A2 Sociology - Beliefs

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  • Created on: 27-05-13 16:24

Definitions of religion



Substantive definitionFocuses on the content of religious belief. Substantive definitions tend to conform to widespread views of religion as a system that has a belief in God.  These definitions tend to be exclusive drawing a clear line between what is and is not religious. These definitions tend to have many criterions and may exclude phenomena which we may consider to be religions.



Functional definition- Focuses on what functions religion performs for the individual or the society. These definitions tend to be inclusive including a lot of different phenomena to be classed as religion. These definitions tend to have few criterion and may include phenomena which we may not consider to be religions.

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Functionalist- Durkheim

Durkheim has both a functional and a substantive definition of religion. He believes that religion invloves the sacred (substantive) which unites the people of a particular community (functional).

Durkheim drew a distiction between the sacred (things that are set apart and forbidden; inspire feelings of awe, fear and wonder) and the profane(no special significance, things that are ordinary and mundane). Religion involves rituals and pactices praising the sacred and thereby forming a conscience.  Durkheim believes that because these sacred things evoke such powerful feelings that these sacred things must be representing something of great power; for Durkheim this is society.

Durkheim believes religion creates a collective conciousness (a basic set of shared beliefs, values, traditions and norms) and social solidarity.

Durkheim's study of the Aboriginies shows how each clan had a different animal/plant to represent their clan. The clan worshiped these sacred symbols and the rituals the comunity repeated helped unify and bind society's members and strengthens bonds.

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Functionalist- Malinowski

Malinowski believed religion had psychological functions. Like Durkheim, Malinowski believed religion played a central role in promoting social solidarity but religion is also a response to the psychological needs of the individual in times of emotional stress.

He believes that in times of life crises (e.g. birth, death, puberty marriage etc) religion minimalises the risk of potential disruption by creating "valuable mental attitudes" towards it.

Malinowski also believes that religion helps to combat anxiety. His study of the Trobriand Islanders found that they used religious rituals to combat the anxiety when fishing in the reefs and were unsure of the result.


Religious rituals increase peoples sense of control, unifiys groups and deminishes anxiety.

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Functionalist- Parsons

For Parsons religion is the primary source of meaning for it's members. It provides and legitimises the core values of a culture and promotes social solidarity and stability.

Religion provides the answers to the "eternal" questions about humanity. They also believe suffering tests a persons faith and is punishing them for their sins.


Religion provides core values and norms which it makes sacred and legitimises.

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- Some may argue that religion does not bring people together but instead seperates them. With the multicultural society today it has the potential to create conflict and not concensus.

E.g.s of conflict caused by religion. 9/11, 7/7 bombings. Northern Ireland Catholic vs Protestant. Palestinians vs Isreales.

- Can cause disagreements within religion eg. Women bishops, gay marriage are supported by some CofE churches but not others.

- Functionalist perspectives explains what religion is and does but not why they exist.

Arguably, religion exists because of human needs that only religion can fill.

- Durkheim and Malinowski both have small scale samples of pre-industrial societies. This is not typical of many societies around the world today.

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Civil Religion

Bellah, linked with the functionalist theory, argued religion can create cohesion, consensus and stability even in large industrial societies. Worshiping the state/nation and what it stands for. Things within the country are then seen as sacred:

  • People- Lincoln, Davy Crokett.
  • Places- The White House, California (The promise land)
  • Symbols- The flag, the bald eagle
  • Ideas- The American Dream, Freedom/Liberty
  • Dates- 4th July, Thanksgiving

Civil religion has the power to cut across different ethnicities, beliefs etc. It transends the boundries of ethnic and religious groups.


+ Can be seen in America e.g. at Olympics and other competitions they are involved and competative.

- Not powerful enough to create consensus e.g. Obama health reforms, Iraq and Vietnam

- Not much civil religion in UK, only on special occasions e.g. Royal Wedding

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Religion is there to support Capitalism. Religion creates False Class Consciousness (FCC) and helps explot the proletariate.


Marx: "Religion is the opium of the masses"- Helps numb the pain of opression and exploitation. Helps deal with alienation (work that is boring, not stimulation, repetative and meaningless).

Work hard and don't complain and you will get your true reward in heaven : "it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God" - Matthew 19:24

Many religions say that leaders, e.g. the Queen, are divinely chosen and they are a part of God's plan. Therefore, justifying the hierachal system.

An example of this is the Indian Caste System.

You are born into a caste and this then determines your job prospects, who you can marry, your education etc. If you build up good karma then you have the opportunity to go up a caste in the next life. This is legitimising inequality and ensures they won't challenge the system.

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- Marx believed communist societies would not need religion. However, when Poland turned communist religion didn't die out, it just went underground.

Why didn't it die out:

  • Older generations are socialised into religion
  • Exploitation under the communist system needed religion as an opiate
  • Still fulfils needs e.g. big questions



- Neo Marxists, Maduro, believe religion can free people from oppression. Religion can help develop True Class Consciousness and social solidarity to rebel against opression.

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Religious beliefs/institutions are patriarchal therefore supporting the patriarchal society.

Some examples of patriarchal religion includes the lack of females in important roles e.g. bishops.

Deities- Generally seen as male e.g. Christian God, Allah, Buddah etc. Although some religions do have many Gods and some are female, e.g. Hinduism, the main God is male.

Holy texts- Women are portrayed as temptresses e.g. Adam and Eve. They are also considered an after thought as Eve was made from Adam's spare rib.

Jesus' mother Mary is seen as non sexual and is thought to be an example of how women should act. Playing down your sexuality.

This is then contrasted to Mary Magdalene who was seen as the Fallen Woman, the prostitute. Feminists see this as a choice. You are either a madonna or a prostitute.

Religious practices and traditions are also limiting. E.g. veilin in Islam and Hinduism. It is sometimes not a choice like in Iran as they have a theocracy.

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Hierarchy of religious institutions- Women are now getting higher status roles in church and have been able to be vicars for 20 years. No movement in Catholicism still no female vicars/preists.

Church of Christ Scientist founded by women.  7th day adventists a pentecostal church has a highly involved female membership.

Detiy- Many religions have female deities e.g. Wicca, Greek and Roman religions, Hinduism etc

Holy texts- Mary (Jesus mother) is seen as a saint therefore showing women in a positive light.

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Post Modernism

People have a lot of choice about religion in a post modern age:

  • Globalisation has made us more aware of other beliefs. Due to mass migration, TV and media, travel and the internet we are becoming more culturally aware.
  • Less social control therefore there are now marriages between people of different religious backgrounds.

They believe the absolute truth does not exist. Only the relative truth of which the individual is the authority. Meta narratives claim to be an absolute truth but it is only a version of the truth which people can choose to believe in.

Religion then becomes very individualised and does not call for collective ritual. People will pick and mix from different religions and create their own belief system.

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- Too much choice is not always a good thing. People who do not like the choice may turn to extremeist beliefs and fundamentalism. e.g. 9/11, 7/7, Taleban, Iran and Saudi Arabi are theocracies. Fundamentalism is a response to the post modern society.


- Post modernism is surely a meta narrative in which people choose to believe. They are then claiming absolute truth.


- Bruce rejects that all truths carry equal weight and claims that people still see a difference between surgery and aura healing.


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