The early sociological studies of religion had three distinctive mythological characteristics—Evolutionist, Positivist and Psychological. Ex: The works of Comte, Tylor and Spencer. But Emile Durkheim in his “Elementary Forms of the Religious Life”, 1912, made a different approach to the study of religion. He argued that in all societies, a distinction is made between the ‘sacred’ and the ‘profane’.
He emphasised the collective aspects of religion. He was of the opinion that the function of religious rituals is to affirm the moral superiority of the society over its individual members and thus to maintain the solidarity of the society.
Durkheim’s emphasis on ritual as against belief, later influenced many anthropologists to undertake functionalist investigations of religion. B. Malinowski and A.R. Radcliffe-Brown and other anthropologists were also influenced by the views of Durkheim.
In the study of religion in civilised societies, Durkheim’s theory has proved less useful. Here, religion not only unites people but also divides. In modern societies, beliefs and doctrines have more importance than ritual. Here, the sociological study of religion differs from that of anthropology.
It is more influenced by the ethical doctrines of the world religions. This approach can be witnessed in the works of L. T. Hobhouse and Max Weber. Hobhouse, in discussing religion in his major work “Morals in Evolution”,-1907, gave more importance to moral codes of the major religions and particularly of Christianity.
Max Weber’s treatment of religious beliefs differs in important respects. Firstly, it is not based on an evolutionary scheme. Secondly, it is mainly concerned with one major aspect of religious ethics.
That is, he wanted to examine the influence of particular religious doctrines upon economic behaviour; and the relations between the position of groups in the economic order and types of religious beliefs. He is less concerned with ethical doctrines as such. His famous work, “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” is an example of such an approach.
Comparatively, nothing more has been added to the theoretical development of a Sociology of Religion since the work of Weber and Durkheim. Weber’s influence has contributed to two main lines of study; (i) The characteristics, doctrines and social significance of religious sects, and (ii) the interlink between social classes and religious sects.
Ernst Troeltsch’s “The Social Teachings of the Christian Churches”, 1912, H.R. Niebuhr’s “The Social Sources of Denominationalism, 1929; and Brian Wilson’s ‘Sects and Society’, 1961, can be mentioned here as examples carrying Weber’s influence.
The Sociology of Religion seeks to offer a scientific explanation to religion. As Kingsley Davis says this “task is not easy. No societal phenomenon is more resistant than religion to scientific explanation”.
Two factors seem to be responsible for this- first an emotional and second a ‘rational bias’. “The emotional bias springs from the fact that religion by its very nature involves ultimate values, making it almost impossible to view with a disinterested attitude”.
The ‘rational bias’ would also create problems. Religion which involves transcendental ends, strong sentiments, deep-rooted beliefs, and symbolic instruments may appear to be fallacious to a “rationalist”.
He may attribute religion simply to ignorance and error and assume that when these are removed there will emerge the completely ‘rational’ man. Some hold that religion is an expression of instinctive emotions. These views are equally false, “The very non-rationality of religious behaviour is the thing that gives religion its vitality in human life”.