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Religion

"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 another. Sociologists investigate the social aspects of religion, which include the ways in which people have used religion to justify the most constructive and destructive actions, the conflicts within and between religious groups, the way religion shapes people's behavior and their understanding of the world, and the way religion is intertwined with social, economic, and political issues".

All religions strive to raise individuals above themselves to help them achieve a better life than they would lead if left to their own impulses. In this sense, religion offers ideas of proper conduct that apply to everyday life. When believers violate this code of conduct, they feel guilt and remorse and try to make amends.

Emile Durkheim (1915) believed that religion is difficult to define. He cautioned that when studying religions, sociologists must assume that "there are no religions which are false" Max Weber (1922) believed that no one definition could capture the varieties and essence of religion. For him religion encompasses those human responses that give meaning to the ultimate and inescapable problems of existence like birth, death, illness, aging, injustice, tragedy, and suffering.

Durkheim maintained that all religions are true in their own fashion; all address the problems of human existence, albeit in different ways. Consequently, he said, those who study religion must first rid themselves of all preconceived notions of what religion should be.

Preconceived notions and uninformed opinions about the meaning of religious symbols and practices can close people off to a wide range of religious beliefs and experiences.

Durkheim remained open to the many varieties of religious experiences throughout the world. He identified three essential features that he believed were common to all religions, past and present: (1) beliefs about the sacred and the profane, (2) rituals, and (3) a community of worshipers.

Conflict theorists focus on ways in which people use religion to repress, constrain, and exploit others and how religion turns people's attention away from social and economic inequality. This perspective draws inspiration from the work of Karl Marx (1843), who believed that religion was the most humane feature of an inhumane world and that it arose in response to the tragedies and injustices of human experience. Marx described religion as the "sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opiate of the people." According to Marx, people need the comfort of religion to make the world bearable and to justify their existence.