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Chapter 13 Education and Religion

13.6 Religion in Historical and Cross-Cultural Perspective

Every known society has practiced religion, although the nature of religious belief and practice has differed from one society to the next. Since prehistoric times, people have turned to religion to help them understand birth, death, and natural events such as hurricanes. They also relied on religion for help in dealing with their daily needs for existence: good weather, a good crop, an abundance of animals to hunt (Noss & Grangaard, 2008). A key feature in most ancient religions was a belief in animism, or the idea that all things – animate and inanimate – possess a spirit that connects them to one another (Perkins, 2019). Elements of animism are still found in major religions today, such as the traditional religion of Japan, Shinto, as well as the Jains, who are vegetarians due to their nonviolent beliefs.

Today, the world’s most popular religions today are (believing in one God), while many societies in ancient times, most notably Egypt, Greece, and Rome, were (believing in more than one god). You have been familiar with their names since childhood: Aphrodite, Apollo, Athena, Mars, Zeus, and many others. Each god “specialized” in one area; Aphrodite, for example, was the Greek goddess of love, while Mars was the Roman god of war (Noss & Grangaard, 2008).

Photo of a sculpture of the Greek god, Zeus.

Ancient Greece and Rome were polytheistic, as they believed in many gods. This statue depicts Zeus, the king of gods in Greek mythology. Alun Salt – Apollo of Centocelle – CC BY-SA 2.0

During the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church dominated European life. The Church’s control began to weaken with the Protestant Reformation, which began in 1517 when Martin Luther, a German monk, spoke out against Church practices. By the end of the century, Protestantism had taken hold in much of Europe. Another founder of sociology, Max Weber, argued a century ago that the rise of Protestantism in turn led to the rise of capitalism. In his great book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber wrote that Protestant belief in the need for hard work and economic success as a sign of eternal salvation helped lead to the rise of capitalism and the Industrial Revolution (Weber, 1904/1958). Although some scholars challenge Weber’s views for several reasons, including the fact that capitalism also developed among non-Protestants, his analysis remains a compelling treatment of the relationship between religion and society.

Moving from Europe to the United States, historians have documented the importance of religion since the colonial period. Many colonists came to the new land to escape religious persecution in their home countries. The colonists were generally very religious, and their beliefs guided their daily lives and, in many cases, the operation of their governments and other institutions. In essence, government and religion were virtually the same entity in many locations, and church and state were not separate. Church officials performed many of the duties that the government performs today, and the church was not only a place of worship but also a community center in most of the colonies (Gaustad & Schmidt, 2004). The Puritans of what came to be Massachusetts refused to accept religious beliefs and practices different from their own and persecuted people with different religious views. They expelled Anne Hutchinson in 1637 for disagreeing with the beliefs of the Puritans’ Congregational Church and hanged Mary Dyer in 1660 for practicing her Quaker faith.

Key World Religions Today

Today the world’s largest religion is Christianity, to which more than 2.4 billion people, or about one-third the world’s population, subscribe (see Figure 13.11 “Number of Adherent, by Religious Affiliation, 2021”). Christianity began 2,000 years ago in Palestine under the charismatic influence of Jesus of Nazareth and today is a Western religion, as most Christians live in the Americas and in Europe. Beginning as a cult, Christianity spread through the Mediterranean and later through Europe before becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire. Today, dozens of Christian denominations exist in the United States and other nations. Their views differ in many respects, but generally they all regard Jesus as the son of God, and many believe that salvation awaits them if they follow his example (Young, 2010).

Figure 13.11 Number of Adherent, by Religious Affiliation, 2021

Bar chart showing Number of Adherent, by Religious Affiliation, 2021. Christians have 2.4 billion, Muslims 1.9 billion, atheists/non-religious 1.2 billion, Hindus 1.2 billion, other religions .61 billion, Buddhists .51 billion, folk religions .43 billion and Jews .02 billion.

Source: World Population Review, 2021 (n.d.). Religion by Country, 2021. Retrieved on December 9, 2021, from https://worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/religion-by-country.

The second largest religion is Islam, which includes about 1.9 billion Muslims, most of them in the Middle East, northern Africa, and parts of Asia. Muhammad founded Islam in the 7th century BCE. and is regarded today as a prophet who was a descendant of Abraham. Whereas the sacred book of Christianity and Judaism is the Bible, the sacred book of Islam is the Koran (or Quran). The Five Pillars of Islam guide Muslim life: (a) the acceptance of Allah as God and Muhammad as his messenger; (b) ritual worship, including daily prayers facing Mecca, the birthplace of Muhammad; (c) observing Ramadan, a month of prayer and fasting; (d) giving alms to the poor; and (e) making a holy pilgrimage to Mecca at least once before one dies.

Photo of Men praying in a mosque

These individuals are praying at a mosque, the place of worship for the religion of Islam. Islam is the world’s second largest religion, with an estimated 1.9 billion adherents. Omar Chatriwala – Praying late into the night – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The third largest religion is Hinduism, which includes more than 1.2 billion people, most of whom live in India and Pakistan. Hinduism began about 2000 BCE and, unlike Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, has no historic linkage to any one person and no real belief in one omnipotent deity. Hindus live instead according to a set of religious precepts called dharma. For these reasons Hinduism is often called an ethical religion. Hindus believe in reincarnation, and their religious belief in general is closely related to India’s caste system, as an important aspect of Hindu belief is that one should live according to the rules of one’s caste.

Photo of Hindus worshiping at a temple.

Worshippers at a Hindu temple. Brian GratwickeCC BY 2.0 – Flickr

Buddhism is another key religion and claims over 500 million followers, most of whom live in Asia. Buddhism developed out of Hinduism and was founded by Siddhartha Gautama more than 500 years BCE. Siddhartha is said to have given up a comfortable upper-caste Hindu existence, and after wandering, meditating and living in poverty for a period, settled on the ‘middle way,” or living an existence somewhere between the extremes of poverty and wealth. He eventually achieved enlightenment and acquired the name of Buddha, or “enlightened one.” His teachings are now called the dhamma, and over the centuries they have influenced Buddhists to lead a moral life. Like Hindus, Buddhists generally believe in reincarnation, and they also believe that people experience suffering unless they give up material concerns and follow other Buddhist principles. Unlike Muslims and Christians, Buddhists do not believe in a deity or god, although supernatural figures do play a role in the Buddhist belief system.

Photo of a woman giving alms to a group of Buddhist monks.

A woman donates money to a group of Buddhist monks. CC0 1.0 – Public Domain

Another key religion is Judaism, which claims more than fourteen million adherents throughout the world, most of them in Israel and the United States. Judaism began about 4,000 years ago when, according to tradition, Abraham was chosen by God to become the progenitor of his “chosen people,” first called Hebrews or Israelites and now called Jews. The Jewish people have been persecuted throughout their history, with anti-Semitism having its ugliest manifestation during the Holocaust of the 1940s, when six million Jews died at the hands of the Nazis.

Photo of a crowd of Orthodox Jewish men at the Western Wall.

Orthodox Jews gather at the Western Wall in Israel to pray; it is one of the holiest sites for Jews. Dennis Jarvis – CC BY-SA 2.0 – Flickr

One of the first monotheistic religions, Judaism relies heavily on the Torah, which is the first five books of the Bible, and the Talmud and the Mishnah, both collections of religious laws and ancient rabbinical interpretations of these laws. The three main Jewish denominations are the Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform branches, listed in order from the most traditional to the least traditional. Orthodox Jews take the Bible very literally and closely follow the teachings and rules of the Torah, Talmud, and Mishnah, while Reform Jews think the Bible is mainly a historical document and do not follow many traditional Jewish practices. Conservative Jews fall in between these two branches.


Watch and Reflect

Watch this video about ten popular yet now forgotten religions from the ancient world:

As noted in the chart, other religions account for 61 million adherents, which reminds us that the variety of religious faiths extends past the main five or six regularly mentioned.

Do you think people, when they learn about other religions, are more likely to respond ethnocentrically or with a culturally relativistic understanding? Why?


A final key religion in the world today is Confucianism, which reigned in China for centuries but was officially abolished in 1949 after the Chinese Revolution ended in Communist control. People who practice Confucianism in China today do so secretly, and its number of adherents is estimated at some 5 or 6 million. Confucianism was founded by K’ung Fu-tzu, from whom it gets its name, about 500 years before the birth of Jesus. His teachings, which were compiled in a book called the Analects, were essentially a code of moral conduct involving self-discipline, respect for authority and tradition, and the kind treatment of everyone. Despite the official abolition of Confucianism, its principles continue to be important for Chinese family and cultural life.

The last category is defined by its lack of faith. Termed atheists, these are people who do not believe in a god or any gods. Measuring the number of atheists is difficult, as some who say they are atheists also say they believe in a higher power; meanwhile, some people who claim membership in a religion such as Catholic also say they do not believe in God. Agnostics are people who are neutral on the subject of gods, believing we cannot know if there are or are not gods and so neither claims faith nor doubt. The number of atheists in the U.S. has increased to about 4% of the population in 2019, an increase of 2% from 2009 (Lipka, 2021). In contrast, there are far more atheists in European countries; 25% of people in the Czech Republic, 19% in Belgium and 15% in France are atheists. In the U.S., atheists tend to be male, younger, educated, white and politically liberal. Unsurprisingly, they are pleased with religion’s declining influence on American culture, and do not believe one must be religious to be a moral person (a view shared by most Americans) (Lipka, 2021). Given the low numbers of atheists in the U.S., perhaps unsurprisingly, they tend to be looked at unfavorably by other Americans (Lipka, 2021).


Think Like a Sociologist

As we will discuss in the next section, religion is seen by theorists as serving various functions for members of society, such as promoting social unity and providing people with a sense of purpose. However, Figure 13.11 shows us that 1.2 billion people globally are atheist or have no religious affiliation, and thus are hypothetically not receiving these benefits, at least as a result of religious affiliation. In addition to the functions outlined, psychologist David DeSteno, who applies scientific research methods to understanding the social effects of religious rituals and has found that meditation practice, common in Buddhism, increases compassion and reduces aggression; synchronized actions often found in religion, such as group prayer and singing, increase social bonding; and grieving rituals help to reduce sadness over the loss of loved ones. In understanding the benefits of religion scientifically, DeSteno believes that such practices can be mined (what some call “religio-prospecting”) and adopted by the non-religious members of society in order to gain the same benefits.

What do you think of the idea of “religio-prospecting?” Is it possible to adopt religious practices as individuals or within secular groups and institutions in order to gain the benefit of these rituals?

What are the obstacles in doing so? Can you think of an example where this is already being done?

For more information check out this podcast interview of David DeSteno and his website: How to Benefit From Religion, Even as a Nonbeliever and David DeSteno’s Website.


As this overview indicates, religion takes many forms in different societies. No matter what shape it takes, however, religion has important consequences. These consequences can be both good and bad for the society and the individuals in it. Sociological perspectives expand on these consequences, and we now turn to them.

Test Yourself


Section 13.6 References

David Desteno.  (n.d.). David DeSteno. Retrieved from https://davedesteno.com/.

Gaustad, E. S. and L. E. Schmidt (2004). The religious history of America. San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco. 

Lipka, M. (2021, June 21). 10 facts about atheists. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/12/06/10-facts-about-atheists/

Noss, D. S. and B. R. Grangaard. (2008). A history of the world’s religions (12th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall. 

Perkins, M. K. (2019, April 5). What is animism? Learn Religions. Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/what-is-animism-4588366.

Ten Percent Happier with Dan Harris. (2021, December 15). 397: How to benefit from religion, even as a nonbeliever: David Desteno. Podgist. Retrieved from https://www.podgist.com/ten-percent-happier-dan-harris/397-how-to-benefit-from-religion-even-as-a-nonbeliever-david-desteno/index.html#0:00:00.

10 popular ancient religions that have been forgotten. (2018, October 17). YouTube. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/aBmR46xJJA0.

Weber, M. (1958). The Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism (T. Parsons, Trans.). New York, NY: Scribner. (Original work published 1904). 

Young, W. A. (2010). The world’s religions: Worldviews and contemporary issues (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

CC licensed content, Shared previously and Adapted

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