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...