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Exercises and Approaches for Exploring the Institution of Religion

From Bob Greene

        Religion remains the one topic that students might find the hardest for sociologists to adequately research. You might want to start this unit with some basic questions that address individual religiosity.

a) How do you define religion?

b) What does religion mean to you?

c) Do you believe in the supernatural?

d)  If you do believe in the supernatural, what do you imagine it to be?

        After a discussion of these questions, allow students to examine the chapter to see how sociologists can study such an abstract topic. Is any study of religion objective? What are the general principles that that hold true for all religions allowing for objective study of the topic?

        Why do studies suggest that teenagers are the least likely to be religious? What factors contribute to adolescent withdrawal from religion? What students still practice religion as they did when they were younger?

The Sacred and the Profane

        For fun, have students imagine that a particular object has become sacred. For example, a baseball bat is a profane object but if it were Babe Ruth’s bat, it would mean it is enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame. It will never be used again, thus taking on some of the characteristics of a sacred object. What other objects might fall into that category? Do objects only become sacred because humans give them meaning? Could we make an object sacred? For instance, have the class imagine that everything written on the chalkboard or overhead is sacred text. How might society be altered if many of us believed that object to be sacred?

Religion and the Major Theorists

        Since all three of the major theorists of sociology, Durkheim, Marx and Weber discussed religion’s impact on society, you might want to have students research each man’s contributions to our understanding of religion.

Sports as Religion

            One way for students to understand the components that comprise religion is to relate it to sports. Have students write down or discuss how sporting events have taken on the aura of a religious event. Have students write down a functionalist perspective on religion and next to it a functionalist perspective on sports, and then look for examples of how the two are similar. They might want to also do the same with the conflict and symbolic interactionist perspectives. Some examples might include:  Football games are played on Sundays, certain athletes are worshipped, shrines are set up in people’s homes  for their teams, clothing that people wear creates unity as they all identify under the same color. The bonds that people feel who identify with the same team.

Gendered God

        This is a demonstration and you will need four volunteers, two boys and two girls to leave the classroom for several minutes. Tell the students that they will be playing charades and when the students return, one by one, they will be told that they have to act out the word “God.” The class should play along and not give out the answer too quickly. What tactics will the four volunteers use to convey the word, God?  When the last volunteer has returned and finished acting out God, have the class discuss why society tends to gender God. It should be that the students, male and female, will give God a masculine identity. It might be helpful to have students determine why this is so and why some religions discuss the gendered duality of God.

Informal Study

        Church attendance is notorious for being over-reported. In one study (Hardaway, 1993) the researcher reported that although 33% of the Protestants he surveyed reported attending church, only 20% actually appeared in church. Results for Catholics yielded similar results. Fifty-one percent reported attending church but only 28% were in attendance. You might want to allow students to make similar observations at their own church but make sure that any observation complies with the American Sociological Association’s Code of Ethics.

Paired Learning Activity

        You might want to consider having students in your class research the various churches in your area, particularly if some of them are non-traditional. Students can write letters or phone the various churches as well as check out websites for those churches. They might want to focus their research on the charitable work of the church as well as support for political leaders. What programs does the church offer for its members as well as outsiders. Could the students determine the type of membership? It might help students to see how these churches serve important functions for those not attracted to, or affiliated with, mainstream religions.

Using Decision Making Skills:

Scenario: Members of the Youth for Christ and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes have requested permission to hold lunchtime prayer meetings as well as to continue meeting before and after school on Wednesdays at the flagpole. Your principal is forming a task force made up of students, teachers, parents, and an assistant principal. Your committee has been directed to reach a group consensus. Should these groups be allowed to conduct such activities on campus and what are their constitutional rights? Will you restrict religious freedom or allow these activities to continue?

Web-based Research

        The Gallup organization is one of the most highly respected research firms in the United States. It regularly conducts polls sociologists find useful to track religiosity. Search for studies of religion at Gallup’s web site.

1. Choose the most recent report that covers religious beliefs in the United States. Be prepared to summarize the results of the poll.

2. Do the results of the most recent poll differ significantly from what you believed previously

3. How might variables sex and age affect attitudes, behavior, and beliefs? What conclusions might we draw from the data?


Roberts, Keith. A. 1995. Religion in Sociological Perspective. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.