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The Social Sciences and the Study of Religion


Anthropology can be defined as " the study of human beings as creators of and creations of culture" (Livingston, Anatomy of the Sacred, ) Culture can be defined as the ways of life learned and shared by people in social groups. Often culture may include the "customs" (ways of life) that a group of people share and pass on. Thus, traditions, customs and acceptable behavior varies from one culture to another.

 Two anthropologists who have made considerable contributions to the study of religion are Emile Durkheim and Arnold Van Gennep. Durkheim was an anthropologist who believed that anthropology should focus on the function of religions in society. In fact, we have already seen that Durkheim defined religion in terms of its function. In particular, anthropology explores how religious institutions and beliefs function in the total life of the community. For example, religion may function to provide stability, discourage or encourage certain behaviors, define one's status within the group, or lend authority to leaders and institutions. Durkheim's observations led him to theorize that that religion functions in society to enforce discipline and create community.

 Arnold Van Gennep's work focused on analyzing how rites of passage and rituals function within a community of faith. We will explore his work in more detail when we consider religious rituals.



The sociologist focuses on group behavior. In particular, sociology tries to determine how religion and society interact: how does religion impact a society and how does society impact religion? Karl Marx believed that society has a dramatic impact on religion: it shapes religion to reflect the values of society. In particular, religion is used by those in power to maintain their power and to appease the working class. For Marx, religion was like a drug that was meant to numb people to their harsh existence: it was the "opium of the people." On the other hand, German sociologist Max Weber sought to demonstrate how religion (in this case, Calvinistic Protestantism) was a major force in shaping/inspiring American society through the "Protestant Work Ethic." In his book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), he argues that the Protestant belief that it was one's religious duty to serve God through hard work and pursuit of wealth led to the of rise of capitalism in in America.



Psychology literally means "study of the soul." It is therefore not surprising that a number of psychologist have applied the insights of psychology to religious behavior. Some of these have not always been very positive. For example, Sigmund Freud considered religion to be nothing more than a neurosis. According to Freud, religion originates in a child's relationship to the father; hence many religions viewed God as a Heavenly Father. Religion is thus the psychological projection of people's fears and desires: "Religious ideas are . . . illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest and most urgent wishes of mankind." In short, Freud concluded "Religion is comparable to a childhood neurosis" (The Future of an Illusion, 1927).

 Although Freud's views had a profound influence on the psychological approach to religion, other psychologist had a more positive view of religion. In 1902, William James had published a series of lectures entitled, Varieties of Religious Experience. Unlike Freud, James took religious experiences seriously and did not conclude that they negatively impacted human well-begin. In fact, James was so convinced that religious feelings were so much a part of human nature that he subtitled his work, A Study in Human Nature. He analyzed "mystical" or intense religious experiences, identified the characteristics that they had in common, and concluded that, despite their differences, these religious experiences all pointed to a common perception of the divine. In a number of ways, the characteristics of religious experiences identified by James, anticipated the influential work of Rudolf Otto whom we will discuss in the next unit.

 Another psychologist who demonstrated the value of applying insights from psychology to the study of religion is Gordon Allport. In a landmark study exploring the relationship between prejudice and religion, Allport demonstrated that personality structures help explain whether a person has a superficial (extrinsic) or deep (intrinsic) commitment to religious teaching. Allport viewed an extrinsic orientation as an interest in religion as a means to a goal, while an intrinsic orientation is interested in religion itself. For example, someone with an extrinsic orientation may see attending church as a means to meet people or find social acceptance. Someone with an intrinsic orientation would view church attendance as an end in itself; that is, the action is its own reward.


The work of the historian is to try to reconstruct accurately the events of the past. Especially does the historian of religion try to frame events in a "larger context." This context evaluates events in terms of geography, political history, economics, archaeological evidence, other sources of information, social dynamics, etc. For the historian, religion and religious sentiment is only one part of the total picture. For example, the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century is in part a battle over religious doctrine. However, the historian must ask why this division came at this point in time. What contributed to the Reformation? Most historians point out that a number of complex factors converged to make the Reformation possible. These factors include a rise in nationalism, increased literacy among an emerging middle class, and even technological advances such as the invention of the printing press that allowed the words and ideas of the reformers to reach a larger audience.

A second example of the contribution of the historian can be seen in an evaluation of Islamic Conquests of the Seventh century C.E. While the appeal of a simple, monotheistic faith cannot be underestimated, the historian also reminds us that wide-spread corruption in the Byzantine Empire, endless doctrinal debates within Christianity, and weariness from tribal fighting throughout Arabia were also factors that contributed to the rapid spread of Islam.


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