(Sample Material) IAS Mains Sociology (Optional) Study Kit "Religion And Society"

Sample Material of Our IAS Mains Sociology Study Kit

Subject: Sociology (Optional)

Topic: Religion And Society

(a) Sociological Theories of Religion
(b) Types of Religious Practices: Animism, Monism, Pluralism, Sects, Cults
(c) Religion in Modern Society: Religion and Science, Secularization, Religious revivalism, Fundamentalism



It is not an easy task to give a definition of religion which will satisfy everyone. The principal difficulty is that many people take the word to mean their own religion, regarding all other forms as non-religion, irreligion, superstition or anti-religion. Writers have defined religion in various ways.

Thus there are numerous definitions of religion given by thinkers according their own conceptions. As a matter of fact the forms in which religion expresses itself vary so much that it is difficult to agree upon definition. Some maintain that religion expresses itself in overt activities designed to deal with those powers. Some regard religion as belief in the immortality of the soul. While it is possible to define religion as belief in God or some supernaturalpowers, it is well to remember that there can also be a godless religion as Buddhism is. The Buddhists reject belief in the immortality of the soul and the life in the hereafter. The ancient Hebrews did not have a definite concept of an immortal soul. They seem to have had no conception of post-mortem rewards and punishments. Others regard religion as something very earthly and materialistic designed to achieve practical ends. But as Ruth Benedict wrote. “Religion is not to be identified with the pursuit of ideal ends. Spirituality and the virtues are two social values which were discovered in the process of social life. They may well constitute the values of religion in man’s history just as the pearl constitutes the value of the oyster. Nevertheless, the making of the pearl is a by­product in the life of oyster, and it does not give a clue to the evolution of the osyter.” Sumner and Keller asserted that “Religion in history from the earliest to very recent days has not been a matter of morality at all but of rites, ritual, observance and ceremony.”

In sociology the word religion is used in a wider sense than that used in religious books. A recent sociological work defines religion as “those institutionalized systems of beliefs, symbols, values, and practices that provide groups of men with solutions to their questions of ultimate being.” A common characteristic found among all religions is that they represent a complex of emotional feelings and attitudes toward mysteries and perplexities of life. As such religion comprises first, systems of attitudes, beliefs, symbols which are based on the assumption that certain kinds of social relations are sacred or morally imperative, and, second, a structure of activities governed or influenced by these systems.

Accordings to Radin it consists of two parts, (a) physiological, and (b) psychological. The physiological part expresses itself in such acts as kneeling, closing the eyes, touching the feet: the psychological part consists of supernormal sensitivity to certain beliefs and traditions. While belief in supernatural powers may be considered basic to all religion, equally fundamental is the presence of a deeply emotional feeling which Goldenweiser called the “religious thrill.” According to Anderson and Parker, each religion consists of four primary components. These are:

(a) Belief in Supernatural Forces : Each religion believes in some supernatural forces­powers outside of man and his observable world. These powers are believed to influence human conditions and events. Some call them forces of God; some call them gods, yet others leave them nameless.
(b) Man’s Adjustment to Supernatural powers: Since man is dependent on these powers, he must adjust himself to them, consequently, each religion provides for some outward acts like prayer, hymns, kirtans, yagyas and other forms of reverence. Failure to perform these acts is regarded as sinful.
(c) Acts Defined as Sinful: Each religion defines certain acts as sinful. Such acts destroy man’s harmonious relationship with God or the gods and he suffers the wrath of God.
(d) Method of Salvation : Man needs some method by which he can regain harmony with the gods through removal of guilt. Thus Buddhism provides for Nirvana, and Hinduism provides salvation in the release from the bondage of Karma.


Study of religion as an important element of social life has been the focus of attention of several sociologists and social anthropologists. Here below is an overview of some of the major approaches to religion.

(1) The Functional Approach

The basic assumptions of this approach are that parts of a society are linked to each other through its values and norms and that each part of the society fulfils a positive function for the maintenance of the total society. Religion furnishes the consensual and integrative framework for society. For Durkheim the ‘sacred’ was the most fundamental religious idea or phenomenon. According to him... “A religion is an unified set 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 church all those who adhere to them” Important, from our perspective is (a) the aspect of ‘things set apart’ and (b) the idea of a moral community, which is an eminently collective thing. What is ‘set apart’ is not just supernatural beings, but also persons with supernatural or magical powers, places (temples, mosques, churches), certain perfor­mances and events (such as births, deaths, marriages, eclipses etc). The term ‘set apart’ means that which is other than routine or ordinary. The notion of the ‘sacred’ becomes sharper when contrasted with the ‘profane’ or the ‘secular’. Durkheim emphasises that this is the very core of religious phenomena. He says, ...”All known religious beliefs, whether simple or complex, present one common characteristic: they presuppose a classification of things, real and ideal, of which men think into two classes or opposed groups, generally designated by two distinct terms which are translated well enough by the words ‘profane’ and sacre. Durkheim was not interested in seeking the historical origins of religion but was concerned with the sociological causes for the existence of religion, which he found in the human need for social life. To him religion was a collective phenomenon, which arose from social interaction. He studied the Australian aborigines, agreeing with the prevailing scholarly opinion that aboriginal totemism was the simplest, ‘the elementary’ form of the religious life. He was of the opinion that if one succeeded in discovering the origin of totemic beliefs, it was possible to discover at the same time”...the causes leading to the rise of the religious sentiment in humanity....”

Presenting a detailed discussion of totemic gatherings among these aborigines, he located the roots of religious beliefs and practices in social interaction. Durkheim concluded that ‘the collective and anonymous force of the clan, the God of the clan, the totemic principle can therefore be nothing other than the clan itself. Generalizing from the Australian case - the elementary form of the religious life - Durkheim came to consider society as the source and sustainer of religious sentiments and structures and, therefore, God, its members, creating among them ‘the sensation of a perpetual dependence’ . Thus Durkheim’s interpretation of religion derives religion from the very nature of social life.

A.R. Radcliffe-Brown focused on the role of religion in the maintenance of social solidarity in his sociological analysis of ritual. He was influenced by W. Robertson Smith in his emphasis upon rituals rather than beliefs in the study of religion. He followed Durkheim closely, but narrowly. He along with others, such as Malinowski, of the British school of sociological functionalism was concerned with the question of how religion anywhere and at any time contributes to the maintenance of social solidarity According to him... “An orderly social life amongst human beings depends upon the presence in the minds of the members of society of certain sentiments, which control the behaviour of the individual in relation to others. Rites can therefore be shown to have specific social functions, when ... they have for their effect to regulate, maintain and transmit from one generation to another sentiment on which the constitution of society depends.” E.E. Evans-Pritchard (1965) disagrees with Radcliffe Brown. His monograph on the Azande shows a shift in the explanation of supernatural phenomena from function to meaning. Witchcraft among the Azande was explained by him as a mode of causality for human misfortune. In his later work, ‘Nuer Religion’ (1956), the same shift from straightforward functionalism to the problem of meaning can be noticed, though he did not go into an explicit phenomenological analysis. He was close to Durkheim when he interpreted the Nuer religious thought and ritual in terms of social order. In the study of religious beliefs and practices in Gujarat (1973) David Pocock is concerned with the problem of subjective meaning and offers an alternative to narrowly functionalist approach.

Venugopal (1998) thinks religion can be functional at pragmatic level as well. Human beings face stressful situations in everyday life, such as, those of sickness, misfortune, death etc, which disrupt the normal tenor of a household. In such situations religion, ritual, magic provide a kind of solace which wealth and privilege can not give (1998: 91). Merton (1968) and Parsons (1975) have referred to the functional roles of religion. Merton shows a definite relationship between Puritanic ethic and the rise of science in the seventeenth century England. Hard work and commitment to the improvement of this world, etc., which came from Puritan faith were effective in developing scientific temper. In other words, rationality of religion influenced the lives of scientists. Robert Boyle, John Ray, Newton and many others were not only noted scientists but were also devoted to new ethics. They contributed to the improvement of the material world through their scientific researches as a tribute to the glory of God (Venugopal, 1998: 91). Talcott Parsons demonstrated that the normative order of society in the West rested on the religious premises of Christianity; it inspired voluntaristic kind of action, wherein individuals are committed to the welfare of others in society (ibid). Functionalism focuses on the consensual rather than a dialectical pattern of growth. It looks at the role of religion mainly in terms of the present and does not address the problem of subjective meaning and the historical and cultural aspects of religion.

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