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The Inner Logic of Religion(s)

Can a religion be adequately understood by referencing simply its psychological or sociological manifestations? Not according to religious people, it can’t.
This essay is part of a series of articles adapted from our book, Strengths in Diverse Families of Faith: Exploring Religious Differences. There are also podcasts on these same issues. The full articles are available free online.

In this essay, we discuss the “inner logic” of religion(s). That is, how religious thinking and acting is important to understand on their own terms and not simply as merely psychological or sociological in nature. Unfortunately, across the social sciences, a typical approach to the study of religion and religions is to reduce religion to sociology or to psychology by imposing sociological or psychological perspectives onto religion.

Compared with most of the other essays in this special section of Public Square, this one is unique in that it focuses on some very big ideas about understanding and exploring religion from a social science perspective, but in ways that are true to religion. We are joined by our friend and colleague, Greg Wurm who, at the time we wrote the article on which this essay is based, was a master’s student at BYU and who is now a doctoral student in sociology at the University of Notre Dame, studying with Christian Smith—who has authored books such as Soul Searching (about religiosity among American teenagers) and Souls in Transition (about religiosity among emerging adults). 

In a highly-cited article on the influence of religion on American adolescents, Smith proposed nine factors that explain, or at least hint at, religion’s unique effects on what social scientists commonly term “pro-social behaviors.” Of these, he includes such items as the ability of religion to provide moral directives, embodied role models, coping skills, and cultural and social capital, to name a few. Many of these themes are touched on by participants in the eight articles on various religious-ethnic communities that we focus on in our recent book, Strengths in Diverse Families of Faith: Exploring Religious Differences

Smith argues in that piece that religion’s power to provide these resources for religious adolescents, and for religious people more broadly, cannot be reduced to “generic resources or social networks or organizational capacities or memberships that just so happen to be found in religious groups.” Instead, he says, each religion’s peculiar content, its specific beliefs and expectations, are inseparably linked to the outcomes the religion produces. 

In short, he argues that there is something distinctly religious about religion that cannot be understood in “other than religious” terms. For Smith, to ignore the sacred elements of religion “would completely dissolve the sociology of religion as a distinctive field and divide up its component parts into the other fields of culture, organizations, race and ethnicity, collective behavior and social movements, and so forth.” To adapt the words of the psychologist of religion, William James, “it would be Hamlet without the prince.” We follow Smith in suggesting the need to preserve and even enhance a formal appreciation of the explanatory power of religion. 

As we have worked in the religion and family field we have tried to identify the explicitly religious and relational processes at work at the nexus of religion and family life with an emphasis on the religious beliefs, practices, and experiences that seem to make a difference in strengthening marriage, parenting, and family life.

For example, we have learned that in strong religious marriages there often is a sense of shared vision of the meaning of marriage and a strong emphasis on forgiveness and relational reconciliation. In the area of parenting, we have learned that strong religious parents achieve a balance of religious firmness and religious flexibility, along with a balance in seeking to pass along cherished religious beliefs and traditions (religious legacy) with children’s own religious agency

In the area of family processes, we have discovered the importance of healthy, relationally-sensitive religious rituals, for example in the areas of group or family prayer, and in religion-specific rituals such as the Jewish Shabbat (Sabbath), Ramadan (the Muslim month of fasting), and the Latter-day Saint “Family Home Evening.” We have also explored the importance of balancing sacrifice with self-care, especially for wives and mothers.

In a wonderful book (with a subtitle that summarizes it well) called Seculosity: How Career, Parenting, Technology, Food, Politics, and Romance Became Our New Religion and What To Do About It, author and Episcopalian minister David Zahl argues that it is not so much that Americans are less religious than we used to be but, rather, that we have transferred our innate religiosity to a variety of secular matters. Similarly, sociologist Roger Friedland argues that there is something religious about even the most secular aspects of modern life, rather than something secular, social, or utterly other-than-religious about religion. 

As social scientists, we commit to examining a question we can answer, or at least address. For this special section of Public Square, we ask: How do the participants we interviewed from eight different religious-ethnic communities exemplify not only the positive aspects of religious-family connection in general, but also how do they (and to what degree do they) embody and represent the substantively religious logic of their own specific faith communities?

Each unique Christian, or Muslim, or Jewish denomination has its own particular set of beliefs and practices.

We believe that answering this question is essential not only to understanding those of different religious and/or ethnic backgrounds, but also in assisting religious people to honor their sacred and deeply held commitments in ways that help and not harm relationships.

The Particular Worlds of Believers, In All Their Iterations

Each unique Christian, or Muslim, or Jewish denomination has its own particular set of beliefs and practices—and families have particular ways they live out those beliefs and practices. The philosopher George Santayana (2014) noted that “every living and healthy religion has a marked idiosyncrasy” and that religion’s power consists in its special and surprising message and in the bias which that revelation gives to life. As he puts it, “The vistas it opens and the mysteries it propounds are another world to live in; and another world to live in—whether we expect ever to pass wholly into it or not—is what we mean by having a religion.” 

Trying to understand a given religion without attending to its particular manifestations throughout time and space is, Santayana argues, to “attempt to speak without speaking any particular language.” To try and understand religious-ethnic families without attempting to understand their particular religions, logics, and/or lived experience would be to devise a theory of those families that is not actually about them. Conversely, in our research on religious families, we use an approach that relies almost exclusively on exemplars—people who are living examples of their faith—to prototypically represent a faith community’s unique logic and strengths.

Our approach of interviewing religious persons in-depth in their homes empowered them to express what they believe; to explain how and why they live the way they do; to explain why they choose those paths of belief and action; and, ultimately, to capture and convey their experiences in their own voices. To do this well, the researcher must learn to speak and understand the language of their respondents. An increase in shared language and perspective helps the researcher to ultimately navigate, ascend, and overcome what sociologist Arlie Hochschild (2016) has called “the empathy wall” that prevents us from understanding and empathizing with diverse “others.” This approach to inquiry commands a considerable investment of time, attention, self-criticism, and detail. 

When we experience what is different about others, of course, we also discover what is different about ourselves. Moreover, we not only see what is different about others from our perspective, but we see what is different about ourselves from others’ perspectives. This recursive process can be both enriching and unsettling. How we see the differences between ourselves and others, changes such that we become not indifferent to difference, or uncomfortable with it, but open to it. 

Some Findings and Theory about Them

We’ve learned a great deal from studying these words spoken by the many families whom we interviewed. Among other things, we’ve come away more convinced that if we are to theorize effectively regarding the religious-family connection we should do so in ways that honor the particularity that each participant, each family, and each religion has to offer. For instance, in our article on Black Christian families (Millett et al., 2018), two black women, Jocelyn and Jayla, talk about their interactions with God. Jocelyn tells of her confidence in prayer even when, as she says, “I don’t get the results that I’m seeking. … Just because I don’t get the answer I want, that does not mean that [God] has not answered my prayer.” 

A second woman, Jayla, describes how she thinks of her faith in God as a “relationship, more … than a religion.” Both of these women point to their God in very real and relational ways. Jocelyn reinterpreted her “unanswered” prayers as a sign of God’s presence rather than His absence. For Jocelyn, prayer is not merely to be understood instrumentally, and for Jayla, religion cannot be all there is. Something more, something transcendent even, must ground it—and for both that something is a sense of relationship with God.  

In contrast to Jayla’s view of her faith as a “relationship, more … than a religion,” Caleb, a Reformed Jew (Kelley et al., 2018), seemed to see his faith as a religion, more than a relationship. He told of the time when his uncle was murdered and how he found comfort in the various funeral rituals associated with his dear uncle’s death. Caleb explains:

It’s not that I necessarily believe that there is a God listening to my prayers. It’s more that the comfort of doing something that I’ve done all of my life has made it comfortable and given me the space to deal with those kinds of trying situations.

Though Caleb does not express definitive faith in God, he does feel a deep appreciation for rituals and practices that involve his whole religious and familial community—“[t]he burial ritual, the funeral ritual, the Shiva ritual of staying at home [with family] for seven days, … the Kaddish prayer, … the prayer for memory [or] prayer for the dead.” He mentions how all of these things helped him to cope. While some people mourn by throwing themselves into their work, Caleb threw himself into his religion—but into aspects of Judaism that focus on behavior, not necessarily belief.

The institutional logic of religion also plays itself out in ways that directly pertain to family. In another example from the article on Jewish families, Eli, an Orthodox husband, (Kelley, et al., 2018) shares his perspective that …

The purpose of marriage is to increase the holiness of human relationships. … We hope to have an emotional, intellectual, and spiritual dimension, where we help each other to try to ascend to a higher level, or at least become more what we should be.

Another Jewish participant spoke of marriage as “a sacred bond that should be upheld” suggesting that some religious people see the sanctity of marriage as the inherent condition of a “God-ordained” institution, rather than as a bestowal by the individual(s) involved. 

From a perspective of religious logics, scholars once again tend to psychologize and, to some extent, inadvertently un-sanctify these relationships when they perceive them as wholly psychological processes. It is vital to carefully listen to and explore the lived experience of deeply religious persons who hold their marriage and family relationships to be inherently sacred. For many such families, their marriages and family relationships are not sacred merely because they have psychologically framed them as such, they are sacred because God sanctified them. For those who would argue that this seems to be largely subjective or merely semantic, we can only say that the particularistic language of some of our participants seems to indicate that this view matters deeply to them—and, as qualitative researchers, our responsibility is to convey their voices and their meanings.

As humans, we tend to hunger for and seek ultimate meaning—and many do so through a particular religion and religious logic.

Practical Implications

In our efforts to better understand and better serve religious families, both the processes of how religions work and the content of the diverse religious traditions that carry out these processes must be understood in their own distinctly religious language and on their own terms.

As humans, we tend to hunger for and seek ultimate meaning—and many do so through a particular religion and religious logic. While a large body of research on family rituals indicates that these practices tend to strengthen family relationships, many wonder if much of the power is derived not so much from the practice but from the sacred purpose. Jewish Sociologist Ellen Levee writes of the positive research-based outcomes associated with Shabbat: “The more its meaning relies solely on these [practical] functions, the less able it is to perform them.”  The argument is that it is the sacred and the ultimate that infuse rituals and families with power. Thus, in the task of helping religious people, it may be more helpful to examine and address ultimate religious and relational meanings rather than to try to persuade them to engage in practices based on the latest findings from empirical research. 

We hope that by reading these essays and/or listening to the associated podcasts readers will be able to increase their level of respect and admiration for those of different faiths from their own. We also hope to encourage increased respect and appreciation for (and among) those who are part of the now 26% of religiously unaffiliated Americans who describe their religious identity as agnostic (5%), atheist (4%), or nothing in particular (17%).

Although we have spent nearly two decades in the in-depth study of highly religious American families of various faiths, we have recently interviewed 31 unaffiliated couples in strong marriages. Our participants recommended the following as principles for practice in conversations about beliefs between nonreligious and religious individuals:

  1. Explicitly ask if an individual enjoys discussing beliefs and honor their preferences.
  2. Seek to understand another’s beliefs, while sharing but not imposing one’s own beliefs.
  3. Discuss the intellectual and emotional journey that has led to one’s personal beliefs.

About the Authors:

In our increasingly diverse (and too often divisive) culture, it can be challenging to have enjoyable conversations or relationships with people with different beliefs and commitments than our own. We hope that the ideas and experiences shared in this special section of Public Square Magazine may help us all to treat others with whom we differ with respect, appreciation, and even admiration.

While we ourselves are active (devoted) members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in our work in the American Families of Faith project, we seek to highlight the strengths of our friends of various faiths. We have developed a sense of deep respect and even holy envy for these families and their faiths. Additionally, the book chapters from which these articles are adapted included two coauthors who are devoted members of those faiths.

If you like listening to audiobooks and podcasts, we have recorded a set of conversations about the families we interviewed that includes additional quotes from mothers, fathers, and youth, more of our experiences in attending their services, as well as personal experiences with friends of other faiths. These podcasts are available at the sites below.





iHeart Radio



Podcast Republic

About the authors

Gregory Wurm

Greg Wurm is a PhD Student and Fellow in sociology at the University of Notre Dame. He has published in the areas of family and religion.

David Dollahite

David C. Dollahite, Ph.D., is professor of Family Life at BYU, co-director of the American Families of Faith project, and co-author of Strengths in Diverse Families of Faith.

Loren Marks

Loren D. Marks, Ph.D. is professor of Family Life at BYU, co-director of the American Families of Faith project, and co-author of Religion and Families. He is a Fellow at the Wheatley Institute.
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