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Religion: Key Concepts and Definitions

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  • 0:08 Religion
  • 0:49 Religion: Profane vs. Sacred
  • 2:29 Faith: Rituals & Totems
  • 3:38 Religious Organizations
  • 7:01 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Erin Long-Crowell
Sociologists strive to study every aspect of religion in an objective way. In this lesson, we define religion and identify key concepts that are found in religion. We also discuss the difference between churches, sects, and cults.

Religion

Besides the family, religion is one of the largest social institutions that sociologists study. Throughout history, religion has been a central part of all known human societies. Sociologists study religion to understand religious experiences around the world and how religion is tied to other social institutions. They study religion objectively, and their purpose is not to judge. They do not attempt to say whether any religion is right or wrong. Instead, sociologists try to determine why religions take a particular form and how religious activities affect society as a whole.

Religion: Profane vs. Sacred

Religion can be defined as a social institution involving beliefs and practices based on the sacred. To better understand this definition, let's also define two other terms: profane and sacred. We define most objects or experiences as profane, which is an ordinary element of everyday life. Objects, like beds, computers, and phones, are profane, as are experiences, like going to work or brushing our teeth. Beyond the profane, most of us also consider some things sacred, which is set apart as extraordinary or holy and worthy of honor. Objects, like the Bible and the cross, and experiences, like taking communion, are sacred to some people.

Examples of things we may find sacred and profane in our daily lives
Profane and Sacred Examples

The dichotomy between the profane and the sacred is at the heart of religion. However, the objects or experiences that are considered profane and sacred aren't universal. For example, although most people regard most books as profane, there are others that certain religions consider sacred: Muslims venerate the Qur'an, and Christians revere the Holy Bible. Regarding experiences, Muslims remove their shoes before entering a mosque to avoid defiling a sacred place with shoes that have touched the profane ground outside. Christians do not use the sacred name of God while cursing, which is actually where the term 'profanity' originated - to profane the name of God.

Faith: Rituals and Totems

Sociology, even as a science, does not attempt to prove or disprove religious doctrine. Religion is a matter of faith, which can be defined as belief based on conviction rather than scientific evidence. Faith is frequently portrayed through the use of rituals and totems.

Rituals are formal, ceremonial behaviors that represent religious meanings. Rituals rely on symbols to convey their meaning and to reinforce that meaning for participants. Reading from the Torah during a bar mitzvah and touching the mezuzah when going through a doorway are examples of rituals in Judaism.

A totem is an object that is collectively sacred. Totems frequently symbolize both a group of people and that which the group considers sacred. For example, the image of the Buddha often serves as an icon representing the Buddhist tradition and community. To practicing Buddhists, it also represents the teachings and enlightenment of the Buddha.

Religious Organizations

Sociologists categorize the hundreds of different religious organizations by comparing them to churches and sects. It's important to note that every religion doesn't necessarily conform 100% to one or the other. Churches and sects merely represent ideal types, which help sociologists to make comparisons.

A church can be defined as a type of religious organization that is well integrated into the larger society. Churches have well-established rules and expect their leaders to be formally trained, educated, and/or ordained. Churches are integrated into the larger society in that they exist within neighborhoods and communities. It is commonplace for people to be members of churches and to treat the church as an ordinary aspect of life, just like work or school. Although most people associate the word 'church' with the building, with this sociological definition, churches would not only include the organizations that are based in Christian and Catholic worship centers but also those based in Muslim mosques, Jewish synagogues, and more.

On the opposite end of the religious continuum is a sect, which is a type of religious organization that stands apart from the larger society. It's typically a small, exclusive fellowship of people seeking spiritual perfection. The leader of a sect is not required to be trained or ordained, but instead, must exhibit great charisma and act as a role model. To members of a sect, religion is not just one aspect of life but a doctrine for how to live. A sect is typically formed as a breakaway group from an established religious organization who wants to practice a 'pure' form of that religion. Often, a sect discourages its members from extensive participation in mainstream society because they consider the world outside the sect to be corrupt and sinful. In extreme cases, members of a sect withdraw completely from society in order to practice their religion without interference. The Amish community is a good example.

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