentalist Movements

Introduction — Benjamin Wilson

Fundamentalism and Women — Katrina Kelly

The Veil and the Iranian Revolution — Sara Nadiri

The Case of Sati — Allegra Wolansky

Science and Faith — Hannah Mitchell

Creationism and Darwinian Evolutionary Theory — Gary Brett Armbrust

Solutions to Section Quiz

1 B, | 2 A, | 3 C, | 4 B, | 5 C, | 6 D, | 7 A, | 8 B, | 9 A, | 10 B, | 11 C, | 12 C, | 13 D, | 14 D, | 15 C, | 16 C, | 17 C, [Return to Quiz]


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