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Level 4

4AAT1002 Introduction to the Sociology of Religion


The modules run in each academic year are subject to change in line with staff availability and student demand so there is no guarantee every module will run. Module descriptions and information may vary depending between years.

Credit value: 15
Module tutor: Dr Ruth Sheldon
Assessment: one three-hour examination (100%)

Students are reassessed in the failed elements of assessment and by the same methods as the first attempt.

Teaching pattern: ten two-hour classes over ten weeks. Lecture is the principal method of teaching in this module, but it also includes ample opportunities for discussion, dispute, and questions.
Pre-requisites: none

This module takes students on the path to understanding of how religious ideas, movements, and institutions shape and are shaped by individuals, groups, and societies. Students engage with ideas and theories of classical thinkers, such as Durkheim, Marx, and Weber, and with innovative and often provocative views and concepts of contemporary sociologists.  Among the questions for discussion are whether religion serves as ‘social cement’ or causes conflict; why and how it can reinforce the existing social order or encourage change; and how we can explain why people stay in conventional faiths or choose new, even exotic, religions – or maybe they are brainwashed into them? While grounded in the solid legacy of the ‘founding fathers’ of the sociology of religion, the module confronts a range intriguing contemporary issues such as whether religion is still socially significant or has become a ‘leisure pursuit’, and how contemporary popular culture and religion impact each other. Finally – and importantly – we discuss methods and approaches that sociologists use to study religion – and why their methodology often leads them to discoveries that challenge common assumptions and ‘official truths’ about certain religious beliefs, practices, and groups.

Sample topics

  • Sociological and non-sociological approaches to religion. Definitions of religion
  • Social scientific methods of studying religion: how can sociologists study religion if they do not study God?
  • Emil Durkheim: religion as ‘society worshipping itself’
  • Karl Marx:  religion as a universal compendium of human suffering
  • Max Weber: did Protestantism created modern capitalism? And why do we need charismatic religious leaders?
  • The secularisation debate: is religion losing its social significance?
  • What is the difference between ‘religion’ and ‘cult’?
  • Religion, Conversion and Identity
  • Religion and Popular Culture 

Further information

Module aims
  • to examine in depth classical and contemporary sociological theories of religion
  • to provide a sound understanding of the principal methods used in the sociological study of religion
Learning outcomes

Generic skills

  • Ability to analyse empirical evidence, texts and arguments
  • Ability to summarise and present arguments
  • Ability to research, plan and present essays to specified deadlines

Module specific skills

  • Understanding of the principal methods used in the sociological study of religion
  • Understanding and comparison of the classical theories of religion
  • Understanding of the contemporary theories of religion
  • Understanding of the role and significance of religion in the world today 
Past syllabi
Previous syllabus document available to download here for academic year 2015-16.

Please note that module syllabus and topics covered may vary from year to year.
Preliminary reading
  • Alan Aldridge, Religion in the Modern World, Cambridge: Polity (2007 or 2012)
  • Meredith McGuire, Religion: the Social Context (ch. 1 and 2), Waveland Press (any edition after 2002).


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