Main content 17-1The Sociological Study of Religion LO 1 Definereligion and identify its key components. What is religion? Religion is a social institution composed of a unified system of beliefs, symbols, and rituals—based on some sacred or supernatural realm—that guides human behavior, gives meaning to life, and unites believers into a community. Based on this definition, religion is a stable institution that exists independently from individuals who attend religious services or officials (such as priests, pastors, or other clergy) in the administrative hierarchy. Religion is sometimes thought of as a platform for the expression of spirituality—the relationship between the individual and something larger than oneself, such as a broader sense of connection with the surrounding world. As such, spirituality involves the individual’s inner, subjective feelings and experiences rather than the act of giving devotion to external beliefs, rituals, and deities that are set forth in established creeds or religious communities. In the final analysis, both religion and spirituality require that persons engage in a leap of faith—a confident belief that cannot be proven or disproven but is accepted as true. Religious beliefs require faith because religion provides answers for seemingly unanswerable questions that underlie human existence. According to the sociologist Peter Berger (1967), these questions are Who am I? Why am I here? How should I live? What happens when I die? Berger suggests that religion provides a system of meaning that connects people to society and provides them with a sense of purpose that transcends the ordinary realm of life (Figure 17.1). Consequently, religious beliefs bind people together and establish rites of passage through various stages of life, such as birth, marriage, and death. People with similar religious beliefs and practices gather together in a moral community (such as a church, mosque, temple, or synagogue), where they engage in religious beliefs and practices with similarly minded people. Figure 17.1 Hanukkah, a major holiday in Judaism, provides worshippers with the opportunity to come together and worship their Creator and celebrate their community. Noam Armonn/ Shutterstock.com Given the diversity and complexity of contemporary religion, how is it possible for sociologists to study this social institution? Most sociologists studying religion are committed to the pursuit of “disinterested scholarship,” meaning that they do not seek to make value judgments about religious beliefs or to determine whether particular religious bodies are “right” or “wrong.” However, many acknowledge that it is impossible to completely rid themselves of those values and beliefs into which they were socialized. Change font size help 17-1aReligion and the Meaning of Life Because religion seeks to answer important questions such as why we exist and why people suffer and die, Peter Berger (1967) referred to religion as a sacred canopy—.