Religion answers the big questions | The Sociology of Religion

In this course I define religion as an institution setup to answer the big questions and then I ask the students to evaluate the definition. Some love it, some like it, and some aren’t too sure, but nobody dismisses it outright because it has (in my opinion) profound explanatory power. It explains the persistence of spirituality in the lives of the the people, it explains why people pick a religion (i.e. because they believe it answers the big questions), and it includes science in the definition (since science is clearly an institutionalized attempt to answer the big questions).

By Jessica Lamontagne

“Religion is a social institution set up to fill our need to know by answering the big questions of our existence.” – Dr. Mike Sosteric

This is a very broad and general definition of religion. While many could see it as incomplete or not specific enough, I personally think it defines it all properly. The broadness of the definition is what makes it so great because it leads to the questioning of many of the current institutions. While we often think of religion as, by example, Catholicism or Islam, etc… this definition makes us understand that the term can be used to describe several other institutions, no matter if they define their selves as a religion or not. For this reason, we can now see the world through a different angle. With this definition, we can even begin to see and understand science as a religion itself because just like a “religion” would, science strives to find THE answers to all of the big questions. The goal is the exact same, the answer is basically the only thing that differs. Also, they are both the result of humans; they were constructed to serve specific goals. Whether it’s to find the answers to those “big questions of our existence”, to “fill our need to know” as humans or to obtain a certain power in society, they both, science and religion, want the same thing. That being said, this definition gives us the opportunity to see and understand this. (Sosteric 2014)

Also, by defining religion as an institution, we understand that it is filled, just like science, by ideologies. According to Wikipedia, an institution implies “customs and behavior patterns important to a society.” (Wikipedia, 2014) Knowing this, we can then question : what exactly is important to a society? Who choses and defines those things? Does everyone agree? Probably not. What becomes “important” for the “religions” (including science if we keep in mind what is said up above) are the opinions, thoughts and perceptions of specific groups, groups that are considered as powerful. (Sosteric, 2014) That being said, everything that differs from them is considered as false. This was exactly the case for Mr. Rupert Sheldrake. On a daily basis, we are exposed to those dominant ideologies that come with religions. For example, I myself, believe in God without taking part in ANY religion. I once was told by a friend that this was impossible. That I couldn’t be a true believer, or royal to God if I didn’t attend church every Sunday. We see the predominance of Catholicism here as an institution. What I understand of that religion is that they consider “important” to practise your religion, and to do so, you need to go to church. Another example would be all of the different opinions following a tragic event. If we think of tsunamis, tornados or any natural catastrophe, they are always followed by several explanations. Where do those explanations come from? I believe they come from those dominant institutions. Some may say it has to do with karma, others might think it has to do with some kind of curse, but nowadays, with the predominance of the scientific discourse, they always try to find an objective answer with scientific explanations to everything. Either way, once again, if we base ourselves on the definition Dr. Mike has given, just like any religion would, science tries to answer the same questions, and I completely agree. I think every single human being is exposed to the questionings and the answers of those institutions every single day. That being said, we still possess some kind of free will, which gives us the opportunity to decide which religion we want to take part in, or even decide to not believe in anything. Nowadays, society is becoming more and more atheist… But even in this case, are those people a part of some kind of institution as well without even knowing? At least, with this definition for religion, we are pushed to think and see things differently, and open up to reflection. (Sosteric, 2014)


Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. (2014). Institution. Viewed on: December 28th 2014

SOSTERIC, M. (2014). ”What is Religion?” Athabasca University Sociology of Religion Class Notes – Unit 1.