C HAPTER 14
I. Why Focus on Afghanistan?
A. On September 20, 2001, nine days after the September 11 terrorist attacks on
the U.S., President George W. Bush described those that hijacked the
commercial aircraft as belonging to a collection of loosely affiliated terrorist
organizations known as al-Qaida and led by Osama bin Laden.
B. Religious affiliation explains little about the causes behind terrorist acts or the
wars against terrorism.
1. Social, economic, and political circumstances cause people to draw
upon religion to justify responses that are defined as terrorism.
2. The sociological perspective is useful because it allows us to step back
and view in a detached way an often emotionally charged subject.
a. Detachment and objectivity are necessary in order to avoid
making sweeping generalizations about the nature of religions
with which we are unfamiliar.
II. What Is Religion?
A. Core Concept 1: When sociologists study religion, they are guided by the
scientific method and by the assumption that no religions are false.
1. When sociologists study religion, they do not investigate whether
God or some other supernatural force exists, whether certain
religious beliefs are valid, or whether one religion is better than
2. Sociologists adhere to the scientific method. It requires them to
study only observable and verifiable phenomena.
3. Sociologists investigate the social aspects of religion.
4. Definition oreligion
a. In The Sociology of Religion, Max Weber (1922) offered a broad
i. Religion encompasses those human responses that give
meaning to the ultimate and inescapable problems of existence
—birth, death, illness, aging, injustice, tragedy, and suffering.
ii. The hundreds of thousands of religions, past and present,
represent(ed) a rich and seemingly endless variety of responses
to these problems.
iii. As a result of this variety, Weber believed that no single
definition could hope to capture the essence of religion.
b. In The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, Émile Durkheim
( 1964) believed that religion was difficult to define.
i. He cautioned that when studying religions, sociologists must
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assume that “there are no religions [that] are false.”
ii. Those individuals that study religion must first rid themselves
of all preconceived notions of what religion should be.
III. Essential Features of Religion
A. Core Concept 2: Durkheim defined religion as a system of shared rituals and
beliefs about the sacred that bind together a community of worshipers.
1. Durkheim identified three essential features that he believed were
common to all religions, past and present: beliefs about the sacred and
the profane, rituals, and a community of worshipers.
B. Beliefs about the Sacred
1. The sacred - everything that is regarded as extraordinary and that
inspires in believers deep and absorbing sentiments of awe, respect,
mystery, and reverence
2. Definitions of what is sacred vary according to time and place.
3. Durkheim ( 1964) maintains that sacredness springs not from
the item, ritual, or event itself but, rather, from its symbolic power and
from the emotions that people experience when they think about the
sacred thing or when they are in its presence.
C. Sacramental, Prophetic, and Mystical Religions
1. In sacramental religions, followers seek the sacred in places, objects,
and actions believed to house a god or a spirit.
2. In prophetic religions, the sacred revolves around items that symbolize
historic events or revolves around the lives, teachings, and writings of
3. In mystical religions, followers seek the sacred in states of
being that can exclude all awareness of their existence,
sensations, thoughts, and surroundings.
4. Distinctions between sacramental, prophetic, and mystical religions
are not clear-cut.
D. Beliefs about the Profane
1. According to Durkheim ( 1964), the sacred encompasses more
than the forces of good. “There are gods of theft and trickery, of lust
and war, of sickness and death” (p. 420).
2. Religious beliefs, doctrines, legends, and myths detail the origins,
virtues, and powers of sacred things and describe the consequences of
mixing the sacred with the profane.
3. The profane encompasses everything that is not considered sacred.
4. People take action to safeguard sacred things by separating them from
1. Rituals - rules that govern how people behave in the presence of the
2. According to Durkheim, the nature of the ritual is relatively
insignificant. The important element is that the ritual is shared by a
community of worshipers and evokes certain ideas and sentiments that
help individuals feel that they are part of something larger than
F. Community of Worshipers
1. Durkheim uses the word church to designate a group whose members
hold the same beliefs regarding the sacred and the profane, behave in
the same way in the presence of the sacred, and gather in body or spirit
at agreed upon times to reaffirm their commitment to those beliefs and
2. Religious beliefs and practices cannot be unique to an individual. They
must be shared by a group of people.
3. Sociologists have identified at least five broad types of religious
organizations or communities of worshipers:
1. Ecclesia - a professionally trained religious organization that is
governed by a hierarchy of leaders and that claims everyone in a
society as a member.
a. Membership is not voluntary.
b. Membership is the law.
2. In its most extreme form, the ecclesia directly controls all facets of
1. Denomination - a hierarchical religious organization in a society in
which church and state usually remain separate. It is led by a
professionally trained clergy.
2. Membership is considered to be voluntary. Most people who belong
to denominations did not choose to join them; they were born to
parents who were already members.
3. Major denominations in the world include Buddhism, Christianity,
Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Shinto, and Taoism.
I. Sects and Established Sects
1. Sect - a small community of believers led by a lay ministry. It has no
formal hierarchy or official governing body to oversee its various
religious gatherings and activities.
2. Sects are typically composed of people that broke away from a
denomination because they came to view it as corrupt. These people
then created the offshoot in an effort to reform the religion from which
3. The divisions within Islam have existed for so long that Sunni and
Shia have become recognized as established sects—groups that have
left denominations or ecclesiae and have existed long enough to
acquire a large following and widespread respect.
4. Theoretically, people are not born into sects; they convert. They
choose membership later in life when they are considered capable of
making such a choice.
1. Cults - very small, loosely organized religious groups, usually
founded by a charismatic leader who attracts people by virtue of his or
her personal qualities
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a. The charismatic leader plays a central role in attracting members.
b. Cults often dissolve after the leader dies.
IV. Civil Religion
A. Core Concept 3: Civil religion is an institutionalized set of beliefs about a
nation’s past, present, and future and a corresponding set of rituals that take
on a sacred quality and elicit feelings of patriotism.
1. Civil religion - an institutionalized set of beliefs about a nation’s past,
present, and future and a corresponding set of rituals
a. Civil religion forges ties between religion and a nation’s needs
and political interests.
b. A nation’s values and rituals often assume a sacred quality.
c. Even in the face of internal divisions based on race, ethnicity,
region, or gender,
i. national beliefs and rituals can inspire awe, respect, and
reverence for the country.
ii. These sentiments are most evident during times of crisis and
war and on national holidays that celebrate important events or
B. Civil Religion and the Cold War
1. The Cold War (1945–1989) included an arms race. The Soviet Union
and the U.S. competed to match and then surpass any advances made
by each other in the number and technological quality of nuclear
a. Soviet and American leaders justified their direct or indirect
intervention on the grounds that it was necessary to contain the
spread of the other side’s economic and political system, to
protect national and global security, and to prevent the other side
from shifting the balance of power in favor of its system.
C. The United States and Muslims as Cold War Partners
1. The Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union made
Afghanistan a focus of these two countries’ conflict.
2. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) worked with the Inter-
Services Intelligence Agency, its Pakistani equivalent, on a plan to
recruit radical Muslims from all over the world to fight with their
Afghan brothers against the Soviet Union.
a. Military training camps, staffed with U.S. advisors, served to train
b. These Pakistani- and U.S.-supported recruiting and military
centers would eventually evolve into al-Qaida (“the base”).
3. The legacy of U.S.-supported training camps is that “key leaders of
every major terrorist attack, from New York to France to Saudi
Arabia, inevitably turned out to be veterans of the Afghan War”
D. Civil Religion and the Gulf War I
1. In 1990, at the request of the Saudi government, the U.S. government
sent 540,000 troops to the Persian Gulf region after Iraqi troops
E. Civil Religion and the War on Terror
1. Leaders use language to justify war and to articulate a national identity
in time of war.
a. The nation assumes a sacred quality.
b. Leaders project a moral certitude.
c. Some critics liken this moral certitude to “a kind of
fundamentalism” or a “dangerous messianic brand of religion, one
where self-doubt is minimal” (Hedges 2002).
2. The traits Durkheim cites as characteristic of religion apply to other
events, relationships, and forces within s