Religion is a social institution that answers questions and explains the seemingly inexplicable. Religion provides explanations for why things happen and demystifies the ideas of birth and death. Religions based on the belief in a single deity are monotheistic. Those that encompass many deities are polytheistic.
Most of the world subscribes to one of the following religions:
Sociologists group religious organizations into three categories: church, sect, and cult.
Example: The Roman Catholic Church is well integrated in the society in Spain.
Example: The Amish of Pennsylvania are a classic sect. Though Christian, they choose to set themselves apart from the rest of society by their lifestyle, which eschews many aspects of modernity.
Example: The People’s Temple, a cult that emerged in the late 1970s, was led by a man named Jim Jones. Jones started his cult in San Francisco, then convinced several hundred followers to move with him to Jonestown, Guyana. He claimed to be a god and insisted on strict loyalty. In 1978, he and 913 of his followers committed mass suicide.
In the United States, the degree to which people are religious is related to their social class, race, and ethnicity. The most affluent people in the United States tend to be Protestant, although Jews also enjoy a higher-than-average standard of living. Northern Europe, which is mostly Protestant, was the area of origin for most of the early settlers in America, so people of Northern European descent tend to come from the most established families and encounter the least amount of prejudice. People who emigrated from predominantly Roman Catholic countries in Southern and Eastern Europe and, later, Latin America encountered more prejudice and tend to be less affluent than the Protestants. However, there is wide variation among the groups.
African-American churches have blended the traditions of Christianity and the African faiths of the slaves brought to America. These churches have played a major role in promoting civil rights for blacks.