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Social role of religion

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 2969 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Religion in Today’s Society

Religion has always accompanied human life, being a uniting force for many centuries. It has survived numerous social changes, being able to preserve its importance for individuals and groups within society. This can explain why its social phenomenon is of a considerable interest for sociologists. Sociology tries to determine how religion is incorporated into society, how it influences individuals and if there is reciprocal influence. What place and why does it occupy in the people’s lives? What role does it play in society? Is it a constructive or destructive force? What is the task of an individual in the framework of religion? Sociology tries to find answers to these questions and reveal the secret of the power that religion has over people. In this paper, three major theories will be presented, giving an insight into the social role of religion.

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Functionalism, Conflict Theory and Interactionism

Functionalism is the most widely-used theory in modern sociology. In general, functionalism uses a systematical approach to any given object, asserting that each element of this object fulfills a necessary role, which is vital either to keep the balance of the system or for its survival. Any change in the state of any of the elements influences the whole system. Functionalism focuses on society as a unity of individuals and the way they, as part of this whole, are affected by various social institutions. It explores religion at the macro-level, analyzing the effect its practices and symbols have on different aspects of society as a whole as well as the harmony between its elements and/or its endurance. According to the functional approach, religion can fulfill different tasks, for example, establish unity, explain and introduce various norms to society, teach people to deal with probable unpredictable outcomes of certain events; it aims at simplifying the ideas or events that are difficult to understand. Extreme modern functionalists even argue that religion is vital for the survival of the human race and that it is the only means to enable the transition from selfishness to altruism.

Functionalism was initially introduced into sociology by Emile Durkheim, as well as Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer and Bronislaw Malinowski (“Sociology of Religion,” 2003). Society is viewed as a system which strives to keep a certain balance and return to it as soon as possible if some disruption occurs. Emile Durkheim, the founder of functionalism, determined religion as a systematic arrangement of certain knowledge and practical actions related to faith and sacred objects. He asserted that in order to comprehend religion, one had to recognize those holy objects or symbols and what they stood for. In order to evaluate the importance of religion in social interactions, Durkheim examined religious practices of various primitive peoples such as the Australian Aborigines. Their social hierocracy was based on the clan system. Each clan worshipped a totem with which it was identified. The totem usually represented some natural force or living creature. It was engraved on some material object that was used during holy rituals. Durkheim concluded that for those tribes the totem represented not only God, but society as well. Thus, they celebrated both. It was clear why someone would worship God. But why sanctify society? Durkheim explained that a man accepted that there were things and phenomena beyond his understanding, in other words, “above” him; the same happened with society. But one had to translate their worship of something that would represent those superior forces for them, and that was how religious symbols appeared.

Another outstanding theorist of functionalism, Bronislaw Malinowski, also examined small groups to define the social role of religion (“Sociology of Religion,” 2003). His studies led him to a conclusion that religion had a calming effect on the people, especially in stressful environment. This result was based on the fact that religion had penetrated into fundamental but extremely tense for humans events, such as marriage or burial, for example. For Malinowski, death had a special significance as it meant that society lost one of its members. Nevertheless, he found religion very useful in this instance, as it proposed consolation in the form of life after death. By conducting a funeral, religion eased pain and stress, preventing possible social outbursts. Among others, Malinowski studied some tribes from the Trobriand Islands, who had a special ceremony performed before going fishing, which was their only occupation. This ritual helped them overcome fear about what might happen (as the sea was an unpredictable environment), and also built solidarity. The researcher came to a conclusion that religion helped people face the unknown future.

In general, functionalism sees religion as a positive element of society, as it unites people, helps maintain social balance and prevents disorder. Functionalists accept that it is important as religious institutions fulfill functions that society needs for survival, creating individual models of behavior that are beneficial for the social balance. Religion is also viewed as a reconciling measure between an individual as an element of society and society as a whole. Functional approach allows individuals to have different levels of religious involvement. Contemporary functionalists, like J. Milton Yinger, also note that in modern society religion has expanded its influence from the church surroundings to everyday life, which means that activities previously unrelated to religion suddenly become associated with it in the people’s minds (Blasi, n.d.). Religion helps individuals to define their role in society, giving them the feeling of safety and familiarity with other individuals in a certain group.

Machiavelli and Hobbes were the first scientists who introduced the concept of conflict into sociological theories. They applied the term of “cynical realism” to the description of society: motifs of individual behavior were based solely on self-interest. Each society has a certain ideology, represented in a system of beliefs (religion), which is often used according to the interests of the parties involved. But the core of conflict theory lies in the ideas of Karl Marx (McClelland, 2000). According to Marx, the driving force of social existence is labor, which provides people with means to satisfy their basic needs (e.g. food, shelter). The way this labor is organized from a social point of view determines the essential social characteristics, making those who carry out the production the constructors of society. Marx believed that economy was the basis for creating different social institutions that determined the form of social consciousness of each individual.

In order to define the role of religion as it is seen in conflict theory, we need to understand Marx’s view on society. He saw capitalism as the dominant structure of contemporary economical interactions, in which capital belonged to a small group of individuals, who employed workers. The latter used capital to produce different goods, but in order for that small group of individuals to receive profit, the workers were paid less than they actually had produced. So there was a conflict: those two classes needed each other, as they provided each other with what the other one did not have, but their interests had different vectors. In order to keep the workers (who outnumbered the bourgeois class) under control, different measures were taken: politics, police institution, religion. Conflict theory sees religion as a tool used to prevent the majority from acting on their own, to make them accept the established way of life in society. Marx believed that eventually the workers would take over (through growing consciousness), and a new model of economic relations – socialism – would be established.

Max Weber is considered to be a uniting link between conflict theory and the interactionism. The scientist continued developing Marx’s views, and added new levels of conflict to his theory. Weber believed that there were more conflicts than just one-kind-of-property conflict, thus acknowledging that there were more resources to fight for and that society was a multiple-class structure, with each class playing a specific role in material economic interactions. Unlike Marx, Weber moved the focus of conflict to the control of means of violence that served to suppress the opposition. What is more important for us, Weber had clearly showed what role religion played in society. He saw religion as a way to emotionally unite people, and that function of religion was exploited by the state. Religion helped different groups acquire certain statuses or develop into certain communities (based on ethnicity, for example). Religious ceremonies built strong feelings of solidarity within the group, created emotional unity and bonds through application of symbols, techniques and various material aids. According to Weber, religion was not above the conflict or means of resolving it, it was another weapon. If some power incorporated itself into religious beliefs of people, it occupied the dominant position in society. Religion might also be used as a means of finding allies against a common enemy. It could be implemented to create a certain social hierocracy. Through this concept, Weber showed that religion was a manipulation tool, creating background for stratification of society (e.g. stratification in relations and established positions of religious leaders, member of the group and non-followers). In conflict theory, any conflict lies in the desire of one group to dominate the other or others, which can be most effectively achieved through violent constraint. One conflict arises when those who have the authority to coerce provide some groups with certain privileges and strip other groups of them. According to conflict theory, every individual acts in his own interests, having the ability to influence self-perception of others, which creates another conflict: different people having different resources available to them create the reality of others, which they use to their advantage. At a personal level, each individual’s self-consciousness is developed based on the way this individual comprehends the reality – that is through interpersonal communication – which brings us to the theory of interactionism.

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Interactionism (short for symbolic interactionism) is another major theory in sociology, the most recently developed among the ones presented in this work. Some of its ideas were taken from Marx, Weber and further developed by George H. Mead and Herbert Blumer with the contribution of Charles Horton Cooley (McClelland, 2000). This theory concentrates on the subjective side of human behavior and social development. It focuses on individuals rather than society. According to interactionism, each person plays a certain role, being able to change his behavior if the behavior of others changes, too. This is because individuals are able to understand and read into the actions of others, which are perceived as symbols. Moreover, each individual perceives himself and his own actions as symbols as well. Interacting with one another, individuals are constantly in the process of interpreting the symbols that they exchange as well as the world around them. Interactionism recognizes individuals as active participants of social life and constructors of society. Its focus is on the individual interactions, diminishing the importance of established norms (like in functionalism and conflict theory). According to interactionism, the changeable nature of negotiation process between the society’s members forms the constantly changing social reality, which nevertheless stays in the frame of the stable set of rules regulating these interactions. It pays special attention to the roles that individuals play in social relations, believing that they can be either pre-defined or not. It is important to understand that individuals not just react, but evaluate the meaning of counteraction, and then decide on their reation.

According to interactionism, religion is a certain ideology (a system of symbols) that helps people understand and relate to things that are above understanding, and in a certain way to track their lives in the wake of this ideology. Religion creates an outline of appropriate behavior and incorporates it into people’s minds. Participation in religious ceremonies is a way to confirm the correctness of one’s course and to reinforce one’s beliefs, but also a means of imposing certain symbols. Interactionism recognizes religion as a very powerful social institution, because if it succeeds in establishing itself as a symbolic system of some individual, it becomes the only right way for this individual to interpret the world around him. Religious ceremonies are seen by this theory as very important for confirming people’s system of beliefs and reinforcing certain interpretation of the world. In general, interactionism is a very subjective sociological approach.


The three theories represented in this research paper see religion not as an essential truth but rather an illusion of the truth, as it is immensely influenced by different variables. Functionalists see religion as a uniting force bringing society’s members together through the feeling of solidarity. They assert that religious symbols are the representation of the values of people and give special meaning to the religious ceremonies and rituals, as they encourage stronger unity in social groups. Functionalism identifies religion as a positive element of the social system since it introduces another unearthly reality to people helping them forget the stress of everyday life. According to functionalism, religion is beneficial for health and is also an important condition for future survival of society. Conflict theory in a figurative meaning sees religion as a drug for certain social groups. It is one of the ways for the oppressed to feel united, though it is a cruel tool in the hands of the ruling class. They use it to enforce the difficult way of life, make the working class believe that it is their fate and there cannot be another. Religion refers only to the future, promising reward or better life in the distant future or even after death (in afterlife). For conflict theory, religion is at a stage of change, blocking the idea that the current way of life benefits only a few while the majority of society suffers from injustice. It is interesting to mention that both Durkheim and Marx predicted that religion will vanish from the social life being useless. Symbolic interactionism concentrates on the individuals and their interactions through which the way the society functions and the roles of its institutions are defined. This theory sees society as a constantly changeable symbolic organism. Importance of religion is in the first place defined by the meaning of religion for each separate individual. Being part of religion is a continuous and regular comparison and confirmation of one’s system of beliefs.

The research shows that the role of religion can be explained from different points of view, and there is no right or wrong explanation.


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