Christianity · Culture · Religion · Sociology · Sociology of Religion

The Case for the Cultural Study of Religion


Rituals, symbols, and myths have been at the forefront of the Sociology of Religion since Durkheim (1915) wrote of the prominence of beliefs, rights, and rituals in the worship of social life. Naturism, animism, and totemic beliefs are mostly bygone religions – relics of a pre-industrialized world, but Durkheim predicted that religion would never cease to exist, only transform. I would argue that this transformation has been ongoing, but the idea of religion being more social than theological is still relevant for sociologists in the contemporary era.  

There is a significant ongoing conversation between sociologists of religion about the change in the religious landscape in late-modern/postmodern societies. Secularization Theory, popularized by Berger (1967) posits that the modern world is moving away from its historical relationship with religion as certain segments are removed from religious dominance. It seems to be felt more in industrialized nations and does not affect all groups evenly. There appears to be a disenchantment with the church and organized religion. However, the notion that the West is becoming more secular has been challenged by many. 

Challenges to Western Christian tradition have led to the modern church incorporating science and globalization into its practices. Many who were once Christian fundamentalists who rejected all other fundamentalisms are now embracing multiple fundamentalisms (Heelas et al. 1998). The church is certainly reacting to cultural changes, but this is not necessarily a reaction against secularization. 

Rather than an increase in atheistic beliefs, there has been an increase in new religious movements (NRMs) over the last few decades (Dawson 1998). These NRMs are primarily based in New Age spirituality rather than any organized church. The Charismatic movement is the only area of “growth” within Christianity (Davie et al. 2003). Furthermore Islam, Mormonism, and Pentecostalism are on the rise, keeping religious belief atop the hierarchy of cultural power systems. In fact, global Islam has seen a global surge of “civil pluralists” who seek more spiritual, rather than political Islam (Heelas et al. 1998). 

Pluralism is the flavor of the individualized “believer buffet”, as believers are less attached to one particular belief system (Heelas et al. 1998). This subjective turn (Heelas et al. 2004) is a turn away from life lived in external, objective roles and toward a life that refers to subjective experiences. This marks a decisive cultural turn. Subjectivity benefits the spiritual, holistic milieu as the congregational domain pushes rules, traditions, rituals, and expectations that people no longer wish to succumb to. The subjective turn seems to be happening much slower in the United States than in Europe, but it is nevertheless happening.  

Bellah (1967) wrote of the use of “civil religion” in America to make the case for an exclusively American religion. JFK, for example, stressed the concept of “God” on multiple occasions, but did not attach any particular religious denomination to it. The U.S. Constitution uses the concept of “our Creator” to describe a higher power from which American culture draws from. Furthermore, the American religion is activist, moralistic, and social rather than theological or spiritual. We embrace the Constitution as “Scripture”, independence from the British as “The Exodus”, America as “The Promised Land”, and sacrificial death (military members) as the lines between religion and American culture are blurred.  

The definitions of culture are as numerous as there are social theorists. Smith and Riley (2009) argue that culture is a complex concept that essentially centers around the themes of a realm of the ideal, spiritual, and non-material that has a powerful and comlpex relationship to practices and performances, that is opposed to the material, technological, and social structural. Raymond Williams (1982) defines culture in agricultural terms – the cultivation of crops – and extends this cultivation to the human mind. Thus, mental culture can mean 1) a developed state of mind (a cultured person); 2) the processes of this development (cultural interests); and 3) the means of these processes (the arts).  

Perhaps the most succinct definition comes from Geertz (1973) who defines culture as a web of significance and interpretive search for meaning. He argues that religion is often used as a cultural system. This concept is defined within definition of religion, which states the religion is: 

a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic. 

The positivist approach to man, was that man was a piece of nature. However, as the study of culture progressed, the concept of man has become more complex. Universal laws cannot be applied to culture or man. Almost all humans hold to some sort of religion, but man also needs a form of significant symbols in order to help find meaning in the world. In other words, there is no human nature without culture, and there is no culture without symbols. 


Symbols are “extrinsic sources of information” – they are outside the individual (Geertz 1973). Cultural patterns become models that both shape and are shaped by reality. The models of belief in a higher power express the shape of the world’s climate. Behavior can be predicted based on a particular disposition induced by wide ranging and never changing moods, and persistent motivations. Religion is symbolic of transcendent truths. However, no one lives in a world made up entirely of religious symbols. We encounter them at specific moments.  

Symbols, according to Durkheim (1915), are representations. They can be sacred or profane, but never both simultaneously. Lighting a candle for illumination in a dark room may be profane or mundane. However, the ritual of lighting a candle during a religious ceremony makes the routine act a sacred one. The Jewish menorah is a sacred symbol. Any object can be a sacred symbol depending on context. The same can be said for cultural symbols.  

Cultural symbols are defined as significant themes that span spheres of reality that are used in interactions in various ways (Berger and Luckmann 1966). They are generally recognized by each member of a society. We use shared significant symbols as a means of communication and identification, but they are socially constructed. For instance, a cross is a symbol used by Christians to identify with their group. Even non-Christians recognize this identification. However, in the infamous “Piss Christ” art piece, a plastic cross with very little intrinsic value was submerged in a jar of urine. Christians were upset by the imagery of a cross being so defiled, though the artist wanted to focus on the absurdity of attributing such a sacred value to an otherwise mundane object. Had someone in the pre-Christian era done the same, there would have been no complaints, as the symbol of the cross had no meaning.  

Symbols make up one-half of Blumer’s appropriately titled theory of Symbolic Interaction. The axioms of which are 1) human beings act toward things on the basis of the meanings that things have for them; 2) the meaning of such things is derived from, or arises out of, the social interaction that one has with one’s fellows; and 3) these meanings are handled in, and modified through, an interpretative process used by the person in dealing with the things he encounters (Charmaz 2014). A pillar of smoke has no intrinsic meaning. Yet, through social interactions with fire, the idiom “where there is smoke, there is fire” has been presented and agreed upon through the process of socialization. Though smoke and fire are different, smoke becomes the represented symbol for fire. 

Symbols are vital for contemporary interpretive sociology and the study of culture through ethnography and subsequent analysis using Grounded Theory. In religious ceremonies, symbols are important representations of beliefs. These include wine and wafers that are used in communion rituals. These represent the blood and body of Christ for Christians, the partaking of which is a sacred act. Without symbols, rituals would have no meaning.  


Ritual began in totemic worship when a clan began to worship their leader as a totemic being (Durkheim 1915). Judaism used ritual sacrifice as a system of “good works” salvation (Weber 1922). Rituals are primarily used in a religious ceremony, but are not intrinsically religious. They are used in culture as well. The ceremony of standing for the national anthem has been the standard introduction for sporting events for decades. However, there is now a counter-ritual of kneeling or locking arms as a form of protest during the national anthem. The athletes who wish to draw attention to the perceived epidemic of police brutality against people of color have constructed their own strategies of action (Smith 2003, Borer 2008).   

Private moments become civic spectacles through marriage proposals, weddings, or the sprinkling of ashes. An otherwise mundane location can become a civic religious site through these civic rituals. A baseball game may be act as a “hallowed site” for a transcendent event in which racial, ethnic, gender, and religious differences come together as one in celebration of the team (Borer 2008). 

As rituals are passed down through tradition, it has an effect on collective memory. We use our “mnemonic others” – those who help us remember – as a means of “mnemonic socialization”. Where we are taught how and what to remember. Oral traditions serve as social sites of memory when our associated memories are brought about by “mnemonic communities” (Zerubavel 1996). Many of the tales of gods and the origins of moral order (Smith 2003) are passed down through generations in the form of myths. 


Myths were a primary method by which ancient cultures were able to present their gods with anthropomorphic personalities that were in line with state religion. The Greeks began to reflect a heroic knight culture with tales of Odysseus and Achilles, while the Romans allowed their religion to encompass all facets of life. The Hebrew God, Yahweh, gave His people the law, thus, what would later become Jewish religion allowed for God to be both local and reign from a distance (Weber 1922).  

The blending of religion and politics matriculated to the home. As divine law giver, a god or priestly representative of a god had incredible power to act as an arbiter of morality. This would lead to a patriarchal hegemonic domination in the home for centuries to come as narratives of heroes, knights, and male gods at the precipice of the polytheistic pantheon came to dominate religious theologies. In the monotheistic religions, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity – the some view the latter as polytheistic for their view of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – the omnipotent being they worship is a masculine one.  

Myths still persist in American culture today. The hero myth of the soldier, or the sacrificial myth during times of both peace and violence (Chidester 2005) emerge in our stories and collective memories. We visit museums and other artifactual relics of times past (Borer 2008) to search for evidence of truth in myths. Recent protests and challenges to American historical narratives have undermined “truths” that many of us have held as such. Mass shootings send people on a search through writings from the Founding Fathers in search of clarification on the Second Amendment. After the white-nationalist march on Charlottesville, VA, calls for the removal of confederate statues were met with alternate histories of the complexities of the Civil War. Were all confederate soldiers racist, or were some merely fighting for their homes? Should a person be judged on one period of their life or the totality? These questions erupted, and many remain unanswered. The myths, however, will most likely continue.  


We cannot separate culture from various facets of human activity (Schudson 1989). Alexander (2003) argues that cultural sociology is dependent on the idea that every action builds toward our understanding of affect and meaning. Smith and Riley (2009) write that cultural theory is concerned primarily with content, social implications, and action, agency, and self. If all religion is the worship of society, and all societies have religion (Durkheim 1915), it seems to me that the use of culture as an interpretive search for meaning juxtaposed with religious concepts that apply to civil religion is entirely appropriate. 

If, as Griswold (1987) suggests, cultural analysis should include 1) intentions of creative agents; 2) reception of cultural objects over time and space; 3) comprehension of cultural objects in terms of intrinsic and heuristic genres; and 4) explanation of characteristics of objects with reference to the social and cultural experiences of social groups and categories, then I believe that this framework could apply to religious and cultural studies. 

The cultural study of rituals should include those rituals that are being challenged as well as those that remain in place. While it may seem more relevant to look at the ways in which traditional rituals are changing, I think that looking at unchanging traditions are even more interesting. While we may be experiencing detraditionalization (Heelas 1996), there is little research on resisting the trend. There are still significant numbers of people who are not changing with what we believe is the broader culture. While the momentum seems to be on those who take a knee during the national anthem, the overwhelming majority of people still participate in the tradition of standing. Cultural analysis would seek to understand the intention of the kneeler, how their reception by the mainstream changes (or does not change) over time, and explanation of kneeling and the connection with the external social world. An inductive approach dealing with these various phenomena would be helpful in developing a theory of ritual in cultural settings. 

The study of symbols has been around since the dawn of sociology, whether those symbols be defined as such or not. What I rarely see is the symbolic interaction between religious followers and religious texts. I believe that religion and culture are deviating from symbols that were once shared as American culture was more religious. What is the effect of the cultural shift away from mainstream religion on the traditional beliefs that are found within religious texts? It appears that in order to be viewed as more Christian (loving, caring, and tolerant) in today’s culture, one must abandon parts of the Bible dealing with particular sins and appropriate behaviors.  

This social challenge to Christianity occurs primarily when a traditional religious belief comes in conflict with recent changes to U.S. law. For instance, there have been multiple stories of severe punitive sanctions put on bakers, florists, or pizza parlor owners who cite their long-held religious beliefs as the reason for refusing to explicitly partake in a same-sex wedding through their services. First Amendment protections of freedom of religion are losing to anti-discrimination laws in the courts. These various symbols – cake, pizza, marriage, The Constitution – are largely studied based on what are understood as cultural objects.  

The cultural study of myths is relatively underdeveloped in my opinion. Semiotics and narrative analyses are relatively new concepts in sociology. I am unaware of semiotic or narrative analyses on religious texts. I believe that cultural methods, like Grounded Theory, could be valuable in our sociological “tool kit” (Swidler1986) in the search for themes, categories, sensitizing concepts, etc. (Charmaz 2014) and looking for potential “truths” in a religious text.  

The study of religion relates to the study of culture. The study of culture relates to the study of religion. The two are interconnected in such a tangled way that it is difficult to separate the two, yet they are so often researched from one perspective. The influence of religion on culture has been well documented, but what is the influence of culture on religion? I believe that much more research on this reciprocal relationship needs to be done. This would allow for a much broader understanding of how changes in culture affect a particular religion, and how religion can be used within a cultural framework to explore its own internal rules, rites, symbols, rituals, and myths. 

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