A definition helps us to identify clearly the subject of our study. The primary task of sociologists, before undertaking any research, is that they should define the object of their study. Very often definitions tend to describe the content or substance of the object of study. However adequate care must be taken so that a definition provides the essential ideas of the object of study. Broadly, the following four characteristics of religion(s) have been identified in order to construct a sociological definition.

Religion is a Group Phenomenon

Religion involves a group of people. Religion is a shared system of beliefs and practices. Every religion emphasizes the need for collective worship. Festivals and rituals are occasions that bring people together. M.N. Srinivas (1978:202) in his study of a Coorg village observes that the festivals of village deities include a village dance, a collective hunt, and a dinner for the entire village. The collective dinner, in which the entire village participates, is called ‘urome’ (village harmony). Durkheim (1912), equates God with society, so much so that, when you worship God, you are worshipping your own society. According to Durkheim God is a human creation and a social creation that God is, in fact, born in the collective experience (“effervescence”) of coming together, leading to rituals.

Some people may hold that one’s religious affiliation should not be disclosed in public either through rituals or any religious marker. According to them, religion belongs to the realm of the private life. Some parents are not bothered about the religious affiliation of their sons or daughters, because it is their personal affair. Some people may even declare that. ‘Mera haath Jagannath’ while some may say that ‘my work is my religion’. Now, you might ask, whether these individual beliefs make a religion or not. The answer is that even these individual beliefs operate in the context of shared social values and norms and to that extent they can be treated like any other religion.

Many people may be critical about religion and some of us may reject it altogether. Yet the fact remains that since religion is an aspect of culture, we learn religious values, beliefs, and practices as we grow up in a society.

The ‘Supernatural’ and the ‘Sacred’

At the center of almost every religion lies the idea of the supernatural. The supernatural is something beyond physical understanding. It is ‘omnipotent’, ‘infinite’, or ‘extraordinary’. ‘Belief in supernatural beings’ was the definition for religion, offered by Tylor (1 87 l), a famous anthropologist. Belief in supernatural beings might also include belief in other kinds of beings like magic forces, angels, or souls of dead ancestors. Believers might arrange the supernatural beings in a hierarchy according to their power or they may differentiate the supernatural beings in terms of their functions. It should be interesting to note that Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, three Hindu Gods, are said to perform the functions of creation of the cosmic order, its maintenance, and destruction, respectively.

Though the supernatural is all powerful, ‘infinite’ and ‘beyond senses’, some people try to personify it is a human being. This can be considered as one’s attempt to – comprehend the supernatural. People also believe that favors can be extracted from supernatural forces or beings by pacifying them. Certain natural misfortunes may be explained with references to the anger or outrage of the supernatural. Moreover, it is not necessary that the supernatural must be personified as human beings. Supernatural beings can be natural forces as well, such as wind, fire, mountains, etc.

Yet the fact remains that the notion and experience of the supernatural is present in all religions across the globe. Indeed it is among the basic areas in which both religious specialists and laypersons happen to worship, respect nerve, and propitiate the sacred.

Some scholars have argued that there is a definite distinction between the ‘sacred’ and the ‘profane’. The ‘sacred versus profane’ is an opposition that corresponds to other oppositions like ‘otherworldly versus worldly’, and ‘extraordinary versus ordinary’. The sacred, says Durkheim (1912), is set apart and forbidden from the profane. The word ‘profane’ refers to unholy, secular, mundane. Rituals are occasions during which communication becomes possible between the profane and the sacred. If one wants to approach the sacred, one must purify the set by undergoing penance or by any other prescribed means. Many scholars have criticized this strict separation made by Durkheim between the profane and the sacred. Such a strict separation emerges out of a church or temple-entered understanding of religion. It has been widely pointed out by scholars that sacred impinges on many profane activities of everyday life. In turn, profane communicates with the sacred even during these worldly activities.

Beliefs and Practices

Religious belief is a system of knowledge about the divine and its relationship with the human. It is simply not enough to believe in the existence of a supernatural force. The knowledge of its existence must be explained to people and to generations to come. Beliefs serve the purpose of revealing the existence of the supernatural divine or sacred. Belief explains the nature of the divine, the deeds, actions, or words of the divine, and prescribes ways in which human beings can communicate with the divine.

Belief necessarily involves a sense of the past and speaks about a tradition, in the sense of a custom followed for a long time. It narrates the history of communication between the divine and human, and in doing so gives meaning to ritual.

A ritual is an act performed repeatedly and according to custom. It is ceremonial. and formal. Most often rituals are invested with specific purposes. Rituals are a series of symbolic actions which have a specific meaning in relation to religious beliefs. Rituals tend to be standardized, repeated, and condensed. In pre-modern societies, rituals tend to be very elaborate, and even minute details are observed carefully, in order to get full benefit. Rituals may be performed collectively, or individually. Where rituals are performed collectively, either everyone performs or only the specialists perform while the believers participate. Shaman, pujari, and priest are examples of ritual specialists. They recite extensive prayers. chants (mantra) and simultaneously perform the ritual acts.

There is a debate in sociology or religion on the nature of the belief and ritual. Some scholars have argued that ritual emerged before an elaborate system of belief. Durkheim is one among them. Another group of scholars argue that people tried to explain the mysterious through belief first and then the ritual followed. Let us now talk about religious behavior as a source of moral values.

Moral Prescriptions

In the previous section, we stated that religious beliefs and rituals help human beings to communicate with each other. When human beings define their relationship with the ‘sacred’, they also define their relationship with a fellow human being. Some behavioral patterns are prescribed as compulsory before one can relate to God. This is how morals are born out of religion. As an example, it must be pointed out that the ‘Ten Commandments’ form an essential component of Jewish-Christian – religion. Commandments are moral prescriptions for human beings to relate to God. Religion is the source of moral values, and religion without moral prescriptions is virtually not possible. Religion can distinguish between right and wrong, more powerfully than other social institutions.

There are many sources of moral prescriptions in a society, such as family, education, and law. People who believe in a particular religion are also expected to adhere to its moral prescriptions. Thus, more prescriptions come to be shared by all the members of the group. Religion and certain of its moral prescriptions are more relevant today than ever before because some people hold that science is increasingly becoming inhuman. Billions of dollars are poured into arms and weapon manufacture, military science, and technology when millions of human beings die of starvation in Africa, Latin America, and many other parts of the globe. In this context, military- defense expenditure becomes a moral issue. For example, in order to follow the religious principle of non-violence, prevention of the increasing militarization of science can become a moral commitment.

Additional Notes


“Supernatural” is a term that refers to phenomena, events, or entities that are beyond the scope of what is considered natural or explainable by the laws of science and the physical world. These can include things like ghosts, demons, angels, psychic powers, and other paranormal occurrences. The concept of the supernatural is often explored in folklore, religion, mythology, and popular culture.

One of the most well-known uses of the term “Supernatural” is in reference to the American television series of the same name. “Supernatural” was a long-running TV show that focused on two brothers, Sam and Dean Winchester, who travel the country hunting supernatural creatures, demons, and other paranormal threats.

The idea of the supernatural is subjective and varies from culture to culture, and belief in the supernatural can range from a deeply held religious belief to a more skeptical or secular perspective. Some people believe in supernatural phenomena and experiences, while others view them as products of human imagination, superstition, or psychological factors.

Religious belief refers to the acceptance and adherence to a set of beliefs, doctrines, practices, and values associated with a particular religion or faith. These beliefs are typically based on the teachings, scriptures, and traditions of a specific religious tradition, and they often encompass ideas about the nature of the divine, the meaning and purpose of life, morality, and the afterlife.

Religious beliefs

Religious beliefs can vary significantly from one religion to another. Here are some common elements of religious belief:

  1. Belief in a Higher Power: Most religions involve the belief in one or more deities, gods, or a transcendent power. For example, Christianity believes in one God, while Hinduism encompasses a multitude of deities.
  2. Sacred Texts: Religions often have sacred texts or scriptures that serve as authoritative sources of guidance and wisdom. Examples include the Bible in Christianity, the Quran in Islam, and the Bhagavad Gita in Hinduism.
  3. Rituals and Worship: Religious beliefs are often expressed through rituals, prayers, ceremonies, and worship practices. These rituals can be communal or individual and serve to strengthen one’s connection to the divine.
  4. Moral and Ethical Codes: Religions typically offer moral and ethical guidelines that believers are expected to follow. These codes can include principles related to kindness, honesty, charity, and justice.
  5. Afterlife Beliefs: Many religions have beliefs about what happens after death. These beliefs can involve concepts of heaven, hell, reincarnation, or other forms of spiritual existence.
  6. Community and Fellowship: Religious beliefs often promote a sense of community and fellowship among believers. Places of worship, such as churches, mosques, temples, and synagogues, play a role in bringing people together for spiritual and social purposes.
  7. Salvation or Enlightenment: Different religions have varying beliefs about how individuals can attain salvation, enlightenment, or a closer relationship with the divine. This often involves faith, good deeds, or spiritual practices.

Religious beliefs are deeply personal and can be a source of meaning, purpose, and identity for many individuals. They can also influence a wide range of behaviors and decisions, including lifestyle choices, moral judgments, and relationships. It’s important to note that religious belief and practice can vary greatly, not only between different religions but also among individual adherents of the same faith.


A ritual is a prescribed, symbolic, and often formalized action or series of actions that are performed in a specific sequence and often have deep cultural, religious, or social significance. Rituals can be found in various aspects of human life and serve a variety of purposes. Here are some key aspects of rituals:

  1. Cultural Significance: Many rituals are deeply rooted in the culture and traditions of a specific group or community. They can serve to reinforce cultural identity and values.
  2. Religious Rituals: In the context of religion, rituals play a central role in worship and spirituality. These rituals can include prayer, meditation, sacraments, and ceremonies that are performed in accordance with religious beliefs and teachings.
  3. Social Rituals: Social rituals are often related to significant life events and transitions. For example, marriage ceremonies, funerals, and coming-of-age rituals mark important moments in a person’s life and are often accompanied by specific customs and ceremonies.
  4. Symbolism: Rituals are laden with symbolism. The specific words, actions, and objects used in a ritual are often meant to convey deeper meanings and messages. For example, the exchange of rings in a wedding ceremony symbolizes the union of two people.
  5. Repetition and Consistency: Rituals are typically repetitive and follow a set pattern or order. This repetition can create a sense of stability, predictability, and comfort for individuals and communities.
  6. Sacred Spaces: Many rituals are performed in designated sacred spaces, such as temples, churches, or shrines. These spaces are often considered to be particularly suitable for religious or spiritual practices.
  7. Transition and Transformation: Some rituals are associated with transitions or transformations. For example, initiation rituals can mark a person’s transition into adulthood or a new role within a community.
  8. Community and Bonding: Rituals often bring people together and strengthen social bonds. They create a sense of unity and shared experience among participants.
  9. Personal Rituals: In addition to communal and cultural rituals, individuals may also have personal rituals that they perform regularly. These can be a source of comfort and structure in daily life.

Rituals are a fundamental aspect of human culture and have been practiced throughout history. They serve various functions, from expressing religious devotion to reinforcing social norms and helping individuals navigate life’s transitions and uncertainties. The specific nature of rituals can vary greatly across cultures and belief systems, but they all share the common thread of using symbolic actions to convey meaning and significance.

Religion serves as a source of moral prescription

Religion serves as a source of moral prescription for several reasons, and the mechanism through which it does so varies among different religious traditions. Here are some of the key ways in which religion fulfills this role:

  1. Divine Authority: Many religions believe that their moral principles and ethical guidelines are derived from a divine source, such as God or gods. The moral teachings of the religion are seen as commands or guidance from a higher power, making them binding and absolute for believers. People often adhere to religious morals out of a sense of duty or obedience to their faith.
  2. Sacred Texts: Religious scriptures and texts, such as the Bible in Christianity, the Quran in Islam, or the Torah in Judaism, contain moral and ethical codes that are considered divinely inspired. These texts provide specific instructions and stories that illustrate moral principles and how they should be applied in various life situations.
  3. Religious Leaders and Institutions: Religious leaders, clergy, and institutions often play a role in interpreting and disseminating moral teachings. They may offer guidance and sermons that help individuals understand how to apply religious ethics in their daily lives.
  4. Community and Peer Influence: Religious communities can exert strong social pressure to adhere to moral values. People within a religious community often seek the approval of their fellow believers and are influenced by the behavior and attitudes of those around them.
  5. Fear of Punishment or Hope for Reward: Many religious traditions include beliefs about rewards in the afterlife for adhering to moral principles and punishments for transgressions. This can serve as a powerful motivator for individuals to follow the prescribed moral code.
  6. Ethical Framework: Religions provide a comprehensive ethical framework that addresses a wide range of human behaviors and interactions. This framework helps individuals make moral decisions and resolve ethical dilemmas by referring to religious teachings.
  7. Moral Education: Religious education and upbringing often involve instruction in moral values from a young age. Children are taught what is considered right and wrong in the context of their religion, which shapes their moral development.
  8. Cultural and Historical Influence: Religious moral principles can become deeply ingrained in a society’s culture and history. Even for individuals who are not particularly religious, the moral values of their culture may be influenced by the historical and ongoing impact of religious traditions.
  9. Sense of Purpose and Meaning: Religion often provides individuals with a sense of purpose and meaning in life. This can lead them to adopt and uphold certain moral values, as they see these values as contributing to their overall life goals and spiritual well-being.

It’s important to note that the extent to which religion serves as a source of moral prescription and the specific moral values prescribed can vary significantly among different religions and individual believers. People may interpret religious teachings differently, and the moral landscape within a religious tradition can evolve over time. Additionally, individuals may hold moral values that align with their religious beliefs or values that are independent of their religious affiliation.

sociological characteristics of religion

Religion is a complex and multifaceted social phenomenon that has various sociological characteristics. Sociologists study religion to understand its role in society and its impact on individuals and communities. Here are some of the key sociological characteristics of religion:

  1. Belief System: Religion involves a system of beliefs about the nature of the divine, the meaning and purpose of life, and the afterlife. These beliefs often form the core of religious identity and guide the behavior and values of adherents.
  2. Rituals and Practices: Religious traditions are characterized by rituals and practices, such as prayer, worship services, sacraments, and other religious ceremonies. These rituals are often performed in a communal setting and reinforce the religious community’s identity.
  3. Community and Identity: Religion fosters a sense of community and belonging among its followers. Religious communities provide a social network for individuals to connect with others who share their beliefs and values, creating a sense of belonging and identity.
  4. Socialization: Religion plays a role in socializing individuals into the norms, values, and moral principles of their religious tradition. This socialization begins at an early age and continues throughout a person’s life.
  5. Institutions: Religions often have established institutions, such as churches, mosques, temples, and synagogues, that provide physical spaces for religious activities and governance structures for religious organizations.
  6. Authority Figures: Religious traditions often have authority figures, such as clergy, priests, imams, and religious leaders, who guide the faith community, interpret religious texts, and provide moral and spiritual leadership.
  7. Sacred Texts: Many religions have sacred texts, scriptures, or holy books that serve as authoritative sources of religious teachings and moral guidance. These texts are central to the religious tradition.
  8. Morality and Ethics: Religions often provide a moral and ethical framework for their followers. They offer guidance on what is considered right and wrong, and these moral principles influence behavior and decision-making.
  9. Conflict and Cooperation: Religion can be a source of both conflict and cooperation in society. It has been a driving force behind conflicts, such as religious wars, but it has also promoted social cohesion, charity, and cooperation within religious communities.
  10. Social Change: Religion can influence and be influenced by social change. It has played a role in social and political movements and has adapted to changing social norms and values over time.
  11. Cultural Expression: Religion often contributes to a society’s cultural expressions, including art, music, literature, and architecture. These cultural elements are often used to convey religious themes and values.
  12. Cultural Variation: There is considerable cultural and regional variation in religious beliefs and practices. Different societies and regions may have their own unique religious traditions and rituals.
  13. Secularization: Some societies experience secularization, where the influence of religion on social and public life declines, while others remain highly religious. Sociologists study these trends in religious participation and influence.

Understanding these sociological characteristics of religion is essential for comprehending its role in society, its impact on individuals, and the dynamics of religious communities and institutions. Sociological perspectives on religion can help researchers and policymakers address issues related to religious diversity, tolerance, and the intersection of religion with other aspects of society.

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