Athabasca University Course Sociology of Religion – Unit One | The Socjournal

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The following is the unit introduction from the Athabasca University course, Sociology of Religion, that I teach and coordinate. I include it here because it shows the perspective on religion that I am developing, and gives a bit of an orientation to the subject. Personally I am quite friendly with mystical experiences, spirituality, and religion. However any Sociological analysis of religion must start with a foundation. I’m currently writing an introductory textbook on the Sociology of Religion entitled Sociology of Religion: A Mystical and Scientific Approach. I’ll be posting that introduction to the book on Socjourn shortly. It will contain the citations and background research left out, for pedagogical reasons, in this student introduction. You can sign up for the course by clicking this link. You can also jump to Unit Two

Dr. Michael Sosteric

Department of Sociology Athabasca University

Welcome to The Sociology of Religion.

As the title suggests, in this course we take a sociological look at religion and spirituality. We look at theories of religion (i.e., what religion is, how it relates to individuals and society, etc.), the history of religion, the forms of religion, the functions of religion and the people who participate in religion. As we do these things, we use both a critical and a functionalist perspective; that is, for example, we look at the functions that religion and spirituality plays in the social and institutional fabric of society, but we do so from a critical perspective. We hope that, by the end of the course, you will have a much better understanding of the role of religion in society, and perhaps even your own life.

As we begin our examination of religion, it is important that we define our terms, lay some ground, and set some boundaries. We do that first by talking a little more about what the sociology of religion is all about. In other words, we start by defining our area of interest by asking the question, “What is the sociology of religion?” That is the topic of Unit 1.


At the end of this unit, you should be able to

  1. provide a definition of religion.
  2. distinguish between religion and spirituality.
  3. define the term “sociology of religion” and discuss the kinds of questions the discipline seeks to answer.
  4. define, in your own words, and use in context, the key terms introduced in this unit.
  5. summarize, in your own words, the contributions of the key figures identified in this unit.

Key Concepts and Figures

Note that your understanding of these concepts, or of the significance of the individuals identified, may develop as you work through the course. Be careful to review, correct and expand your definitions and summaries as you proceed.

big questions

evolutionary fallacy

existential imperatives



opiate of the masses

Protestant asceticism

religion and societal functions (healthcare, education, etc.)

religious needs


species being/alienation

stages of society (theological, metaphysical, scientific)

Peter Burger

José Casanova

Auguste Comte

Richard Dawkins

Karl Dobbelaere

Emile Durkheim

Karl Marx

Rupert Sheldrake

Max Weber

Reading Assignment

Read the Introduction, pages xi-xv, and “Chapter 1, Theory,” pages 1-52 of The Sociology of Religion: A Substantive and Transdisciplinary Approach, by George Lundskow [(2008). Los Angeles: Pine Forge Press].


You would find the articles listed below informative and helpful.

Wikipedia. (n.d.). Opium of the people. Retrieved March 15, 2013, from


So what is the sociology of religion?

Of course, you already know what sociology is: the scientific study of society in general, and the people and institutions that make up society in particular. That is, sociology studies institutions, the people who make them up, the functions they fill, and their relationships with each other. In the context of this course, the sociology of religion is simply a focused study of a particular institution, in this case, religion. Thus, we can flesh out our definition of the sociology of religion as follows:

The sociology of religion is scientific study of religion and its relationship to individuals and society.

This definition seems simple enough—nothing shocking here! In fact, when we look at religion and its relationship to society, we find an awful lot of sociological content, and a lot of space for standard sociological analysis. As you will see as you read through the materials of this course, a religion is closely linked to the society in which it emerges. In fact, in a very real way, religion is a reflection of the social order from which it grows. Religion reflects gender relations, social class relations, political relations, economic relations, and so on. Indeed, a basic sociological truism about religion might be simply this: religion is a reflection of the society in which it emerges.

Now, if you are thinking like a sociologist, this statement isn’t a problem. In fact, it is sociological common sense. All institutions, from schools to families to banks, are embedded in—and reflective of—the societies in which they emerge. It cannot be any other way. Institutions are designed by people to serve human needs, and they always reflect those needs. Of course, institutions don’t always reflect everyone’s needs. Critical sociologists will often point out that institutions are set-up primarily to meet the needs of the rich, but whether or not an institution reflects the needs of “all people” or just “some people” is beside the point of this introduction. What we want to emphasize here is that institutions reflect human needs and the social forms in which they are embedded.

So what human needs does religion reflect, and how is it embedded in social forms?

These are the topics of this course and since most of the course is taken up with showing how religion is embedded in and reflective of the society (or at least segments of society) in which it exists, I won’t address that topic here. I would, however, like to take a quick look at the needs religion meets.

Note: As you will see, religion does function to meet some important needs, and both psychologists and sociologists recognize that there are good reasons to consider these needs directly; address limitations and failures in the attempts of current institutions to meet them; and develop reasonable, acceptable, grounded and authentic alternatives for meeting them. Unfortunately, in The Sociology of Religion, we will not be able to explore what such an alternative might look like—that discussion must wait for the sequel to this course, The Sociology of Spirituality.

The Need for Truth and Understanding

We have stated that religions are institutions designed to meet certain human needs. What are those needs?

Well, religions are set up, basically, to meet our very human need for truth and understanding. I don’t think anybody would care to argue that humans don’t have this need. Anybody who has ever raised children will know one of the most persistent and sometime annoying questions that kids can ask is, “Why.” Why this, why that, why is the sky blue, why is the sun yellow, why are some children poor, why are we born at all, why do we die, why are we here, and so on and on and on. Many of the questions children ask are mundane, of course, but many are not. Many are what I would call “big questions”: the ultimate questions of existence and cosmology. [1] Children need to know about purpose, about nature, about “god,” about consciousness, about existence and so on. The need to know is typically carried over into adulthood, where we all find what we believe to be satisfactory answers to the big questions. To find those satisfactory answers, some people choose traditional religions, some choose emergent religions, some choose heavy metal rock music and, these days, many choose science.[2] The point is that we all look for answers to the big questions and, as is the case with any basic human need, we’re only satisfied when we find answers that satisfy us.[3]

We need to know, and religions are set up to meet this need by providing “satisfactory” answers to the big questions of life.

No argument here please.

It is obvious, looking from the outside, that this is what religions do, and it is obvious from the inside as well. Most people involved in a religion believe that their religion is provides a reflection of ultimate truths. Religion is a moral guide, a channel for aspirations, and the final arbiter on the “big questions” of life. Questions such as “Who am I?” “Where did I come from?” “What happens after death?” “Is there a higher power?” “How was the universe formed?” are answered within the institutional confines of religion.

As a sociologist, I can see quite clearly that religion does purport to fill our need to know by answering the big questions. Therefore as a sociologist I am comfortable defining religion as follows:

Religion is a social institution set up to fill our need to know by answering the big questions of our existence.

You can see this quite clearly in the institutionalized belief systems known as Buddhism, Mormonism, Hinduism or Catholicism. All of these institutions offer answers to the big questions. An example might help to illustrate. Catholicism is a religion I’m quite familiar with, since I grew up in it. From my childhood and adolescent experience, I can see that Catholicism is definitely an institution that purports to answer the big questions. In fact, it does so with unmatched vigour and determination. Since I was, at one time, a member of the Catholic faith I know the Catholic answers to big questions well, and here they are.

Is there a higher power?

Yes, there is God.

Who am I

You are a child of God

Where did I come from?

God created you.

What’s the purpose of life?

To serve God and redeem yourself.

How was the universe formed?

God said, let there be light, and the universe emerged in a puff of light.

As you can see, Catholicism is an institution that answers the big questions, satisfying our human need to know, and is therefore a religion according to the definition of this course.

With that definition in mind, all the religious institutions we have in society come clearly into focus. So, for example, we can clearly identify traditional religions, such as Catholicism and Buddhism, but we can identify religious institutions that are hidden as well, including Freemasonry, North American New Age spiritualities (which are organized and institutionalized despite claims to the contrary), and even science which, despite vociferous protesting from its own high priests, can at times look very much like a religion. Let us pause for a few moments to address these shocking allegations.

The New Age Movement as Religion

Now, calling the New Age movement a religion, and fingering science as such, both require some explanation, because we have been told that both of these institutions differ from religion. If you have had any interest in religion in past, you’ve probably been told by someone that “spirituality” is something different than religion, and that the New Age movement offers spirituality, while traditional institutions (such as Catholicism) offer religion. But let’s look at that claim using our definition of religion as a lens. Here is our definition again:

Religion is a social institution set up to fill our need to know by answering the big questions of our existence.

Now let us ask, “Is the New Age movement an institution?” and “Does it answer the big questions?”

Well, despite what some might want to tell you, the answer to both is yes. New Age spiritualities do purport to offer you answers to the big questions, and they are organized, just like any institution. In the case of the big questions, it is obvious that New Age spiritualities are religions. Although the answers to the big questions might vary slightly between different spokespeople of the movement, New Age religions do answer these questions, they just answer them with a more consumerist and capitalistic bent, as we will see a bit later in the course.

Alright, so the New Age movement answers the big questions, but is it an institution?

Again, the answer is yes. The New Age movement is very much organized and institutionalized. This fact is most obvious when you consider that the movement does indeed have an existence over and above the individual. If any individual were to drop dead tomorrow, the New Age movement would continue. More to the point, the New Age movement has its own spokespeople, who will identify themselves as such, its own publishers and book stores, its own places of worship (trade shows, conferences, workshops), and so on. The only difference between the New Age religion and Catholicism is that proponents of the former will deny that it is a religion, and will even suggest (subtly) that it is superior to religious belief systems. The New Age movement, they will say, with noses tilted slightly up, is a “spirituality,” as opposed to Catholicism, which is a religion. From my perspective, however, this distinction is merely semantic and even ideological. Calling the New Age movement a spirituality, trying to distinguish it from a religion, and giving it the moral high ground serves only to obscure the fact that it is simply a religion just like all others. You will see this quite clearly when you read the book $elling Spirituality: The Silent Takeover of Religion in Unit 5. The authors, Jeremy Carrette and Richard King, show that “obscuring” the true nature of the New Age movement has monetary benefits for the individuals and corporations that sell New Age products, but in the end, and despite all its theosophical and mystical trappings, the New Age movement is no different than any standard religion. It is arguably a social institution setup to answer the big questions of our existence, and as such, is a religious institution through and through.

I feel compelled to say at this point that, if you bought the line that the New Age movement differs from traditional religions because it is a “spirituality,” don’t feel bad. Even sociologists make this theoretical error. In fact, embedded in the dogma of the standard sociology of religion class is the distinction between spirituality and religion. Social scientists will tell you that spirituality is individual while religion is collective, that spirituality is mystical while religion is ritualistic. But, in the context of the definition we are using in this course, these distinctions can be meaningless. An individual can try to answer the big questions in a collective or an individual way, with ritual or through mystical orientations. Either way, the goal is the same: to answer the big questions. So the only possible distinction lies in the institutional or institution-independent nature of the strategies people use to find their answers. Many sociological discussions of religion focus on “religion as institution,” largely disregarding “religion as quest for answers to the big questions.” A proper definition must, in my view, focus on both.

And why would scientists want to avoid a proper definition of religion?

Because a proper definition of religion makes most scientists uncomfortable.

And why does a proper definition of religion make most scientists uncomfortable?

Because a proper definition of religion as an institutionalized attempt to answer the big questions brings the exalted empirical pursuits of science precariously close to the sacred halls of spiritual luminosity. Put another way, defining religion as an institutionalized attempt to answer the big questions makes science look exactly like the religions its high priests suggest that it replaces.

Science as Religion? Surely you must be joking, Dr. Mike.

Well, no, I’m not. According to the definition I provide in this class, science is a religion just like Buddhism, Scientology, Catholicism, Freemasonry and the New Age movement. Let us review our definition of religion one last time:

Religion is a social institution set up to fill our need to know by answering the big questions of our existence.

We know that science is an institution, that goes without saying. But is it a religion?

To answer that question, we ask, “Does science fill the second part of our definition—does it attempt to provide answers to the big questions?” Let’s see shall we? Let us take a look at the big questions and see if science has an answer for them. As it turns out, it does.

Is there a higher power.

No, a higher power is not needed to explain the world.

Who am I

You are a naked ape.

Where did you come from?

You evolved from single-cell organisms.

What is the purpose of life?

To struggle, survive and reproduce.

How was the universe formed.

The universe emerged out of nothingness in a magical puff of light.


As you can see, science does provide answer to all the big questions, and we have already agreed that it is an institution. So, by our definition, science appears to be a religion. Of course, like members of the New Age movement, members of the scientific community are going to deny, deny, deny. As part of that denial they are even going to claim epistemological and ontological superiority. They (we) are going to tell you that science has special methods for coming up with the truth that make our truths better than common religious truths. They (we) are going to say that when we speak answers to the big questions, our answers are always right, or at least more right than those given by people who speak from a “religious” background. And while some members of the scientific community will admit that sometimes science gets it wrong, they will nevertheless tell you that scientists are more open minded about the evidence than others. For all these reasons, science is different from, better than, and not to be painted with the same brush as, religion.

Me, I don’t buy it. Science may have a thing or two going for it, but in many cases it is very much like a religion, with all the same oppressions, suppressions and irrationality. Just ask Thomas Kuhn.[4] Science and scientists can be just as closed minded, autocratic, and absolutist when it comes to its answers to the big questions as any Catholic priest. In fact, they even act like priests. Back in the day, when Copernicus and Galileo were challenging the ontological foundations of the authoritative Church world view, priests sputtered and puffed that it was their way or the torture chamber. According to the priests, they (the priests) had special “channels to God” that allowed them to speak absolute truth without question. They even had the authority to torture and punish people who didn’t listen (i.e., heretics). It wasn’t a pleasant time for anybody who didn’t agree with whatever the priests were saying.

Curiously, modern-day scientists can sound a lot like the priests of yesterday. Ask any scientist and they’ll tell you that they have special “channels” (i.e., methods) that allow them to access the truth better than anyone else. True or not, it doesn’t matter. The point is, we sound like priests, and while we might claim to be “above” the mistakes of our spiritual forefathers, the truth is that, just like the priests of yore, scientists can be brutally repressive. Torture is off the table these days (at least for now), but two of the staples of priestly authority, public shaming and excommunication, are not. If you don’t believe me, then next time you have the opportunity in one of your university classes, try this experiment: publicly question the doctrine of evolution and see what happens to you. I guarantee that you won’t find an open and welcoming environment. Instead, you are going to experience ridicule, repression and hostility. Of course, you are probably too scared to try this experiment. As an initiate in the temple of science, you might already know better than to open your mouth and challenge scientific doctrine, and if that’s the case, if you are too afraid to question scientific authority, then I think you need to revise your understanding of the “open” and free nature of scholarly inquiry. Just like Christianity and its dogma before it, science is open and free so long as you stay within the conceptual boundaries set out in the first couple of years of your indoctrination. But try to break outside the boundaries of established scholarly canon, or worse, deny the evolutionary dogma, and look out, because before you know it you will find yourself in the same bad place that Galileo did when he was banished for daring to question Church creed.[5]

Sound harsh, unfair and untrue?

Consider the example of biochemist Rupert Sheldrake who, after publishing a book called A New Science of Life: The Hypothesis of Formative Causation (1987), was publicly shamed and summarily excommunicated from the scientific establishment for daring to challenge the materialistic status quo. The establishment stopped short of burning his book, as you’ll see when you do this week’s assignment, but it was not because they didn’t want to. The hostility directed towards Sheldrake when he stepped outside the boundaries of the accepted scholarly canon was severe, the consequences harsh and punitive.

So why do we have such a glowing opinion of science, if maybe it doesn’t deserve it? In fact, how can we claim to be above religion when we act exactly like religious folk do—defending our theories and beliefs as if we are guarding ultimate truths, and doing so with the same vim and vigour as any Mormon, or Catholic or Buddhist. Personally, I don’t think we can. In fact, at least according to the definition used in this class, science is religion. Sputter and bluster all you want, but science is quite clearly an institution set up to fulfill our need to know by answering the big questions of life, and it does so with all the repressive nonsense that religions have used in the past.

And just so you know, when I say this, I’m not saying anything particularly original, at least from a sociologist’s standpoint. In Sociology 460: The Sociology of Information Technology, I use a book by David Noble called The Religion of Technology (1999). In that book Noble traces, with painstaking historical detail, the religious underpinning of much modern technological and scientific endeavour. After reading that book you’d be hard pressed to deny the linkage between science and religion, although many people will certainly try.

Now, this is nothing to be ashamed of, or to hide from, or to obscure behind ontological or methodological pretensions, or confused distinctions between “spirituality” and “religion.” The truth is we all have religious tendencies, we all have a “need” for meaning, and we all seek out answers that satisfy us. And while this isn’t “especially” true for scientists, and university students, it is certainly true for them. The whole point of the academic exercise is to discover the truth of things. From “big bang” to evolutionary forge, scientists have found answers to the big questions, just as their priestly forefathers did before them.

So where does this leave us, and where do we go from here? Well, at this point we know we have a need to know, and we know, that our attempts to answer this need are more pervasive, ubiquitous and penetrating than we, and by “we,” I mean sociologists, might traditionally think. New Age spirituality and even science are implicated in the noble quest for big question answers. So, now that we know what religions are and can clearly discern the existence of religion, even when it is obscured or denied, the next question is, “Have we, in our ten-thousand-year quest for answers, ever succeeded in answering the big questions?” As we’ll see in the next few units, the answer is an unequivocal “No!” Despite our collective aspirations to big “T” truth about the cosmos, for the most part, and except perhaps for isolated islands of truth in a sea of dogma and indoctrination, we have failed miserably to come up with satisfactory solutions.

The verdict, as we shall see, is clear. From ancient matriarchal beliefs to modern day metal hierophany, all our religious attempts to understand the world amount to little more than opportunistically created reflections of the political, social and economic realities of our world.

Unit Assignment

This unit assignment has two parts.

Part 1

Do some online research on Rupert Sheldrake and his book. Provide an account of what happened to him. What do you think this says about the nature of scientific thought and discourse? Does this make us better than, worse than or the same as medieval priests who excommunicated Galileo for daring to speak outside the boundaries of Church canon?

Your account should be between 600 and 800 words long. Remember to provide references for the sites you use. See the references section of this unit for a suitable style.

Submit your answer, along with your answer to Part 2, in the assignment drop box for Unit 1.

Part 2

According to Dr. Mike, religion is a social institution set up to fill our need to know by answering the big questions of our existence. Discuss the usefulness of this definition, using examples from your own life. Post your 600 to 800 word answer through the discussion forum for Unit 1.

Study Questions

Answer the following questions on your own. Answering these “end of the unit” questions will help you prepare for the final examination.

  1. What is religion? What is the sociological study of religion? What is the relationship between the two? Discuss.
  2. In this course commentary I, Dr. Mike, argue that the need for answers to the big questions is a hard-wired biological need, like the need for food and water? Do you agree? Consider your own life as evidence. Are the big questions important to you? Do you have answers for them? Can you see the drive to satisfy these needs in your own life, or in the lives of those around you. Discuss.
  3. In the section on New Age religion, I make the suggestion that distinctions that social scientist make between “religion” and “spirituality” are, when considered against the course definition of religion, often meaningless. Do you agree? Why or why not?
  4. Do you feel that science is a religion (or perhaps has religious elements)? Why or why not?


Carrette, J. & King, R. (2005). $elling spirituality: The silent takeover of religion. London: Routledge.

Kuhn, T. (1962). The structures of scientific revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Second edition retrieved March 14, 2013, from

Lundskow, G. (2008). The sociology of religion: A substantive and transdisciplinary approach. Los Angeles: Pine Forge Press.

Maslow, A. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychology Review, 50 (4): 370-396. Retrieved March 14, 2013, from

Noble, D. (1999) The religion of technology: The divinity of man and the spirit of innovation. New York: Penguin.

Peterson, J. (1994). The sacred canopy. Retrieved March 15, 2013 from

Sheldrake, R. (1987). A new science of life: the hypothesis of formative causation. London: Paladin.

Wikipedia. (n.d.). Opium of the people. Retrieved March 15, 2013, from

[1] See

[2] As we will see below, science does provide answers to the big question that meet human needs.

[3] I just want to take a moment to emphasize the fact that when I say we “need” to find answers to the big question, I mean that our need to find answers to the big questions is just as urgent as our need to put food in our body. Abraham Maslow (1943) was perhaps the first to formalize the need to know in his hierarchy of needs. Basically our need to find the answers is a hard-wired, biological necessity that we all must fulfill in a way that satisfies our body. Some readers may balk at this statement, but I believe that it is an empirically observable truth, and you can draw confirmation from the fact that everybody either will have answers to the big questions that satisfy them, or will keep looking until they do. It is just like any need. When you are hungry, you look for food until you find it, eat it and are not hungry anymore. When you are thirsty for answers to the big questions, you look for the answers until you find them and are not thirsty anymore.

[4] The author of the groundbreaking study of the history of science, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), Kuhn concluded that scientists are, in fact, almost never prepared to change their beliefs on the basis of new evidence. One scientific orthodoxy (paradigm) replaces another only when the holders of the old paradigm gradually leave the field.

[5] In the interests of academic self preservation, and just in case the high priests are listening, I have to say, I do believe in Darwin and I do believe in evolution. I believe there are pieces missing in the typical account, but I have “faith” that science will eventually sort those things out.