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What is religion?
· Substantive definitions
These focus on the content or the substance of the religious belief. Max Weber (1905) defines religion as a belief in a superior or supernatural
power that is above nature and cannot be explained scientifically. Substantive definitions are exclusive and they draw a clear line between
religious and non-religious beliefs; it must include belief in god or the supernatural.
Substantive definitions are offer accused of western bias as they exclude religions such as Buddhism, which do not have the western idea of a
· Functional definitions
Functional definitions define it in terms of the social or psychological functions it performs for its individuals or society. Durkheim (1915) defines
religion in terms of the contribution it makes to social integration.
Functional definitions do allow a wide rang of beliefs and is inclusive. However just because an institution helps integrate individuals into groups
does not make it a religion; e.g. chanting at a football match.
· Social constructionist definitions
Social constructionists take an interpretivist approach that focuses on how members of society themselves define religion. They argue that it is
not possible to produce a single universal definition of religion to cover all cases. Social constructionists do not assume that religion always
involves a belief in god or the supernatural, or that it performs similar functions for everyone in all societies.
This allows them to get a closer approach to the deeper meanings of religion, however makes it impossible to generalise.…read more
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Functionalist theories of religion
Functionalists see society as a system of interrelated parts or social institutions, such as religion, the family and parts of the
· Society is like an organism, with basic needs that it must meet in order to survive. These needs are met by the different
institutions. Each institution performs certain functions and meets the systems need.
· Society's most basic need is the need for social order and solidarity so that its members can cooperate .
Durkheim on religion
The sacred and the profane The collective conscience Criticisms
The key feature of religion was a fundamental Durkheim argues that the sacred symbols
distinction between the sacred and the profane. represent a collective consciousness . For · Worsely notes that there is no sharp
Sacred = things set apart and forbidden that Durkheim , regular shared religious rituals division between the sacred and the
inspire feelings of are, fear and wonder that are reinforce the shared values and maintain profane.
surrounded by taboos and prohibitions. social integration. Participating in shared · Durkheim's theory may apply better
Profane= things that have no special significance rituals binds individuals together. In this to small-scale societies with a single
things that are ordinary and mundane. sense religion also performs an important religion, but does not explain large-
function for the individual, by making us scale with conflicts.
Durkheim argues that when people worship feel part of something greater than · Postmodernists argue that his ideas
sacred things they are worshiping a ourselves. It strengthens and motivates us. cannot be applied to modern
representation of society itself. For Durkheim society, as increasing diversity has
Cognitive functions of religion led to a fragmented collective
although various symbols denote various Durkheim sees religion not only as the
meanings all perform the essential function of consciousness.
source of social solidarity but also of our · Does not explain negative effects of
uniting believers into a single moral community. intellectual or cognitive capacity our religion such as oppression of
ability to reason and think conceptually. women and the poor.
Totemism Thus for Durkheim religion is the origin of
Durkheim believed the essence of all human thought, reason and science.
religion could be found by studying it in its
simplest form. He used studies of an Psychological functions
aboriginal tribe of whom performed Malinowski argues that it helps individuals cope with
rituals towards a totem. For Durkheim this emotional stress that would undermine social
worship is In reality for society, although solidarity. E.g. Fishing in lake > Fishing in ocean
they are unconscious of this. It inspires ritual. At times of life crisis e.g. birth, puberty,
feelings of awe because it represents the marriage and funeral reinforce solidarity and
power of the individual. comfort. Parsons agrees these help to legitimise our
values and stop us deeming life as meaningless.…read more
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Marxist theories of religion
· Marxist sees all societies as divided into two classes, one of which exploits the labour of the other.
· Karl Marx predicted that the working class would ultimately become conscious of this and over throw capitalism, bringing about a classless
· Marxism sees religion as a feature only of a class-divided society. Therefore there is no need for it in a classless society and it will
Religion as ideology Religion and alienation Criticisms
Ideology is a belief system that distorts peoples Marx also see's religion as the product · He ignores the positive function s of
perception of reality in ways that serve the interests of Alienation. This involves becoming religion, such as psychological
of the ruling class. He argues that the upper class separated or losing control over adjustment to misfortune.
control institutions such as the church. In Marx's something that one has produced or · Religion does not necessarily
view, religion operates as a weapon to legitimate the created. The working class have no function as an ideology to control
suffering of the poor as something that is inevitable control over the production and the population. For example Turner
and god given. Religion misleads the poor into process, nor any freedom to express argues that in pre-capitalist societies
believing that their suffering is virtuous and that their own opinions and ideas. Religion Christianity only had a limited
they will be rewarded in the afterlife. E.g. Easier for acts as an opiate to dull the pain of impact on the peasantry.
a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is exploitation. Yet it masks the pain
for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. rather than treating its cause. So
These ideas create a false consciousness which religion masks the underlying problem
prevents the poor from acting to change their of exploitation. It promises an afterlife
situation. Lenin described religion as `spiritual gin' of happiness which distracts the
which is served out by the ruling class to confuse attention away from the true source of
and manipulate the working class. Religion also suffering- capitalism.
makes it seem like the power and privilege of the Thus, Marx sees religion as the
upper class is divinely ordained. product of alienation. It arises out of
suffering and acts as consolation for it.
Yet fails to cure it.…read more
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Feminist theories of religion
· Feminists see society as patriarchal- that is based on male domination. Many feminists regard religion as a patriarchal institution that
reflects this inequality. It legitimises women's subordination.
Evidence of patriarchy Criticisms
· Religious organisations- are mainly male-dominated. Woodhead (2002) criticises feminist explanations that
Despite the fact that women participate more than simply equate religion with oppression of women. She
men in these organisations. E.g. Orthodox, Judaism and emphasises that this is not true of all religions. She
Catholicism forbid women to become priests. argues that there are forms of `religions feminism' ways
· Places of worship- Often segregate the sexes and in which women use religion to gain greater freedom and
marginalise women, for example seating them behind respect.
screens while men occupy the foreground. Women's
participation may be restricted. For example not being Woodhead uses the example of the hijab or veil worn my
able to read for sacred texts. many Muslim women. Some Muslim wore in order to
· Sacred texts- Largely feature the doings of male gods, escape the confines of the household and break into
prophets etc. . Stories often reflect anti-female education etc.
stereotypes. E.g. Eve who caused humanity's fall from
grace. Women also use religion to gain status and respect for
· Religious laws and customs- May give women fewer their roles within the private sphere of the home and
rights than men, for example access to divorce, decision family. Some women are part of bible groups in which
making, who they may marry, dress codes etc. They they can share their opinions which they can find
also control their reproductive role. E.g. Catholics ban empowering.
abortion and contraception.
Also it is important to note that the position of women is
Early years changing within some religions. About 1/5 of all the
Feminists argue that women have not always been subordinate church of England's priests now are women.
to men within religion. Armstrong argues that early religions
often placed women at the centre. E.g. Earth mother
goddesses and fertility cults. However about 4,000 years ago
religion gave rise to a monotheist all-powerful male god.
Saadawi (1980) argues that this is because patriarchal society
began to shape it thousands of years ago.…read more
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Religion and social change
Religion as a conservative force
Religion is seen as a conservative force in two different senses;
1. It is `traditional', as it defends traditional customs, institutions, moral views,
roles etc. It upholds traditional beliefs about how society should be organised.
2. It functions to conserve or preserve things as they are. It stabilises society and
maintains the status quo.
Most religions oppose changes that would allow individuals more freedom in
personal and sexual matters. E.g. Catholic church forbids divorce, abortion and
Similarly, most religions uphold `family values' and often favour a patriarchal
division of labour. The bride vows to `love, honour and obey' but the groom is only
required to `love and honour'.
Religion and consensus Functionalists see religion as a conservative force because
it functions to maintain social stability and prevent society from disintegrating. It
promotes social solidarity by creating value consensus. It also helps individuals to
deal with stresses that would disrupt the life of society.
Religion and capitalism- Marx sees religion as a conservative ideology that prevents
social change. By legitimising or disguising inequality It creates false consciousness
in the working class and prevents revolution. Stabilising capitalist society.
Religion and patriarchy- Feminists see religion as a conservative force because it
acts as an ideology that legitimates patriarchal power and maintains women's
subordination in the family and wider society.…read more