Approaches To The Study Of Religion

1469 words - 6 pages

The sociological approach looks at religious belief and practice in relation to the society. Sociologists are interested in two themes, the centrality of religion in society and the diversity of forms it inhabits (Hamilton 1995/2001:1). It regards religion as a social fact subject to empirical observation, which produces empirical evidence (Dillon 2003:7). The sociology of religion is a product of the enlightenment, from which it inherited a tendency to dismiss religion as incompatible with rationality (Dillon 2003:6). This dismissal has had significant impact on the attitude towards religion and it is the basis for the most influential paradigm in the history of the field; secularisation. The secularisation theory claims that religion is or will be on the decrease in society. So profound was its impact that modern sociology often aims to account for the continued presence of religion in society and has generally held a rather negative view of religion as being an unworthy subject of study(Davies 2007:2). The reason for the secuarlisation can be seen in the fact that sociology is a theory both guided by and aims to build theories (Wuthnow/Dillon 2003:21). Theories require analysis and generalisation. It is impossible to analyse a subject without first defining the subject (Robertson 1970:34). Definition is a contentious issue because different definitions entail different criteria which lead to different patterns being indentified in data. Theories are created by the identification of patterns in data which are then generalised.(Davies 2007:5). Thus a definition will vastly affect the content and concept of a theory. Definitions of religion in sociology fall into two categories, functional and substantive. This essay will assess these two types of definition and their impact on the study of religions.
Substantive definitions are concerned with what a religion ‘is’. One attribute that substantive definitions possess is specificity. They provide a clear and concise definition to work with, thus lending itself more readily to survey research (McGuire 1997:10). Given that one of the ‘dimensions’ of sociology is to provide explanations for patterns found in data (Runicman 1983 citied by Davie 2007 :8), this is clearly a major strength. However the reason behind the boundaries being so clear and specific is that they have been ‘invented’ by the sociologist. The boundary doesn’t necessarily correspond to a truth; it is merely where the definer has chosen to draw the line. Such subjectivity is an issue in a field that prides itself on objectivity (McGuire 1997:6). Typically a supernatural element is used to discern where the line should be drawn, an example being Edward Tylor who claimed that the ‘the belief in spiritual beings’ was the ‘minimum definition’ of religion (Tylor 1903 citied by Hamilton 1995/2001:14). Using the supernatural or even the sacred as a demarcation point can be an advantage in that it corresponds with commonly accepted...

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