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So in short, this suspension isn’t a denial of religious belief, just as it isn’t an affirmation. It’s simply an honest and candid admission that either confirming or denying the epistemological truth of actual religious beliefs is well beyond the scope of empirical science as we know it. Remember, we don’t see the whole elephant! By setting aside or “bracketing” the truth of particular religious beliefs and seeing them as social facts, in as unbiased fashion as possible, we merely acknowledge the limitations of the tools we have on hand. Logic and the scientific approach, whether inductive or deductively oriented, are highly useful in empirical science—but they can only take us so far. We must also use these tools correctly in the appropriate context, sadly unlike our unfortunate penguin friend shown above. (

In any case, that’s the approach we take. Still, we try to minimize as many of our own biases as we can. We remain human, so we cannot eliminate our biases altogether. We can’t magically transform ourselves into someone else—we have never been anyone else, and never will be. We never stop being ourselves, and we cannot see beyond our own perspectives; we simply need to admit what our own biases have been, learn to see beyond them, and strive to minimize those biases and assumptions so we can be as unbiased as possible as we investigate.

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So this, combined with the information in the previous lesson about the sociology of religion, should let you know how you should approach your assignments. Conduct all your observations, including your Meet the Believers exercise (Shameless Plug Alert: Please don’t put that off—get started ASAP!), ( with a mind open to multiple possibilities. Then as you write, show what you have learned from our course readings, and compare and contrast concepts in an insightful and minimally biased way. In your MTB report, as with all other assignments, focus on what you’ve learned and your understanding of the concepts first and foremost. Share your experiences and observations as an observer trying to—as we discussed in the first lesson—reveal that which has been hidden. Such as elephants. 😊

OK, let’s keep going into the wide wonderful world of epistemology…

Some Absolutely Crucial ( Sociological and Epistemological Concepts

So far, so good. To continue, let’s define and briefly discuss a set of concepts that will become vital to our understanding of the sociology of religion. The first is religion itself , which involves not only belief and a worldview associated with that belief, but a system of practices and objectives that are associated with those beliefs. For a bit more background on that, see not only Johnstone’s extended discussion of the definition of religion but also these two articles from The Hartford Seminary, which illuminate the issues of the difficulty of defining religion and the origin of “Religious Studies.”

In any case, belief is a key dimension of religion that needs a bit of elaboration. According to Merriam-Webster, belief is defined as :

1: a state or habit of mind in which trust or confidence is placed in some person or thing

2: something believed ; especially : a tenet or body of tenets held by a group

3: conviction of the truth of some statement or the reality of some being or phenomenon especially when based on examination of evidence

Religious belief encompasses all of these three senses of the word—trust and confidence, along with a particular worldview; a body of tenets, principles, or doctrines; and a conviction of the reality of those principles and/or a particular being. In the American context, a claim to religious belief is strong and continues to be so, even in the modern age, though religious practice seems to be a bit more problematic.

The second term is spirituality. Some believers see little difference between religion and spirituality, though many observers in our day and age actually see a fair amount of difference between the two. (For instance, this paper from the Journal of the Theory of Social Behavior offers an interesting comparison and contrast.) As currently defined, in any case, spirituality is thought of as a much broader endeavor than religion, and one that can possibly encompass it. Hence, religion is a part of spirituality in most theoretical frameworks. As for exactly what constitutes spirituality, it is often thought of as a quest—a holistic search for meaning and purpose above and beyond the material aspect of life, whether symbolic or metaphysical. This “quest” can take the sense of a search for self-authenticity, care for others, construction of meaning, an experiential encounter with the unexpected, or a desire for interconnectedness and wholeness. (See this discussion from a UCLA-hosted forum that connects to a quest for social justice, for example.)

Third, let’s discuss religiosity. Briefly defined, this is the way people practice their religious beliefs, or religious behavior. Sometimes researchers vary this somewhat; for instance, researchers Nathaniel Lambert and David Dollahite use it this way in this study of religion and marital conflict : “For the purposes of this study, we define religiosity as a person’s spiritual beliefs, religious practices, and involvement with a faith community.” Religiosity can be understood as having private and public dimensions. Private religious behavior is what believers tend to do out of the public eye, such as prayer, reading sacred texts, fasting, and so forth; public religiosity is what is done in a group setting, such as church attendance, service to the community, preaching to others, and so forth.

image3.pngA quick note about some other terminology that we occasionally run across in the study of religion. A theodicy is the defense of deity’s goodness or positive qualities—and/or the resolution of a paradox of belief—in the face of challenges, as in the case of bad things happening to generally good people. Soteriology is the study of salvation, particularly in the Christian context, and the theological and logical principles associated with it. As in one of our Lesson 6 subtopics, metaphysical has to do with other-worldly matters in general, such as ghosts and spirits, angels, visions, and other phenomena that are either directly or indirectly associated with religion and belong to a purportedly unseen sphere of existence. Paranormal, however, is a larger label that doesn’t refer only to religious matters, but anything in general that lies beyond the scope and/or detection of modern science. The metaphysical can be considered part of the paranormal, in at least one sense.

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