Sociology Of Religion Essay Topics

Sexuality is defined as the way that an individual perceives him or herself as a sexual being as expressed through sexual attitudes and desires. The basic nature of sexual desire and the forms in which that desire is considered normal or deviant have been debated throughout history (Tolman & Diamond, 2001). Human sexuality is socially constructed and sexual desires are embedded in particular sociological and biological contexts (Tolman & Diamond, 2001) which are in turn influenced by an individual's upbringing and exposure to familial or religious interactions. Beliefs and attitudes about sexuality are not innate, but rather acquired as a person grows and matures; factors that influence sexuality include: Age, gender, cultural background and historical epochs (Tolman & Diamond, 2001). Religion plays a large role in shaping attitudes about sexuality as some religions prescribe acceptable sexual behavior. Many find that they are not able to accept such religious doctrine in light of the changes society is experiencing. Religious doctrine often resists change, and some religions like Catholicism have changed very little despite the enormous changes that people have experienced in their lives. This essay examines the intersection of sexuality and religion and the resultant attitudes adopted by different religions. This essay also discusses how sexuality and religion became linked prior to Christianity and beyond. The sociological aspects of sexuality are examined, including: Acceptance of different definitions of sexuality, religiosity, and sexual guilt. Finally, this essay examines the changing attitudes toward sexuality in the modern Catholic, Jewish and Islamic faiths.

Keywords Evangelical; Human Sexuality; Religious Institutions; Secularization; Sexual Expression

Sex, Gender


Sexual relations were never free of religious or economic regulations, but as the complexity of our culture increased, social conventions began to place restrictions on sexuality (Weber, 1922). Human sexuality can be defined as the way that a person views himself or herself as a sexual being through sexual preferences and actions. Scholarly research about male and female sexuality has focused on two different aspects of influence: Biological and socio/cultural/political (Tolman & Diamond, 2001). According to sociologists Deb Tolman and Lisa Diamond, "neither a purely biological or purely sociocultural approach can encompass the complexity of sexual desire (2001)."

  • The essentialist theory focuses on biology as the major factor in determining male and female sexuality differences. While biology is the overriding influence in determining sexuality, the essentialist theory acknowledges that social and historical influences also play a role, but a secondary one.
  • The social constructionist theory attributes gender differences in sexuality to the cultural and psychosocial processes that act upon individuals and prescribe appropriate male and female sexual feelings and behaviors. Tolman and Diamond state, "our entire experience of sexuality can be viewed as a context and culture-specific story that we come to live… [but] the sociocultural forces that shape our subjective experience of sexuality are largely invisible to us" (2001).

This essay investigates the role that different religions have played in shaping human sexuality within social and historical contexts.


Sexual Abstinence

Sociologist Gail Hawkes describes herself as a sociologist of sexuality who looks at history as a way of translating current complexities into our modern lives. In her essay "The Problem of Pleasure and the Making of Sexual Sin in Early Christianity," Hawkes reviews some of the influences that early Christianity has contributed to our socially constructed ideas about the sexual body. According to Hawkes, early Christianity focused on human sexual pleasure as "warranting special attention, but the values attached to human's sexual pleasure [were] negative" (Hawkes, 2007).

Max Weber, a noted 19th century sociologist wrote widely about the social influences of religion on different aspects of society. Weber's "Sociology of Religion" included chapters related to human sexuality and the role of religion in its influence. Weber suggests that Christianity exhibits an "anti-erotic religiosity." Hostility to sexuality was manifest in the pursuit of chastity. Abstinence was a highly regarded and extraordinary type of behavior which could be used for the "magical coercion of God" (Weber, 1922). Priestly celibacy was encouraged so that those holding church offices (clergy) would not lag behind the "supremely chaste" monks (Weber, 1922).

Sexual abstinence was seen as a central and indispensable means of salvation and was achieved through contemplative withdrawal from the world. Sexuality constituted the most powerful temptation (which linked humans with animal nature). The temptation of the body required constant vigilance, an emphasis on alertness, and self control.

Whether the inhabitant or the observer, unmediated proximity to the sexual body (as constructed by early Christianity); assured a fall from grace — a surrender to the irresistible temptations of the flesh (Hawkes, 2007, p. 2).

Appealing to the Laity

Sexual abstinence and self control were the two principals that were espoused by the Christian Church as the most certain path to righteous salvation. While these principals were practiced by clergy and monks, influencing the general population about sexuality was a more daunting task. Hawkes investigated the pre-Christian and early Christian attitudes toward human sexuality with a focus on how to "manage the problem of the body" (Hawkes, 2007). In every sense, the body represented a danger to chastity; people need to "explicitly recognize the perils" associated with loss of control over the body. Women's body's were of particular concern, as women were seen as lacking in self control and therefore posed a significant threat if they were to experience sexual pleasure (Hawkes, 2007). The theme concerning women and their lack of self control over their sexuality is a common one in many religions, and will be discussed in more detail later in this essay.

Selling the idea of complete chastity to the general populate was challenging for a couple of fairly obvious reasons.

  • First, sexual intercourse was necessary for procreation and continuance of the human race.
  • Second, people who had sex knew that it was "overwhelmingly enjoyable" (Hawkes, 2007).

The Christian faith was effective in further raising anxiety levels by preaching the sex associated with pleasure was "bad" (immoral) sex.


The institution of marriage was one way that religions could place parameters around sexuality by defining marriage as a religious sacrament. The role of marriage, according to Weber, was to eliminate all free sexual relationships; legitimization of marriage was a way to encourage monogamy which was the "hallmark of the Christian community" (Weber, 1922). Legally regulated marriage itself was regarded, not for its erotic value, but as an economic institution for the production and rearing of children. While many espoused a "direct religious obligation to beget children, the Judaic and Islamic faiths were also able to acknowledge that (procreation aside): "Sexual drivers were absolutely irresistible for the average person, marriage offered a legally regulated channel of sexuality" (Weber, 1922).

Public Shame: Sex as Sin

A growing Christian population posed challenges about how best to manage sexuality on a large scale; the answer proved to be more of the same control. Penance for sins, especially those of a sexual nature became part of the religious doctrine and provided a healthy dose of public shame. Later, private confessions took the place of public penance and served as a means to both absolve one of past sins and monitor future ones. Penitential's were handbooks that included exhaustive and detailed list of sins and their appropriate penance. The Penitential's covered all the original sins with over half the questions concerned with sexual behavior. "The detailed questions relating to how, with whom and how often one had sex were in effect training the sexual body" (Hawkes, 2007, p. 11). Throughout, the text's focused on distinguishing between moral and immoral sex; they contained as much detail as was acceptable to effectively control and prescribe what was acceptable. Ironically, the Penitential's were so detailed, that church officials realized that they were essentially giving people an erotic education (Hawkes, 2007). Centuries of examining and distinguishing between sexual practices helped to establish "internal boundaries of shame" while firmly establishing the association of sex with sin (Weber, 2007).

Sexuality across the Religious Spectrum

"Despite the widespread belief that hostility toward sexuality is a special view of Christianity, it must be emphasized that no distinctive religion of salvation has in principal any other view" (Weber, 1922). We will now look at how other religions view the theme of human sexuality. Sexual expression often seems at odds with religious practice, because many people think of sex as pleasurable and this is often counter to...

Sociology of Religion

Catalog number:59645253H
Period: Semester 1, Block I, II
  • Yes Elective choice
  • No Contractonderwijs
  • Yes Exchange
  • Yes Study Abroad
  • No Evening course
  • No A la Carte
  • No Honours Class

Admission requirements

Students should have some basic knowledge of the sociology of religion.

Students who have not followed a BA introduction course on the sociology of religion are required to contact the lecturer. Depending on their educational background, they will be given some introductory material to read before course starts.


The aim of this course is to allow students to get acquainted with how “real” sociologists of religion do research. It will therefore contain both independent work and peer-group cooperation, and both written assignments and oral presentation. Students will work individually on a paper throughout the semester and discuss their ideas, progress and conclusions with their peers and the teacher at various stages of the work. The course is designed to facilitate the writing process. After two introductory sessions (on the philosophical and theoretical foundation and on the state of the art of the sociology of religion) students will choose topics for their papers. Topics can be chosen within any area of the sociology of religion, for instance secularisation/de-secularisation, non-institutional religion and spirituality, the impact of new media on religion, or religion and politics. For each subsequent class we will read a key article which is relevant for one or more of the papers-in-progress. A pair of students will present the article and we will together discuss its relevance and possible utilization for the student papers. Students will also be required to seek out additional literature for their papers, in co-operation with the teacher. The course will be concluded with a “mini-conference” with presentation and discussion of the papers. The course is normally worth 5 ects-points, but can be expanded to 10. Students who follow the expanded version of the course are required to read substantially more and write a longer paper (see the sections on assessment and literature below). Students following the master programme Religion, Culture and Society who plan to write their master’s thesis within the sociology of religion are encouraged to take the expanded course. For these students, expansion of the course must be included in students’ “individual programme” for the master and needs to be approved by the exam commission. It can also be advisable for students enrolled in other master programmes which work with 10-point courses to take the expanded course. Students who which to take the expanded course should contact the lecturer.

Course objectives

It is the aim of the course that, • students develop a vocabulary of theoretical notions (such as secularisation, subjectivisation, globalisation, mediatisation and spirituality) to discuss and reflect on religion in (post)modern society. • students develop a vocabulary of theoretical notions (such as paradigm, methodological agnosticism, and naturalism) to discuss and reflect on the philosophical foundations of the sociology of religion as an academic discipline. • students develop their skills at academic writing, peer feedback, and oral presentation and discussion. • students develop a sophisticated level of sociological questioning and reasoning about (post)modern religion, appropriate for writing their master thesis. ### Timetable

See timetable:

Wednesday 3-5 p.m. The course begins on 14 September. Note the required readings for the first class below.

There is no class on 21 September, 26 October and 7 December.
The mini-conference will take place on 20 December. The exact time and place will be announced later.

Meetings: 24h (~1 ects)
Reading assignments: c. 300p (~1,5 ects)
Small tasks: Article presentation, self-evaluation, preparation for conference (~1 ects)
Paper: review of book (c. 200p), 1000-1500 words (~1,5 ects)
(Students who do the course for 10 ects-points substitute the book review with a paper of 3200-4000 words based on 500 pages literature in addition to the reading assignments discussed in class)

Mode of instruction

The course will consist of a combination of lectures, tutorials and a final mini-conference. The course will take off with two introductory lectures on “The character of the sociology of religion as an academic discipline: Historical roots and philosophical foundations” and “The state of the art of the sociology of religion”.

The bulk of course (sessions 3-10) will consist of tutorials. In most sessions a pair of students will present and evaluate a key article. This will be followed by a discussion of how the article might be used in the various papers. Students will also report on the progress of their papers. The last two sessions will be lumped together as a concluding double session mini-conference. Before the conference, everybody will read the papers of their co-students. At the conference, we will discuss the papers in turn. Each student gets some time to introduce their paper before the discussion.

Assessment method

The final mark will be a weighed average of two marks: (1) Oral presentation and evaluation of article, self-evaluation of paper draft, contribution to the discussion in class and at the final mini-conference. 30%. (2) Final paper. 70%. Oral presentation and evaluation of article
At one point during the semester, students are required to present an article which is key to their chosen paper topic (or of a more general character and important to all). Depending on the number of students enrolled in the course, students will do this alone or in pairs. The teacher recommends which article to take and talks with the students beforehand about what is most relevant in the article and about how to link it to earlier discussions in class and the papers-in-progress. Students will get feedback on their presentation after class.

The main assignment in the course is an individually written paper which takes a different form depending on whether the course is done as a 5 or 10 ects course.

Book Review. Students who take the course in the 5 ects version are required to write a book review of a recent book on a topic within the sociology of religion. Students should choose a book of around 150-250 pages. See blackboard for a list of book examples. The review should be 1000-1500 words long, and written according to the style and format of a real journal (such as Journal of Contemporary Religion or Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion), and should connect the evaluation of the book to the discussions in class about the state of the art of the sociology of religion.

Paper. Students who take the course in the 10 ects version are required to write a paper on a self-chosen topic within the sociology of religion. The paper can take form of a longer review essay of a book or two books, of a literature review on a specific research topic, or of a research note based on a small empirical investigation of one’s own. The paper should be 3200-4000 words long and be based on about 500 pages of individually chosen literature (or less of the paper contains an empirical component). It should be written according to the style and format of a real journal, and should connect to the discussions in class about the state of the art of the sociology of religion.

Students who also do their master’s thesis on the sociology of religion are encouraged to write a book review or paper within the same field as their thesis.

We will discuss the progress on the papers throughout the course. There are a couple of important dates and deadlines related to the paper:
Wed 5 Oct. In class: Students present their topics and paper ideas
Fri 4 Nov. Deadline for approval of literature list for long papers.
Fri 11 Nov. Hand in paper draft and self-evaluation (using the lecturer’s evaluation scheme) via Blackboard.
Fri 9 Dec. Hand in final paper via Blackboard.

Students are required to begin reading for and writing on their reviews/papers early on. Friday 11 November all students will hand in a draft of their paper together with self-evaluation in form of a filled-in version of the lecturer’s evaluation form (which will also be used for marking the final papers). The same evaluation scheme will be used for peer-feedback in class.

The final paper should be handed in on Dec 9. The paper counts 70% towards the final mark. In addition to the mark, students will receive feedback on their work from peers and teacher at the concluding mini-conference. They will also get written feedback from the teacher after the conference.



Reading list

Master copies of the required readings can be found on the course plank in the university library.

First session [To be read before the first class, 14 September]

Theme: The character of the sociology of religion as an academic discipline

Zuckerman, Phil (2003), Invitation to the Sociology of Religion, Ch. 1, “Sociology and Religion”, 17-34.

Davidsen, Markus (2011), “What is Wrong with Pagan Studies.

Second session [28 September]

Theme: The state of the art of the sociology of religion

Possamai, Adam (2009), Sociology of Religion for Generation X and Y, London: Equinox. Ch. 2., “Religion and Popular Culture”; Ch. 5, “Religion and Postmodernity (Part A): Consumer Religions”, Ch. 6, “Religion and Postmodernity (Part B): Hyper-Reality and the Internet”, 25-38, 66-94.

Woodhead, Linda (2009), “Old, New, and Emerging Paradigms in the Sociological Study of Religion”, Nordic Journal of Religion and Society, 22(2), 103-121.

Turner, Bryan S. (2010), “Introduction: Mapping the Sociology of Religion”, in Bryan S. Turner (ed.), The New Blackwell Companion to the Sociology of Religion, Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 1-29.

Further reading will be decided upon during the course. Reading guides can be found on Blackboard.


Via uSis
In addition to the registration in uSis, students are also expected to self-enroll in blackboard a few weeks before the course starts.

Contact information

Students who which to specialise in sociology of religion within the master track Religion, Culture and Society should contact M. Davidsen well in advance before the semester to discuss interests and competences and formally agree on an individual master programme.
Students who want to participate in the course as part of another master track or who choose another specialisation within the track Religion, Culture and Society are required to register in uSis and contact the lecturer, M. Davidsen.
Drs. M. Davidsen


The course will be taught in English.

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