15.1 The Sociological Approach to Religion

Learning objectives.

By the end of this section, you should be able to:

  • Discuss the historical view of religion from a sociological perspective
  • Describe how the major sociological paradigms view religion

From the Latin religio (respect for what is sacred) and religare (to bind, in the sense of an obligation), the term religion describes various systems of belief and practice that define what people consider to be sacred or spiritual (Fasching and deChant 2001; Durkheim 1915). Throughout history, and in societies across the world, leaders have used religious narratives, symbols, and traditions in an attempt to give more meaning to life and understand the universe. Some form of religion is found in every known culture, and it is usually practiced in a public way by a group. The practice of religion can include feasts and festivals, intercession with God or gods, marriage and funeral services, music and art, meditation or initiation, sacrifice or service, and other aspects of culture.

While some people think of religion as something individual because religious beliefs can be highly personal, religion is also a social institution. Social scientists recognize that religion exists as an organized and integrated set of beliefs, behaviors, and norms centered on basic social needs and values. Moreover, religion is a cultural universal found in all social groups. For instance, in every culture, funeral rites are practiced in some way, although these customs vary between cultures and within religious affiliations. Despite differences, there are common elements in a ceremony marking a person’s death, such as announcement of the death, care of the deceased, disposition, and ceremony or ritual. These universals, and the differences in the way societies and individuals experience religion, provide rich material for sociological study.

In studying religion, sociologists distinguish between what they term the experience, beliefs, and rituals of a religion. Religious experience refers to the conviction or sensation that we are connected to “the divine.” This type of communion might be experienced when people pray or meditate. Religious beliefs are specific ideas members of a particular faith hold to be true, such as that Jesus Christ was the son of God, or that reincarnation exists. Another illustration of religious beliefs is the creation stories we find in different religions. Religious rituals are behaviors or practices that are either required or expected of the members of a particular group, such as bar mitzvah or confession of sins (Barkan and Greenwood 2003).

The History of Religion as a Sociological Concept

In the wake of nineteenth century European industrialization and secularization, three social theorists attempted to examine the relationship between religion and society: Émile Durkheim, Max Weber, and Karl Marx. They are among the founding thinkers of modern sociology.

As stated earlier, French sociologist Émile Durkheim (1858–1917) defined religion as a “unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things” (1915). To him, sacred meant extraordinary—something that inspired wonder and that seemed connected to the concept of “the divine.” Durkheim argued that “religion happens” in society when there is a separation between the profane (ordinary life) and the sacred (1915). A rock, for example, isn’t sacred or profane as it exists. But if someone makes it into a headstone, or another person uses it for landscaping, it takes on different meanings—one sacred, one profane.

Durkheim is generally considered the first sociologist who analyzed religion in terms of its societal impact. Above all, he believed religion is about community: It binds people together (social cohesion), promotes behavior consistency (social control), and offers strength during life’s transitions and tragedies (meaning and purpose). By applying the methods of natural science to the study of society, Durkheim held that the source of religion and morality is the collective mind-set of society and that the cohesive bonds of social order result from common values in a society. He contended that these values need to be maintained to maintain social stability.

But what would happen if religion were to decline? This question led Durkheim to posit that religion is not just a social creation but something that represents the power of society: When people celebrate sacred things, they celebrate the power of their society. By this reasoning, even if traditional religion disappeared, society wouldn’t necessarily dissolve.

Whereas Durkheim saw religion as a source of social stability, German sociologist and political economist Max Weber (1864–1920) believed it was a precipitator of social change. He examined the effects of religion on economic activities and noticed that heavily Protestant societies—such as those in the Netherlands, England, Scotland, and Germany—were the most highly developed capitalist societies and that their most successful business leaders were Protestant. In his writing The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), he contends that the Protestant work ethic influenced the development of capitalism. Weber noted that certain kinds of Protestantism supported the pursuit of material gain by motivating believers to work hard, be successful, and not spend their profits on frivolous things. (The modern use of “work ethic” comes directly from Weber’s Protestant ethic, although it has now lost its religious connotations.)

Big Picture

The protestant work ethic in the information age.

Max Weber (1904) posited that, in Europe in his time, Protestants were more likely than Catholics to value capitalist ideology, and believed in hard work and savings. He showed that Protestant values directly influenced the rise of capitalism and helped create the modern world order. Weber thought the emphasis on community in Catholicism versus the emphasis on individual achievement in Protestantism made a difference. His century-old claim that the Protestant work ethic led to the development of capitalism has been one of the most important and controversial topics in the sociology of religion. In fact, scholars have found little merit to his contention when applied to modern society (Greeley 1989).

What does the concept of work ethic mean today? The work ethic in the information age has been affected by tremendous cultural and social change, just as workers in the mid- to late nineteenth century were influenced by the wake of the Industrial Revolution. Factory jobs tend to be simple, uninvolved, and require very little thinking or decision making on the part of the worker. Today, the work ethic of the modern workforce has been transformed, as more thinking and decision making is required. Employees also seek autonomy and fulfillment in their jobs, not just wages. Higher levels of education have become necessary, as well as people management skills and access to the most recent information on any given topic. The information age has increased the rapid pace of production expected in many jobs.

On the other hand, the “McDonaldization” of the United States (Hightower 1975; Ritzer 1993), in which many service industries, such as the fast-food industry, have established routinized roles and tasks, has resulted in a “discouragement” of the work ethic. In jobs where roles and tasks are highly prescribed, workers have no opportunity to make decisions. They are considered replaceable commodities as opposed to valued employees. During times of recession, these service jobs may be the only employment possible for younger individuals or those with low-level skills. The pay, working conditions, and robotic nature of the tasks dehumanizes the workers and strips them of incentives for doing quality work.

Working hard also doesn’t seem to have any relationship with Catholic or Protestant religious beliefs anymore, or those of other religions; information age workers expect talent and hard work to be rewarded by material gain and career advancement.

German philosopher, journalist, and revolutionary socialist Karl Marx (1818–1883) also studied the social impact of religion. He believed religion reflects the social stratification of society and that it maintains inequality and perpetuates the status quo. For him, religion was just an extension of working-class (proletariat) economic suffering. He famously argued that religion “is the opium of the people” (1844).

For Durkheim, Weber, and Marx, who were reacting to the great social and economic upheaval of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century in Europe, religion was an integral part of society. For Durkheim, religion was a force for cohesion that helped bind the members of society to the group, while Weber believed religion could be understood as something separate from society. Marx considered religion inseparable from the economy and the worker. Religion could not be understood apart from the capitalist society that perpetuated inequality. Despite their different views, these social theorists all believed in the centrality of religion to society.

Theoretical Perspectives on Religion

Modern-day sociologists often apply one of three major theoretical perspectives. These views offer different lenses through which to study and understand society: functionalism, symbolic interactionism, and conflict theory. Let’s explore how scholars applying these paradigms understand religion.


Functionalists contend that religion serves several functions in society. Religion, in fact, depends on society for its existence, value, and significance, and vice versa. From this perspective, religion serves several purposes, like providing answers to spiritual mysteries, offering emotional comfort, and creating a place for social interaction and social control.

In providing answers, religion defines the spiritual world and spiritual forces, including divine beings. For example, it helps answer questions like, “How was the world created?” “Why do we suffer?” “Is there a plan for our lives?” and “Is there an afterlife?” As another function, religion provides emotional comfort in times of crisis. Religious rituals bring order, comfort, and organization through shared familiar symbols and patterns of behavior.

One of the most important functions of religion, from a functionalist perspective, is the opportunities it creates for social interaction and the formation of groups. It provides social support and social networking and offers a place to meet others who hold similar values and a place to seek help (spiritual and material) in times of need. Moreover, it can foster group cohesion and integration. Because religion can be central to many people’s concept of themselves, sometimes there is an “in-group” versus “out-group” feeling toward other religions in our society or within a particular practice. On an extreme level, the Inquisition, the Salem witch trials, and anti-Semitism are all examples of this dynamic. Finally, religion promotes social control: It reinforces social norms such as appropriate styles of dress, following the law, and regulating sexual behavior.

Conflict Theory

Conflict theorists view religion as an institution that helps maintain patterns of social inequality. For example, the Vatican has a tremendous amount of wealth, while the average income of Catholic parishioners is small. According to this perspective, religion has been used to support the “divine right” of oppressive monarchs and to justify unequal social structures, like India’s caste system.

Conflict theorists are critical of the way many religions promote the idea that believers should be satisfied with existing circumstances because they are divinely ordained. This power dynamic has been used by Christian institutions for centuries to keep poor people poor and to teach them that they shouldn’t be concerned with what they lack because their “true” reward (from a religious perspective) will come after death. Conflict theorists also point out that those in power in a religion are often able to dictate practices, rituals, and beliefs through their interpretation of religious texts or via proclaimed direct communication from the divine.

The feminist perspective is a conflict theory view that focuses specifically on gender inequality. In terms of religion, feminist theorists assert that, although women are typically the ones to socialize children into a religion, they have traditionally held very few positions of power within religions. A few religions and religious denominations are more gender equal, but male dominance remains the norm of most.

Sociology in the Real World

Rational choice theory: can economic theory be applied to religion.

How do people decide which religion to follow, if any? How does one pick a church or decide which denomination “fits” best? Rational choice theory (RCT) is one way social scientists have attempted to explain these behaviors. The theory proposes that people are self-interested, though not necessarily selfish, and that people make rational choices—choices that can reasonably be expected to maximize positive outcomes while minimizing negative outcomes. Sociologists Roger Finke and Rodney Stark (1988) first considered the use of RCT to explain some aspects of religious behavior, with the assumption that there is a basic human need for religion in terms of providing belief in a supernatural being, a sense of meaning in life, and belief in life after death. Religious explanations of these concepts are presumed to be more satisfactory than scientific explanations, which may help to account for the continuation of strong religious connectedness in countries such as the United States, despite predictions of some competing theories for a great decline in religious affiliation due to modernization and religious pluralism.

Another assumption of RCT is that religious organizations can be viewed in terms of “costs” and “rewards.” Costs are not only monetary requirements, but are also the time, effort, and commitment demands of any particular religious organization. Rewards are the intangible benefits in terms of belief and satisfactory explanations about life, death, and the supernatural, as well as social rewards from membership. RCT proposes that, in a pluralistic society with many religious options, religious organizations will compete for members, and people will choose between different churches or denominations in much the same way they select other consumer goods, balancing costs and rewards in a rational manner. In this framework, RCT also explains the development and decline of churches, denominations, sects, and even cults; this limited part of the very complex RCT theory is the only aspect well supported by research data.

Critics of RCT argue that it doesn’t fit well with human spiritual needs, and many sociologists disagree that the costs and rewards of religion can even be meaningfully measured or that individuals use a rational balancing process regarding religious affiliation. The theory doesn’t address many aspects of religion that individuals may consider essential (such as faith) and further fails to account for agnostics and atheists who don’t seem to have a similar need for religious explanations. Critics also believe this theory overuses economic terminology and structure and point out that terms such as “rational” and “reward” are unacceptably defined by their use; they would argue that the theory is based on faulty logic and lacks external, empirical support. A scientific explanation for why something occurs can’t reasonably be supported by the fact that it does occur. RCT is widely used in economics and to a lesser extent in criminal justice, but the application of RCT in explaining the religious beliefs and behaviors of people and societies is still being debated in sociology today.

Symbolic Interactionism

Rising from the concept that our world is socially constructed, symbolic interactionism studies the symbols and interactions of everyday life. To interactionists, beliefs and experiences are not sacred unless individuals in a society regard them as sacred. The Star of David in Judaism, the cross in Christianity, and the crescent and star in Islam are examples of sacred symbols. Interactionists are interested in what these symbols communicate. Because interactionists study one-on-one, everyday interactions between individuals, a scholar using this approach might ask questions focused on this dynamic. The interaction between religious leaders and practitioners, the role of religion in the ordinary components of everyday life, and the ways people express religious values in social interactions—all might be topics of study to an interactionist.

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215 Religion Research Paper Topics for College Students

religion research paper topics

Studying religion at a college or a university may be a challenging course for any student. This isn’t because religion is always a sensitive issue in society, it is because the study of religion is broad, and crafting religious topics for research papers around them may be further complex for students. This is why sociology of religion research topics and many others are here, all for your use.

As students of a university or a college, it is essential to prepare religious topics for research papers in advance. There are many research paper topics on religion, and this is why the scope of religion remains consistently broad. They extend to the sociology of religion, research paper topics on society, argumentative essay topics, and lots more. All these will be examined in this article. Rather than comb through your books in search of inspiration for your next essay or research paper, you can easily choose a topic for your religious essay or paper from the following recommendations:

World Religion Research Paper Topics

If you want to broaden your scope as a university student to topics across religions of the world, there are religion discussion topics to consider. These topics are not just for discussion in classes, you can craft research around them. Consider:

  • The role of myths in shaping the world: Greek myths and their influence on the evolution of European religions
  • Modern History: The attitude of modern Europe on the history of their religion
  • The connection between religion and science in the medieval and modern world
  • The mystery in the books of Dan Brown is nothing but fiction: discuss how mystery shapes religious beliefs
  • Theocracy: an examination of theocratic states in contemporary society
  • The role of Christianity in the modern world
  • The myth surrounding the writing of the Bible
  • The concept of religion and patriarchy: examine two religions and how it oppresses women
  • People and religion in everyday life: how lifestyle and culture is influenced by religion
  • The modern society and the changes in the religious view from the medieval period
  • The interdependence of laws and religion is a contemporary thing: what is the role of law in religion and what is the role of religion in law?
  • What marked the shift from religion to humanism?
  • What do totemism and animalism denote?
  • Pre Colonial religion in Africa is savagery and barbaric: discuss
  • Cite three religions and express their views on the human soul
  • Hinduism influenced Indian culture in ways no religion has: discuss
  • Africans are more religious than Europeans who introduced Christian religion to them: discuss
  • Account for the evolution of Confucianism and how it shaped Chinese culture to date
  • Account for the concept of the history of evolution according to Science and according to a religion and how it influences the ideas of the religious soul
  • What is religious education and how can it promote diversity or unity?7
  • Workplace and religion: how religion is extended to all facets of life
  • The concept of fear in maintaining religious authorities: how authorities in religious places inspire fear for absolute devotion
  • Afro-American religion: a study of African religion in America
  • The Bible and its role in religions
  • Religion is more of emotions than logic
  • Choose five religions of the world and study the similarities in their ideas
  • The role of religious leaders in combating global terrorism
  • Terrorism: the place of religion in promoting violence in the Middle East
  • The influence of religion in modern-day politics
  • What will the world be like without religion or religious extremists?
  • Religion in the growth of communist Russia: how cultural revolution is synonymous with religion
  • Religion in the growth of communist China: how cultural revolution is synonymous with religion
  • The study of religions and ethnic rivalries in India
  • Terrorism in Islam is a comeback to the crusades
  • The role of the Thirty Years of War in shaping world diplomacy
  • The role of the Thirty Years of War in shaping plurality in Christianity
  • The religion and the promotion of economics
  • The place of world religions on homosexuality
  • Why does a country, the Vatican City, belong to the Catholic Church?
  • God and the concept of the supernatural: examine the idea that God is a supernatural being
  • The influence of religion in contemporary Japan
  • Religion and populism in the modern world
  • The difference between mythical creatures and gods
  • Polytheism and the possibility of world peace
  • Religion and violence in secular societies?
  • Warfare and subjugation in the spread of religion
  • The policies against migrant in Poland is targeted against Islam
  • The role of international organizations in maintaining religious peace
  • International terrorist organizations and the decline of order

Research Paper Topics Religion and Society

As a student in a university or MBA student, you may be requested to write an informed paper on sociology and religion. There are many sociology religion research paper topics for these segments although they may be hard to develop. You can choose out of the following topics or rephrase them to suit your research interest:

  • The influence of religion on the understanding of morality
  • The role of religion in marginalizing the LGBTQ community
  • The role of women in religion
  • Faith crisis in Christianity and Islamic religions
  • The role of colonialism in the spreading of religion: the spread of Christianity and Islam is a mortal sin
  • How does religion shape our sexual lifestyle?
  • The concept of childhood innocence in religion
  • Religion as the object of hope for the poor: how religion is used as a tool for servitude by the elite
  • The impact of traditional beliefs in today’s secular societies
  • How religion promotes society and how it can destroy it
  • The knowledge of religion from the eyes of a sociologist
  • Religious pluralism in America: how diverse religions struggle to strive
  • Social stratification and its role in shaping religious groups in America
  • The concept of organized religion: why the belief in God is not enough to join a religious group
  • The family has the biggest influence on religious choices: examine how childhood influences the adult’s religious interests
  • Islamophobia in European societies and anti-Semitism in America
  • The views of Christianity on interfaith marriage
  • The views of Islam on interfaith marriage
  • The difference between spirituality and religion
  • The role of discipline in maintaining strict religious edicts
  • How do people tell others about their religion?
  • The features of religion in sociology
  • What are the views of Karl Marx on religion?
  • What are the views of Frederic Engels on religion?
  • Modern Islam: the conflict of pluralism and secularism
  • Choose two religions and explore their concepts of divorce
  • Governance and religion: how religion is also a tool of control
  • The changes in religious ideas with technological evolution
  • Theology is the study of God for God, not humans
  • The most feared religion: how Islamic extremists became identified as terrorist organizations
  • The role of cults in the society: why religious people still have cults affiliations
  • The concept of religious inequality in the US
  • What does religion say about sexual violence?

Religion Essay Topics

As a college student, you may be required to write an essay on religion or morality. You may need to access a lot of religious essay topics to find inspiration for a topic of your choice. Rather than go through the stress of compiling, you can get more information for better performance from religion topics for research paper like:

  • The origin of Jihad in Islam and how it has evolved
  • Compare the similarities and differences between Christian and Judaism religions
  • The Thirty Years War and the Catholic church
  • The Holocaust: historic aggression or a religious war
  • Religion is a tool of oppression from the political and economic perspectives
  • The concept of patriarchy in religion
  • Baptism and synonym to ritual sacrifice
  • The life of Jesus Christ and the themes of theology
  • The life of Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W.) and the themes of theology
  • How can religion be used to promote world peace?
  • Analyze how Jesus died and the reason for his death
  • Analyze the event of the birth of Christ
  • The betrayal of Jesus is merely to fulfill a prophecy
  • Does “prophecy” exist anywhere in religion?
  • The role of war in promoting religion: how crusades and terrorist attacks shape the modern world
  • The concept of Karma: is Karma real?
  • Who are the major theorists in religion and what do they say?
  • The connection of sociology with religion
  • Why must everyone be born again according to Christians?
  • What does religious tolerance mean?
  • What is the benefit of religion in society?
  • What do you understand about free speech and religious tolerance?
  • Why did the Church separate from the state?
  • The concept of guardian angels in religion
  • What do Islam and Christianity say about the end of the world?
  • Religion and the purpose of God for man
  • The concept of conscience in morality is overrated
  • Are there different sects in Christianity?
  • What does Islam or Christianity say about suicide?
  • What are the reasons for the Protestant Reformation?
  • The role of missionaries in propagating Christianity in Africa
  • The role of the Catholic church in shaping Christianity
  • Do we need an international religious organization to maintain international religious peace?
  • Why do people believe in miracles?

Argumentative Essay Topics on Religion

Creating argumentative essay topics on religion may be a daunting exercise regardless of your level. It is more difficult when you don’t know how to start. Your professor could be interested in your critical opinions about international issues bordering on religion, which is why you need to develop sensible topics. You can consider the following research paper topics religion and society for inspiration:

  • Religion will dominate humanity: discuss
  • All religions of the world dehumanize the woman
  • All men are slaves to religion
  • Karl Marx was right when he said religion is the return of the repressed, “the sigh of the oppressed creature”: discuss
  • Christianity declined in Europe with the Thirty Years War and it separated brothers and sisters of the Christian faith?
  • Islamic terrorism is a targeted attack on western culture
  • The danger of teen marriage in Islam is more than its benefits
  • The church should consider teen marriages for every interested teenager
  • Is faith fiction or reality?
  • The agape love is restricted to God and God’s love alone
  • God: does he exist or is he a fiction dominating the world?
  • Prayer works better without medicine: why some churches preach against the use of medicine
  • People change religion because they are confused about God: discuss
  • The church and the state should be together
  • Polygamous marriage is evil and it should be condemned by every religion
  • Cloning is abuse against God’s will
  • Religious leaders should also be political leaders
  • Abortion: a sin against God or control over your body
  • Liberty of religious association affects you negatively: discuss
  • Religious leaders only care about themselves, not the people
  • Everyone should consider agnosticism
  • Natural laws are the enemy of religion
  • It is good to have more than two faiths in a family
  • It is hard for the state to exist without religion
  • Religion as a cause of the World War One
  • Religion as a tool for capitalists
  • Religion doesn’t promote morality, only extremisms
  • Marriage: should the people or their religious leaders set the rules?
  • Why the modern church should acknowledge the LGBTQ: the fight for true liberalism
  • Mere coexistence is not religious tolerance
  • The use of candles, incense, etc. in Catholic worship is idolatrous and the same as pagan worship: discuss
  • The Christian religion is the same as Islam

Christianity Research Paper Topics on Religion

It doesn’t matter if you’re a Christian or not as you need to develop a range of topics for your essay or project. To create narrow yet all-inclusive research about Christianity in the world today, you can consider research topics online. Rather than rack your head or go through different pages on the internet, consider these:

  • Compare and contrast Christian and Islam religions
  • Trace the origin of Christianity and the similarity of the beliefs in the contemporary world
  • Account for the violent spread of Christianity during the crusades
  • Account for the state of Christianity in secular societies
  • The analysis of the knowledge of rapture in Christianity
  • Choose three contemporary issues and write the response of Christianity on them
  • The Catholic church and its role towards the continuance of sexual violence
  • The Catholic church and the issues of sexual abuse and scandals
  • The history of Christianity in America
  • The history of Christianity in Europe
  • The impact of Christianity on American slaves
  • The belief of Christianity on death, dying, and rapture
  • The study of Christianity in the medieval period
  • How Christianity influenced the western world
  • Christianity: the symbols and their meaning
  • Why catholic priests practice celibacy
  • Christianity in the Reformation Era
  • Discuss the Gnostic Gospels and their distinct historic influence on Christianity
  • The catholic church in the Third Reich of Germany
  • The difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament
  • What the ten commandments say from a theological perspective
  • The unpredictable story of Moses
  • The revival of Saul to Paul: miracle or what?
  • Are there Christian cults in the contemporary world?
  • Gender differences in the Christian church: why some churches don’t allow women pastors
  • The politics of the Catholic church before the separation of the church and the state
  • The controversies around Christian religion and atheism: why many people are leaving the church
  • What is the Holy Trinity and what is its role in the church?
  • The miracles of the New Testament and its difference from the Old Testament’s
  • Why do people question the existence of God?
  • God is a spirit: discuss

Islam Research Paper Topics

As a student of the Islamic religion or a Muslim, you may be interested in research on the religion. Numerous Islam research paper topics could be critical in shaping your research paper or essay. These are easy yet profound research paper topics on religion Islam for your essays or papers:

  • Islam in the Middle East
  • Trace the origin of Islam
  • Who are the most important prophets in Islam?
  • Discuss the Sunni and other groups of Muslims
  • The Five Pillars of Islam are said to be important in Islam, why?
  • Discuss the significance of the Holy Month
  • Discuss the significance of the Holy Pilgrimage
  • The distinctions of the Five Pillars of Islam and the Ten Commandments?
  • The controversies around the hijab and the veil
  • Western states are denying Muslims: why?
  • The role of religious leaders in their advocacy of sexual abuse and violence
  • What the Quran says about rape and what does Hadiths say, too?
  • Rape: men, not the women roaming the street should be blamed
  • What is radicalism in Islam?
  • The focus of Islam is to oppress women: discuss
  • The political, social, and economic influence of modernity on Islam
  • The notable wives of prophet Muhammad and their role in Islam: discuss
  • Trace the evolution of Islam in China and the efforts of the government against them
  • Religious conflict in Palestine and Israel: how a territorial conflict slowly became a religious war
  • The study of social class and the Islamic religion
  • Suicide bombers and their belief of honor in death: the beliefs of Islamic jihadists
  • Account for the issues of marginalization of women in Muslim marriages
  • The role of literature in promoting the fundamentals of Islam: how poetry was used to appeal to a wider audience
  • The concept of feminism in Islam and why patriarchy seems to be on a steady rise
  • The importance of Hadiths in the comprehension of the Islamic religion
  • Does Islam approve of democracy?
  • Islamic terrorism and the role of religious leaders
  • The relationship of faith in Islam and Christianity: are there differences in the perspectives of faith?
  • How the Quran can be used as a tool for religious tolerance and religious intolerance
  • The study of Muslims in France: why is there religious isolation and abuse in such a society?
  • Islam and western education: what are the issues that have become relevant in recent years?
  • Is there a relationship between Islam and Science?
  • Western culture: why there are stereotypes against Muslims abroad
  • Mythology in Islam: what role does it play in shaping the religion?
  • Islam and the belief in the afterlife: are there differences between its beliefs with other religions’?
  • Why women are not allowed to take sermons in Islam

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An Invitation to the Sociology of Religion: Important Questions Answered by Scholars in the Field

  • Published: 26 May 2023
  • Volume 54 , pages 445–465, ( 2023 )

Cite this article

  • Landon Schnabel   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0002-2674-3019 1 ,
  • Katherine Ally Zaslavsky 1 ,
  • Brian Haggard 1 ,
  • Ashton Pihl 1 ,
  • Amara Chiedu 1 ,
  • Aisha Conte 1 ,
  • Andy Han 1 ,
  • Madelyn Leon 1 ,
  • Isabelle Potash 1 ,
  • Eman Abdelhadi 2 ,
  • Joseph Baker 3 ,
  • Roger Finke 4 ,
  • Titus Hjelm 5 ,
  • Ilana Horwitz 6 ,
  • Michael Hout 7 ,
  • Jelani Ince 8 ,
  • Nicolette Manglos-Weber 9 ,
  • Salma Mousa 10 ,
  • Richard Pitt 11 ,
  • John Schmalzbauer 12 ,
  • Melissa Wilde 13 &
  • Phil Zuckerman 14  

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What are the most important questions in the sociology of religion? And how would scholars answer them? This article explores what people consider the most important questions in the field. Sociologists tend to study what we can readily answer with data, but the questions that elicit the most interest turn out to be quite different. They are bigger, broader, and harder to answer empirically. A crowd-sourced poll identified what people consider the most important questions in the sociology of religion, which were then posed to scholars in the field. They provided nuanced and complex answers revealing a diversity of approaches involved in the study of religion. This unorthodox article invites the reader to listen in on dynamic conversations that bring scholars into dialogue with one another, revealing points of consensus, ongoing debate, areas where there are more questions than answers, and directions for future work.

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Spasimir Domaradzki, Margaryta Khvostova & David Pupovac

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Poll information/data can be found here: https://www.allourideas.org/sociologyofreligion/results .

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These included O’Brien and Abdelhadi ( 2020 ), Stroope and Baker ( 2018 ), Horwitz et al. ( 2022 ), Hout and Fischer ( 2014 ), Mousa ( 2020 ), Pitt ( 2010 ), Wilde and Glassman ( 2016 ) and Zuckerman ( 2008 ).

To field the poll, we used the All Our Ideas platform. All Our Ideas is a research project seeking to develop a new outside-in approach to social science that combines the best features of quantitative and qualitative methods. It has the scale, speed, and quantification of a survey while still allowing for new information to “bubble up” from respondents as typically happens in interviews, participant observation, and focus groups (Salganik & Levy,  2015 ). All Our Ideas is an open-source research project led by Matthew Salganik of Princeton University and funded by Google, NSF, World Bank, and Princeton. Their data collection and processing procedures have been approved by the Princeton University Institutional Review Board for Human Subjects (protocol #4885). The platform works as follows. The poll creator posts a prompt (in this case, “Which question is more important in the sociology of religion?”) and ideas (in this case answers to the prompt which took the form of questions) to pre-populate the poll with initial options. When on the site, poll takers are presented with a series of opportunities to “vote” for the option they prefer between two ideas taken at random from the larger list (if they cannot decide they can indicate as such). They’re also provided a text box where they can propose additional ideas that will be included among the options voters see going forward. While we were open to what people entered as new options, people participating in the poll could also flag questions as inappropriate. If flagged, the question was deactivated as an option until it could be reviewed (we ultimately did not reactivate any of the three questions that were flagged, which included comments on the poll rather than questions, aggressive language, or incomplete questions). Scoring on the AllOurIdeas platform works as follows (Salganik & Levy,  2015 ): The score for each idea (i.e., proposed option for the poll) is the estimated chance it will “win” (i.e., be selected) over a randomly chosen idea based on past voting patterns. For example, a score of 100 means that based on past responses the idea is predicted to win every time when pitted against another and a score of 0 means the idea is predicted to lose every time.

The nature of the platform and how people were asked to participate means those who completed the poll were a range of people from experts to the general public. The platform does not collect background information on respondents so we do not have extensive information on who cast votes, but we do know that was influenced by the networks of people in the course. The instructor and the students shared the poll with friends, family, on social media, and with the expert interview participants.

Interviews with Eman Abdelhadi, Michael Hout, Jelani Ince, Nicolette Manglos-Weber, Richard Pitt, John Schmalzbauer, and Phil Zuckerman were conducted in class via video chat. Students conducted one-on-one interviews with Joseph Baker, Titus Hjelm, and Ilana Horwitz over video chat outside of class. Melissa Wilde was interviewed by a student in-person during a campus visit to give a lecture on her recent book (Wilde,  2019 ). Roger Finke and Salma Mousa provided responses via email.

Some only responded to certain questions and as a result do not appear as frequently as others below.

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Hout, M., & Fischer, C. (2014). Explaining why more americans have no religious preference. Sociological Science, 1 , 423–447.

Horwitz, I., Matheny, K., Laryea, K., & Schnabel, L. (2022). From bat mitzvah to the bar: Religious habitus, self-concept, and women’s educational outcomes. American Sociological Review, 87 (2), 336–372.

Mills, C. W. (1956). The Power Elite . New York: Oxford.

Mousa, S. (2020). Building social cohesion between christians and muslims through soccer in Post-ISIS Iraq. Science, 369 (6505), 866–870.

Norris, P., & Inglehart, R. (2011). Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide (2nd ed.). Cambridge University Press.

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Pitt, R. (2010). ‘Killing the Messenger’: Religious black gay men’s neutralization of anti-gay religious messages. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 49 (1), 56–72.

Salganik, M., & Levy, K. (2015). Wiki surveys: Open and quantifiable social data collection. PLoS ONE, 10 (5), e0123483.

Stroope, S., & Baker, J. (2018). Whose moral community? Religiosity, secularity, and self-rated health across communal religious contexts. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 59 (2), 185–199.

Wilde, M. (2019). Birth Control Battles . University of California Press.

Wilde, M., & Glassman, L. (2016). How complex religion can improve our understanding of American politics. Annual Review of Sociology, 42 (1), 407–425.

Zuckerman, P. (2008). Society without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment . NYU Press.

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Department of Sociology, Cornell University, 323 Uris Hall, Ithaca, NY, 14853, USA

Landon Schnabel, Katherine Ally Zaslavsky, Brian Haggard, Ashton Pihl, Amara Chiedu, Aisha Conte, Andy Han, Madelyn Leon & Isabelle Potash

University of Chicago, Chicago, IL, USA

Eman Abdelhadi

East Tennessee State University, Johnson City, TN, USA

Joseph Baker

Pennsylvania State University, State College, PA, USA

Roger Finke

University of Helsinki, Helsinki, Finland

Titus Hjelm

Tulane University, New Orleans, Louisiana, USA

Ilana Horwitz

New York University, New York City, NY, USA

Michael Hout

University of Washington, Seattle, Washington, USA

Jelani Ince

Boston University, Boston, MA, USA

Nicolette Manglos-Weber

Yale University, New Haven, CT, USA

Salma Mousa

University of California, San Diego, CA, USA

Richard Pitt

Missouri State University, Springfield, MO, USA

John Schmalzbauer

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Melissa Wilde

Pitzer College, Claremont, CA, USA

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There are four authorship categories within which authors are listed alphabetically: LS conceived the project, designed the study, created the poll, oversaw interviews, and wrote and revised the manuscript. KAZ, BH, and AP assisted LS with logistics, writing, and revising. AC, AC, AH, ML, and IP were students in the seminar in which the project was carried out (AP was also in the class). They assisted in project development, conducted interviews, wrote the initial draft for one of the ten questions, and participated in final revision to various extents. EA, JB, RF, TH, IH, MH, JI, NMW, SM, RP, JS, MW, and PZ were experts interviewed for the project who also participated in final revision to various extents.

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Schnabel, L., Zaslavsky, K.A., Haggard, B. et al. An Invitation to the Sociology of Religion: Important Questions Answered by Scholars in the Field. Am Soc 54 , 445–465 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12108-023-09578-z

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Sociology of religion.

The task of building a scientific understanding of religion is a central part of the sociological enterprise. Indeed, in one sense the origins of the sociology can be attributed to the efforts of nineteenth-century Europeans to come to grips with the crisis of faith that shook Western society during the revolutionary upheavals of its industrial transformation. Most of the great European intellectuals of this era sought to formulate some sort of rational scientific paradigm to replace the religious foundations of Western culture, and such founding sociologists as Comte, Marx, and Durkheim were no exceptions.


What is religion, durkheim and the functionalists, weber and the historical-comparative approach, the sacred canopy, the religious marketplace, the religious experience, religion and identity, conversion and commitment, religious movements, religion and social structure, religion in an age of globalization, the future of the sociology of religion.

Since the early sociologists were trying to break free from the hegemonic religious paradigm that had long dominated European thought, it is not surprising that they were fascinated with the phenomena of religion itself. As they became increasingly aware of the fecund diversity of religious life around the world, a number of basic questions arose that still lie at the heart of the quest for a sociological understanding of religion. Why are religious beliefs and practices so universal? Why do they take such diverse forms? How do social forces help shape those beliefs and practices? What role does religion, in turn, play in social, economic , and political life?

The first step in understanding religion is obviously to decide what it is, but as is so often the case, defining this basic concept is a far more difficult business than it appears at first glance. A good place to start is with Émile Durkheim. According to this classic sociologist, religion is a “unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say things set apart and forbidden—beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church , all those who adhere to them” (Dukheim [1915] 1965:62). Although this definition clearly requires some surgery to remove its Eurocentrism, it shows remarkable insight into the fundamental sociological characteristics of religion. The most obvious change that needs to be made is to remove the word “church,” because that normally refers only to Christian religions. There are, however, some more fundamental problems especially with Durkheim’s inclusion of the concept of the sacred in his definition. While “sacred things” play a major role in most religions, they are certainly not the sine qua non of religious life. In the Buddhist view, for example, there is nothing “set apart and forbidden” about meditation, ethical behavior, the cultivation of wisdom, or the other central tenets of their beliefs and practices. On the other hand, however, it doesn’t seem justified to call any system of beliefs and practices a religion. The Christian theologian Paul Tillich’s (1967) contention that religion involves issues of “ultimate concern” is far more broadly applicable (see Kurtz 1995:8–9).

For sociological purposes, at least, we can then say that religion involves three key elements: beliefs, practices, and a social group. Although religious beliefs are not always as systematically organized as Durkheim seemed to believe, those beliefs do deal in some way or other with the questions of ultimate concern the believers face. The realm of religious practice is too vast to enumerate here, because it involves everything from rituals and ceremonies to dietary and behavioral standards and various spiritual disciplines, but it is clearly a central part of religious life. Finally, religion is a social phenomenon that involves groups of people. The solitary philosopher does not become a religious figure until one shares his or her ideas with a group of people.

Sociological Theories of Religion

Sociology starts with the rather eccentric figure of August Comte (1798–1857). Like many young intellectuals of his time, Comte believed that religion was an archaic holdover from the past. Comte held that in the course of history, theological thinking gave way to metaphysical thinking, which in turn gave way to scientific thinking or what he called “positive philosophy.” Science, then, was the replacement for religion. When applied to the systematic study of society, it could be used to construct a rational social order guided by the sociologists that would eliminate the ancient problems that plagued humanity. Ironically, this determined opponent of religion suffered a mental breakdown toward the end of his life and refused to read anything but a medieval devotional text known as The Imitation of Christ.

Marx (1818–1883) was of course far more influential than Comte, and he was the first of the sociological giants to address the issue of religion. Although he shared the idea with many nineteenth-century thinkers that religious faith was an unscientific holdover from earlier times, his economic determinism and revolutionary commitment gave his views a particular slant. Religion in his perspective was merely part of the ideological superstructure erected on and shaped by the underlying economic realities and had no kind of independence of its own. Nonetheless, religion does play an important and clearly negative social role. For Marx (1844), religion was a profound form of social alienation because

the worker is related to the product of his labor as to an alien object. . . . The more the worker expends himself in work the more powerful becomes the world of objects which he creates in face of himself, the poorer he becomes in his inner life, and the less he belongs to himself. It’s just the same as in religion. The more of himself man attributes to God the less he has left in himself. (P. 122)

Religion in capitalist society provides a comforting illusion that obscures the realities of class conflict and class interest and, thus, is a profound example of false consciousness. By consoling the frustrated and oppressed, it helps prevent collective action to change the real source of their problems. Thus, religion was, in Marx’s famous phrase, “the opiate of the masses.”

Others in the Marxist tradition have taken a more nuanced position on religion, including his benefactor Fredrich Engels. Engels recognized that religion in some circumstances actually supported the struggle of the oppressed, as he felt was the case with early Christianity (Marx and Engels 1957). Most contemporary Marxists follow Engels’s position holding a general skepticism and suspicion of religious institutions, but recognizing that some religious developments, such as liberation theology in Latin American Catholicism , can be a progressive force.

While religion was of only a passing concern to Marx, it was central to the foundational French sociologist Émile Durkheim (1858–1917). In his major work on the sociology of religion, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Durkheim ([1915] 1965) studied the religious life of the Australian aborigines on the questionable assumption that it was more primitive and simple than in the European nations and thus reflected religion in its most basic forms. Durkheim was particularly fascinated with the totemistic aspects of aboriginal religion. He concluded that the totems, objects or animals held in special awe by a particular clan, actually had little to do with the supernatural but were in fact symbols of the social group. He went on to argue that if the totem “is at once the symbol of the god and of the society, is that not because the god and the society are only one?” (Durkheim [1915] 1965:236). Thus, even in European society, Durkheim saw the worship of God to be nothing more than the worship of society. Society is the transcendent reality that religion symbolizes, and it not only has its own needs but even takes on a kind of anthropomorphic form in some of his writings. Society personifies itself in the form of totems or Gods to be revered and worshiped because it needs to reaffirm its legitimacy and worth to its members. And just as the Gods symbolize society, the soul is the symbol of the social element within the individual that lives on long after the people themselves.

Although the almost metaphysical elements in Durkheim’s thought were not particularly influential, his idea that religion functioned to meet basic social needs became a sociological truism. Over the years, functionalist theory grew more complex and sophisticated and is now one of the most widely used theoretical paradigms in the sociology of religion. Of particular importance was the contribution of Robert Merton (1957), who introduced the concept of the dysfunction. In his view, social institutions not only perform functions for society, but they also have dysfunctional consequences. Over the years, functionalists have developed a long list of the functions and dysfunctions of religion. Following O’Dea (1966:4–18), we can divide the human needs that religion meets into two categories—expressive and adaptive. Religion helps meet our expressive emotional needs by providing a supernatural context in which the hard realities of human life— powerlessness, uncertainty, injustice, and the inevitability of death—can be given meaning and purpose. Religion provides support and consolation, and its cult and ceremonies can encourage a sense of security and identity with something larger than the self. According to the functionalists, religion’s most important adaptive function is the way it sacralizes and reinforces the norms and values on which social order depends. Common rituals and common beliefs also help bind people together into a common community. In a different context, however, each function can become a dysfunction. By comforting and consoling people, religion may also discourage action for the needed social change. By making norms and values sacred, it not only strengthens them, but it may make them much harder to change when the times require it.

Like Durkheim, Max Weber (1864–1920) devoted a great deal of his enormous intellectual energy to the study of religion. Ever the rationalist, however, he was disinclined toward Durkheim’s kind of philosophical speculation or Marx’s political partisanship. If there is one underlying objective of Weber’s richly detailed historical and comparative examination of religion, it was to understand the relationship between religion and economic life. Where Marx saw a simple economic determinism, Weber saw a complex reciprocal interaction. In his most famous work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber (1930) argued the revolutionary thesis that Puritanism was one key factor in the Industrial Revolution. It was not, as Weber’s argument is sometimes misconstrued, just that Puritanism encouraged hard work (a strong work ethnic is certainly found in many non-European cultures). But also that Puritanism saw economic success as a sign of divine favor while demanding extreme rational self-control and a frugal lifestyle—conditions ideally suited to encourage the capital accumulation needed for the process of industrialization. Weber subsequently expanded his studies by examining the obstacles to economic rationalization posed by the religious and cultural traditions in other parts of the world, especially in China (1951) and India (1958).

Weber (1952, 1963) saw the influence of socioeconomic forces on religion in terms of what he called elective affinities. Weber felt that people in social groups with different lifestyles had an affinity for different kinds of religious beliefs. Those affinities may be based on the characteristics of entire societies, such as the tendency for foragers to believe in nature spirits or the appeal to monotheism for pastoralists. Or they may affect smaller-status groups, such as merchants who are attracted to rational calculating religions, or privileged elites with their proclivity for elaborate ritual and ceremony. However, Weber saw these relationships only as affinities, not as fixed and deterministic. Historical forces such as a foreign conquest can induce persons from a particular status group to adopt a religion for which they do not have a natural affinity.

One of the most popular of the more recent sociological theories of religion is built around Peter Berger’s (1969) metaphor of the “sacred canopy.” Drawing on the phenomenological and interactionist traditions, Berger holds human society to be an enterprise of world-building. It is, in other words, an effort to create a meaningful reality in which to live. This is a dialectical process that has three underlying movements. The first is “externalization,” which “is the ongoing outpouring of human beings into the world, both in the physical and the mental activities of man” (Berger 1969:4). Next comes the process of “objectivation,” which gives the products of this activity a reality and power that is independent of those who created it. Finally, individuals take this socially constructed reality into their own inner life in the process of “internalization.” Through this process society creates a nomos—a meaningful order that is imposed on the universe. The most important aspect of this socially established nomos is that it is “a shield against terror” protecting us from the “danger of meaninglessness” (Berger 1969:22).

Religion plays a key role in this process because it is the human enterprise by which a sacred cosmos is established. It is, in turn, the awesome mysterious power of the sacred that confronts the specter of chaos and the inevitability of death. According to Berger (1969), the “power of religions depends, in the last resort, upon the credibility of the banners it puts in the hands of men as they stand before death, or more accurately, as they walk inevitably, toward it” (p. 51).

Despite the powerful way Berger’s theory links the existential and the social dimension of religion, the idea that religion provides a single scared canopy over today’s pluralistic societies has it limitations. A number of current scholars are now using a different theoretical paradigm— rational choice theory—to construct a model that explicitly recognizes the reality of religious diversity (Stark and Bainbridge 1985; Finke and Stark 1992; Warner 1993; Iannaccone 1994). The basic idea is that the kind of consumer decision making analyzed by economic theory also applies to religious behavior. This approach looks at the public as consumers of religious who are out to satisfy their needs by obtaining the best “product.” Religious organizations are entrepreneurial establishments competing in a religious marketplace ruled by the laws of supply and demand.

Although religious “merchandise” is considered in just the same way as any other product, there is one important difference. The costs and benefits the consumers must weigh are often supernatural (such as the promise of an afterlife) and therefore cannot be empirically proven. This leaves the religious organization free to make almost any kind of claims it wishes, but it also creates the problem that the consumers are often uncertain about whether or not they will actually receive the benefits it promises. Thus, demanding groups that require high commitment often have the most attractive product, because they create greater feelings of certainty among consumers that they will actually receive the promised rewards. Another important point stressed by these theorists is that greater religious pluralism will encourage greater religiosity among the public, because it stimulates competition among different religious groups to improve their “product” in order to protect and expand their market share. Societies with a state religion, on the other hand, will tend to have less religious vitality because the established religion will be less responsive to the needs of the public (Finke and Stark 1992).

The metaphor of the marketplace is a useful tool for sociological analysis, but it can also be seriously misleading because there are also some fundamental ways in which religion is unlike an economic commodity. One of the most obvious is that the majority of people stay in the religion into which they were born and do not change even if another religion in the “marketplace” offers more benefits and less costs. Moreover, “religious products” are not really subject to market exchange, because they have no direct monetary value. A church cannot put its product on sale if the customers don’t come. Finally, as in other aspects of human life, rational choice theory fails to recognize the deep emotional forces involved in religious life that are often quite impervious to the beckonings of reason.

The Social Psychology of Religion

This examination of the theory of religion would not be complete without mentioning one other great nineteenth-century thinker, Sigmund Freud (1856–1939). His thinking contains many similarities to the more sociological-oriented theorists who have grappled with the problem of religion. Like Berger, for example, Freud saw religion as an attempt to deal with the fundamental problem of human existence. For Berger, that problem was the need for meaning, whereas for Freud, it was our inability to obtain the things we want and need. Religion in Freud’s (1957) words “is born of the need to make tolerable the helplessness of man” (p. 54). Religion helps create a world in which we feel less threatened and more at home. But like so many other social scientists of this time, Freud felt that while religion may be comforting, it is a comforting illusion. Thus, religion is a kind of infantile wish fulfillment. In the face of our helplessness and defenselessness, we crave the solace and support we received from our parents when we were children, so we project a father figure into the heavens and call it God. While more recent psychological thinkers do not necessarily share Freud’s metaphysical position, the idea that the patriarchal God of Western monotheism is a father figure and that the female Goddesses in other traditions are symbolic representations of the mother is widespread.

Because these sociological and psychological theorists focus on the roles religion plays and the needs it meets, they often lose sight of the experiential foundations of religious life. But no matter how skeptical one may be about their meaning, there is no doubt that many people have religious or mystical experiences. Indeed, most of the world’s major religions trace their origins to such events. The experience Moses had when Yahweh gave him the Ten Commandments, Mohammad’s experience as the Angel Gabriel revealed Allah’s words in the Koran, and Siddhartha Gautama’s great enlightenment experience under the Bodhi tree are just a few examples of religious experiences that have literally changed the course of human history. But how, then, is the social scientist to understand such events? Freud, Durkheim, and Marx along with many of the other founders of the sociology of religion would dismiss such experiences as hallucinations, but that hardly seems to do such momentous events justice. Believers in the various faiths founded on such visions would say their accounts of what happened are literally true, but that of course leaves the problem that the “truths” revealed in one religious tradition often contradict the “truths” of another. The inescapable fact is that fact experiences that lie completely beyond the bounds of the ordinary must be still expressed in terms of the cultural expectations, assumptions, and language of the individuals who try to report them.

In his classic study The Idea of the Holy, Rudolf Otto (1923) argues that religious experiences involve what he calls mysterium tremendum et fascinosum. That is, the experience of the holy is one of a terrifying power, fascinating yet absolutely unapproachable and wholly other. Ironically, most mystics in the Asian tradition and many Westerners as well describe such peak experiences in just the opposite way—a complete dissolution of the bounds of the normal self that produces an absolute unity with the entire universe (see Anonymous 1978; Kapleau 1989).

Of course, all religious experiences are not so overwhelming and profound. Like other experiences, they come in all ranges of intensities and in countless different forms. The feeling of holiness and tranquility one feels when entering a beautiful church or the sense of wonder and joy when seeing a mountain sunset are milder forms of religious experience, as are the states produced by effective rituals that invoke a sense of reverence and awe in the participant.

There is often a considerable difference in the importance placed on religious experience even among religious groups with relatively similar backgrounds. Among Protestant Christians, for example, the Pentacostalists give great importance to the direct emotional experience of the spirit of God, whereas the Puritans reject such emotionalism in favor of Bible studies and ethical discipline.

In societies with a single dominant faith, religious affiliation often becomes a taken-for-granted assumption and does not necessarily play a significant role in personal identity. The more religiously divided a society is, however, the more central the religion is likely to become in defining who one is. In pluralistic countries such as the United States, religious affiliation commonly provides a sense of belonging amid the anonymous institutions of mass society.

Religious identity is often mixed with ethnic identity— to be an Arab in many parts of the world is to be a Muslim, just as Serbs are identified with Orthodoxy , Croatians with Catholicism, and Thais with Buddhism . This combination can be an explosive one in areas with high levels of ethnic conflict. Religious differences aggravate ethnic conflict by providing emotionally charged symbols, systems of meaning that compete for cultural dominance, and a certain tendency to see one’s own group as having a monopoly on the truth.

Religion can play another role in personal identity by reinforcing a definition of oneself as a particular kind of person. Those with high levels of religious involvement and commitment often define themselves as more moral, more spiritual, or more wise than other people. Many religious groups hold that their faith is the one true faith, and even that fellow believers are an elite group that will receive heavenly rewards in the afterlife, whereas all others will suffer horrible torments. So the members of such groups tend to see themselves as part of a special elite of the “saved.” Although such beliefs can obviously reinforce self-esteem, they can also foster fear and anxiety if one fails to live up to the expectations of the religious group or begins to doubt the truth of its doctrines. They can also encourage a sense of hostility or even violence toward nonbelievers.

Religion may also have a critical role in sustaining identity change. In most societies, religiously rooted rites of passage publicly declare and reinforce changes in social status and the new identity that goes with them, for example, coming of age or marriage ceremonies. Religious groups may play a critical role in helping individuals make other radical changes in their lives as well. Religious organizations have often succeeded in helping drug abusers and compulsive gamblers where other programs have failed, because they offer an attractive new identity and a strong community to support it. A religious conversion or recommitment often follows various kinds of personal crises for much the same reasons.

Although there is a considerable amount of sociological research about “religious conversion,” the concept is in some ways an unfortunate one for it seems to imply an all-or-nothing dichotomy. One is a member of one religion and then “converts” to a different one. In many cases, however, a “conversion” is more like a renewal or return to existing religious beliefs. Moreover, despite the exclusivity of many Western religions, there is no particular reason to assume that people must leave their old religion before joining a new one. A substantial percentage of the population of Japan would, for example, identify themselves as both Shintoists and Buddhists.

Most of the sociological research on conversion and commitment focuses on one of two types of religions— fundamentalist Christians and members of what are called the new religious movements . The most striking finding of the research on conservative Christian faiths is that most of their “converts” actually came from the same kind of conservative Christian background. Richardson and Stewart’s (1978) study of the Jesus Movement in the 1960s and 1970s found that most of their converts were “hippies” who were returning to their original fundamentalist roots. Bibby and Brinkerhoff’s (1974) study of fundamentalist churches in a large metropolitan area in the United States also found that most converts were already religious insiders from evangelical backgrounds. Unlike the popular image of religious conversion, Zetterberg (1952) found that only 16 percent of converts to the Christian Church he studied experienced a sudden change in lifestyle. For most of his subjects, religious “conversion” was more like a “sudden role identification” in which they identified themselves more clearly in religious terms.

The media attention in the 1960s and 1970s to religious cults that appeared to be brainwashing young converts stimulated considerable sociological attention on this subject. To avoid the stigma attached to the term cult, however, sociologists now more often use the term new religious movements (NRMs) (see Roberts 2004:187–197). But somewhat confusingly, the term does not apply to any new religion only but to groups outside the religious mainstream that have an intense encapsulating community and often a strong charismatic leader. The most well-known study of conversion to NRMs is John Lofland’s work on the Unification Church of Reverend Sun Myung Moon. Lofland (1966) found that conversion to the Unification Church followed a series of stages. First, the potential convert was “picked up” by members of the group, then he or she was showered with attention and “hooked.” In the next stage, they are “encapsulated”—isolated from contacts with those outside the group—and the final result is “commitment” to the group. Lofland’s model has been criticized for giving potential converts too passive a role in the process, something he himself later recognized (Snow and Phillips 1980; Lofland and Skonovd 1981).

Like other researchers, Lofland (1966) concluded that people with high levels of emotional tension and dislocations are more prone to religious conversions. Conversion or a renewed religious commitment is, then, one possible response to intractable personal problems. Thomas O’Dea (1966) argued that religious conversion was also part of a “quest for community.” Migrants, marginalized people seen as deviants by mainstream society, and others suffering from anomie and social disorganization are therefore prime candidates for a transforming religious commitment.

Sociologists, however, often neglect the obvious point that in addition to the desire to deal with pressing personal difficulties and to be part of a supportive community, people also make religious conversions for religious reasons. That is, they seek some kind of spiritual growth or religious experience. The members of the Western Buddhist groups that Coleman (2001) surveyed ranked the desire for spiritual growth as a more important reason for getting involved in Buddhism than a desire to deal with personal problems or to be with other members of those groups. More tellingly, the average respondent reported that they began to meditate about four years before they joined a Buddhist group—obviously, not something we would expect of someone whose primary goal was to find a supportive social community.

There is probably no other sphere of human life in which more effort is made to maintain unchanging traditions than in religion. Yet religious life everywhere is in a constant state of dynamic change. Even in the most stable eras, religious beliefs and practices are undergoing continual change from generation to generation, and new religious movements often spring up unexpectedly to challenge orthodox views.

Weber traced the origins of most religious movements to charismatic leaders, who are often the bearers of radical new religious ideas. The charismatic leader, according to Weber (1947), has “a certain quality of . . . individual personality by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities” (pp. 358–59). The qualities and insights of the charismatic leader are creative, out of the ordinary, and spontaneous, and as such she or he is a major source of social change and innovation. When the charismatic leader issues a call, people follow, and things change. Thus, charismatic leaders are often seen as a threat to established religion, which may respond with various repressive measures.

In its early days, the charismatic religious movement draws its legitimacy and inspiration from its leader. But once the charismatic leader dies, the movement is thrown into crisis. If the movement is to survive, it must undergo a process Weber termed the “routinization of charisma.” The special inspiration and magical quality of the leader must be incorporated into the routine institutionalized structures of society. In literate societies, the words and actions of the leader are written down and become revered holy books. The followers who gathered around the leader are typically subsumed into a formalized religious institution with the charismatic figure’s inner circle as its leaders. Rules, rituals, and specialized roles are developed to keep the leader’s message and the religious movement going.

This process of institutionalization is essential if the movement is to survive, but ironically, it can also sap its religious vitality and even subvert the intentions of the founder. As religious institutions become more powerful and more bureaucratic, the goals of the leaders are often displaced from spiritual objectives to the maintenance and enhancement of their own positions. Rituals and practices that were once vital and alive become stale, and the enthusiasm of the original converts is replaced by the complacency of those born into the faith. As this trend continues, the religion often generates revival movements that seek to shake things up and return to the original message of its charismatic founder.

The success of a new religious movement depends on both the qualities and skill of the charismatic leader and its sociological context. The religious message of the successful movement must have a stronger affinity to the needs and aspirations of particular status groups than competing religions. Political power is often critical to the expansion of the religion, as when conquering Islamic warriors propagated their faith across North Africa and the Middle East, or when the Christian faith of the European colonialists was spread throughout the vast empires they subjugated.

The most widely used typology of religious organization is probably Weber’s church- sect dichotomy. This useful, if somewhat Eurocentric, typology has been the subject of repeated elaborations and refinements over the years. Niebuhr (1957) added a third category, the denomination , between the first two, and some add a fourth (the cult), while still others have created subcategories within each broad type (Troeltsch 1931; Yinger 1970; Stark and Bainbridge 1985). Unfortunately, as the categories proliferated and their contents were elaborated in different ways by different sociologists, the classificatory scheme has become increasingly unwieldy.

The basic idea behind Weber’s original classification is, however, still a valuable one especially when conceptualized as a continuum rather than a series of ideal types. At one end is the “church” or, less Eurocentrically, the “established religion.” It is broad and universal and its members are usually born into the faith. It is well accommodated to the established order and, indeed, often receives official state support. At the other end is the sect, which is small and exclusive. Membership in the sect is by choice, and it demands a high degree of commitment and involvement. The roots of sectarianism are usually in some kind of protest movement, and in contrast to the established religion, there is an ongoing tension between the sect and the social order. As time goes by, however, both extreme types of religious organization tend to move more toward the middle. As the original members of the sect are succeeded by later generations, it tends to accommodate itself with the dominant social order, while established religions eventually split or see their hegemony eroded by new religious competition. European Christianity, for example, started as a sect, grew into an established religion, and then fragmented into multiple denominations.

Sectarian movements are most popular among the poor and disprivileged, groups that are naturally in a greater state of tension with the established order. But there are significant class differences even within established religions. In general, lower social strata have an affinity for emotional and expressive religion, while the middle and upper middle classes prefer more self-controlled rationalistic practice, and the upper class shows an attraction to elegant ceremony. In traditional Japan, for example, devotional Pure Land Buddhism was most popular among the peasants, and the disciplined Zen sect among the samurai, while the ritualistic Shigon held special appeal to the royalty.

Religion commonly plays another important role in the stratification system by legitimizing social inequality. One classic example concerning class inequality is the Hindu belief that someone who diligently carries out the obligations of their caste will be reborn into a higher caste in the future. Religion often plays a similar role in perpetuating gender inequality. First, many religious doctrines explicitly relegate women to subordinate positions. The Koran, for example, instructs women but not men to obey their spouse, dress modestly, and limit themselves to a single marital partner. Second, religious organizations often themselves discriminate against women as a matter of official policy. In Christianity, for example, the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and many Protestant churches categorically exclude women from the clergy. Many religions, especially in the Western tradition, also encourage or even require discrimination based on sexual orientation. However, because organized religion has often sided with the privileged and the powerful, it does not mean that it always does, and there are also numerous examples of religious movements that sought to overturn or reform an unjust social order.

The relationship between religion and politics is therefore a complex one. In some cases, religious groups are an oppositional force challenging the established order, although some form of accommodation or active support is far more common. But even in the latter case, the relationship between religion and government takes many forms. At one extreme we have the theocracy, such as contemporary Iran, in which religious elites dominate state organization. At the other extreme are the totalitarian states that rigidly control religious practice, as occurred in most of the Communist countries, or that use religion as a tool of government policy, as was the case with State Shinto in Meiji Japan. Religion offers a way to legitimize ruling elites in much the same way as it does for the overall stratification system as, for example, in the European belief in the divine right of kings. Equally important, it can provide a palate of powerful symbols that can be used to justify specific government actions. In the contemporary conflicts in the Middle East, for example, one side justifies its actions in terms of an Islam Jihad, whereas the other does the same in terms of what Bellah (1970) termed America’s “ civil religion ” (the belief that God supports America and that it has a moral duty to spread freedom and democracy around the world).

Like all social institutions, religion has undergone a sweeping transformation as a result of the Industrial Revolution and the global changes it has wrought. Many of the early founders of the sociology of religion saw this religious change in relatively simplistic terms as a process of secularization in which old religious ideas and institutions were being replaced by new rational-scientific ones. Over the years, the advocates of this secularization thesis moderated their claims holding merely that the influence of religion on society and social life has declined as a result of this process of modernization (Roberts 2004:305–28). More recently, a number of scholars have challenged this thesis holding that people are as religious as they ever were and that the process of secularization has ground to a halt (e.g., Stark and Bainbridge 1985). Such claims touched off a powerful counterattack, and this remains one of the most hotly debated issues in the sociology of religion (Bruce 1996).

Much of the differences between the contestants rest on conflicting definitions of secularization, and, polemics aside, several points seem clear. First, although the trend is more marked in the core than the periphery, societies in all parts of the world are becoming more secular if by that we mean mythical and magical thought is being replaced by rational-scientific thought in many (but certainly not all) areas of social life. The world, in Max Weber’s term, is being “disenchanted.”

Second, there has been a sharp decline in the political and social hegemony of organized religion in European societies as they have undergone the process of modernization. This trend is, however, much less pronounced or nonexistent in other parts of the world. In societies where hegemonic monotheism never took root, religion played a much weaker political role from the start. The Animistic religions do not have much in the way of distinct religious institutions, and Asian societies have always tended more toward totalitarianism than theocracy. For example, the Chinese government under Mao Tse-tung began a harsh repression of organized religious activities before any significant process of modernization had taken place, and since then has slowly been loosening its grip as industrialization has proceeded. In recent years, religion has also become an organizing principle for various movements reacting against the contradictions and dislocations caused by the process of modernization and the global spread of consumer capitalism. The Islamic fundamentalist movement is a political/religious response both to the relegation of the Islamic cultures to a peripheral position in the world system with the foreign domination that that implies and to the spread of Western consumer values. Interestingly, Islamic fundamentalism was stimulated to a significant degree by the success of another political/religion movement, Zionism, in taking control of formerly Islam territories. And the growing militancy of Islamic fundamentalism, in turn, stimulated a counterreaction in India sometimes known as Hindu fundamentalism. Even the United States, with its hegemonic position in the world system, has seen the growth of its own political/religious movements. The rise of the religious right in America was, however, obviously not the result of foreign domination, but a response to changes in traditional family institutions and sexual mores that resulted from the growth of consumer capitalism.

Third, although individual religiosity is difficult to measure, there seems little reason to believe that people are any less interested than they ever were in the matters of “ultimate concern” that are the foundation of most religions. Of course, social crises can stimulate a change or intensification of religion interests. The rise of Sufism after the Mongolian conquest of the Middle East is one example, as was the rapid growth of new religions known as the “rush hour of the Gods,” which occurred in Japan following its devastating defeat in World War II. Nonetheless, no matter what form of social organization we adopt and what our historical circumstances are, the existential dilemmas that give rise to the religious impulse remain a fundamental part of the human condition.

Whatever the excesses of its early days, the sociology of religion played a vital role in establishing the independence of the social sciences from the religious worldview that dominated European thought. By making religion an object of scientific investigation like any other social phenomena, it broke through a deep cultural barrier to the understanding of the social world. Today, this critical freedom is often taken for granted, but it ranks as one of the major successes of the sociological enterprise.

As the twenty-first century unfolds, the challenges before the sociology of religion are quite different ones. The roots of the global political economy go back at least as far as the fifteenth century, but only with relatively recent advances in communications and transportation are we seeing the emergence of a truly global community. As the peoples of the world are bound ever more inextricably together, the protective social distance between the hegemonic claims of different religious groups have evaporated and smoldering conflicts burst into flame. The critical task of the sociology of religion in this new era is to free itself from its remaining bonds of Eurocentrism and to provide a balanced vantage point from which to begin unraveling the twisted knots of religious claims and conflicts. It is relatively easy for sociologists to laud the contribution that different religions have made to the common weal. It is a far greater challenge to point out the ways in which they foster violence, bigotry, and intolerance without fanning the flames of sectarian conflict. The sociology of religion is, nonetheless, in a unique position to provide the kind of cool rational voice needed to help foster a just pluralistic foundation for the emerging world community. But the success of this enterprise depends on sociology’s ability to live up to its own illusive ideals of objectivity and impartiality.


  • [ca. 14th century] 1978. The Cloud of Unknowing and Other Works. Translated by C. Wolters. Reprint, London, England: Penguin Classics.
  • Bellah, Robert. 1970. Beyond Belief: Essays on Religion in a Post-Traditional World. New York: Harper & Row.
  • Berger, Peter. 1969. The Sacred Canopy. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books.
  • Bibby, Reginald and Merlin B. Binkerhoff. 1974. “When Proselytizing Fails: An Organizational Analysis.” Sociological Analysis 35:189–200.
  • Bruce, Steve. 1996. Religion in the Modern World. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
  • Coleman, James William. 2001. The New Buddhism: The Western Transformation of an Ancient Tradition. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Durkheim, Émile. [1915] 1965. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Translated by J. W. Swain, Reprint, New York: Free Press.
  • Finke, Roger and Rodney Stark. 1992. The Churching of America, 1776–1990: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
  • Freud, Sigmund. 1957. The Future of an Illusion. Translated by W. D. Robson-Scott. Garden City, NJ: Doubleday.
  • Iannaccone, Laurence R. 1994. “Why Strict Churches Are Strong.” American Journal of Sociology 99:1180–211.
  • Kapleau, Philip. 1989. Three Pillars of Zen. Rev. ed. New York: Anchor.
  • Kurtz, Lester. 1995. Gods in the Global Village: The World’s Religions in Sociological Perspective. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge.
  • Lofland, John. 1966. Doomsday Cult: A Study of Conversion, Proselytization and Maintenance of Faith. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  • Lofland, John and Norman Skonovd. 1981. “Conversion Motifs.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 3:294–308.
  • Marx, Karl. 1844. “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.” Pp. 43–59 in Early Writings, edited by T. Bottomore. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. 1957. On Religion. New York: Schocken Books.
  • Merton, Robert K. 1957. Social Theory and Social Structure. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.
  • Niebuhr, H. Richard. 1957. The Social Sources of Denominationalism. New York: Meridian Books.
  • O’Dea, Thomas F. 1966. The Sociology of Religion. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  • Otto, Rudolf. 1923. The Idea of the Holy. Translated by J. W. Harvey. London, England: Oxford University Press.
  • Richardson, James T. and Mary Stewart. 1978. “Conversion Process Models and the Jesus Movement.” Pp. 24–42 in Conversion Careers: In and Out of the New Religions, edited by J. T. Richardson. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
  • Roberts, Keith A. 2004. Religion in Sociological Perspective. 4th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson.
  • Snow, David A. and Cynthia Phillips. 1980. “The Lofland-Stark Model: A Critical Reassessment.” Social Problems 27:430–47.
  • Stark, Rodney and William Simms Bainbridge. 1985. The Future of Religion: Secularization, Revival, and Cult Formation. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Tillich, Paul. 1967. Systematic Theology. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
  • Troeltsch, Ernst. 1931. The Social Teachings of the Christian Churches. Translated by O. Wyon. New York: Macmillan.
  • Warner, R. Stephen. 1993. “Work in Progress toward a New Paradigm for the Sociological Study of Religion in the United States.” American Journal of Sociology 98:1044–93.
  • Weber, Max. 1930. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Translated by T. Parsons. New York: Scribners.
  • Weber, Max. 1947. The Theory of Social and Economic Organization. Translated by A. M. Henderson and T. Parsons. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Weber, Max. 1951. The Religion of China. Translated by H. H. Gerth. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.
  • Weber, Max. 1952. Ancient Judaism . Translated by H. H. Gerth. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.
  • Weber, Max. 1958. The Religion of India. Translated by H. H. Gerth and D. Martindale. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.
  • Weber, Max. 1963. The Sociology of Religion. Translated by E. Fiscshoff. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
  • Yinger, Milton. 1970. The Scientific Study of Religion. New York: Macmillan.
  • Zetterberg, Hans. 1952. “The Religious Conversion as a Change of Social Roles.” Sociology and Social Research 36:159–66.

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Research Topics & Ideas: Sociology

50 Topic Ideas To Kickstart Your Research Project

Research topics and ideas about sociology

If you’re just starting out exploring sociology-related topics for your dissertation, thesis or research project, you’ve come to the right place. In this post, we’ll help kickstart your research by providing a hearty list of research ideas , including real-world examples from recent sociological studies.

PS – This is just the start…

We know it’s exciting to run through a list of research topics, but please keep in mind that this list is just a starting point . These topic ideas provided here are intentionally broad and generic , so keep in mind that you will need to develop them further. Nevertheless, they should inspire some ideas for your project.

To develop a suitable research topic, you’ll need to identify a clear and convincing research gap , and a viable plan to fill that gap. If this sounds foreign to you, check out our free research topic webinar that explores how to find and refine a high-quality research topic, from scratch. Alternatively, consider our 1-on-1 coaching service .

Research topic idea mega list

Sociology-Related Research Topics

  • Analyzing the social impact of income inequality on urban gentrification.
  • Investigating the effects of social media on family dynamics in the digital age.
  • The role of cultural factors in shaping dietary habits among different ethnic groups.
  • Analyzing the impact of globalization on indigenous communities.
  • Investigating the sociological factors behind the rise of populist politics in Europe.
  • The effect of neighborhood environment on adolescent development and behavior.
  • Analyzing the social implications of artificial intelligence on workforce dynamics.
  • Investigating the impact of urbanization on traditional social structures.
  • The role of religion in shaping social attitudes towards LGBTQ+ rights.
  • Analyzing the sociological aspects of mental health stigma in the workplace.
  • Investigating the impact of migration on family structures in immigrant communities.
  • The effect of economic recessions on social class mobility.
  • Analyzing the role of social networks in the spread of disinformation.
  • Investigating the societal response to climate change and environmental crises.
  • The role of media representation in shaping public perceptions of crime.
  • Analyzing the sociocultural factors influencing consumer behavior.
  • Investigating the social dynamics of multigenerational households.
  • The impact of educational policies on social inequality.
  • Analyzing the social determinants of health disparities in urban areas.
  • Investigating the effects of urban green spaces on community well-being.
  • The role of social movements in shaping public policy.
  • Analyzing the impact of social welfare systems on poverty alleviation.
  • Investigating the sociological aspects of aging populations in developed countries.
  • The role of community engagement in local governance.
  • Analyzing the social effects of mass surveillance technologies.

Research topic evaluator

Sociology Research Ideas (Continued)

  • Investigating the impact of gentrification on small businesses and local economies.
  • The role of cultural festivals in fostering community cohesion.
  • Analyzing the societal impacts of long-term unemployment.
  • Investigating the role of education in cultural integration processes.
  • The impact of social media on youth identity and self-expression.
  • Analyzing the sociological factors influencing drug abuse and addiction.
  • Investigating the role of urban planning in promoting social integration.
  • The impact of tourism on local communities and cultural preservation.
  • Analyzing the social dynamics of protest movements and civil unrest.
  • Investigating the role of language in cultural identity and social cohesion.
  • The impact of international trade policies on local labor markets.
  • Analyzing the role of sports in promoting social inclusion and community development.
  • Investigating the impact of housing policies on homelessness.
  • The role of public transport systems in shaping urban social life.
  • Analyzing the social consequences of technological disruption in traditional industries.
  • Investigating the sociological implications of telecommuting and remote work trends.
  • The impact of social policies on gender equality and women’s rights.
  • Analyzing the role of social entrepreneurship in addressing societal challenges.
  • Investigating the effects of urban renewal projects on community identity.
  • The role of public art in urban regeneration and social commentary.
  • Analyzing the impact of cultural diversity on education systems.
  • Investigating the sociological factors driving political apathy among young adults.
  • The role of community-based organizations in addressing urban poverty.
  • Analyzing the social impacts of large-scale sporting events on host cities.
  • Investigating the sociological dimensions of food insecurity in affluent societies.

Recent Studies & Publications: Sociology

While the ideas we’ve presented above are a decent starting point for finding a research topic, they are fairly generic and non-specific. So, it helps to look at actual sociology-related studies to see how this all comes together in practice.

Below, we’ve included a selection of recent studies to help refine your thinking. These are actual studies,  so they can provide some useful insight as to what a research topic looks like in practice.

  • Social system learning process (Subekti et al., 2022)
  • Sociography: Writing Differently (Kilby & Gilloch, 2022)
  • The Future of ‘Digital Research’ (Cipolla, 2022).
  • A sociological approach of literature in Leo N. Tolstoy’s short story God Sees the Truth, But Waits (Larasati & Irmawati, 2022)
  • Teaching methods of sociology research and social work to students at Vietnam Trade Union University (Huu, 2022)
  • Ideology and the New Social Movements (Scott, 2023)
  • The sociological craft through the lens of theatre (Holgersson, 2022).
  • An Essay on Sociological Thinking, Sociological Thought and the Relationship of a Sociologist (Sönmez & Sucu, 2022)
  • How Can Theories Represent Social Phenomena? (Fuhse, 2022)
  • Hyperscanning and the Future of Neurosociology (TenHouten et al., 2022)
  • Sociology of Wisdom: The Present and Perspectives (Jijyan et al., 2022). Collective Memory (Halbwachs & Coser, 2022)
  • Sociology as a scientific discipline: the post-positivist conception of J. Alexander and P. Kolomi (Vorona, 2022)
  • Murder by Usury and Organised Denial: A critical realist perspective on the liberating paradigm shift from psychopathic dominance towards human civilisation (Priels, 2022)
  • Analysis of Corruption Justice In The Perspective of Legal Sociology (Hayfa & Kansil, 2023)
  • Contributions to the Study of Sociology of Education: Classical Authors (Quentin & Sophie, 2022)
  • Inequality without Groups: Contemporary Theories of Categories, Intersectional Typicality, and the Disaggregation of Difference (Monk, 2022)

As you can see, these research topics are a lot more focused than the generic topic ideas we presented earlier. So, for you to develop a high-quality research topic, you’ll need to get specific and laser-focused on a specific context with specific variables of interest.  In the video below, we explore some other important things you’ll need to consider when crafting your research topic.

Get 1-On-1 Help

If you’re still unsure about how to find a quality research topic, check out our Research Topic Kickstarter service, which is the perfect starting point for developing a unique, well-justified research topic.

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Sociology of Religion , the official journal of the Association for the Sociology of Religion, is published quarterly for the purpose of advancing scholarship in the sociological study of religion. The journal publishes original (not previously published) work of exceptional quality and interest related to the sociological study of religion from all parts of the world without regard to substantive focus, theoretical orientation, or methodological approach. Although theoretically ambitious, empirically grounded articles are the core of what we publish, we also publish agenda setting essays, critical reflections on the research act, and interventions into substantive areas or theoretical debates intended to push the field forward.

Articles published in Sociology of Religion regularly win professional awards. Recent award-winning articles include:

2022 – Society for the Scientific Study of Religion – Distinguished Article Award - Gary J. Adler, Jr., Selena E. Ortiz, Eric Plutzer, Damon Mayrl, Jonathan S. Coley, and Rebecca Sager - Religion at the Frontline: How Religion Influenced the Response of Local Government Officials to the COVID-19 Pandemic

2022 – Society for the Scientific Study of religion – Distinguished Article Award, honorable mention – Ruth Braunstein - A Theory of Political Backlash: Assessing the Religious Right’s Effects on the Religious Field

2021 – Society for the Scientific Study of Religion – Student Paper Award - Claire Chipman Gilliland and Laura Krull – Getting Permission to Break The Rules: Clergy Respond to LGBTQ Exclusion in the United Methodist Church

2022 – American Sociological Association – Student Paper Award – Valentina Cantori - Inclusive and Included? Practices of Civic Inclusivity of American Muslims in Los Angeles

Building on this legacy, Sociology of Religion aspires to be the premier English-language publication for sociological scholarship on religion and an essential source for agenda-setting work in the field.

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Sociology of Religion

Imagine a giant puzzle where each piece shows a different part of how people live. One huge, important piece of this puzzle has pictures of temples, churches, mosques, and special holidays – that’s the piece for religion. The Sociology of Religion is like studying this puzzle piece to figure out where it fits and how it shapes the picture of our lives. It helps us see why some people might take a day off work for a religious holiday, why certain foods are eaten or avoided, and how people’s beliefs might influence the leaders they vote for.

Another way to understand the Sociology of Religion is thinking about it as a bridge. Like a bridge connects two sides of a river, this field connects our beliefs to everything else in society. It shows us why sometimes we wear certain clothes, say specific things, or follow traditions that have been around for a long time. It’s like being an explorer, traveling through different parts of life to see how religion plays a role in shaping everything – from simple daily routines to huge, life-changing decisions.

Types of Sociology Of Religion

You know how you have a favorite type of pizza or a game you love to play? Well, just like that, there are different approaches within the Sociology of Religion to study and understand its role in society. Let’s explore a few of them:

  • Church-Sect Typology: This helps researchers sort religions into categories, like big, well-known religions or small, newer groups. It’s like sorting your music playlist by genre.
  • Secularization Theory: This theory explores how the role of religion might be changing in the modern world, becoming one option among many in our lives, just like picking out what to wear in the morning.
  • Religious Pluralism : This celebrates the idea that lots of different religions can exist side by side in one society. Picture a garden with many kinds of flowers growing together, each adding its unique color to the landscape.

Examples of Sociology Of Religion

  • A study looking at how different religious groups give to charity is a great example. It might find that the values taught by each religion inspire people to help others in need, showing how beliefs move people to take action.
  • Observing why a community celebrates certain holidays can show how religion influences what’s considered important or special, and why some days are set aside to rest, remember, or party. It’s like how birthdays are special because they mark the importance of each person.
  • Examining how religious leaders talk about climate change can reveal how beliefs can shape opinions on caring for the planet. It’s similar to how our friends can influence what music we like or the clothes we think are cool.

Why is it important?

Why give time to learn about the Sociology of Religion? Because it’s like a secret ingredient in the recipe of our society. Finding out about it can help us understand why people do the things they do because of their faith. This knowledge helps us live together in a world where we meet people from all kinds of backgrounds every day. We can better appreciate why a friend’s family may rest on a different day of the week or why a classmate wears certain clothes for religious reasons.

Importantly, it can also prevent misunderstandings and help make sure everyone feels respected and valued, which is super important in our own neighborhoods and even in other parts of the world. Knowing about different religions through sociology can help us have friendly conversations and make smart choices that consider everyone’s beliefs. It can even help us see why some laws are made a certain way or why some big world events happen.

The research of Sociology of Religion started way back with smart people like Max Weber and Émile Durkheim. They lived a long time ago and started to think deeply about how religion and society help shape each other. Durkheim was interested in how things like ceremonies and rituals could bring people together. Weber was curious about the connection between religious beliefs and big economic systems like capitalism. These thinkers asked lots of questions and opened doors to new ideas about understanding society.


Not everyone agrees on everything when it comes to Sociology of Religion. Some people think religion is like an old road that’s slowly being replaced by newer paths. But others think that spiritual stuff is just taking on new forms that aren’t as easy to see. There’s also a debate about whether religion is mainly a good thing, like glue that sticks society together, or if sometimes it can cause problems and disagreements.

The role of religion in countries today is another hot topic. Should religious ideas help make laws? Or is it better to keep religious groups and government separate so everyone feels included? These are some of the big questions people wrestle with in the sociology of religion.

Other Important Facts about Sociology Of Religion

This field stays up-to-date with the latest trends, like how people moving around the world are changing religious communities and how the roles of men and women in religions keep evolving. It’s all about staying close to what’s happening in the real world regarding faith and belief because as long as people believe in something, those beliefs will influence how we live together.

With the world getting smaller every day, the Sociology of Religion is like a helpful guidebook. It helps us solve the tricky puzzles that arise when different beliefs come together. With this knowledge, we can build communities that respect everyone’s faith while maintaining peace and friendliness.

Related Topics

Exploring the Sociology of Religion brings us close to some other interesting subjects.

  • Anthropology of Religion: This field looks at the religious beliefs and practices of different cultures, sometimes focusing on tribes or cultures not well known. It’s more about the specific customs and spiritual life of a community.
  • Psychology of Religion: Here, the focus is on what happens inside a person’s head. It asks questions like why people believe what they do and how those beliefs influence their emotions and decisions.
  • Philosophy of Religion: This is where big, mysterious questions are tackled. It looks into the reasons we might have any beliefs at all and tries to find deeper meanings behind religious thoughts and practices.

The Sociology of Religion is a key piece of the social puzzle, helping us figure out how beliefs shape society and vice versa. From personal actions to global events, it impacts all aspects of life. Through different types, examples, and original thinkers in the field, we’ve seen that religion isn’t just about individual beliefs – it’s a social force with a powerful influence on shared cultures and international relations. Knowing how this works helps us navigate a world bursting with a range of beliefs, fostering harmony and unity. As society keeps changing, the insights from the Sociology of Religion will keep helping us to live together in respect and peace, making it more important than ever to understand and value everyone’s beliefs.

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  1. Sociology of Religion

    The official journal of the Association for the Sociology of Religion. Publishes original research that advances scholarship in the sociological study of religion. Articles are not limited in their substantive focus, theoretical orientation, or methodological approach.

  2. 15.1 The Sociological Approach to Religion

    In the wake of nineteenth century European industrialization and secularization, three social theorists attempted to examine the relationship between religion and society: Émile Durkheim, Max Weber, and Karl Marx. They are among the founding thinkers of modern sociology. As stated earlier, French sociologist Émile Durkheim (1858-1917 ...

  3. Advance articles

    Oxford University Press is a department of the University of Oxford. It furthers the University's objective of excellence in research, scholarship, and education by publishing worldwide

  4. Journal: Sociology of Religion

    ABOUT OUR JOURNAL: SOCIOLOGY OF RELIGION Sociology of Religion, the official journal of the Association for the Sociology of Religion, is published quarterly for the purpose of advancing scholarship in the sociological study of religion.The journal publishes original (not previously published) work of exceptional quality and interest without regard to substantive focus, theoretical orientation ...

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    The official journal of the Association for the Sociology of Religion. Publishes original research that advances scholarship in the sociological study of religion. Articles are not limited in their substantive focus, theoretical orientation, or methodological approach.

  6. Sociology of Religion

    Sociology of Religion, the official journal of the Association for the Sociology of Religion, is published quarterly for the purpose of advancing scholarship in the sociological study of religion.The journal seeks to publish original (not previously published) work of exceptional quality and interest without regard to substantive focus, theoretical orientation, or methodological approach.

  7. Handbook of the Sociology of Religion

    Broadly inclusive of traditional research topics (modernity, secularization, politics) as well as newer interests (feminism, spirituality, faith based community action), this handbook illustrates the validity of diverse theoretical perspectives and research designs to understanding the multi-layered nature of religion as a sociological phenomenon.

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  19. About

    About the journal . Sociology of Religion, the official journal of the Association for the Sociology of Religion, is published quarterly for the purpose of advancing scholarship in the sociological study of religion.The journal publishes original (not previously published) work of exceptional quality and interest related to the sociological study of religion from all parts of the world without ...

  20. Sociology of Religion: Explanation and Examples

    The research of Sociology of Religion started way back with smart people like Max Weber and Émile Durkheim. They lived a long time ago and started to think deeply about how religion and society help shape each other. ... Related Topics. Exploring the Sociology of Religion brings us close to some other interesting subjects. Anthropology of ...

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    Question. 4 answers. May 17, 2012. Theory of religion and ritual according to post-modernism is not fitted to explain syncretism because post modernism is about rejecting the past. But, this ...

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    Top authors and change over time. The top authors publishing in Sociology of Religion (based on the number of publications) are: William H. Swatos (24 papers) absent at the last edition,; James V. Spickard (22 papers) absent at the last edition,; Rodney Stark (21 papers) absent at the last edition,; Joseph B. Tamney (19 papers) absent at the last edition,; Ted G. Jelen (15 papers) absent at ...

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    ABOUT PEW RESEARCH CENTER Pew Research Center is a nonpartisan fact tank that informs the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping the world. It conducts public opinion polling, demographic research, media content analysis and other empirical social science research. Pew Research Center does not take policy positions.

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    Religion and the construction of identity. Roman Palitsky, ... Harrison J. Schmitt, in The Science of Religion, Spirituality, and Existentialism, 2020 Experimental existential psychology research on the religious identity. Comprising several research programs, XXP has applied empirical methods to examine the various ways that religion emerges from, responds to, and produces existential anxieties.