What did I learn? | The Sociology of Religion

By: Jessica Lamontagne

I love to ask students the open ended question “what did you learn in this course.” I find that giving students the opportunity to define their own learning gives me them the opportunity to really dig into the course content, and it gives me the most joyful marking experiences imaginable. He is one example from a student whose entire perspective on Religion has gotten wider, deeper, and more informed as a result of this course.

What did I learn in this course?

I remember watching the movie The Illusionist a few years ago with my father, some of the words that the main character, played by the actor Edward Norton, had said always stayed on my mind since then. He said: “Everything you see is an illusion.” six words that changed my perception on the world forever. My father had taken the opportunity to discuss life and how those words could be used to define everything that surrounds us on a daily basis. What we often see as authentic, as THE truth, is never really what it seems to be and he did include religion in his statement. Never has my father told me to not believe in anything religions said, never has he told me what to do or what direction to take, what he did tell me was to follow my heart and it would always guide me on the right path, it would lead me all the way to THE truth. According to him, the key to finding the truth is to always remain objective… It is here, it is just hidden behind a series of social constructs and behind a whole lot of corruption. That being said, I always knew religion had a negative side to it, just like I always knew it also had some good, but this course helped me understand religion more deeply while also helping me open my eyes to much more flaws than I could ever have considered or imagined. I can officially say I have become even more objective since then (Sosteric, 2014).

First, I learnt to become more objective by understanding the broadness of religion, of its definition and the amount of institutions that can actually fit under the category of religion. Dr. Mike Sosteric, by providing a vast definition of religion has contributed to this understanding of the concept: “Religion is a social institution set up to fill our need to know by answering the big questions of our existence.” (Sosteric, 2014) While many speak of religion as being corrupted, what they understand and perceive as a religion is often the main orthodox religions such as Christianity or Islam for example, while in reality, if we take a closer look at the definition that was provided up above, religion can cover much more than most individuals can come to understand. As we have been taught in the course of Sociology of Religion, the New Age spiritualties and science, in spite of their differences, all share the same goal in the end: they are social institutions that try and bring answers to the so called “big questions”. That being said, why couldn’t they be considered as religions as well? Why shouldn’t we be just as objective with their words than with the ones coming from the orthodox religions? Why are their “truths” truer than the “truths” of the orthodox religions? While they may bring comfort to some that other religions may not bring to many, while they may find answers that suit their system of belief more than the ones provided by those orthodox religions, doesn’t make them any better or more authentic necessarily (Sosteric, 2014). Once again: “Everything you see is an illusion.” Also, today’s definition of religion can even cover heavy metal bands and their fans, as well as sports fans. Just like any member of a religion would, their passion brings them comfort, it gives purpose and meaning to their lives, it answers some of the “big questions” for them and it also makes them follow specific traditions just like any religion would. For example, sports fans wait in long lines before attending the games, they have many rituals such as meeting in bars and alcohol consumption before or after the games, etc. (Lundskow, 2008 ; Sosteric, 2014). Knowing this, when we speak of always remaining objective, we now know to keep our eyes open and to be alert when confronted to any institution.

Secondly, in Dr. Sosteric’s course, I also learnt that corruption is much deeper than I thought. To me, seeing the catholic church asking for money during masses, never really knowing what the money is truly used for, seeing that members of the church have to pay for baptisms, that they also have to pay to get the choirs to sing in honor of the deceased and to pay to light a candle for their deceased loved ones as well; those were all things that were and that I will always consider as corruption. Clearly, the beliefs of people are used in order to obtain some sort of profit. For example, according to my own experience with the church, the belief that a child can go straight to hell if he or she isn’t baptised is still spread in the church community, by fear of seeing the worst possibly happening to their child, parents WILL pay for a baptism. We can speak of corruption. What I wasn’t exactly aware of and that the course of sociology of religion has taught me is that there is also such a thing as opportunistic corruption that goes on. Not only are the religions filled with corruption, but religions are also used by elites, such as politicians in order to perpetuate their domination in society, and to assure the maintenance and the continuity of their power. Marx had elaborated on the matter by saying that religion was a way for elites to “control the masses” (Sosteric, 2014 ; Lundskow, 2008). The elites were able to keep their power by using the religion to blind the population to all of the inequalities that they lived on a daily basis. It was simple, all religion had to do was to speak of the poor as chosen by God to be poor because of a karma which made them undeserving of wealth, happiness and power but, on the other hand, kings were chosen by God to be wealthy and powerful because they were good enough in their past of current lives to deserve it. For this reason, people could only blame themselves for their misery and not take structural problems into consideration which in the end could only perpetuate the domination of the rich over the poor (Lundskow, 2008 ; Sosteric, 2014). Weber added to Marx’s point of view by speaking of religion as a way to push society to contribute to capitalism. Religions would promote the “Protestant work ethic” making people believe that “hard work itself became a sign of salvation” (Sosteric, 2014 ; Lundskow, 2008). The poor were blamed; people accused them of not working hard enough, of people who preferred pleasure over working. Once again, people’s beliefs were used in order for some to gain more money and power even though they knew it could only deepen others misery (Lundskow, 2008 ; Sosteric, 2014).

I also learnt that the opportunistic corruption is also illustrated in several different cultures and religions. It has been proven that a culture based on inequalities, hierarchy and domination with one king or one person on top of the rest of the population often adopt the beliefs of a monotheist religion. In this case, the priests will often compare the king to God, as the one that rules them all, the one who has power over everyone and the person everyone needs to obey and respect. By comparing him to God as they used to, the king could maintain his control over the population. On the other hand, the cultures that were based on equality, peace, love and on the value of women, often believed in goddesses rather than gods and in the existence of more than one divine entity (Lundskow, 2008).

Thirdly, I learnt that the corruption also reached the roots of superstition and of the notion and the idea of evil as an “opportunistic social construct” (Sosteric, 2014 ; Lundskow, 2008). Superstition is in fact a result of all the inequalities and of the changes in society that affect the most oppressed and vulnerable individuals, it is a way for them to understand their misery and to blame it on something other than themselves, it’ll lead them to blame it all on other forces. This is a social construct that becomes opportunistic corruption because of the fact that the people who create the inequalities and who force them on the poor aren’t recognized as the ones who are responsible for all of the suffering, and so the victims don’t take out their anger on them and aren’t looking for any sort of revenge (Sosteric, 2014 ; Lundskow, 2008). Something similar happens with the notion of evil. Once again, it is used by the elites and depending on the area and the context that surrounds the culture, the definition and the people viewed as evil varies. A good example would be following the tragedy of 9-11 in the United States. George Bush saw the tragedy as the perfect opportunity to make his laws tougher on crime, specifically on terrorism. By exploiting people’s beliefs, by using the term evil to categorize and define the terrorists, they knew it would make people fear them even more than they already did and by doing so, he could easily convince almost all of the countries to give up some of their human rights, some of their freedom for more protection against that evil. Also, because they were perceived as the enemies, the use of a word such as ‘evil’ to define another human being became some sort of valid explanation and justification to use violence against them. (Butler, 2006 ; Parker & Fellner, 2004 ; Sosteric, 2014 ; Lundskow, 2008).

Fourth of all, I have learnt that to this day elites still have a lot of control over the religions; the writings and the words that they spread and praise. While many speak of secularization, the author of the book Born Again: The Christian Right Globalized, Jennifer Butler, has proven that it still holds an important place in society and that it is still controlled by elites. While kings and queens may no longer exist in most countries, there are still governments and the government of the United Stated, especially while it was under Mr. George Bush’s command, has used it and its power for a long time. She illustrated it all with the Christian Right and how often, the president would use the values, the beliefs that they held and their interests. He would pretend to be sharing the same agenda, the same point of view, only to have them on his side and to use their power on people’s beliefs. In return, the Christian Right did have the government on their side and became politically more influent and powerful not only in the United States, but also in several other countries. I guess we can say they mutually used each other. (Butler, 2006) Also, with Rupert Sheldrake’s story, the man who was hated for writing a book in which he took a position that wasn’t quite on the orthodox religion’s side or science’s side, two of the main institutions of power and control in society, we see that secularization hasn’t quite happened yet. Many speak of Galileo’s story, a man who was imprisoned because he wrote on the universe in a different way than the church did, as something from the past, but Sheldrake’s book that was criticized for being heretic proves otherwise. His story proves that still, in the mid to late 1900’s, heresy was still a thing, and was still considered as a reality… Why wouldn’t it still be today? Before taking this class, I thought religion was less powerful nowadays seeing that less and less people attend church and less and less people listen to the priests, but once again… “Everything you see is an illusion” (Adam, 2012).

To conclude, I am thankful for having taken this class – Thank you Dr. Mike! It has opened my eyes to so many things and aspects that I thought I had already fully understood, it wasn’t long after having started doing my assignments that I came to realize that I was wrong. The learning process never stops, when we think we know… do we really know? This is also something that I learnt in this class as well… that we never REALLY know, that we should never stop looking, and most of all, out of all of the “truths” that will be exposed to us or sometimes forced upon us on a daily basis, we need to remain objective because often… “Everything you see is an illusion.”
Thanks Again!


ADAM, T. (2012). Rupert Sheldrake: the ‘heretic’ at odds with scientific dogma. Viewed on: December 17th 2014
BUTLER, J. (2006).  Born again: The Christian Right globalized. London: Pluto Press
LUNDSKOW, G. (2008). The sociology of religion: A substantive and transdisciplinary approach. Los Angeles: Pine Forge Press.
PARKER, A. & J. FELLNER. (2004). Executive power after 9-11 in the United States. Viewed on: February 5th 2015
SOSTERIC, M. (2014). Class Notes.