Sociology 480 Fall 2015

Michael A. Toth, Ph.D.
Office: Cramer Hall 271-U
 Phone: 725-3626 or email:
Office Hours: by appointment


Course and Reading Schedule

Running Account of Course Prompts for Comprehensive Course Journal

To paraphrase W. I. Thomas' famous sociological maxim, "If people believe something to be real, it is real in its consequences." People believe - and an especially significant portion of what people believe is real is rooted in what we talk about when we talk about religion. People also act - and they act on the basis of what they believe - although they do not necessarily or always act on the basis of what they say they believe. The truth is that all of us often act on beliefs that we are not aware of.


The premise we start with in this course is that a crucial and core source of human belief and action in every society are to be found in the distinctive beliefs and practices which comprise what we call religion. 


This course is a first attempt - a broad and eclectic survey attempt - to come to grips with the peculiar human phenomenon of religion from the distinctive perspective of sociology, with a dash of the other social sciences thrown in. As such, it is not a course about religion in the sense of the history or the theology of different religions. It has almost nothing to do with whether or not any particular religion is true or false, if such a judgment should even be attempted. As Durkheim observed, "no religion is false," and while as a sociological observation this is true, it does not enable us to come to any conclusion about the ultimate "truthfulness" of any specific religion. In fact, this course is not about any particular religion at all, but rather about religion qua religion - thus it is not about Christianity or Buddhism, or about Catholics or Methodists or Muslims or Jews or Jainists or Sikhs, or even agnostics, for that matter, but about the universal and complex category of human beliefs and practices that we collect under the rubric of religion. In that sense it is about religion "writ large," and thus about all religions.


What we will do in this course is develop a base of sociological concepts, theories, and insights to help us make sense of this phenomenon - these religious beliefs and actions, their origins, implications, and consequences. To do this we will attempt to navigate a tricky path, for the sociological perspective requires us to both appreciate and critique these human behaviors without either embracing them or disparaging them. What makes this particularly difficult is that religion is, by its own claim, the ultimate source of the Absolute, the absolute source of the Ultimate - of "That Beyond Which One Cannot Go."  Religion, alone among human endeavors, makes the unique ontological claim of access to the Ultimate Ground Of Being. The sociological study of religion requires us to attempt the exceedingly difficult task of standing outside that ground of being. In striving for this perspective, one might rightly wonder, "Where then can I put my feet down?"  In other words, if a religious claim to ultimate comprehensiveness is to be respected and honored, how can it be possible to view that claim from some other vantage point? This is a profound and increasingly troubling question in light of the current world situation in which religion and politics are so often inextricably intertwined.

We are using two texts to help us in this endeavor:

The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion, by Peter L. Berger

Sociology of Religion: Contemporary Developments, by Kevin J. Christiano, William H. Swatos, Jr., and Peter Kivisto (listed in the reading schedule as CSK)

We will also be engaging various illustrative materials via video, audio, and the web.

The course will move along the following lines, in a series of inter-leavening topics, and in (and among) three main phases:

Phase One: First, something about the course and its requirements and activities, together with my expectations for us all.  Then, a brief background in some general sociological concepts and a look at the nature of human nature.  We will want to develop a broad overview of the ways in which sociologists have tried to understand religion and the more specific concepts in terms of which they have attempted to make sense of it. Then we will look at some of the classical theoretical explanations and a closer and more detailed look at religion primarily in the West. Finally, we will come to grips with the modern dynamics of secularism and pluralism.

Phase Two:
Generally following the sequence in the CSK text we will look at a series of what I have called "American particulars" - ways in which the American religious experience connects with other societal dynamics: class, status, and power; ethnicity and race; sexuality and gender; fundamentalism and evangelicalism; the mass media and popular culture. While specific to the U.S., these are dynamics that, in one way or another, relate to religion in every social context, and we will hopefully view these instances as instructive in that larger sense as well.


Phase Three: Finally, we will bring our learnings to bear in the broader context of national and world-wide social issues, locating them in relation to contemporary trends and tendencies, to our present American cultural, economic, political, and military hegemony, to the potential "clash of civilizations," and to some tentative yet still tension-filled "resting place" of where we are now.


The topics, readings, and other elements of each class meeting of these phases are spelled out in greater detail in the accompanying schedule.


Here is some of what I hope we will learn:

  • Ways in which religion and religiousness is inherently human and therefore how it is significantly present in some form in every society.

  • A range of organizing concepts through which we may better describe, analyze, and make sense of religion and religiousness.

  • Various significant sociological theories, explanations, and accounts of religious phenomena.

  • In particular, a solid grasp of Peter Berger's seminal theory, theses, and insights - together with those of Alfred Schutz and Ernest Becker -
    especially as they go beyond their application to religion alone.

  • An appreciation of some of the historical, developmental aspects of the American experience.

  • A greater understanding of socio-religious dynamics and issues in the current world situation.

 A good academic experience should provide ways to encourage you in achieving these learning objectives - and in measuring that achievement.  Here's how we'll do that in this class.

Maintaining a Comprehensive Course Journal

The Comprehensive Course Journal will include four distinct parts:

(1) Your reflective responses to specific prompts (questions, observations, etc.) that will be provided by the instructor during most class sessions;

(2) One article each week from the print news media that is concerned with religion in some way that you are able to connect up to the contents of the course. Included together with the article will be a one or two paragraph explanation of the way(s) in you make these connections.

(3) Based on the readings for each class session you are to write down a specific question based on the reading that you would like to pursue further and include this in your journal. You should anticipate the prospect of being asked to introduce one of these questions to the class for discussion.

(4) In addition, you will be encouraged to include reactions to other aspects of the course (readings, discussions, videos, etc.) as well occurrences which take place outside the classroom.

We will make an effort to actively incorporate aspects of these activities into the course itself as matters of exploration and discussion. 

Suggested Format for Comprehensive Course Journal:

I am going to recommend that you construct your Journal on a weekly basis.  This would mean that you would have 10 sections, each devoted to one week in the course. 


In each weekly section you would locate the following:


1) Your news clipping together with your brief summary of it and your ideas about how it connects with the course material in some personally meaningful way;

2) Your response to those prompts that I've identified for you as we wend our way through the course.


3) At least one "big" question that is prompted by your reading, the material presented in class (including media presentations), or even your news article. You may want to develop the habit of jotting down questions that occur to you as they happen.


4) Anything else that piques your curiosity that week, whether it is something that is directly associated with the class or no; it could be in response to a casual observation, an event, an overheard remark, something you find yourself thinking about, something you encounter on TV, or the internet, an offhand comment your grandmother said to you umpteen years ago, or something within your own religious (or non-religious) context - whatever. Jot it down, pause over it, muse about it, go wherever it takes you.


SO: Each week should have (ideally) 4 entries as above, or at least the first three. You should distinguish each week in some way and in sequence (e.g., week 1, week 2, etc) and you should distinguish each of the elements (1 - 4) described above.



There will be two exams: a mid-term and a final.  These will consist of a number of short essay questions with some choice as to which you questions you will answer. More information will be provided as the term proceeds.