Sociology of religion
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Sociology of religion is the branch of sociology that deals with what religion is, how it works and what effects it has. Two classic modern sociologists of religion are Emile Durkheim and Max Weber, but the field goes back to Auguste Comte, the founder of sociology. Also, this field of research had a significant role even in other social sciences: the economist Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, were both influenced by sociology of religion.
Sociology of religion requires "methodological atheism", which means that a sociologist following the scientific method cannot explain religious phenomena using religious ideas. For example, the question "Why did Christianity become the official religion in the Roman Empire?" cannot be explained as "because it was the obviously correct religion". Methodological atheism, as well as methodological agnosticism, have both been proposed as appropriate research methods in the study of religion.
What is religion?
Durkheim provides one of the most commonly accepted definitions of religion. He states:
“”A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden – beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.
|—Emile Durkheim, "Elementary Forms of the Religious Life" (1912).|
While not completely uncontroversial, this definition summarizes some important ideas:
- Religion involves practice (ritual) as well as belief.
- Religion involves setting things apart – creating taboos, raising some things and ideas above others. For example, eating a flat piece of bread is nothing special, but if you put it in a particular setting – in a church, being waved over by a person in fancy robes – then religious thinking interprets such eating as something special and set apart.
- A religion is a community of people as well as an abstract belief system.
Religion and belief systems
This definition does raise some interesting questions, though: is nationalism, for example, a religion? (Some sociologists of religion think it is.) Could Objectivism be considered a religion? (Probably.) What about "civic religion" – which in America involves 'rituals' like the Fourth of July? All of these involve communities of people being bound together towards particular beliefs and practices. There are plenty of things which most people wouldn't consider "religions" which can easily enough be thought of as religions. They all deal with non-empirical – non-rational – ideas. 
It's important to draw a distinction, though, between the "religion" that sociology of religion deals with, and belief systems like theism. Many – most – sociologists of religion hold "religion" of some kind to be inescapable, and this is a view that goes back all the way to Comte. Even the strongest atheists are "religious" in the sense that they do arbitrary things, they set things apart – we treat our friends differently from people we don't know, for example. However, philosophical theists make claims expressed in rational language about the nature of reality. That is not an inescapable part of human existence. The claim that "atheism is a religion" depends on an equivocation between these two ideas of "religion" – and under this definition it doesn't stand up anyway. Atheists are not a single moral community, and atheists have no unifying system of ritual, even if we all practice rituals in daily life.
This distinction is referred to as the "functional" versus the "substantive" definitions of religion. Functional analyses, most often used in sociology, look at the role religion plays in social and cultural contexts. Substantive analyses, on the other hand, concentrate on the supernatural and philosophical content of religious thought.
- Stedman-Jones, Sue (2005). "Durckheim. Emile (1858-1917)". In Claeys, Gregory. Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-century Thought. London: Taylor & Francis. p. 130. ISBN 9780415244190. https://books.google.com/books?id=zIoHWFNZvr0C. Retrieved 2017-04-30. "Durckheim argued that religion is not an illusion, but its truth concerns the underlying reality of society. In contrast to Max Weber and William James, he argued that the essential features of religion are most clearly displayed in the simplest and the most primitive: Australian totemism is the test case for a general theory about religion. Through the analysis of this material (contested, as was his hypothesis), he offers a sociological explanation of religion. God and the soul are born of society and are symbolic representations of it: dependency on the sacred beings that are believed in and worshipped in ritual action being a derivative of our dependence on society. Sacred beings are created out of collective thought - in particular collective representations and forces, and he stressed the moments of collective effervescence as the birthplace of religious ideas and indeed of moments of sacred change."
- For example see Burleigh, M. (2006) Sacred Causes: Religion and Politics from the European Dictators to Al Qaeda. HarperCollins.
- What Is Religion? Functional vs. Substantive Definitions of Religion, about.com