Churches and Religion
Despite the increasing secularization of Canadian society, religion continues to be one of
its most significant social institutions. Religion explains the unexplainable; it brings aid and
comfort to adherents; it brings people together—and it also tears people apart.
Sociologists have long had an interest in studying religion and its relationship with social
forces; not surprisingly, early sociologists such as Emile Durkheim, Karl Marx, and Max Weber
have differed in their views of religion and the role it plays in society. Emile Durkheim noted
that religion promotes social solidarity and social cohesion; it unites people through shared
symbolism, values, and norms. Karl Marx, on the other hand, viewed religion as a form of social
control that supports social inequality. Max Weber focused on the subjective meaning and
personal experience of religion. He viewed religion as a way of making sense of a seemingly
indifferent universe. He also noted that religious doctrines shape people’s world views, and in
turn, their world views shape their secular behaviour.
While religion may have lost much of its social relevance, the majority of Canadians
consider themselves either moderately or highly religious. In our multicultural society, religion is
increasingly becoming diverse. While Christianity is still the dominant religion in Canada,
immigration from non-Christian countries is growing. New religious movements are also altering
the religious landscape.
This chapter shows that religion may be changing, but it is not becoming obsolete.
In this chapter, you will
• define religion as a social phenomenon;
• recognize the role of religion today and the characteristics that define a religion;
• identify the trends of religious participation in Canada today;
• evaluate the contributions of religion to social well-being; and,
• understand how religion can both include and exclude others in civic relationships.
church: Any social location or building—church, mosque, synagogue, or temple—where
people carry out religious rituals. 2
civil religion: An organized secular practice that serves many of the same social functions as
traditional religion, by giving people direction, explaining how the world works, and providing
new religious movements (NRMS): Groups and institutions comprising people who share
similar religious or spiritual views about the world but who are not part of mainstream religious
religion: Any system of beliefs about the supernatural, and the social groups that gather around
secularization: A steadily dwindling influence of formal (institutional) religion in public life.
seekers: People and groups who draw on the teachings of several religions and philosophies to
fulfill their needs for spirituality.
Beaman, L. G., & Beyer, P. (eds.) (2008). Religion and Diversity in Canada. Leiden; Boston:
The essays that make up this book explore the many diversities of religion in Canada today,
including the many different religions that come from cultures around the world and the
different ways people have adopted a variety of religious practices into their everyday lives.
Bibby, R. W. (2002). Restless Gods: The Renaissance of Religion in Canada. Toronto: Stoddart.
In this work, well-known Canadian sociologist Bibby asserts that organized religion is
increasing its influence in Canada, rather than decreasing it. He presents statistical data to
support his argument and offers a guideline for mainstream Christian religious leaders to
promote their spiritual causes.
Choquette, R. (2004). Canada’s Religions: An Historical Introduction. Ottawa: University of
This book is about the history and diversity of religion in Canada and the persistent influence
of religion in modern society. It also examines the connection between religion and other
social institutions, including communities, the educational system, workplaces, and
politics, essentially placing religion within a social context. 3
Dawson, L. L. (2006). Comprehending Cults: The Sociology of New Religious Movements, 2nd
ed. Don Mills, ON; New York: Oxford University Press.
This is a comprehensive introduction to new religious movements, also known as cults,
viewed as social phenomena. Dawson summarizes major theories of cult formation,
examines the type of people that are most likely to join cults, and discusses various issues
surrounding cults, such as social stigma.
Durkheim, E. (1968 ). Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (Joseph Ward Swain, trans.
London: Allen and Unwin.
This is a classic work in the sociology of religion, and is the last major work published by
Durkheim. It is a case study of Australian Aboriginals, whose culture Durkheim believed
exemplified rudimentary forms of religious practice.
McGuire, M. B. (2005). Lived Religion: Faith and Practice in Everyday Life. New York: Oxford
This book considers religion in contemporary society, complete with some of the diverse
religious practices evident there. It argues that people today do not necessarily commit
themselves to one form of organized religion but instead often find spiritual fulfillment in a
mélange of religious practices. This book is useful in orienting researchers to understand
religious behaviour in a new way.
Palmer, S. (2004). Aliens Adored: Rael’s UFO Religion. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers
This book provides an analysis of the Raelian religion, led by Claude Vorilhon. The result of
15 years of fieldwork with the Raelians, the book draws information from interviews with the
leader and members, observing meetings, and witnessing rituals and religious practices.
Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms
Thank God for Evolution!
Multiple Choice Questions
1. Which of the following is not a reason that sociologists study religion?
a) They are interested in how people act out their religious beliefs in everyday life.
b) They are concerned with how certain beliefs are legitimized while others are not.
c) They are interested in the persistence of certain religions over centuries.
d) They are interested in whether God exists.
2. __________ refers to any system of beliefs about the supernatural, and the social groups that
gather around these beliefs.
d) Organized religion
3. Groups and institutions comprising people who share similar religious or spiritual views about
the world but who are not part of mainstream religious institutions are known as
b) new religious movements.
4. According to Statistics Canada, close to _____ percent of all Canadians identify themselves as
belonging to a Christian denomination.
5. Which of the following statements is not an argument made by Émile Durkheim about
a) Religion is a cultural universal.
b) Religion promotes social solidarity. 5
c) Religion promotes social cohesion.
d) Religion fosters social conflict.
6. The __________ perspective views religion largely as a form of social control and a cause of
c) symbolic interactionist
7. Karl Marx believed that religion
a) promotes social solidarity.
b) promotes social inequality.
c) promotes social cohesion.
d) none of the above
8. __________ focused on the subjective meaning and personal experience of religion.
a) Max Weber
b) George Herbert Mead
c) Émile Durkheim
d) Robert Bellah
9. The use of natural objects and animals to symbolize spirituality is known as
10. According to Émile Durkheim, the __________ refers to everyday secular l