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Sociology and Religion

Learn why professionals are studying sociology and religion

sociology religion

Where we came from, why we’re here, what’s right and wrong, or what happens when we die are questions that all religions attempt to answer. There are hundreds of religions that have given mankind the answers to these questions for thousands of years. Because religion plays such a huge part in society, sociologists will continue to study it.

First and foremost, the sociological study of religion is not an attempt to find validity in any form of religion. Instead, sociologists study religion’s place in society and how individuals are affected by it. The study of religion in sociology focuses on the actions people take in expression of their religion, because actions, not thoughts, are social.

Why Sociology of Religion is Important

Today, the study of religion in society has taken on a new importance as the clash of religions and cultures leads to violence and stereotyping in the US and the world.

In the U.S., Muslims have been facing growing and sometimes violent discrimination since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. It has been the job of some sociologists studying religion to investigate why and how this discrimination exists. Often times when studying discrimination, we find that the basis for the pervasive hatred is false. In the U.S., much of the less educated population believes that Muslim culture breeds loathing for America’s citizens. However, recent sociological research has found the opposite; since 9/11, a very small number of American-Muslims have become violent extremists.

In the article Anti-Terror Lessons of Muslim-Americans (Schanzer, Kurzman, Moosa, 2010), the authors discuss how their research led to the conclusion that Muslims in America have developed a wide range of practices aimed at reducing radicalism within the Muslim-American culture. Muslim-Americans can often be found openly denouncing terrorism and violence, self-policing their communities (including reporting radicals to police and promoting mainstream ideas through strong social networks and education), decreasing social isolation through community building efforts, and some are even becoming politically active through the development of advocacy organizations. This last practice has been showing Muslims in America and around the globe that America, in spite of our less educated, bias populations, is still fertile ground for the growth of religious toleration.

Information gleaned from quality studies, similar to the one mentioned above, are often passed on to other organizations or government entities and can be used to create better policy or to help guide upcoming advocacy groups. As a professional focused on the sociology of religion, your work could be used as a key component of encouraging change within our society.

The sociology of religion can also be used to help social change within a religion itself. In Negotiating a Religious Identity: The Case of the Gay Evangelical, Scott Thumma (Professor, Sociology of Religion at Hartford Institute for Religion Research) uses case studies to investigate the stigma of homosexuality in Christianity.

Through his research, Dr. Thumma exhumed information leading to the conclusion that individuals and groups had used various techniques of socialization to “include a positive valuation of homosexuality”. Through advocacy groups, community awareness, and sheer numbers, homosexuality has lost much of its stigma as a shunned practice within the walls of Christianity.

As a professional in the field of religious sociology, you may be in a similar position as Dr. Thumma, aggregating various studies and extracting a better understanding of methods that help to change our world and the incorporation of religion in a peaceful and accepting way.

Careers in the Sociology of Religion

As a sociologist studying religion, you can use your knowledge and skills to help various communities of differing faiths understand and cohabitate with one another. If you choose to do this independently, you can get grants for your research from the government, universities, or special interest groups. This kind of research leads to the articles and books that are used in schools and journals and can have an important social impact. If you decide to take another route within the sociology of religion, there are several options available to you, including:

  • Journalism
  • Religious professions
  • International business
  • Diplomacy
  • Social service

A Famous Religious Sociologist Who Made Waves

Émile Durkheim is considered, along with Karl Marx and Max Weber, to be one of the founders of social science. One of his principal works in sociology, Suicide focuses on the sociology of religion.

In Durkheim’s study of suicide, he looked at many factors including education level, military status, and marital status to compare rates of suicide. One of the factors that he considered was religion, and he found that Protestants had higher suicide rates than Catholics and Jews. This fit nicely into his notion that religion acts as a social cohesive that gives individuals a sense of community and meaning. According to Durkheim, suicide rates are most influenced by how attached an individual feels to his society and the external restraints individuals have on their lives.

Durkheim determined that while Protestants do experience the inclusion and restraints that religion provides, the more strict practices of Judaism and Catholicism provide these to a higher degree. Although he also warns against too much integration and restriction leading to suicide, seemingly Judaism and Catholicism seem to have a good balance that keeps suicide rates relatively low.

If you are interested in becoming a sociologist of religion or social scientist, request information from schools offering degree programs in psychology or sociology.

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