The study of religion is a central consideration in the twin fields of sociology and cultural anthropology. Three major aspects of its importance to these fields include its role as a major factor in modern social behavior, its influence on the emergence of stratified societies, and its connection to the sociology of human belief.
Humans are deeply gregarious creatures, constantly looking to each other for affirmation, confirmation, and comfort. In addition, as Malinowski made clear in his study of the Trobriand Islanders, humans have a deep need to use ritual to attempt to exert control over uncertain situations. At the intersection of these two fundamentals of human nature lies religion. Through congregation, humans can achieve a Durkheimian sense of collective effervescence and togetherness. Through prayer and propitiation, they can feel as though they can influence aspects of the world which are beyond their control. Consequently, the presence of religious practices and rituals are not only ubiquitous across cultures, but these practices are simultaneously fundamentally important pieces of the culture they belong to and deeply symbolic of many of the culture’s individuals’ most fundamental needs and desires. To try to understand people, as sociologists do, without taking into consideration religion and religious practices would be a foolhardy and Quixotic quest.
In addition to its importance for understanding the behavior of modern peoples, religions are fundamental to any understanding of the prehistoric emergence of complex societies. As members of simple, egalitarian societies began to gain differing levels of economic success, a possibility brought about by the rise of agricultural behaviors and the possibility to store away goods of value, people of higher economic means had the capacity to acquire luxury or exotic goods at a higher rate and from further away than did their less well-off contemporaries. As demand for such exotica as foreign shells and feathers grew, the people who could acquire them could give them away, relying on the expectations of reciprocity to ensure that they would receive loyalty from their beneficiaries. In this way, the stage became set for the emergence of social classes and stratified society. However, class differences were ubiquitously shorn up by the acquisition of exotic religious emblems.
The way this works is simple: if you’re relatively wealthy, you use your influence to convince representatives to travel to a remote location to trade. These emissaries can also bring back mythology and religious iconography from your culture’s neighbors. Gaining authority over others is then a simple matter of showing these new gods to the rest of your society and then claiming that you and your relatives are the only ones who can communicate with this new deity. If the rest of society wants you to keep the deity from wreaking havoc on the land, they’d better provide you with plenty of propitiations, respect, and status. In this way, the noble classes are born.
This fact about religion’s role in the emergence of hierarchical society further elucidates the furor with which religions typically react when their monopoly over the society’s connection to a deity is threatened. If social power did not originally base itself on keeping secret the means of human-to-deity and deity-to-human communication, Tyndale would never have been burned at the stake for translating the Bible into a language that could be understood by his common countrymen.
In order to understand the developmental paths to which complex human societies conform, sociologists need to understand the fundamental role that religion plays in the development of culture.
Finally, religion is central to the important field of the sociology of belief. This field involves both the way that people believe in various things and the methodologies of careful claimsmaking, which is not a skill to which humans naturally gravitate. Religion is a form of belief that occurs in all known human societies, and it exemplifies many of the social and sociological needs that belief in and claims about the supernatural meet. Religion, in this way, is again fundamental to gaining an understanding of the nature of human interaction.
Ultimately, religion is one of the most important parts of being human. If sociologists failed to study it, it would be like a physicist trying to understand the universe without trying to identify or explain the strong nuclear force: the field just wouldn’t hang together.