A2 Religious Studies - Religion and the Community - WJEC

- definitions of religion
- functional understandings of religion
- Durkheim
- Weber
- Marx
- Religious diversity in UK
- Problem of religious pluralism 


Definitions of Religion 1

Inclusive Definition

Emphasises the universal nature of religion - humans are 'homo religio'  because everyone is religious in some way. Religion is seen through human action, social convention, tradition, culture, moral ideas, religious convictions and in belief in what is most meaningful. 

Tillich - Dynamics of Faith - 1957: defined religion as that which is of the utmost importance of people:
'...for every human has ultimate concerns'

In this definition, even atheism and agnosticism can be seen to be religious, for it is concerned with what someone believes, rather than the content or the doctrines that are linked to it.  

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Definitions of Religion 2

Theological Definition

Focuses more at religious teachings. To be considered a religion, a doctrine must have specific theological teachings including some of the following: the spiritual realm, God or gods who relate to humanity, a system of rewards for the good and punshiments for the bad, a moral code, cosmology, symbols and a histrocail tradtion. 

The theological definition is acheived by comparing different world religions with one another and finding the common strands of similar teachings and beliefs within them. Or, through examining believers in different faiths and seeing how and why they repeat certain actions and anayluse them, such as going to church, partaking in festivals, group meditation and group prayer and discussion. People find religion as they interpret the views, judgements, morals and the religious phenomena that they encounter.

This definition highlights the fact that that religion has to do with the specific beliefs of individuals that have some maning and purpose for their lives. This may be found from outside themselvs as in the existence of a loving God, or from outside, as Buddhism teaches.

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Definitions of Religion 3

Metaphysical Definition

Metaphysics is the view that there is something beyond this way of life - something that transcends that reality offered by science. It is concerned with the explanation of fundamental questions about our being and our world. 
It comes from the Greek 'meta' - meaning 'beyond' or 'after' and 'physika' - meaning physical, hence something beyond the physical world. 

It includes notions such as time, space, existence and casuality and seeks that which is beyond our physical reality i.e. the workings and nature of the universe and the gods or God, how things are linked together in craetion and what purpose this serves. Also include metaphysical aspects: love, sin, evil, life. 

William James - the Varieties of Religious Experience - 1902:  '... the feelings, acts and experiences of the individual men in their soliture, so  far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider divine.' (not collective)

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Definitions of Religion 4

Reductive Definition - The Role of Religion

Reductionism is the view that complex things can be better understood by reducing them to their most simple or fundamental form.
In a religious sense, this means reducing religious concepts and doctrines down to a basic level or explaining religion as a code of human concepts concerned with right and wrong, or by using religion to explain the environment, the problem of evil and suffering or the way we understand the world around us. 

Richard Dawkins - The God Delusion - 2008: 'If we are gullible, we don't recognise hallucinations or lucid dreaming for what it is and we claim to have seen or heard a ghost, or an angel, or God...such visions and manifestations are certainly not good grounds for believing that ghosts or angels, gods or virgins are actually there.'

Some now see religion as hindrance to human progress and advancement and call for a rational and scientific way of looking at the world, unfettered by religion and susperstition - just as the Age of Magic was replaced with an Age of Religion, religion is then replaced with an Age of Science and Reason. 
Dawkins: 'The unvierse presented by organised religion is a poky little medieval universe' 

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Reductive Definition Cont.

This looks at religion in terms of its function in society - as a psychological or social constraint. (Freud and Marx)

Rudolph Bultmann - Kerygma and Myth - 1953: argued that in order to find out the truth in a religion, is should be demythologised, (myths contained in scriptures removed.) Bultmann believed it impossible for humanity in modern time to believe such outdated stories:
'It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries and at the same time, to believe in the New Testament world of demons and spirits. 

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Functional Understandings of Religion 1

Emile Durkheim: Religion as an expression of social cohesion

Durkheim believed that complex human societies were held together by religion, which served to unite and preserve the community. From studies of aborigine peoples in Australia Durkheim defined religion:

Elementary Forms of Religious Life - 1912:
'A unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things...beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a church, all who adhere to them.' 

Durkhheim did not view religion as imaginary, but as a very real expression of society itself and he believed that there has never been a human society  that did not have religious elements. He claimed that humans are weak as individuals, but strong in a group. Hence why humans express themselves religiously in groups (and do not deviate from the norm), for they are symbolically powerful. Religion is the human expression of a collective consciousness which then is the fusion of all individual consciences together hence religion creates a reality of its own. 

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Durkheim Cont

Individualism and the Intellectuals:
'Religion does not necessarily imply symbols and rites or temples and priests...it is nothing other than a body of collective beliefs and practices endowed with certain authority.'

Durkheim claimed that religious communities began as primitive clans worshipping a totem (totemism), which represented not only the clan god, but also the unity of the clan itself. The clan and God were the same thing - there was no separate being called God, for God did not exist.  What did exist was a unified community which believed that it owes its existence and identity to God. This belief is then expressed in shared rituals, values and a moral code. 
'If religion has given birth to all that is essential in society, it is because the idea of society is the soul of religion.'  

Durkheim said that the deities that people worshipped together were only projections of the power of the community and that religion was essentially a social activity. Religion provides: a meaning for life, authority figures and a moral code for society. 

Hence religion gives social cohesion and control by helping to live peacefully together and to help them to feel that they had a purpose in life. As individuals become more aware of their own significance and importance, so religious ideas adapt to focus on individual salvation and conscience. 

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Durkheim Cont.

The shared religious rituals and practices helped to legitimise cultural norms, strengthening the community (idea of individuals as being weak and groups being strong). 

Religion acts a social cement resulting in a collective consciousness. 

Religion provided:

  • a meaning for life
  • authority figures
  • a moral code for society

All of these then allowed individuals to rise up above their own selfish needs.

Durkheim believed that all societies divided the world into the sacred and profane.
Sacred - extraordinary, mysterious, awe-inspiring
Profane - ordinary, common, everyday life

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Criticisms of Durkheim

  • Religious believers distinguish between membership of their religious community and belief in God. Their loyalty is to God, not to the community. 
  • The theory does not explain how religious believers are sometimes prepared to go against society and even to reject it. 
  • Durkheim's thesis was based on primitive Australian aboriginal societies, and is therefore not a true reflection of modern religious belief and practice. 
  • Society constantly changes; beliefs about the nature of God are timeless and unchanging. 
  • It is difficult to measure many of Durkheim's ideas, such as the collective conscience due to vagueness of terms. 
  • Bonhoeffer - does not explain utilitarian beliefs 
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Functional Understandings Of Religion 2

Max Weber - the relationship between religion and capitalism

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism  - 1905

  • Religious individuals and groups were influenced by many things, but predominantly religion which Weber said gave them an understanding and image of the world and how they live in it - Verstehen Approach
  • Weber believed that religion provided the answer to greatest human worries: why is there so much suffering in the world and what happens when we die?
  • He understood that people wanted to know the reasons why some had good fortune and others bad.
  • Religion offered the answers as to how people can achieve salvation and gain eternal life (soteriology). the pursuit of salvation, and therefore religion is part of human motivation for Weber. 
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Weber Cont.

Weber claimed that Capitalism began with the Christian Protestant group, The Puritans, whose religious view was that not everyone would be saved by God - only a select and pre-determined few, known only to God would be saved from damnation - The Elect. 

They taught that if people worked hard and behaved properly, if then they prospered financially, this would be a sign that they had earned God's favour. Weber coined the term 'Protestant Work Ethic' to describe a system whereby religious believers would work hard to gain commercial and financial success, but they were not to spend it excessively on themselves, but were to invest it wisely and then use the money to help the poor and needy. 

It was believed that if a person could gain wealth yet avoid temptation it brings and give it away, they they would get to Heaven. Jesus taught: 
'Sell everything you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven' - Luke 18:22 

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Weber Cont.

Over the years, the system developed and the pursuit of financial success took a hold on western society - the 'spirit of capitalism'. Religious significance of capitalism was lost in the rush to gain wealth for one's own sake. For Weber, Capitalism became a 'religion' of its own - encouraging greed, laziness and the making of as much money with the minimum effort as possible.

'The experience of the irrationality of the world has been the driving force of all religious revolution.' 

Weber noted that religion did not have to result in capitalism; he found that in more Eastern religions capitalism was not a result, which Weber said was because: 

  • No unified, formal priesthood
  • Strong teaching that pursuit of wealth is wrong
  • Emphasis on importance of social status + position, rather than wealth
  • Acceptance of things as they are
  • Greater emphasis on spiritual, mystical and metaphysical
  • No notions of hope for better things to come - no 'Messiah'
  • Sale of land often prohibited
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Criticisms of Weber

  • Kautsky - what came first - capitalism or Calvinism?
  • If our fate is already predestined, why can wealth not be spent on ourselves?
  • It may not have been the religious content of the Puritan/Calvinist belief that led to their involvement in business, but because of their exclusion in society due to their religious belief.
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Functional Understandings of Religion 3

Karl Marx - religion as the 'sigh of the oppressed'

Marx believed that religion is an illusion devised by humans to satisfy their emotional needs; it can only be understood in relation to the economic structures of society. Religion depended totally upon economics. 

Das Kapital - 1867:
'...religion is so fully determined by economics that it is pointless to consider any of its doctrines or beliefs on their own merits.'

For Marx, religion is an illusion that creates fantasies for the poor and prevents them from finding true happiness in this life and instead offers them the false hope of happiness in the after life. It is used by the oppressors to make the oppressed feel better about the distress they feel at being poor and exploited.

Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right - 1844:
'Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless creature. It is the opium of the masses.'

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Marx Cont.

Religion takes the highest human values and aspirations and places them on an unknowable being called God. Humans, according to Marx are best guided by reason, and religion was a significant hindrance to this: 'It eased pain even as it created fantasies.' 

He believed that only when religion was abolished, the oppressed masses could be liberated and that only by loving one another rather than God could people regain their humanity. 

Marx had three reasons for disliking religion:

  • It is irrational - a delusion that avoids facing the truth and reality of life
  • It takes away the dignity of humanity and replaces it with servitude
  • Religion is hypocritical because it sides with the oppressors. Jesus taught that the poor should be helped, but the Christian Church has, for centuries, sided with the rich and the powerful. 
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Critique of Marx

  • Marx focused on Christianity - other religions, particularly Eastern ones, do not work in the same way and economics is not such an important issue. 
  • Marx claims that religion is wholly determined by economics - but this is not so. If it were, then capitalism would have appeared much earlier, it doesn't really appear until the 19th Century. 
  • The Roman Catholic Church has been very wary of countries and religious movements with Marxist connections
  • The biblical picture of God is of a deity who transforms situations and lifts up the oppressed. 
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Religious Diversity in the UK

Religious figures in England and Wales: (according to 2001 census)

  • Christianity - 37 million
  • Islam - 1.6 million
  • Other - 120,000
  • Jedi Knight - 400,000

Jedi Knight is not strictly speaking a religion; however the number of people that stated it as a religion meant that it had to be included as one. This demonstrates how non-religious, secular views are increasing. 

There are around 4 million non white people in the UK and 54 million white. About half of all ethnic minorities live in London. 

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Religious Diversity Cont.

Not all racial and ethnic groups are treated equally.

The Observer Nov 2001 - Sundar Katwala:

  • Pakistani and Bangladeshi people tend to live in the poorest and most deprived areas
  • These two groups have the lowest fluency of English
  • Afro-Caribbean students gain the lowest pass rates at GCSE
  • Black and Asian people are under-represented in the police force
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Religious Pluralism

Range of laws + policies in place today to support communities

  • support for newspapers and media in minority languages
  • support for religious festivals
  • acceptance of traditional and religious dress
  • programmes to encourage minority representation in politics, science and education
  • introduction of laws reflecting ethnic needs
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Problems of Religious Pluralism

As a multi-faith society, the UK practices religious pluralism - an acceptance of all faiths as having an equal right to co-exist and all other citizens to have religious freedom.

Members of some faiths, notably Christianity have expressed concern about the effect this has on the status of their religion.

Christians believe that only Christianity has the whole truth and that following Jesus is the only way you come into a relationship with God. They argue that the prominence of other religions in the UK may encourage people to see all religions as an equally valid route to God. 

This is religious exclusivism - the view that only one religion has the monopoly of truth.

It can lead to religious community tension as adherents of these faiths (mainly Christianity and Islam), believe that it is their religious duty to try to convert all people to their faith. 
Jesus said 'I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the father except through me' - John 14:6 

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Problems Cont.

A possible compromise which allows communities to co-exist peacefully:

religious inclusivism - allows that whilst one religion may be seen to have the whole truth, other religions have 'part of the truth' and should be allowed to continue their search for God unhindered.

As demonstrated through the story of the 6 blind men and the elephant.

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The Strain on Communities and Arising Problems

Being a multicultural society in the UK has been beneficial as it allows everyone to be free and entitled to celebrate their own culture. 
There are also problems which can cause religious, cultural and racial communities to feel threatened or isolated.

3 main ways problems can strain communities:

  • sense of discrimination or unfair treatment because of religious faith
  • problems arising where beliefs and traditions of one community are not understood or accepted by other communities
  • inter-community racial tension caused by social deprivation (Theodicy of Disprivilege - Weber)

 Case Studies

  • Christianity being marginalised
  • Aishah Azmi
  • Honour Killings
  • Riots 
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Sense of discrimination/unfair treatment because o


In recent years, the Christian church within the UK has sometimes felt discriminated against.
Sunday Telegraph - November 2006
 Guy Wilkinson (interfaith advisor to Archbishop of Canterbury)

'since 2006 London bombings, the government has given 'privileged attention' to Islam and Muslim communities;


  • government using public money to fly Muslim scholars into UK
  • not introducing legislation on arranged marriages
  • encouraging financial marriage arrangements to comply with Islamic law

...one might argue that disaffection and separation is now greater than ever with Muslim communities withdrawing in a sense of victimhood.'

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Christianity being marginalised

The view that some faiths were given preferential treatment over Christianity is further highlighted:

  • 2008 - Rowan Williams commented that Islamic Shar'ia Law should be integrated into UK law legislation
  • Christian nurse Caroline Petrie suspended after offering to pray for the recovery of one of her patients

There are also examples of preferential treatment to Christianity such as that all state schools, by law, must have a daily assembly of broadly Christian character. 

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Problems arising due to lack of understanding of o

Aishah Azmi

The TA Aishah Azmi refused to remove her veil in the presence of men. After complaints she was given leave and her tribunal was then dismissed mainly on the grounds that wearing a veil is inappropriate for a teacher

Honour Killings

This is the murder of a person accused of bringing shame upon the family or community reputation. It is mostly associated with Eastern religions such as Islam.

It is thought that there are around 12 a year in the UK, but the true figure is unknown. Leaders of world religions condemn them, however those who carry them out justify their actions on religious grounds.

- 1999 - 15 year oldTulah Forn was murdered by her father because she ran away to live with her boyfriend who was of a different branch of Islam.

Laws to prevent forced marriages and to help victims were introduced in England and Wales in 2008.

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Riots - lack of cultural and religious relativism

  • 2001, race riots in Leeds, Burnley, Oldham and Durham; high concentration of ethnic groups in small areas.
    Clashes were caused by lack of jobs and social deprivation, spurred on by extremist political and militant groups
  • 2009 August, large scale conflict in Birmingham, possibly spurred on by Islamophobia
    --> English and Wales Defence League gathered in city centre to protest against militant Islam.
    --> Counter-demonstration group - United Against Fascism joined by locals Muslims
    --> the two groups met and a fight developed - 33 arrested
  • This is similar to London riots of 2001; one of the causes was said to be a lack of mutual understanding between different cultures and faiths. 
  • Eric Pickles commented that community cohesion has not worked and that national identity should have a greater focus 
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Racial and Religious Hatred Act - 2006

Government passed this in an attempt to combat racial and religious tension with the aim of giving equal protection to all faiths and communities.

It makes it a criminal offence to incite religious/racial hatred through speech, actions, written material or recordings. 

Home Office Minister Paul Goggins: People of all backgrounds and faiths will have the right to live free from hatred, racism and extremism. 

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