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Religion is a unique social institution. While it is a formal social structure like education, the government, and the economy, organized religions also have their own distinctive rules and norms, as well as shared practices and beliefs.

WHAT YOU BELIEVE AND WHAT YOU DO

Many religions do more than just give guidance about spiritual matters, they also provide practical guidelines and rules about food, clothing, manners, customs, intimate relationships, family, and community relationships. Because of these intricacies, it is easy to confuse shared religious practice with culture. But there is a difference between culture and religion. This is why sociologists often study the interplay between the two, looking at how religions influence and are influenced by the dominate culture where they are practiced.

THE ROLE OF RELIGION

Religion can strengthen social stability and promote the well-being of its followers, but it can also contribute to social inequality and social conflict. Religious intolerance and even violence toward those with different religious beliefs continues to be a major issue. This is particularly true when cultural or political viewpoints cloud core religious teachings and amplify that intolerance.

These issues highlight why Steve Stone and Bashar Shala’s story is so moving. Both men were guided by some of the most important teachings in their faiths - love thy neighbor and treat others the way you wish to be treated - to develop a friendship that transcends cultural differences and polarizing political attitudes. This has led to a richer and more tolerant atmosphere for both communities.

Introduction

What role does religion play in society?

Like the characteristics of race, ethnicity, and gender that we discussed last week, religion is an aspect of identity that many people use to define themselves and others. Unlike those factors, however, religion is considered to be a social institution. When you think of an institution, you might picture a specific organization like a school or a hospital. However, when sociologists refer to an institution, they mean something different. As we discussed in Chapter 4, an institution is a set of beliefs and behaviors that help to maintain a society and encourage its stability. The institution of religion, then, is a pattern of beliefs, norms, and values that shapes people’s behavior and strengthens social order. And like any other social structure, religion—in terms of its practice and influence in society—can be changed by its people. This week’s Strayer Story is a perfect example of the way people can shape their religion’s place in society. The friendship between Heartsong Church and the Memphis Islamic Center exemplifies how religion, when it’s practiced with tolerance and understanding, can even bring different communities together.

The point to rememberSociologists don’t try to determine whether a religion is right or wrong. Instead, the sociological study of religion works to understand the purpose of religion in society.

It’s important to remember that sociologists don’t try to determine whether a religion is right or wrong. Instead, the sociological study of religion works to understand the purpose of religion in society and to consider how its social influence may change. This chapter offers a sociological understanding of religion and presents the following aspects:

  • Religion as a social institution. We’ll look at the place of religion in society and consider how it has changed throughout history and the different ways it’s practiced throughout the world today.

  • Sociological perspectives on religion. Each of the main theoretical perspectives offers an explanation of religion’s role in society and a way of approaching it as a topic.

  • Religious belief and practice in the United States. This includes a look at who’s most likely to be religious and how religiosity affects people. We’ll also examine two contradictory trends in religious belief: secularization and conservatism.

  • Assignment Three. This week, you’ll also begin work on your third writing assignment. It will give you the chance to read an article that interests you and then consider the research that it describes through one of the sociological perspectives we’ve discussed throughout the course. The assignment page will give you a review of the main points of each perspective, so they’ll be fresh in your mind when it’s time to write.