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Religious Studies

This guide provides an overview of resources for the academic study of religion.

Sociological Approach

Some of the most important work in the study of religion was done by the major founding figures of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century sociology, including Karl Marx, Émile Durkheim, and Max Weber. Sociologists have sought to deduce the social basis for beliefs and practices determined to be religious.  Religion, according to this approach, is taken to be a primarily social, rather than a theological or psychological, phenomenon. This approach would later come under strong critique from theologians, anthropologists, and phenomenologists (among others) for its explanation of religion in strictly social terms.

Marx—drawing on some of the views of his contemporary, Ludwig Feuerbach, and Romantic philosophers, such as Hegel—saw religion as a force that alienated human beings from their truest nature, causing them to give to gods what they should be giving to themselves. He viewed religion as part of the larger struggle for human beings to liberate themselves from various forms of social bonds, and saw religion disappearing as the ideologies (or “false consciousness”) of class and commodities were gradually eliminated through a historical process that he called "dialectical."

For Durkheim, “society” was the root of all religious expression and devotion.  Weber, for his part, is one of the most important figures in considering both Western religious phenomena and the emerging knowledge and attitudes known collectively as “modernity.” For Weber, an increasingly bureaucratic, industrial society moves toward what he called “rationalization”—that is, away from worship of “otherworldy” gods and beings and toward activity that is "this-worldly."  Writing in the twentieth century, sociologist Peter Berger incorporated ideas from all three pioneering figures, arguing that religion is a social product that provides humans with all-encompassing structures of meaning and practice.