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Manual The Sociology of Language and Religion: Change, Conflict and Accommodation

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New York: John Wiley. Holtgraves, T. Social psychology and language: Words, utterances, and conversations. Fiske, D. Lindzey Eds. Mumby, D. Narrative and social control: Critical perspectives Vol. Ng, S. Is enlightenment achievable through meditation?

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Marx, Durkheim, Weber and other early sociologists lived in a time when the validity of religion had been put into question. Traditional societies had been thoroughly religious societies, whereas modern society corresponded to the declining presence and influence of religious symbols and institutions. Nationalism and class replaced religion as a source of identity. Religion became increasingly a private, personal matter with the separation of church and state. However, modern societies seemed inevitably to be on the path towards secularization in which people would no longer define religion as real.

The question these sociologist grappled with was whether societies could work without the presence of a common religion. Instead religion was the product of a projection. Humans projected an image of themselves onto a supernatural reality, which they then turned around and submitted to in the form of a superhuman God.

Religious belief was a kind of narcotic fantasy or illusion that prevented people from perceiving their true conditions of existence, firstly as the creators of God, and secondly as beings whose lives were defined by historical, economic and class relations. Their suffering was real, but their explanation of it was false. However, Marx was not under the illusion that the mystifications of religion belief would simply disappear, vanquished by the superior knowledge of science and political-economic analysis. The problem of religion was in fact the central problem facing all critical analysis: the attachment to explanations that compensate for real social problems but do not allow them to be addressed.

They would continue to live under conditions of social inequality and grasp at the illusions of religion in order to cope. The critical sociological approach he proposed would be to thoroughly disillusion people about the rewards of the afterlife and bring them back to earth where real rewards could be obtained through collective action. Emile Durkheim explained the existence of religion in terms of the functions it performs in society.

Unlike Marx, however, he argued that religion fulfills real needs in each society, namely to reinforce certain mental states, sustain social solidarity, establish basic rules or norms, and concentrate collective energies. These can be seen as the universal social functions of religion that underlie the unique natures of different religious systems all around the world, past and present Sachs, He was particularly concerned about the capacity of religion to continue to perform these functions as societies entered the modern era in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The key defining feature of religion for Durkheim was its ability to distinguish sacred things from profane things. Sacred objects are things said to have been touched by divine presence. They are set apart through ritual practices and viewed as forbidden to ordinary, everyday contact and use. Profane objects on the other hand are items integrated into ordinary everyday living. They have no religious significance. This basic dichotomy creates two distinct aspects of life, that of the ordinary and that of the sacred, that exist in mutual exclusion and in opposition to each other.

This is the basis of numerous codes of behavior and spiritual practices. Durkheim argues that all religions, in any form and of any culture, share this trait. Therefore, a belief system, whether or not it encourages faith in a supernatural power, is identified as a religion of it outlines this divide and creates ritual actions and a code of conduct of how to interact with and around these sacred objects. Durkheim examined the social functions of the division of the world into sacrd and profane by studying a group of Australian Aboriginals that practiced totemism.

Totemic societies are divided into clans based on the different totemic creatures each clan revered. In line with his argument that religious practice needs to be understood in sociological terms rather than supernatural terms, he noted that totemism existed to serve some very specific social functions. For example, the sanctity of the objects venerated as totems infuse the clan with a sense of social solidarity because they bring people together and focus their attention on the shared practice of ritual worship.

They function to divide the sacred from the profane thereby establishing a ritually reinforced structure of social rules and norms, they enforce the social cohesion of the clans through the shared belief in a transcendent power, and they protect members of the society from each other since they all become sacred as participants in the religion. They create a collective consciousness and a focus for collective effervescence in society. In a religious context, this feeling is interpreted as a connection with divine presence, as being filled with the spirit of supernatural forces, but Durkheim argues that in reality it is the material force of society itself, which emerges whenever people come together and focus on a single object.

As individuals actively engage in communal activities, their belief system gains plausibility and the cycle intensifies. The fundamental principles that explain the most basic and ancient religions like totemism, also explain the persistence of religion in society as societies grow in scale and complexity. However, in modern societies where other institutions often provide the basic for social solidarity, social norms, collective representations, and collective effervescence, will religious belief and ritual persist?

In his structural-functional analysis of religion, Durkheim outlined three functions that religion still serves in society, which help to explain its ongoing existence in modern societies. First, religion ensures social cohesion through the creation of a shared consciousness form participation in rituals and belief systems.

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Second, it formally enforces social norms and expectations of behavior, which serve to ensure predictability and control of human action. As long as the needs remain unsatisfied by other institutions in modern social systems, religion will exist to fill that void. He abandoned the idea of a religious or rabbinical career, however, and became very secular in his outlook. Religion performs the key function of providing social solidarity in a society.

This type of analysis became the basis of the functionalist perspective in sociology. He explained the existence and persistence of religion on the basis of the necessary function it performed in unifying society. His approach was to determine the meaning of religion in the conduct of life for members of society. Three key themes concerning religion emerge from his work: the concept of theodicy, the disenchantment of the world, and the Protestant Ethic.

They give meaning to why good or innocent people experience misfortune and suffering. Therefore believers must accept that there is a higher divine reason for their suffering and continue to strive to be good. Individuals must struggle in this life to rectify the evils accumulated from previous lives. In particular, he was interested in the development of the modern worldview which he equated with the widespread processes of rationalization : the general tendency of modern institutions and most areas of life to be transformed by the application of technical reason, precise calculation, and rational organization.

Again, central to his interpretivist framework, how people interpreted and saw the world provided the basis for an explanation of the types of social organization they created. In this regard, one of his central questions was to determine why rationalization emerged in the West and not the East. Eastern societies in China, India, and Persia had been in many respects more advanced culturally, scientifically and organizationally than Europe for most of world history, but had not taken the next step towards developing thoroughly modern, rationalized forms of organization and knowledge.

The relationship to religion formed a key part of his answer. One component of rationalization was the process Weber described as the disenchantment of the world , which refers to the elimination of a superstitious or magical relationship to nature and life. Weber noted that many societies prevented processes of rationalization from occurring because of religious interdictions and restrictions against certain types of development.

A contemporary example might be the beliefs concerning the sacredness of human life, which serve to restrict experimenting with human stem cells or genetic manipulation of the human genome. For Weber, disenchantment was one source for the rapid development and power of Western society, but also a source of irretrievable loss. A second component of rationalization, particularly as it applies to the rise of capitalism as a highly rationalized economic system, was the formation of the Protestant Ethic.

This will be discussed more fully below. The key point to note here is that Weber makes the argument that a specific ethic or way of life that developed among a few Protestant sects on the basis of religious doctrine or belief, i. The restrictions that religions had imposed on economic activities and that had prevented them from being pursued in a purely rational, calculative manner, were challenged or subverted by the emergence and spread of new, equally religious, forms of belief and practice.

He noted that in modern industrial societies, business leaders and owners of capital, the higher grades of skilled labour, and the most technically and commercially trained personnel were overwhelmingly Protestant. He also noted the uneven development of capitalism in Europe, and in particular how capitalism developed first in those areas dominated by Protestant sects.

As opposed to the traditional teachings of the Catholic Church in which poverty was a virtue and labour simply a means for maintaining the individual and community, the Protestant sects began to see hard, continuous labour as a spiritual end in itself. Hard labour was firstly an ascetic technique of worldly renunciation and a defense against temptations and distractions: the unclean life, sexual temptations, and religious doubts.

Weber argued that the ethic , or way of life, that developed around these beliefs was a key factor in creating the conditions for both the accumulation of capital, as the goal of economic activity, and for the creation of an industrious and disciplined labour force. It is an element of cultural belief that leads to social change rather than the concrete organization and class struggles of the economic structure. As the impediments toward rationalization were removed, organizations and institutions were restructured on the principle of maximum efficiency and specialization, while older, traditional i.

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The irony of the Protestant Ethic as one stage in this process is that the rationalization of capitalist business practices and organization of labour eventually dispensed with the religious goals of the ethic. Phenomenology seeks to describe the way in which all phenomena, including religion, arise as perceptions within the immediate sensorial experience and awareness of individual subjects.

Phenomenologists study the ways in which the world, and ourselves within it, first come to presence in experience and only later become separate objects, social structures or selves. Religion is only secondarily a structure, institution, practice, or set of beliefs. How do humans go from the flux of immediate perception to a religious worldview? For Berger, religion is a particular type of culture Berger In order for humans to survive, the world must be culturally prepared as a world in which things and people have stable meanings. Culture, Berger argues, exists therefore as an artifice that mediates between humans and nature and provides needed stability and predictability in human life.

From the phenomenological point of view, culture enables both the ongoing creation of the world as a stable, objective social reality outside the subject and the simultaneous creation, or interiorization, of social roles and social expectations within the subject. Religion develops because the stability of culture is inherently fragile.

Just as the immediate experience of the individual is subject to flux and change, so is the foundation of the ordered, meaningful world of culture. Cultural meanings tend to be fixed and rigid through time, whereas the underlying reality they describe is not. Events occur that are not explainable. They fall outside the categories and threaten to put the whole cultural framework or nomos into question. Religion comes into existence as a solution to this problem.

Religion is able to resolve the threat of instability and terror of anomie by postulating a supernatural agency or cosmological view of the world, which are unaffected by everyday inconstancy and uncertainty. In a religious cosmology the order described by culture is the natural order, that is, it is the way the gods have decided things must be.

Things that occur that cannot be explained in human terms are explained as the products of divine will. Religion is therefore a source of ultimate legitimation because it provides the social order with an unquestionable foundation of legitimacy: the way things are is the will of the gods. From a phenomenological point of view however, the price of this religious solution is a mode of forgetfulness and alienation. For the legitimation effect of religion to work and be plausible, humans must forget that they themselves have created religion.

They must forget that religion is a human accomplishment. In The Sacred Canopy, Berger argued that the processes of secularization will eventually erode the plausibility of religious belief. For religion to function as a sacred canopy and ultimate legitimation, it must provide the foundation for a shared belief system. In modern societies however, other types of knowledge and expert systems like science assume greater authority to describe the nature of the world and our role within it.

As we will see below in Section Despite the dominant expectation that modern societies were becoming ever more secular, Stark believed that religion was, and would continue to be, an important and influential factor for individuals and society. Stark notes that church membership and new religious movements have actually increased in the United States as the country modernized.

In Europe, where religious participation is relatively low, levels of individual belief nevertheless remain high and participation has not undergone a long-term decline Stark, b. What explanation can be provided for the persistence of religion? Stark begins with the stipulation that the importance of the supernatural must be recognized when studying religion.

Belief in a higher force or power is the feature that distinguishes religions from non-religious beliefs and organizations. Any theory of religion must take this into account. Stark attempts to answer this question by proposing a number of basic, general rules about humans and their behavior.

Rational choice theory states that the most basic human motive is individual self-interest, and that all social activities are a product of rational decision making in which individuals continuously weigh the benefits of choices against their costs Scott, A person who has a choice between two jobs, for example, would weigh the rewards of each one such as higher pay or better benefits against the possible costs of longer work hours or further commutes. Individuals will on balance choose the course of action that maximizes their rewards and minimizes their costs.

In this sense, even seemingly irrational decisions or beliefs can be understood as rational choices from the point of view of the individual decision maker Stark, a. Religious belief in the supernatural may seem irrational from an outside perspective because it involves an orientation to invisible, supernatural powers that affect the everyday material world through unobservable mechanisms.

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However, for the religious believer whose worldview is shaped by this assumption, it is completely rational that they would choose to worship and make offerings to these supernatural powers in the hopes of gaining rewards and avoiding wrath or misfortune. Moreover, by participating in religious practice, people also surround themselves with other believers who make the rationality of supernatural choices even more plausible.

According to Stark, the rewards people desire most intensely are often scarce or not available at all, such as an end to suffering or eternal life. Consequently, when such rewards cannot be attained through direct means, humans will create and exchange compensators. These are promises or IOUs of a reward at an unspecified future date, along with an explanation of how they can be acquired. Stark argues that rewards such as these are so monumental and scarce that they can only be provided through a supernatural source.

This is why religious belief persists. In other words, a person must believe that a supernatural power exists which is capable of providing this reward in order to rationally believe that it is attainable. In this sense, religious belief and practice are rational choices humans make to get the most coveted rewards regarding human existence.


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Religious organizations function to provide compensators for these rewards by claiming to provide access to supernatural powers or deities. For Stark, this is the root of why religion continues to exist in the modern world, and why it will continue to persist. By using a positivist approach, Stark creates a theory where every proposition, including this one, can in principle be tested.

The proposition above could be verified by examining the number of gods and their powers in the religions of small, traditional societies and comparing that to the number of gods worshipped in more established, modern ones. In reality however, many of the propositions are difficult to test because the concepts he uses are hard to measure or compare between religions. How does one empirically quantify the scope of a certain god and compare it to that of an unrelated god from a different religion? His theory has also been critiqued for having an inherent bias towards monotheistic and particularly Protestant Christian measures of religion Carroll, In other words, he places higher value on measures of religiosity that fit the Protestant model, such as belief and adherence to doctrine, over those that better describe other religions, such as the ritual aspects of Hinduism or Catholicism.

His work may then implicitly suggest that Protestants are more religious than the others based on these skewed measures of religiousness. Feminist theories of religion analyze and critique the ways in which sacred texts and religious practices portray and subordinate—or empower—women, femininity, and female sexuality Zwissler, The crucial insight into religion that forms the basis for feminist research is the gendered nature of religion Erikson, Feminists therefore argue that questions about gender are essential for a meaningful analysis and explanation of religion.

In one line of inquiry, feminist theorists of religion have analyzed the representation of women within sacred religious texts, identifying and critiquing the way women are portrayed.

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For example, the gender of the deity is an issue for women, particularly in the monotheistic Abrahamic religions such as Christianity, Islam, and Judaism Zwissler, God, within these religious beliefs, is usually understood as male. The question this raises is whether religion is therefore the direct cause of misogyny —the aversion or distaste for people of the female sex, including belittling, sexual objectification, sexual violence, and discrimination against women—or whether male-dominated religious practices are the product of broader gendered inequalities and societal norms outside of religion Zwissler,?

A second line of inquiry focuses on why power relationships within religious institutions are typically gendered Erikson, Feminist theorists note that women are frequently prevented from holding positions of power within religious practice. Ministers, imams, rabbis, buddhas, and Brahmin priests are positions within religious hierarchies which have traditionally excluded women. Despite this, cross-culturally women are proportionately more religious than men.

This can be seen as a paradox within feminist religious studies. Placed along two axes see Figure The challenges faced by women are different within each religion, and therefore the strategies women of faith use to change or work within their respective religion may vary. Being an interdisciplinary perspective, feminism brings a diversity of voices into the discussion, illuminating important issues of inequality, oppression, and power imbalance, all of which are of great importance to the study of sociology.

Through analysis of the gender structures within religious practices worldwide, a deeper understanding of how different cultures and traditions function is revealed. The understanding that women frequently do not identify as being oppressed by their religion is an important insight in trying to fully understand the nature of gendered religious practice on a global scale. Religion has historically been a major impetus to social change. In early Europe, the translation of sacred texts into everyday, non-scholarly language empowered people to shape their religions.

Disagreements between religious groups and instances of religious persecution have led to mass resettlement, war, and even genocide. To some degree, the modern sovereign state system and international law might be seen as products of the conflict between religious beliefs as these were founded in Europe by the Treaty of Westphalia , which ended the Thirty Years War.

As outlined below, Canada is no stranger to religion as an agent of social change. Nevertheless debate continues in sociology concerning the nature of religion and social change particularly in three areas: secularization, religious diversity, and new religious movements.

Secularization refers to the decline of religiosity as a result of the modernization of society. This is a large increase from the , Canadians who claimed no religious affiliation in the Statistics Canada census Statistics Canada, Sociologists suggest that it is important to distinguish between three different types of secularization: societal secularization, organizational secularization, and individual secularization. The move to ordinate female ministers to reflect the growing gender equality in society or the use of commercial marketing techniques to attract congregations are examples.

Individual secularization is the decline in involvement in churches and denominations or the decline in belief and practice of individual members. As we saw earlier in the chapter, the equation of secularization with modernity has been the view of many important sociologists including Marx, Durkheim, and Weber.

But in more recent years there has been a growing number of sociologists who question the universality of the process of secularization and propose that contemporary society is going through a period of religious revitalization. Similarly, Fink and Stark have argued that Americans, at least, actually became more religious as American society modernized. Even in Europe, where church attendance is very low, they suggest that religious practice is stable rather than in long term decline and that people still hold religious beliefs like the belief in God or life after death.

However, Canada, like most of Europe, appears to be an exception to the trend of religious resurgence, meaning there has been less of an emergence of new and revived religious groups, as opposed to the U. Prior to the s Canada was a more religious nation than the United States, now it is much less religious by any standard measure. Rather than a progressive and continuous process of secularization, Bibby argues that there have been three consecutive trends in Canada since the s: secularization, revitalization and polarization.

After a period of steady secularization between the s and measured by levels of church attendance , Bibby presents evidence of revitalization in the s including small increases in weekly or monthly attendance for different age groups. He also notes the four fold increase of non-Christians Muslims, Buddhists, Jews in Canada since the s, the high level of spiritual belief among people who do not attend church, the way that many people retain connections with churches for special occasions, and surveys that report that many would consider attending regularly if organizational or personal factors could be addressed.

Since the s, Bibby describes a third trend of polarization, with the public increasingly divided into opposite poles of the highly religious and the non-religious. Overall it can be said that understanding secularization and desecularization is an essential part of the sociological analysis of religion.

Knowing the relationship between modernity and religion provides insight into the complex dynamics of the late modern world and allows sociologists to predict what is to come for religion in the future. The question is whether secularization necessarily accompanies modernization or whether there is a cyclical process between secularization and religious revivalism. Are secular or non-secular societies the exceptions to the dominant trend of modern society? In other words, in modern societies there is neither a steady one-way process of secularization nor a religious revitalization, but a growing diversity of belief systems and practices.

The practice of religion in Canada is ever changing and has recently become increasingly diverse. Religious diversity can be defined as a condition in which a multiplicity of religions and faiths co-exist in a given society Robinson, Because of religious diversity, many speculate that Canada is turning into a Post-Christian society , in the sense that Christianity has increasingly become just one among many religious beliefs, including the beliefs of a large number of people who claim no religion.

For those who report having a Christian heritage, only a minority can articulate the basic elements of Christian doctrine or read the bible on a regular basis. To an ever greater extent, Christianity no longer provides the basic moral foundation for Canadian values and practices. Canada appears to moving towards a much more religiously plural society. This is not without its problems however.

Religious diversity in Canada has accelerated in the last twenty years due to globalization and immigration. There were only a handful of members from the other main world religions. Other religions during this time such as Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and Hindus only made up a negligible percentage of the population. With the opening up of immigration to non-Europeans in the s, this began to change. In the 21st century, religion in Canada has become increasingly diverse. Including the various Protestant denominations Statistics Canada surveyed 80 different religious groups in Canada in Statistics Canada, Religious diversity does not only include the increased number of people who participate in non-Christian religions.

During its first appearance, approximately four percent of the population in Canada identified as religiously unaffiliated. By , that number had increased nearly a quarter, rising to about 24 percent Pew Research Center, Canadians have had varying responses to religious diversity. On an individual level, while many accept religious beliefs other than their own, others do not.

Individuals are either open to embracing these differences or intolerant of the varying viewpoints surrounding them. Wuthnow describes three types of individual response to religious diversity. Firstly there are those who fully embrace the religious practices of others, to the point of creating hybrid beliefs and practices. Christians might practice yoga or Eastern meditation techniques, for example. Secondly, there are those who tolerate other religions or accept the value of other religious beliefs while maintaining religious distinctions intact.

This can manifest in the range of negative individual responses to Muslim women who wear a hijab or headscarf for example. On a societal level, there are three main types of social response to religious diversity: exclusion, assimilation and pluralism. Exclusion occurs when the majority population does not accept varying or non-traditional beliefs, and therefore believe that other religions should be denied entry into their society. The exclusionary response tends to happen when a society that identifies with a previously homogeneous faith community is confronted with the spread of religious diversity.

On the other hand, the Canadian policy towards Jews was exclusionary until relatively recently. Universities like McGill and the University of Toronto had quota systems that restricted the number of Jewish students until the s. Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany in the s were brutally turned away by Canadian officials. A step beyond exclusion is assimilation. An example of assimilation in Canada is the history of Aboriginal spiritual practices like the sun dance, spirit dance and sweat lodge ceremonies.

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