What is Religion – The Socjourn

So, what is religion? Answering that question is; of course, why you are here. You have come to this web page by whatever path you have come and you are here because you want a better understanding of this thing we call religion, and that’s a good thing. As Heffernan (2005) notes, there are a lot of good sociological reasons to be looking at religion. There are also a lot of good psychological reasons and even good personal reasons as well. However, since this is a sociology article, we’re going to look at the good sociological reasons. We’ll look at the sociology of religion and hopefully, by doing this, you will gain a better understanding of this thing we call religion. Before we can get to the study of religion per se, we need to be clear about what it means to do the sociology of religion.

Of course, you probably already know what sociology is, but if you don’t, you should know that sociology is the scientific study of society in general and the people and institutions that make up society in particular. To be more specific, sociology studies institutions, the people who make them up, the functions they fill, and their relationships with each other. In the context of this article (and the course with which it is associated), 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 the 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, if you have ever studied the sociology of religion, 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 is not 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 exist because humans create them and reproduce them and humans create and reproduce within societies, so the institutions that they create should reflect not only the humans that create the institutions, but the societies they live in as well. This should be obvious. Take the institution of the family; for example. The institution of the family has changed as society has changed. In modern times, people generally live in nuclear families with mother, father, and kids. Back in the day however, and even in this day in other societies, other forms of the family were possible. Thus, in some societies, societies not so driven by capitalist job requirements, we find extended families with mother, father, children, and grandparents co-existing in the same house.

If you are going to study social institutions, it is important to keep in mind that they reflect the social order and the society from which they emerge. What is perhaps more important to consider however, is that no matter what society they emerge out of, institutions are always setup to meet certain human needs. We can accurately say that institutions are designed by people to serve human needs and they always reflect those needs. For example, an elementary school is setup to meet society’s need for an educated workforce and possibly, the parents’ need for day care while they go to work. A hospital is setup to meet the individual need for health and healing. Families, a classic institution, are setup to meet peoples’ (adult’s and children’s) emotional, psychological, physical, and spiritual needs. The same can be said of any institution. All institutions are setup to meet some sort of need. Of course, institutions don’t always reflect everyone’s needs. Critical sociologists will often point out that many institutions are set-up primarily to meet the needs of the rich. For example, our modern school system is a class-based school system that socializes and teaches individuals to live and work in a capitalist society. What’s more, our education system teaches people differently, depending on what social class they are in (Anyon, 1980). Thus, the rich get one type of education, and the poor get another. The rich are socialized to be leaders and managers and the poor to be workers and peons. 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.

The Need for Truth and Understanding

The idea that institutions reflect human needs is important, so underline it in your head and put it to practical use. Whenever you look at an institution, ask yourself the question, “what needs does this institution fulfill”. This question is critical and you can ask it of religion as well because religion, like all institutions, is an institution set up to meet certain human needs. The question is, what “needs” is the institution of religion set up to meet? Well, that’s easy. 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 that 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. 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 because (as we shall see below) science does in fact offer up its own answers to the big questions. The point here; however, isn’t to look at the various answers provided by the various organizations and institutions. The point is to emphasize that we all have a need to know and religion is one way, one institution, that is set up as such to meet our need for truth and understanding.

This much is obvious. Looking from the outside in, it should be very clear that this is what religions do and it should be obvious from the inside as well. Most people involved in a religion believe that their religion provides a reflection of ultimate truths. The ontological belief is very powerful and very present. In fact, people have been murdered over institutional claims to know! Religion is often overtly seen as 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 all answered and sometimes, violently enforced within the institutional confines of religion. It is true. 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 vigor 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 out of nothingness in a magical 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 this 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 the past, you have 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 Big Questions; they just, as we will see later, answer them with a more consumerist and capitalistic bend than most religion people would traditionally be comfortable with.

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 single New Age individual was to drop dead tomorrow, the New Age movement would continue on, despite the death. 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. Clearly it is an institution. 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 other 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 are 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. And by that goal, even “spiritualities” are religions after all. 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 an institution,” largely disregarding “religion as quest for answers to the big questions.” A proper definition must, in my view, focus on both.

Avoiding the Uncomfortable Question

Now, an interesting question that emerges at this point is, “why would sociologists avoid the “religion as a quest for answer”” side of the theoretical question. Well, in my opinion, it is not a simple oversight. It may not be conscious, but it is certainly not random. Sociologists avoid a proper definition of religion because a proper definition of religion makes them too uncomfortable. This is because a proper definition of religion as an institutionalized attempt to answer the big questions that bring 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 own high priests suggest that it replaces.

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

Well, no. I’m not. According to the definition I provide, science is a religion just like Buddhism, Scientology, Catholicism, Freemasonry, and the New Age movement.

Don’t believe me?

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?

Science says, “No. A higher power is not needed to explain the world”.

Who am I?

Science says, “You are a naked ape”.

Where did you come from?

Science says, “You evolved from single-cell organisms”.

What is the purpose of life?

Science says, “To struggle, survive, and reproduce”.

How was the universe formed?

Science says, “The universe emerged out of nothingness in a magical puff of light”.


As you can see, science does provide answers 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 which you would expect of a religion. Just ask Thomas Kuhn. 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” and special connection methods that allowed them to speak absolute truth without question. They even had the authority to torture and punish people who did not listen (i.e., heretics). It was not a pleasant time for anybody who did not agree with whatever the priests were saying – point being, priests claimed ontological superiority and then enforced their views with various forms of psychological, emotional, and even physical violence. We recognize these problems easily when it comes to certain types of religion, but we have a harder time challenging our cherished science on the same grounds. Which is too bad; really, because in this context, 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. Whether or not science can actually claim ontological and epistemological superiority is beside the point here. The point is, we sound a lot 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 and really, I don’t recommend you do it. As an initiate in the temple of science, you should already know better than to open your mouth and challenge scientific doctrine. And of course, 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 only so long as you stay within the conceptual boundaries set out in the first couple of years of your indoctrination. Try to break outside the boundaries of established scholarly canon, or worse, deny the dogma of science 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 weeks’ assignment, but it was not because they did not want to. The hostility directed toward 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 does not deserve it? In fact, how can we, and by “we”, I mean scientists, 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, vigor, and repressive glee 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 endeavor. 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 confuse distinctions between “spirituality” and “religion.” The truth is that we all have religious tendencies, we all have a “need” for meaning, and we all seek out answers that satisfy us. And, while this is not “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. To be honest, its why many of us get into universities. There’s no point in denying it because if we do, it just makes us look silly after all.


So, where does this leave us and where do we go from here? Well, at this point, you should have a very clear and grounded understanding of what religion is. Religion is an institutionalized attempt to answer the big questions. You should also have a quiet and calm confidence in this definition because, like all good definitions, it clears up a lot of confusion and brings the phenomenon you are interested in into clear focus. And certainly, at this point, you should have a clearly focused view of what religion is. Of course, I have to say that even though religion is; at root, an organized and institutionalized attempt to answer the big questions, it is also much more than that. It answers the big questions to be sure, but it also provides community and safety (as per Emile Durkheim), is organized ideology in service of elite agendas (as per Peter Berger, Karl Marx, and Sosteric (2014), and is; finally, a controlled repository of the wisdom of this planets’ mystics. I’ll say this, I’ll say this, I’ll say this. There’s a lot more to religion than meets the eye and hopefully, if you’ve been a skeptic or more likely, if you’ve just avoided taking a closer look out of your own adopted naivete, this article has helped tweak your interest and aim you in the right direction.


Sosteric, Mike (2014). The Sociology of Tarot. Canadian Journal of Sociology, 39(3). http://ejournals.library.ualberta.ca/index.php/CJS/article/view/20000

By: Michael

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