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Sociologist's definition of religion

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 2088 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Even tough sociologists don’t have a true definition of religion, they all generally believe that it is a belief in some sort of supernatural.

Sociologists such as Functionalists, Marxists & Feminists believe that religion is a conservative force, meaning that it inhibits changes within society and maintains the status quo. However, where Functionalists see this as a ‘good’ thing, Marxists look at it from a more negative aspect.

Other sociologists like Neo-Marxists, Marx Weber, and McGuire & .. believe religion to be a source of change….

The functionalist Emile Durkheim (1912) believed that religion is central to the reproduction & maintenance of social order in societies.

He argued that the main function of religion is to socialize societies’ members into a value consensus, by setting shared beliefs, rituals and sacred objects apart.

He did an investigation on the role of religion, in a small tribal community in Australia; The Aborigines. He found that the members of this community worshipped sacred objects; objects that are things that are set apart & forbidden, which evoke feelings of awe, respect & deference, holy things. These objects, called Totems, were a symbol, -usually a plant or animal-, by which the tribes distinguished themselves from one another. In worshiping these sacred objects, individuals would obtain an identity and social membership (or collective consciousness), because they shared the same beliefs, values, traditions & norms, that make social life possible. Durkheim stated that in worshipping a society’s symbols, its members are unconsciously worshipping their society of which they are a part.

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According to Durkheim, these unifying practices and beliefs bind people closely together because it forms a balanced and solid moral community, which is a means of protecting individuals from anomie, alienation and other threats. This solidarity also gives individuals the confidence & continuing motivation to face up life and ask for social support from other members whenever needed. This strengthens social solidarity, or collective consciousness in society- the sense of belonging somewhere.

This is why Durkheim sees religion as conservative and inhibiting social change, which is desirable because its ‘functional’ and people don’t want to change anything about their ways of life.

Durkheim was praised a lot for the ways he had done his research because he managed to keep an objective distance of a sociologist, and therefore made it his task to understand the functions of religion, and not to pass his judgements. Also, his argument that the ‘sacred’ is a symbol of group values has been recognized by many, as in history, people have rallied to flags, crucifixes and holy scriptures.

However, his research might be said to be somewhat out of date, as he took his analysis from pre modern societies, and it has to be asked how relevant his theory is in today’s western societies.

Also, because Durkheim never visited the aboriginal society himself, his methodology was said to be flawed. Some say that he misunderstood Totemism, ad generalized about other societies based on one small Aboriginal society.

Durkheim’s theory on religion was ground breaking and very influential, inspiring much further research.

The functionalist Bronislav Malinowski (1954) agreed with Durkheim on all the points he made about the role of religion. However, he focussed on the specific areas of social life with which religion is concerned, and managed to point out that another function of religion is to provide support for society’s members in situations of social stress, like birth, death, marriage, divorce etc., where religion serves to reduce anxiety & tension resulting, which threaten to disrupt social life. In this sense, religion keeps society stable at times of individual and societal confusion and disorder and makes sure that people don’t reject the shared norms, values and traditions due to times of hardship.

An example would be after the 2004 Great Indian Ocean Tsunami, where most of the world’s religions sent support teams to the disaster area & helped to rebuild the place. They wanted to rebuild schools as fast as possible in particular, to maintain the important link between society, education & religion.

Unlike Durkheim, Malinowski actually went and lived in the society where his work was based on, gaining primary data. This is seen as a very positive thing, because no accusations of his work being ‘flawed’ could be made.

Also, his idea about how religion helps in time of crisis & uncertainty can be seen in today’s society e.g. the funeral of Princess Diana, where people gathered together & expressed their grievance.

However, like Durkheim, he makes broad generalizations based on his study of just one small scaled society, which obviously does not represent life in modern western society.

The functionalist sociologist Talcott Parson (1965) believed that religion was a conservative force, because it’s the primary source of meaning for members of society.

It provides answers to eternal questions dealing with death, the evil, suffering and justice. Often these questions appear to be unjustified, and therefore they might threaten to undermine people’s faith. However, religion provides answers; e.g. for the question ‘why do evil people prosper’ religion might give the answer that these evil people will get punished for their deeds in the afterlife etc.

By providing these answers, religion helps to make sense of all experiences, which keeps society in order and stable, therefore inhibiting changes.

So, religion promotes social stability rather than change, by relieving tension & frustration that could disrupt social order.

However, Marxists would strongly disagree with this idea, as they believe that by focussing on the afterlife, people passively accept exploitation.

Marxism is a conflict theory. Like functionalist, they believe that religion is a conservative force, but they don’t see it from a positive view. According to these sociologists, religion is an institution of domination & oppression, and a means of social control, inhibiting changes in the social class inequalities in society. They argue that religion legitimizes social inequality, keeping the working classes in a state of false consciousness, not being aware of the true nature of their exploitation & passively accepting their lower status.

This is because, according to Marx, religion acts as the ‘opium’ of the people -it works as a pacifying drug-, as it doesn’t solve any problems that people may have, but only dulls the pain, as people inactively put up with their sufferings, believing its ‘God’s will’ and so unchangeable, remaining in a state of false consciousness, thinking they will be rewarded in heaven.

Marxists on the whole believe religion creates passive individuals, who do not attempt to change the world for the better, but simply accept spiritual alternatives.

The fact that Marxists believe that ‘man makes religion, religion does not make men’ sums up their ideas. In other words, if an individual is alienated & exploited, he or she is likely to turn to religion and find the answers there.

This is the reason why most religions originate in the oppressed classes (the working classes), as they have a need in religion, to gain a sense of renewed strength and confidence to move on with life.

According to Marxists, the ruling classes are using religion as a ‘tool’ to maintain ideological control, making it less likely that the members of the working class will recognize the fact that they are being exploited & therefore revolt in this way, religion is seen as a conservative force.

Marxist have gained theoretical support from feminists because they agree with Marxists about the fact that religion causes conflict, passing on negative norms and values to members of society, although they believe these deal with gender inequality rather than class inequality.

However, a negative aspect of the Marxist view is that they ignore secularization, as the ideological power of religion has been undermined by the fact that people in society tend to be less religious today than in the past.

Also, they are too deterministic in saying that religion is a conservative force for social class inequalities. Religion can be a force for social change, and it has done so in the past, improving the lives of millions of oppressed working class people. E.g. the Civil Rights Movement (USA) where South African churches played a major role in changing white supremacist society. Also, the levellers in the English Civil War wanted a communistic society, basing their ideas on Christianity & the Bible.

Like Marxists, Feminists believe that religion is a means of social control, oppressing women and keeping men in power. They argue that religious beliefs are merely a patriarchal ideology, restricting social change and justifying social inequality.

Feminist believe that through secondary socialization, religion teaches & preaches the norms & values of the men, helping to legitimize the suppression of women.

Much evidence is given to support their view. Feminists argue that religion is seen from a male point of view; holy texts are all written & interpreted by men, reference to male characters is a lot more than women in these texts, and Gods tend to be men in almost all major world religions. This gives men the feeling of being ‘holier’ and gives a justification to see women as ‘second hand citizens’ & therefore, as I said, legitimizes gender inequality.

Also, where there is reference to female characters in holy texts, a passive and nurturing gender role is attached to them.. ADAM & EVE..

Gender role ideas are also reinforced in religious texts. Men are portrayed as being strong and insuperable

Women on the other hand, are portrayed to be passive,


They argue that religion is a conservative force, as it reproduces, maintains & legitimizes gender inequality.

However, there are also sociologists who believe religion to be a source for social change.

Firstly, Neo-Marxist,

However, not all Marxists agree that religion is purely ‘the opium of the people’.

Neo-Marxists, who are writers that have tried to update the writings of Karl Marx to suit new developments in society, have rejected the view that religion is merely a conservative force. They believe that religion can be a force for social change, being used by the working class’ to bring about social change.

Antonio Gramsci (1971), who wrote his ideas about religion around the 1920s, was aware of the fact that the Roman Catholic Church had shaped the minds of its followers over centuries, supporting ruling class interest, by making the poor & oppressed focus on the afterlife rather than this life.

However, he believed that the working class could revolt to the class inequalities, by producing their own intellectuals, who represent working class experience & therefore help to shape working class consciousness. Gramsci argued that religious beliefs and practices could develop that would support & guide challenges to the ruling class because the church was not directly under their control.

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Otto Madurdo argued that social liberation could occur, (freedom through religion) but he believed this could only happen If the oppressed masses were not to produce their own intellectuals, but if they were go to their religious leader, taking their discontent to the churches and let them decide a plan of action bringing about changes as happened in Poland, South Africa and South America. This is called the liberation theology- freedom through religion.

Father Camillo

Marx Weber was another sociologist who believed that religion could be a source for change

Strengths of his theory were that


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