How Religion Shapes Society

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Not all religions share the same set of beliefs, but in one form or another, religion is found in all known human societies. Even the earliest societies on record show clear traces of religious symbols and ceremonies. Throughout history, religion has continued to be a central part of societies and human experience, shaping how individuals react to the environments in which they live. Since religion is such an important part of societies around the world, sociologists are very interested in studying it.

Sociologists study religion as both a belief system and a social institution. As a belief system, religion shapes what people think and how they see the world. As a social institution, religion is a pattern of social action organized around the beliefs and practices that people develop to answer questions about the meaning of existence. As an institution, religion persists over time and has an organizational structure into which members are socialized.

In studying religion from a sociological perspective, it is not important what one believes about religion. What is important is the ability to examine religion objectively in its social and cultural context. Sociologists are interested in several questions about religion:

• How are religious beliefs and factors related to other social factors like race, age, gender, and education? • How are religious institutions organized?
• How does religion affect social change?
• What influence does religion have on other social instututions, such as political or educational institutions?

Sociologists also study religiosity of individuals, groups, and societies. Religiosity is the intensity and consistence of practice of a person’s (or group’s) faith. Sociologists measure religiosity by asking people about their religious beliefs, their membership in religious organizations, and attendance at religious services.

Modern academic sociology began with the study of religion in Emile Durkheim’s 1897 The Study of...
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