The sociology of religion is the exploration of how religion impacts on social history. This includes, but is not limited to, its influence on economy, education, gender roles, moral attitudes, social order and social change. The sociology of religion is not restricted to any one religion, but encompasses them all and their relationship to human behavior. The study of religious sociology began at the end of the 19th century, although aspects of it were already evident in areas such as theology and philosophy. The subject has gained widespread interest since its inception and it has become an increasingly important topic in the wake of world events such as 9/11. The power of religion to influence the terrorists who committed this act of mass murder is an example of how religion holds sway over our culture and social behavior patterns.
Early studies into the topic often focused on the secularization of society, which was attributed to modern scientific thinking and "disenchantment of the world," to quote the words of German sociologist Max Weber (1864 to 1920). Weber was an eminent name in religious sociology circles. He wrote books such as The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), and Sociology of Religion (1921). Other important works include theologian Ernst Troeltsch's Social Teachings of the Christian Church (1912) and French sociologist Émile Durkheim's The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912). These held the popular view of the early 20th century; that religion had diminished in importance both in society and in the consciousness of individuals.
In the 21st century, most studies recognize that religion remains in many societies as a major social institution and that it is just as much a part of the culture as marriage, government or education. Empirical evidence has shown that it influences the behavior patterns of the religious individual as well as his or her community. This includes his or her economic, political or familial behavior. One example of the influence religion has on societal behavior is the fact that in the United States a practice such as cannibalism would be rejected on religious as much as secular grounds, as it is believed on both side to be an immoral, evil and unthinkable act.
Two religions in particular have gained popularity in the 21st century. One of them, Islam, has seen a resurgence that has had far-reaching social and political consequences globally. Its influence can be witnessed both throughout Muslim countries and across the Muslim diaspora. Less well documented is the explosion of Evangelical Protestantism across large areas of the developing world, particularly in Latin America. In fact, in the 21st century all the major religions experienced periods of revitalization: Roman Catholics (mainly in developing countries), Eastern Orthodox Christians (especially in Russia), Jews (in Israel and the diaspora), Hindus and Buddhists. This may be a reaction to the rationalization of society and its increasing secularization. During the first part of the 21st century, secular society found itself on the defensive against the resurgent religious movements.
The subject of sociology in religion is vast and complex. It may focus on a particular faith or take into account all of them, including the non-institutional types of religion. The scope of the subject can change according to historical events and fluctuating opinions on religion. It includes areas such as cults or new religious movements, religious conflict, and ethnic and national expressions of religion, and is concerned with how religion influences and is influenced by society. It embraces subjects such as economy, education, gender roles, health, moral attitudes and social order.
An example of the influence of religion on the economy is in 21st century Latin America, where Evangelical Protestantism witnessed a resurgence. Economic circumstances allowed for the rise of a Protestant middle-class. This trend was seen in other areas of the developing world and in the Chinese societies of eastern and southeastern Asia. As such, there appeared to be a correlation between the religion and the upwardly mobile advance of individuals within those communities. The sociology of religion takes on many aspects. As religious passions run high, there is concern about its influence on society. The study into this subject becomes increasingly relevant in understanding human behavior and trends as they relate to religious belief.