In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Religion

  • Introduction
  • Classic Works
  • Textbooks
  • Handbooks
  • Data Sources
  • Journals
  • Conferences
  • Religion as a Cultural System
  • Measurement
  • Individualism and Spirituality
  • Religion and Immigration
  • Religion and Race
  • Religion and Class/Stratification
  • Religion and Gender
  • Secularization and Pluralism
  • Congregations and Groups

Sociology Religion
John Evans, Lindsay DePalma
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 October 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 June 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0046


The sociology of religion is a social science that examines how people are religious but does not advocate for a particular theological view, as the field of theology typically does. Religion was an obsession of the first sociologists, and it has been argued that American sociology was invented in reaction to religion. Since that time religion has remained central to the sociological canon as religion has remained a central component of society. Sociologists up until the last quarter of the 20th century assumed that religion was in the process of a slow death—a process called “secularization.” Sociologists now see secularization as occurring only in certain parts of social life, opening the door to the study of the religious influences on a range of social behaviors such as immigration, race relations, and politics. For example, some scholars have asked why immigrants are more religious than others. Other sociologists continue to study religion itself in congregations, or as systems of belief. For example, some sociologists have asked why American religion is increasingly individualistic. American sociologists of religion have remained focused on religion in America and have made limited forays into other parts of the world. There is a related sociology of religion tradition in Europe.

Classic Works

Religion was the obsession of the first sociologists. The three most influential sociological theorists of the late 19th century—Marx, Weber, and Durkheim—all wrote about religion, and their ideas have been integral to the field ever since. While there remain scholars who debate what these classic authors meant in their writings, for most scholars what is important is what the sociological community has come to conclude that the authors meant. Since the “true meaning” of Weber is largely irrelevant to contemporary scholarship, it is important to know what sociologists think a “Weberian” perspective on religion is. Therefore, while I list the classic texts, these should be read in conjunction with reviews such as those found in the handbooks of the sociology of religion. Marx’s writings about religion (Marx 1977 and Marx 1978) are relatively scant, and embedded in much larger and more complicated claims, and are best approached with guidance. Durkheim’s religion claims are largely found in the Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (Durkheim 1965). Weber’s sociology of religion is much more varied and extensive, with some texts focusing on religion and the economy (Weber 1958) and others on religious change (Weber 1978). It is particularly important to approach Weber with a guide. One influential guide is O’Toole 1984.

  • Durkheim, Emile. 1965. Elementary forms of the religious life. New York: Free Press.

    Through this study of Aborigine religion, Durkheim concludes that the religions we worship are stand-ins for our societies. Later Durkheimians take this as the insight that religious systems are structured by the societies in which they are embedded. He also defines religion as rites and rituals concerning the sacred and profane.

  • Marx, Karl. 1977. Introduction: Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of right: In Karl Marx: Selected writings. By Karl Marx. Edited by David McLellan, 63–74. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    In the context of his early critique of Hegel, Marx makes his central claims about religion as an illusion, that “man makes religion, religion does not make man.” Also contains the famous claim that “religion is the opiate of the masses.”

  • Marx, Karl. 1978. The German ideology. In The Marx-Engels reader. 2d ed. By Karl Marx. Edited by Robert C. Tucker, 146–200. New York: Norton.

    A good source of Marx’s base-superstructure theory. Religion and other ideas are the superstructure arising from the economic epoch. The ideas of the ruling class are the ruling ideas in the epoch. Overthrow of the epoch will change religion.

  • O’Toole, Roger. 1984. Religion: Classic sociological approaches. McGraw-Hill Ryerson Series in Canadian Sociology. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson.

    Textbook providing mainstream sociological interpretations of the religion writings of Durkheim and Weber. Also good on the anthropological conceptions of religion that predated the classics.

  • Weber, Max. 1958. The Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. New York: Charles Scribner.

    Sociologists have taken this text to show that, contra Marx, it is not that economics determines religion but that religion determines economics, as the Protestant ethic led to the spirit of capitalism. This study of Christianity led to parallel studies of the religions of China, India, and ancient Judaism. Also important for Weber’s views of religious rationalization.

  • Weber, Max. 1978. “Religious groups.” In Economy and society: An outline of interpretative sociology. Vol. 1. By Max Weber. Edited by Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich, 399–634. Sociology of Religion. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press

    The other canonical Weber religion text. Covers origins of religion, magic, prophets, and priests; the religions of different social groups; and religious ethics of world religion, salvation, and theodicy.

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