A largely secular framework governs the lives of two-thirds of Americans, but it is not the only framework they use to guide their decisions or their actions. Beliefs and practices that are considered religion are a central element of the personal lives of many people, even those who identify as agnostics or atheists. The fact that so many people live their daily lives within the purview of religion raises important questions about how such beliefs and practices function in society. Sociologists study the role of religion to understand the functions it serves, the inequality and other problems that it can reinforce and perpetuate, and the ways in which it binds and sustains communities.
Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, and Karl Marx are three of the founders of modern sociology, and all analyzed religion in terms of its societal impact. Durkheim focused on the way religion binds people together and fosters social stability, by providing common values that help people to understand the world around them and provide meaning and purpose in life. Religion also helps to maintain a sense of morality and to promote consistent behavior that provides a basis for civil society.
Weber, on the other hand, studied how religion reflects and perpetuates class conflict and divisions in society. His ideas helped to shape the socialist and communist political systems that emerged during the twentieth century. He believed that religion reflects the social stratification of the working classes and is their opiate in the face of economic suffering. Religion can help the poor to tolerate their lot in life and may even inspire them to take up the cause of social change.
A more recent perspective on religion, derived from the work of philosophers like Charles Taylor and Jürgen Habermas, emphasizes how beliefs are interpreted. Beliefs are not sacred unless they are regarded as such by the community, and the meaning of those beliefs is determined by how they are interpreted and applied in people’s lives. The symbolic interactionist perspective on religion stresses that religious practices are not just private acts but have a powerful public dimension and that social problems can be linked to the ways in which people interpret religious symbols and rituals.
Some scholars, such as Talcott Smith and Edgar Asad, criticize the notion that all religions are alike and argue that to focus on subjective mental states obscures the way in which different cultural practices differ. Others, however, like Clifford Geertz and Emile Asad, call on scholars to shift their attention from hidden, subjective states to the visible institutions that produce them. It is not clear that this move would avoid the problem of importing Protestant biases into the study of religion, but it may reduce the emphasis on mental states.