Athabasca University Course Sociology of Religion – Unit Two | 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

Go to unit one

In Unit 1, we developed a definition of religion that is a bit different from the “standard” sociological definition, and that led to some interesting musings and conclusions, one of the most important of which was that “religion” is a lot more pervasive than some of us would like to admit. Towards the end of the unit, I also made the provocative suggestion that, while religion is about answering the big questions, in general it has failed to do so. This is true whether religions get their start as the result of some charismatic figure who says, “Hey, I got the Truth and you should listen,” as in Buddhism or Catholicism, or as the result of a more collective push, as in Wicca. Before too long, it seems, religions end up being “something other” than they were “meant” to be. In this unit, we discuss that something other and the effects that may be far from what most of a religion’s members expect, or even recognize.

Religion is not a simple thing, as it turns out, and in this course, we consider just how “not simple” it is. In this unit, we begin our exploration of the wider aspects of religion. Putting aside a concern with spiritual big questions, we look at all the various “ancillary” functions of religion, from social belongingness to community inclusion, to propaganda and even social and ideological control. In order to undertake this examination we take a rather longish look at the history of religion. The assigned reading covers in rather broad strokes the historical unfolding of mythology and religious faith. From early feminine and animistic modes of religious experience to more modern patriarchal versions, it is a veritable historical tour de force of the history and function of religion’s “other” functions.


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

  1. outline major trends in the history of religion.
  2. identify the social and economic precursors to the development of religious faith.
  3. discuss the social, political and economic roots of your own faith.
  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.

American evangelism

democratization of religion

exclusive monotheism

female as other

First Great Awakening

five pillars of Islam


inclusive monotheism

Le Boeuf Gras

male spirituality

Mardi Gras


mother goddess

paganism, transition


Protestant work ethic

racism (as justification for exploitation)

Second Great Awakening

social class and class control

syncretic elements

The Big Chill (Hollywood movie)

Zoroastrian binary

Merlin Stone

Reading Assignment

Read “Chapter 2, A Sociological History of Religion,” pages 53-145 of The Sociology of Religion: A Substantive and Transdisciplinary Approach, by George Lundskow [(2008). Los Angeles: Pine Forge Press].


In the introduction to this unit, I suggested that religions start out as a way to answer the big questions, and end up doing something else. You can see this clearly in the standard sociological analysis of religion. The textbook reading for Unit 1 introduced the theorists Karl Mark, Emile Durkheim and Max Weber, all of whom pointed out that, even when religions are concerned with the big questions, there always seems to be “something more” going on. What that “more” was depended on the theorist and their predilections. Karl Marx saw religion as a tool of exploitation that elites use to control the masses. Max Weber said that religion “served” the development of capitalism by creating a life ethic by which people would work. His major work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), is a detailed analysis of how religion was used to create the archetypal conditions to support the industrialization of society and the development of modern day capitalism. Durkheim saw religion as functioning to ensure social cohesion, and as the historical basis for all social constructs. This view led him to conclude that religion would become less and less important as other institutions took over that function. And don’t even get me started on Sigmund Freud. Freud thought that region was an illusion, an infantile fantasy, used by weak minds to assuage ugly feelings of insignificance and emptiness (see Freud, 2010). To Freud, religion was nothing more than a bunch of little children looking up to the sky and crying, “Daddy please save us.”

And were they right?

Unfortunately, yes.

Marx was certainly on to something. He wrote during the initial phases of the industrial revolution, and from his vantage point, he could clearly see the ideological function of priests. This was especially true when he examined the middle ages and saw how obvious it was that the priests were working for the king. Priests provided ideological support for “The System,” and exercised psychological control over the masses. They helped ensure peasant obedience. Priests talked about the “divine right of kings,” which basically said that God “chose” the kings to rule over the peasants, and that the peasants deserved to be ruled. Priests also issued threats and punishments. Not only did they threaten eternal damnation to anyone who didn’t do what they were told or didn’t accept what “God” had given, they could also excommunicate and anathematize anyone who questioned the status quo. In medieval times, excommunication meant that no one could speak to the excommunicate, no one could hire them, sell them food, marry them, treat them for disease . . . . It was a sentence of social death, and could easily lead to actual death. And that does not touch on the role of priests as inquisitors or witch finders. Furthermore, priests did not defend only the king and the Church, they also justified all the suffering caused by the greedy nobility in their massive stone bunkers. When the peasants would cast an eye on the lavish lifestyles of the nobility and wonder why some had so much, the priests would say, “Because God wants it that way.” When the peasants would ask, “Why do we suffer so?” the priests would say, “Because God wants it that way.”

But threats alone cannot work forever, and so priests and ministers also offered hope, saying that the peasants would receive their reward in Heaven for their suffering on Earth, provided they were faithful, honest and obedient.[1] They provided a bulwark against fear, offered spiritual solace and taught that life, however painful, has meaning.

Marx was right.

Religion really was the opium of the people (Marx, 1970, 131).

Marx wasn’t the only early sociologist who was right in his analysis. Weber, too, had a piece of it when he examined the Protestant religion and found a powerful ideology of subservience to work embedded within it. Protestants were told that a person’s prosperity was a sign that God had chosen them—that they were among the “saved.” Prosperity is most desirable when it derives from hard work and a frugal lifestyle (rather than, for example, inheritance), so hard work itself became a sign of salvation. This “Protestant work ethic” was seen by Weber, and others after him, as basically an ideological foundation for the development of modern commercial capitalism. Any business owner will recognize this truth. You don’t “get ahead” and build multi-million-dollar (or multi-billion-dollar) business without sacrificing everything. The Protestant ethic, in this context, provided the ideological motor for the development of large-scale industrial capitalism.

Finally, as much as I dislike Freud, I have to admit that he did say some useful things about religion. He saw “God” as an infantile illusion to which we look to save us. Realizing we are hopeless, helpless and powerless in this world of brutal and callous natural (and human-made) forces, we look to God to save our existential arses. Freud, I have to say, was an arrogant jerk, but he was right about that. His mistake was in failing to make explicit the link between the psychological functions of an ideologically corrupted religion, and the elites that opportunistically exploit religion to provide psychological salve to the masses.

And there you have it. Whatever else it might be, religion is also elite propaganda, illusion and infantile self-delusion.


Now I know this can seem harsh, especially if you have always taken religion at face value, (i.e., as providing answers to the big questions). Let me just say, however, that just because religion becomes “something more” than a way of exploring the big questions, doesn’t mean that the big questions are themselves invalid, or that answers cannot be determined to them. Remember, as we saw in the introductory commentary, even science presumes to speak to, and answer, the big questions.

Obviously there is nothing wrong with the big questions themselves, or with trying to find answers to them.

It just means that religion, in addition to being an attempt to answer the big questions, is also about something else as well.

The textbook author provided a wide ranging account of the history of religion, and obviously with such a broad overview, a lot of details are missed. Even more important, you might have found it difficult to pin down the unifying thread of the discussion. By the end of the chapter your head may have be spinning, and you might have found that finding rhyme or reason was a challenge. Religion, as you will see, is about so many things, that by the end, it appears to be about nothing  at all. This chaos is probably why so many critically oriented social scientists so readily dismiss religious or spiritual sentiment and thought. Even a cursory examination of religion leads to some inevitable answers to some fundamental academic questions.

What is religion about?

Whatever the people in charge want it to be about.

What does religion express?

Whatever those who have control over the institution want it to express.

“Opportunistic” may be the word to describe religious institutions on this world. When somebody with power says jump, the religion institutions hop right into line.

Does this sound harsh?

Perhaps. Unfortunately, however, the primary conclusion of the course so far is straightforward. Religion generally reflects, in an opportunistic fashion, the sentiments, needs, and contours of the societies and social orders from which it emerges. Matriarchal cultures produce matriarchal religions; patriarchal cultures produce patriarchal religions; feudal societies produce feudal religions; warlike, imperialistic cultures produce warlike, imperialistic religions; and so on and so forth.

For example, early religions that worshipped the goddess, fertility and cycles were linked, in a rather direct fashion, to the peaceful and agrarian lifestyles of that era. Female-oriented religious belief, sentiment and iconography were a direct result, and an unambiguous reflection, of the matriarchal political and economic milieu that gave it birth. Religions reflect the way of life of the people, and the answers that religions provide to the big questions reflect that life as well. After reading Chapter 2 of the textbook, our only conclusion can be that even answers to the big questions appear to be relative.

The truth of this statement becomes obvious when you consider the decline of “feminine” religions and the emergence of violent, patriarchal alternatives. As the Lundskow shows, feminine religious sentiment declined as the social order changed. As societies became more warlike, aggressive and competitive, this change was reflected in the emergence of aggressive religions with warlike and violent gods.

Was society imperialist and warlike?

Then the religion reflected and justified that social order with imperialistic and warlike gods.

Was a society heavily into administration and bureaucracy?

Then the gods were administrators and bureaucrats!

Examples abound in the textbook; for example, consider the early North American economy—one founded on slave labour. If religion is always a reflection of the society in which it is embedded, then we would expect to find that the religions of the day reflected, in the answers to their big question, racist sentiment.[2] Racist societies require racist justifications, imperialist nations require imperialist philosophies and war requires the encouraging hand of a vengeful God. And in fact, that is what you find. In our modern world, religions continue to serve social interests. For example, racial inequality is still cast in religious or biblical terms. The Aryans believe they are chosen by God, and their anger, hatred and segregationist tactics are justified in religious terms. Keep the good jobs for the white folk because hell, that’s what God wants. Salvation is “open only to the true people of God—whites” (Lundskow, 2008, 105)

It is the same everywhere you look, from the Masonic justification of “industry” and wage slavery to the corporate New Age movement where “spirituality” has become tied to product purchase (see Unit 5), the history of religion is the history of opportunistic corruption and exploitation. It is hard to walk away from this chapter with anything but a sense of the relativity and social embeddedness of religious belief. The truth seems to be simple and obvious. In all examples provided, religion is a reflection of the society in which it is embedded.

As the early contributors to sociology—Marx, Durkheim and Weber—argued, religion always represents society and social order in an idealized form—sometime the established social order and sometimes a future order. As is the case with any, it develops and makes sense only in conjunction with other social forces and institutions (Lundskow, 2008, 97).

Two questions emerge at this point as significant. First, if religion is always about society and the social order, is it ever really about the big questions? And even if it is, can it ever provide satisfactory answers? What becomes of “faith” here? How does one have “faith” in an institution that cannot stand on its own two feet? Why would one have “faith” in ideas that can be clearly linked to the social and political order? Why would one believe in God, or Gods, when the Gods themselves seem to be conscious or unconscious creations of the human who create the social order? Put another way, if religion is shaped by the social order, then doesn’t this fact invalidate religious claims to be able to answer the big questions (and this includes science’s claims, because science is shaped by the social order as well)? If religion is relative to the society then aren’t the answers devoid of universal truth?

Certainly the answer to that question must be “Yes”: religious answers to the big questions probably are not particularly reliable and valid. This obvious conclusion is why scientists so often dismiss religious institutions as nothing more than social or psychological epiphenomena, delusions of the infantile mass mind (as Freud said) or mere opportunistic reflections of a politically pregnant social reality. But is it necessarily so? Must our attempts to answer the big questions always be embedded in infantile delusion or political opportunism? Personally, I don’t believe so. I believe it is possible to pursue legitimate answers to the big questions, answers superior both to religion delusions and to what I would call the naïve materialism of many scientists. What other position can I take? I’m a scientist and science itself is, as we have seen, involved in the exploration of the big questions. Thus, to claim that it is not possible to answer the big questions is to invalidate not only human religious sentiment, but scientific inquiry as well. As a scientist, that is not a direction in which I want to go. I believe that we can strive to answer the big questions, and I believe that we can provide answers to them. Our answers may, for a time, be conditional and open to verification or refutation, but there is nothing wrong with that. Being wrong about the big questions doesn’t invalidate the search for answers, nor does it mean we can never find the right answers. It just means we have to smart, open, critical and aware.

The second question that might be raised at this point concerns the evaluative implications of the historical overview of Unit 2. After reading through the materials you should know that religions are embedded in the social, political, economic and psychological fabric of this planet. But is this a good or bad thing? Is it positive or negative? Well it is both. It is basically whatever we make it out to be. As you learned from Karl Marx in Chapter 1 of the textbook, religion can be about exploitation and control. However it can also, as you learned from Durkheim, be about community, solidarity and social cohesion. Positive or negative? Good or evil? These categorizations are fruitless simplifications if you ask me. Religion and spirituality are, or at least have been up until now, exactly what we make them out to be.

This observation might seem almost a mundane at this point, but it is not. It is quite significant. In a world where religion is blamed for everything, the sociological idea that religions are what we make them alters the philosophical, or should I say ideological, mechanisms of justification. If you can’t blame religion for the evil in this world, if you can’t blame God or supernatural forces, who do you blame? The answer is as obvious as the social embeddednes of religion. When these things occur in the world they occur as the result of the hand of humanity constructing the world it lives in. It is basic sociology, but in the context of religious belief, it is also a profound insight.

Just how much “evil” can be rooted in the hands of humanity, just how much is an opportunistic and ideological, construction of individuals, is a topic we’ll pick up in the next unit, as we look at superstition, intolerance, aggression and “evil.” We will see that even something as “spiritual” as the notion of evil really is nothing more than an opportunistic social construct.

As a final, somewhat repetitive, comment I just want to address the faithful once again. Many people, myself included, don’t have an exclusively materialist view of the universe. We do seek answers to the big questions, and being intuitively, intellectually and sometimes experientially unsatisfied by the answers provided by religion and science, we do grope for better explanations. Acknowledging the historical failure of religion to provide us with reasonable answers doesn’t invalidate the search, and doesn’t undermine the possibility that we can figure it out in the end. We’ll pick this theme up again towards the end of the course, so between now and then, I urge you, don’t lose faith. None of what I’m saying in this course in any way undermines either the search for truth, or the possibility of finding it. It just makes finding it a little more complicated since the process involves winding our way through the political, economic and historical embeddedness of our religious (and scientific) institutions.

Unit Assignment

According to Dr. Mike, although religions are set up to provide answers to the big questions, they all end up being little more than “opportunistic corruptions.” Examine your own belief systems, and discuss this contention in a short (800-1200 word) essay. Illustrate your answer with examples. Submit your answer through the assignment drop box for Unit 2, and post it in the discussion forum for Unit 2.

Study Questions

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

  1. Riane Eisler points out some erroneous assumptions made by male scholars of the nineteenth century who looked at paleolithic cave art. What are those errors? Why do you think they made them? Do you think it is possible that current scholarly work has a gender bias as well?
  2. What does it mean to say that religion reflects the social order that it emerges from? Compare polytheism and monotheism. What social orders do they reflect?
  3. Based on your reading of the textbook and given the fact that religions tend to follow the contours of the social orders from which they emerge, do you that there is such a thing as a “male spirituality”? What do you think it looks like, and why?
  4. What is “exclusive monotheism”? What does the centralization of administrative power have to do with the rise of exclusive monotheism? Explain.
  5. Why did Christianity triumph? How did the early elites benefit from membership in the Catholic faith?
  6. What is “modern religion”? How does it reflect modern capitalist relations.
  7. Is Christianity a “calculated instrument of control” (Lundskow, 2008, 81)? Why or why not?
  8. What is the relationship between the emergence of capitalism and the persecution of witches? What was the relevance of social class?
  9. What is the “Great Awakening”? Who are some of the important figures? What was the relationship of the Great Awakening to American evangelism and the institutions of American racism?
  10. What is “democratization of religion”? What are the three key factors that allowed for the democratization of religion in North America? Discuss.


Durkheim, E. (2001). The elementary forms of religious life. (C. Cosman, Trans.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.(Original work published in French, 1912.)

Freud, S. (2010). The future of an illusion. Seattle: Pacific Publishing Studio. (Original work published 1927.)

James I of England (1620). The charter of New England. Retrieved March 15, 2013, from

Jimack, P. (1989). Voltaire. In P. Gilmour, Ed. Philosophers of the Enlightenment (pp. 133-150). Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Loewen, J. (2007). Lies my teacher told me: Everything your American history textbook got wrong. New York: Simon and Schuster Touchstone.

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

Marx, K. (1970). Critique of Hegel’s “Philosophy of Right” J. O’Malley (Ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (Original work published in German 1894.)

Weber, M. (1930). The Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. (T. Parsons & A Giddens, Trans.). London: Unwin Hyman. (Original work published in German 1905.)

Wikipedia. (n.d.). The protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. Retrieved March 15, 2013, from

[1] Religion was considered useful even, perhaps especially, by those who were not themselves believers. For example, Enlightenment philosopher François-Marie Arouet Voltaire commented, “I want my lawyer, my tailor, my servants, even my wife to believe in God, and I suspect that I shall thus be less robbed and less cuckolded” (quoted in Jimack, 1989, 145).

[2] Indeed, religious racism was evident well before the entrenchment of the slave economy. The charter establishing the New England Colony (James I of England, 1620), contains the following statement,

within these late Yeares there hath by God’s Visitation reigned a wonderfull Plague . . . whereby We in our Judgment are persuaded and satisfied that the appointed Time is come in which Almighty God in his great Goodness and Bountie towards Us and our People, hath thought fitt and determined that those large and goodly Territoryes, deserted as it were by their naturall Inhabitants, should be possessed and enjoyed by such of our Subjects and People as heertofore have and hereafter shall by his Mercie and Favour, and by his Powerfull Arme, be directed and conducted thither.

Such delight in agonizing death by disease of an estimated thirty thousand people (see Loewen, 2007, 81) could only be justified on religious grounds.