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Chapter 13 Education and Religion

13.5 Religion as a Social Institution

In December 2021, a headline at Minnesota Public Radio read, “Supreme Court weighs mandating public funds for religious schools in Maine.” In 2021-22, the Supreme Court has a case on its docket regarding the use of taxpayer money to pay for private, religious schools. With an increasingly conservative viewpoint, in recent years the Supreme Court has chipped away at the Constitutional divide between church and state. Rulings on the presence of religion in public schools have been particularly favorable, as state-funded voucher programs have been upheld and, in Montana, the court rendered moot laws banning state aid to religious schools. A third and unique situation in Maine has escalated arguments (Totenburg, 2021).

In Maine, a somewhat rural state, many towns do not have public high schools. Instead, the state contracts with public schools in neighboring communities and provides transportation for those students as needed. Another option is for the students to attend a private school in town, if one exists, with the state paying the private school what it would cost to educate the student at a public school (around $11,000/year). These private schools are nonsectarian; that is, the schools do not have a particular political or specific religious tradition. The state does not pay the tuition for religious schools, the cause for the case in question. Three families with children who attend private religious schools think the state should also pay their fees since their towns do not have high schools. The state countered, saying the emphasis these schools place on religious instruction – integrating it throughout the day, incorporating it into the curriculum, requiring attendance at chapel – are the very reasons the state cannot pay. A federal appeals court ruling found that the state was not discriminating against religious exercise, only declining to subsidize it. Lawyers for the families appealed.

Carson, et. al, v. Makin, the Supreme Court case addressing this issue, was heard in June 2022. In the case, the plaintiffs (the parents) claimed that Maine’s policy denies funds to religiously affiliated schools because they are religiously affiliated, which they argued is unconstitutional. On the other side, the defendants (Maine’s Department of Education) argued that denying funds if a school will use them for religious purposes is permitted by the Constitution.  Of particular concern to the Maine Department of Education are the policies of religious schools that may discriminate against LGBTQ+ students, parents and teachers.  In the end, the Supreme Court sided with the plaintiffs and ruled that Maine’s nonsectarian requirement for tuition assistance violates the Constitution’s First Amendment, which paves the way for taxpayer funding for religious schools (Totenberg, 2021).   

Maine, however, has control over school curriculum and requires all affiliated schools to meet certain standards, such as teaching the theory of evolution.  If schools do not meet these standards, their funding can be restricted.  In addition, in 2021, Maine’s governor signed into law new legislation that prohibits discrimination against school employees or students based on gender identity.  Both of these factors may result in religiously based schools that wish to keep control over their curriculum and/or prohibit the hiring or admission of LGBTQ+ staff and students from accepting public funding.


What Do You Think?

If you were one of the Supreme Court justices, how would you have ruled in Carson, et. al, v. Makin?


The very nature of religion elicits strong reactions. For instance, when the Keystone XL Pipeline was planned (proposing to transport crude oil from Alberta, Canada to the Gulf Coast of Texas), it crossed land the Rosebud Sioux Tribe considered sacred. They successfully sued the Bureau of Land Management to stop the project (Native American Rights Fund, 2021). When a mosque was part of the proposal for a development two blocks from the site of Ground Zero in New York City, a vocal minority (from outside of the city) objected loudly (O’Connor, 2015).

Photo of the separation wall between Israel and Palestinian Territories, with "Free Palestine" painted on the wall.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has waged since 1948, after the creation of the state of Israel. In recent years, aggression has escalated on both sides, with Palestinians launching rockets into Israel territory and Israeli airstrikes on Palestinian territory. As part of this conflict, a wall has been built dividing the West Bank (a Palestinian territory) from Israel. Israelis consider the wall as a security barrier, while Palestinians consider it a segregation barrier. Montecruz Foto – CC BY-SA 2.0 – Flickr

Many clashes seen abroad, from Israel to India to Iraq, often are grounded in the ‘proper’ way to worship. The remainder of this chapter presents a sociological understanding of religion by examining religion as a social institution and by sketching its history and practice throughout the world today. We then turn to the several types of religious organizations before concluding with a discussion of various aspects of religion in the United States.


Think Like a Sociologist

What is religion? How would you define it?

What is the purpose of religion?


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. One definition of is that it is the set of beliefs and practices regarding sacred things that help a society understand the meaning and purpose of life. More specifically, according to Emile Durkheim, “A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden–beliefs and practices which unite in one single community called a Church, all those who adhere to them” (1954, p. 47). Did your definition match either of those?

Photo of hands raised in prayer

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. PixabayPexels

Because it is such an important social institution, religion has long been a key sociological topic. Durkheim himself 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.

Whatever people’s beliefs about sacred matters, there are certain elements found in every religion. The first is , or an acceptance of religious mysteries that defy common sense, logic or science. All cultures have a creation story, myth or legend about our origins which may involve what cannot be proven. Unquestioning acceptance that God created the earth in seven days (Judaism, Christianity), or Lama coming from the heavens to stir the waters and thicken them (Mongol), or God fashioning the whole world out of primordial matter, the waters and the smoke (Islam), or that a lotus flower that grew from Lord Vishnu’s navel and which was separated into three parts including the heaven, the earth and the sky (Hindu), is a testament to the sincerity of one’s faith. Understanding people’s motivations requires understanding the underpinnings of their faith.

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 and the latter beliefs . These two concepts – the sacred and the profane – are the next elements found in all religions. 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. The profane, on the other hand, is part of the ordinary world, and may be considered mundane, familiar, or even corrupting. Greed and selfishness would be considered profane from most religious points of view. While the concepts of sacred and profane are elements of nonmaterial culture, material culture can also be sacred or profane. Sacred items are called totems, and include objects such as a Catholic rosary, holy water and holy ground. Any item can be sacred or profane; it depends on the group’s definition and the beliefs of their faith. A minister in India was roundly criticized when he used a temple’s holy water as hand sanitizer; to him it was just water, but to the faithful at the temple it was blessed and deserving of respect.

Photo of baby being Christened in orthodox church.

Christening a baby is an example of a religious ceremony, in this case as a way to formally make the child a member of the community. Photography Maghradze PH Pexels

Another feature of all religions is the use of ceremonies and . These stylized and formal procedures, such as prayers, burning incense or saying chants, serve a purpose according to Durkheim. Recall the divide between the sacred and the profane: humans by definition are part of the profane world, while religion is the world of the sacred and as such has extraordinary and even dangerous qualities. Ceremonies and rituals allow people to approach their deities respectfully, reverently and safely.


Think Like a Sociologist

Sports are known to engender team rituals. All the players might touch the team banner before going onto the field, for example. Or individual players might keep wearing the same pair of socks when the team is on a winning streak. Certain parts of each sport generate such rituals; a baseball player may tap the bat in a prescribed way in the batter’s box, or a basketball player dribbles the ball in a particular pattern before making a free throw. Some athletes incorporate religious rituals, too, such as making the sign of the cross before they compete.

Do you have any rituals you perform before taking a test or do you have an item you consider a lucky charm?

What is the purpose of such behaviors? How are they similar and different from religious rituals?


Religious groups are always organized around moral communities of people who share the same beliefs and values. This serves to maintain continuity from generation to generation as well as provide a support group for the members in times of joy and sorrow. Being with others in the community creates a sense of social solidarity since practicing the faith reinforces the belief system that sustains it. It also produces connections as found in that are beneficial in everyday life; for example, a person might do business with another member of their congregation.

The final element in all religions is the personal experience of the worshiper. Whether the religion gives meaning to the person’s life, provides a way to absolve guilt or deal with problems, religion can be deeply and profoundly important and influential to its practitioners.


Think Like a Sociologist

Recall the question that started this section: what IS religion? Some researchers have suggested that a new kind of religion is emerging, thanks to a combination of people’s concerns over the state of the world and a sense that current authorities lack solutions; access to a myriad of self-proclaimed experts on social media who pose provocative questions; and the appeal of easy answers provided by influencers. Often the answers have a spiritual undertone.

Photo of a person clicking on an app on a cell phone.

cottonbro Pexels

These threads come together in TikTok videos where popular posters can share new age musings which get greater attention due to the algorithms that run Tik Tok. For example, after the tragic events at the Astroworld concert in November 2021, which resulted in eight deaths and over three-hundred injuries from a crowd surge at a Travis Scott concert, Tik Tok user Evelyn Juarez suggested a mystical explanation for this tragedy. She wrote, “It just doesn’t sit right with me. They tryna tell us something, we just keep ignoring all the signs,” followed by the hashtags #wakeup, #witchcraft and #illuminati. Rather than blame Scott and his management for choosing profits over safety, it was easier to blame demonic forces. Juarez has 1.4 million followers. Some people on TikTok find spiritual significance in the videos that fill their feeds and see a deeper meaning behind what they view, rather than realizing that TikTok’s algorithm causes them to see videos similar to what they have already seen.

Others point to fandom as an emerging religion. Recalling the different elements found in all religions, one can see faith in the belief systems of The Temple of the Jedi Order and Potterheads, the totems that fans of A Rocky Horror Picture Show bring to theaters when it is playing, a moral community in those who joined the Free Brittany Movement, and a sense of personal connection to Kim, Khloe, Kourtney, Kendall and Kylie found in Kardashian fans.

In light of the definitions we have given religion and the different elements described above, do you think what is emerging online on the internet constitutes a new kind of religion?


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, discussed in the next section.

Test Yourself


Section 13.5 References

Durkheim, Émile.  (1915). The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, a Study in Religious Sociology. London : New York :G. Allen & Unwin; Macmillan.

O’Connor, B. (2015, October 1). The sad, true story of the ground zero mosque. The Awl. Retrieved from https://www.theawl.com/2015/10/the-sad-true-story-of-the-ground-zero-mosque/.

Rosebud Sioux and Fort Belknap file suit against Keystone XL. (2021, June 9).  Native American Rights Fund. Retrieved from https://www.narf.org/cases/keystone/.

Totenberg, N. (2021, December 8). Supreme Court weighs mandating public funds for religious schools in Maine. NPR. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2021/12/08/1061996765/supreme-court-weighs-mandating-public-funds-for-religious-schools-in-maine.

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Conerly, Tonja, Kathleen Holmes, Asha Lal Tamang, Jennifer Hensley, Jennifer L. Trost, Pamela Alcasey, Kate McGonigal, Heather Griffiths, Nathan Keirns, Eric Strayer, Tommy Sadler, Susan Cody-Rydzewski, Gail Scaramuzzo, Sally Vyain, Jeff Bry and Faye Jones. (2021).  Introduction to Sociology 3E. OpenStax. Houston, TX.  License: CC BY 4.0.  License Terms:  Access for free at https://openstax.org/books/introduction-sociology-3e/pages/1-introduction.

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