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Chapter 13: Education and Religion

13.6 Religion as a Social Institution

Religion clearly plays an important role in American life. Most Americans believe in a deity, over half pray daily, and more than 1/3 attend religious services weekly. We tend to think of religion in individual terms because religious beliefs and values are highly personal for many people. However, religion is also a social institution, as it involves patterns of beliefs and behavior that help a society meet its basic needs. More specifically, is the set of beliefs and practices regarding sacred things that help a society understand the meaning and purpose of life.

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More than half of all Americans attend religious services at least once per week. This illustrates the important role that religion plays in American life. Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

Because it is such an important social institution, religion has long been a key sociological topic. Émile Durkheim (1915/1947) observed long ago that every society has beliefs about things that are supernatural and awe-inspiring and beliefs about things that are more practical and down-to-earth. He called the former beliefs beliefs and the latter beliefs beliefs. Religious beliefs and practices involve the sacred: they involve things our senses cannot readily observe, and they involve things that inspire in us awe, reverence, and even fear.

Durkheim did not try to prove or disprove religious beliefs. Religion, he acknowledged, is a matter of faith, and faith is not provable or disprovable through scientific inquiry. Rather, Durkheim tried to understand the role played by religion in social life and the impact on religion of social structure and social change. In short, he treated religion as a social institution.

Sociologists since his time have treated religion in the same way. Anthropologists, historians, and other scholars have also studied religion. Historical work on religion reminds us of the importance of religion since the earliest societies, while comparative work on contemporary religion reminds us of its importance throughout the world today.

 

Key Terms

Profane beliefs – beliefs about things that are more practical and down-to-earth.

Religion – is the set of beliefs and practices regarding sacred things that help a society understand the meaning and purpose of life.

Sacred beliefs – beliefs about things that are supernatural and awe-inspiring.

 

Continue to 13.7 Religion in Historical and Cross-Cultural Perspective

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Exploring Our Social World: The Story of Us by Jean Ramirez, Rudy Hernandez, Aliza Robison, Pamela Smith, and Willie Davis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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