The sociological perspective is simply the process of viewing religion as an aspect of human behavior. In this context it is still important and complex, but no different from other human institutions such as marriage or the concept of ownership. This allows us to investigate religion as a facet of human civilization, rather than a right-or-wrong belief system with a supernatural authority.
Perhaps the most important advantage, at least in a historical context, is the uncoupling of religion from mysticism and institutional power. In the past, viewing religion as just another aspect of human behavior might have been considered distasteful or outright blasphemous; there are still people today who believe religion is in some sense "untouchable" or above human investigation and to do so is disrespectful. In fact, this attitude contributes to the value of the sociological perspective by highlighting the social behaviors that religion can inspire.
We might summarize the purpose and objectives of religion as including:
- Foster a spiritual relationship with a supernatural entity or consciousness
- Improve the quality of mortal life
- Establish moral guidelines that comply with both
How can a religion determine if it is successful at doing these things? Moreover, religion is an inherently unscientific practice; faith is not a testable hypothesis. Nevertheless, millions of people participate and find value in religion. The sociological perspective can help us to answer several questions objectively, which would not be possible under the burden of faith required by religion;
- Is religion improving the quality of life?
- Are all religions compatible with secular laws and attitudes?
- What constitutes a religion?
- How do institutional religions deal with conflict?
- Who stands to gain or lose power based on religion?
It is also important to recognize the powerful social effect that religion has regardless of its faith-based qualities; for example, the social stigma that is often attached to atheism, or the peer pressure to attend services, or indeed the common practice of raising a child to believe in the faith that their parents hold. All of these reflect strongly upon human behaviors, and not necessarily on the qualities of a specific religion. We might also consider how religion was historically used to punish or reward conquered peoples, or to unify them.
Finally, there is the "necessity" of religion to consider. An interesting junction between neuroscience and sociology is the question of whether religion is "hard-wired" into humans, and the exact nature of its origins and continued appeal, and how this might have shaped early human language, culture and the development of consciousness.