A2 Sociology Unit 3

A2 Sociology Unit 3

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What Is Religion?

There are three main ways in which sociologists define religion: substantive; functional and social constructionist. 

Substantive definitions

This focus on the content or substance of religious belief, such as belief in God or the supernatural. For example, Max Weber (1905) defines religion as belief in superior or supernatural power that is above nature and cannot be explained scientifically. Substantive definitions are exclusive - they draw a clear line between religious and non-religious beliefs. To be a religion, a set of beliefs must include belief in God or the supernatural. 

Substantive definitions conform to a widespread view of religion as belief in God. However, defining religion in this way leaves no room for beliefs and practices that perform similar functions to religion but do not involve belief in God. Substantive definitions are also accused of Western bias because they exclude religions such as Buddhism, which do not have the Western idea of a god. 

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Functionalist Theories of Religion

For Functionalists, society is a system of interrelated parts or social institutions, such as religion, the family and the economy. Society is like an organism, with basic needs that it must be met in order to survive. These needs are met by the different institutions. Each institution performs certain functions - that is, each contributes to maintaining the social system by maintaining a need. 

Society's most basic need is the need for social order and solidarity so that its members can cooperate. For Functionalists, what makes order possible is the existence of a value consensus - a set of shared norms and values by which society's members live. Without this, individuals would pursue their own selfish desires and society would disintegrate. 

Durkheim on Religion

For Functionalists, religious institutions play a central part in creating and maintaining a value consensus, order and solidarity. The first functionalist to develop this idea was Emile Durkheim (1858 - 1917). 

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The Sacred and the Profane 

For Durkheim (1915), the key features of religion was not a belief in gods, spirits or the supernatural, but a fundamental distinction between the sacred and the profane found in all religions. The sacred are things that are set apart and forbidden, that inspire feelings of awe, fear and wonder, and are surrounded by taboos and prohibitions. By contrast, the profane are things that have no special significance - things that are ordinary and mundane. Furthermore, a religion is never simply a set of beliefs. It also involves definite rituals or practices in relation to the sacred, and these rituals are collective - performed by social groups. For Durkheim although sacred symbols vary from religion to religion, they all perform the essential function of uniting believers into a single moral community. 


Durkheim believed that the essence of all religion could be found by studying its simplest form, in the simplest type of society - clan society. For this reason, he used studies of the Arunta, an Australian Aboriginal tribe with a clan system. 

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Arunta clans consist of bands of kin who come together periodically to perform rituals involving worship of a sacred totem. The totem is the clan's emblem, such as an animal or plant that symbolises the clan's origins and identity. The totemic rituals venerating it serve to reinforce the groups solidarity and sense of belonging. For Durkheim, when clan members worship their totemic animal they are in reality worshipping society - eventhough they are not aware of this fact.

The Collective Conscience

In Durkheim's view, the sacred symbols represent society's collective conscience. The collective conscience is the shared norms, values, beliefs and knowledge that make social life and cooperation between individuals possible - without these, society would disintegrate. For Durkheim, regular shared religious rituals reinforce the collective conscience and maintain social integration. Participating in shared rituals binds individuals together, reminding them that they are a part of single moral community to which they owe their loyalty. Such rituals also remind the individual of the power of society - without which they themselves are nothing, and to which they owe everything. 

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Cognitive Functions of Religions

Durkheim sees religion not only as the source of social solidarity but also of our intellectual or cognitive capacities - our ability to reason and think conceptually. For example, in order to think at all, we need categories such as time, space, cause, substance, number etc. And secondly, in order to share out thoughts, we need to use the same categories as others. 

In Durkheim's view, religion is the origin of the concepts and categories we need for reasoning, understanding the world and communicating. Durkheim and Marcel Mauss (1903) argue that religion provides basic categories such as time, space and causation - for example, with ideas about a creator bringing the world into being at the beginning of time. 


The evidence of Totemism is unsound. Worsley (1956) notes that there is no sharp division between the sacred and the profane, and that different clans can share the same totems. Also this does not prove that he has discovered the essence of all their religions. 

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Durkheim's theory may apply better to small scale societies with a single religion. It is harder to apply it to large scale societies, where two or more religious communities may be in conflict. His theory may explain social integration within communities, but not the conflicts between them. 

Similarly, postmodernists such as Stjepan Mestrovic (1997) argue that Durkheim's ideas cannot be applied to contemporary society, because increasing diversity has fragmented the collective conscience, so there is no longer a single shared value system for religion to reinforce. 

Psychological Functions

Bronislaw Malinowski (1954) agrees with Durkheim that religion promotes solidarity. However, it does so by performing psychological functions for individuals, helping them cope with emotional stress that would undermine social solidarity. Malinowski identifies two types of situation in which religion performs this role:

  • Where the outcome is important but uncontrollable and thus uncertain
  • At times of life crises 
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Where the outcome is important but is uncontrollable and thus uncertain - In his study of the Trobriand Islanders of the Western Pacific, Malinowski contrasts fishing in the lagoon and fishing in the ocean. 

  • Lagoon fishing is safe and uses the predictable and successful method of poisoning. When the islanders fish in the lagoon, there is no ritual. 
  • Ocean fishing is dangerous and uncertain, and is always accompanied by canoe magic - rituals to ensure a safe and successful expedition. This gives people a sense of control, which eases tension, gives them confidence to undertake hazardous tasks and reinforces group solidarity. He sees ritual serving as a 'god of the gaps'  - it fills the gaps in human beings' control over the world, such as being unable to control the outcome of a fishing trip.

At times of life crises - Events such as birth, puberty, marriage and especially death mark major and disruptive changes in social groups. Religion helps to minimise disruption. For example, the funeral rituals reinforce a feeling of solidarity among the survivors, while the notion of immortality gives comfort to the bereaved by denying the fact of death. In fact, Malinowski argues that death is the main reason for the existence of religious belief. 

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Parsons: Values and Meanings

Like Malinowski, Talcott Parsons (1967) sees religion helping individuals to cope with unforeseen events and uncontrollable outcomes. In addition, Parsons identifies two other essential functions that religion performs in modern society. 

  • It creates and legitimates society's central values
  • It is the primary source of meaning 

Religion creates and legitimates society's basic norms and values by sacralising them (making them sacred). Thus in the USA, Protestantism has sacralised the core American values of individualism, meritocracy and self-discipline. This serves to promote value consensus and thus social stability.

Religion also provides a source of meaning. In particular, it answers 'ultimate' questions about the human condition, such as why the good suffer and why some die young. Such events defy our sense of justice and make life appear meaningless, and this may undermine our commitment to society's values. Religion enables people to adjust to adverse events or circumstances and helps maintain stability. 

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Civil Religion

Like Parsons, Robert Bellah (1970) is interested in how religion unifies society, especially a multi-faith society like America. What unifies American society is an overarching civil religion - a belief system that attaches sacred qualities to society itself. In the American case, civil religion is a faith in Americanism or the 'American way of life'.

Bellah argues that civil religion integrates society in a way that individual religions can not. While none of the many individual churches and denominations can claim the loyalty of all Americans, civil religions can. American civil religion involves loyalty to the nation state and a belief in God, both of which are equated with being a true American. It is expressed in various rituals, symbols and beliefs; such as the pledge of allegiance to the flag, singing the national anthem, the Lincoln Memorial, and phrases such as 'One nation under God'. However, this is not a specifically Catholic, Protestant or Jewish God, but rather an 'American' God. It sacralises the American way of life and binds together Americans from many Americans from many different ethnic and religious backgrounds. 

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Functional Alternatives

Functional alternatives or functional equivalents to religion are non-religious beliefs and practices that perform functions similar to those of organised religion, such as reinforcing shared values or maintaining social cohesion. 

For example, although civil religion in America involves a belief in God, Bellah argues that this doesn't have to be the case. Some other belief system could perform the same functions. Foe example, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union had secular (non-religious) political beliefs and rituals around which they sought to unite society. 

However the problem with the idea of functional alternatives is the same as with functional definitions of religion that we saw earlier. That is, ignores what makes religion distinctive and different - namely, its belief in the supernatural. 

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Evaluation of Functionalism

Functionalism emphasises the social nature of religion and the positive functions it performs, but it neglects negative aspects such as religion as a source of oppression of the poor or women. 

It ignores religion as source of division and conflict, especially in complex modern societies where there is more than one religion - e.g. Northern Ireland. Where there is religious pluralism (more than one religion), it is hard to see how it can unite people and promote integration. 

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Marxist Theories of Religion

Unlike Functionalists, who see society as based on harmony and consensus, Marxists see all societies as divided into two classes, one of which exploits the labour of the other. In modern capitalist society, the capitalist class who own the means of production exploit the working class. 

In such a society, there is always the potential for class conflict, and Marx predicted that the working class would ultimately become conscious of their exploitation and unite to overthrow capitalism. This would bring into being a classless society in which there would no longer be exploitation.

Marx's theory of religion needs to be seen in the context of this general view of society. Whereas functionalism sees religion as a unifying force that strengthens that value consensus and is a feature of all societies, Marxism sees religion as a feature only of class-divided society. As such, there will be no need for religion in classless society and it will disappear. 

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Religion as ideology

For Marx, ideology is a belief system that distorts people's perception of reality in ways that serve the interests of ruling class. He argues that the ruling class that controls economic production and also controls the production and distribution of ideas in society, though institutions such as the church, the education system and the media. 

In Marx's view, religion operates as an ideological weapon used by the ruling class to legitimate the suffering of the poor as something inevitable and god-given. Religion misleads the poor into believing that their suffering is virtuous and that they will be favored in the afterlife. For example, according to Christianity, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. 

Such ideas create a false class consciousness - a distorted view of reality that prevents the poor from acting to change their situation. Similarly, Lenin describes religion as 'spiritual gin' - an intoxicant doled out to the masses by the ruling class to confuse them and keep them in their place.

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In Lenin's view, the ruling class use religion cynically to manipulate the masses and keep them from attempting to overthrow the ruling class by creating a 'mystical fog' that obscures reality. 

Religion and Alienation 

Marx (1844) also sees religion as the product of alienation. Alienation involves becoming separated from or losing control over something that one had produced or created. Alienation exists in all class societies, but it is more extreme under capitalism. Under Capitalism, workers are alienated because they do not own what they produce and have no control over the production process, and thus no process no freedom to express their true nature as creative beings. Alienation reaches a peak with the detailed division of labour in the capitalist factory, where the worker endlessly repeats the same minute task, devoid meaning or skill. 

Religion acts as an opiate to dull the pain of exploitation. But just as opium masks the pain rather than treating its cause, so religion masks the underlying problem of exploitation that creates the need for it. Because religion is a distorted view of the world, it can offer no solution to earthly misery. 

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Instead, its promises of the afterlife create an illusory happiness that distracts attention from the true source of the suffering, namely capitalism.

Thus, Marx sees religion as the product of alienation. It arises out of suffering and acts as consolation for it, but fails to deal with its cause, namely class exploitation. Religion also acts as an ideology that legitimates both the suffering of the poor and the privileges of the ruling class. 


  • Marx shows how religion may be a tool of oppression that masks exploitation and creates false class consciousness. However, he ignores positive functions of religion, such as psychological adjustment to misfortune. Neo-Marxists see certain forms of religion as assisting not hindering the development of class consciousness
  • Althusser (1971), reject the concept of alienation as unscientific and based on a romantic idea that human beings have a 'true self'. This would make the concept an inadequate basis for a theory of religion.
  • Abercrombie and Turner (1978) argue that in pre-capitalist society, and Christianity had only limited impact on the peasantry. 
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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 and perpetuates this inequality. Religious beliefs function as a patriarchal ideology that legitimates female subordination.

Evidence of Patriarchy

  • Religious Organisations - mainly male dominated despite the fact that women often participate more than men in these organisations. Orthodox Judaism and Catholicism forbid women from becoming priests. Karen Armstrong (1993) sees women's exclusion from the priesthood of most religions as evidence of their marginalisation.
  • Places of Worship - often segregate the sexes and marginalise women, for example seeing them behind screens while the men occupy the central and more sacred spaces. Women's participation may be restricted, for example not being allowed to preach or read from the sacred texts. Taboos that regard menstruation, pregnancy and childbirth as polluting may also prevent participation. In Islam, menstruating women are not allowed to touch the Qur'an. Jean Holm (1994) describes this as the devaluation of women in contemporary religion. 
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  • Sacred Texts - largely feature the doings of male gods, prophets etc. and are usually written and interpreted by men. Stories often reflect anti-female stereotypes, such as that of Eve who, in the Judeo-Christian story of Genesis, caused humanity's fall from grace and expulsion from the garden of Eden. 

However, feminists argue that women have not always been subordinate to men within religion. Karen Armstrong (1993) argues that early religions often placed women at the centre, for example, earth mother goddesses, fertility cults and female priesthoods were found throughout the Middle East until about 6,000 years ago. However, from about 4,000 years ago, the rise of monotheistic religions saw the establishment of a single, all-powerful male prophets such as the Hebrew's Jehovah, and male prophets such as Abraham.

While religion may be used to oppress women, Nawal El Saadawi (1980) argues that it is not the direct cause of their subordination. This is the result of patriarchal forms of society coming into existence in the last few thousand years. Men reinterpreted religious beliefs in ways that favored patriarchy. Thus religion now contributes to female oppression. 

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Woodhead: Religious Feminism

Linda Woodhead (2002) criticises feminist explanations that simply equate religion with patriarchy and the oppression of women. While accepting that much traditional religion is patriarchal, she emphasises that this is not true of all religion. She argues that there are 'religious forms of feminism' - ways in which women use religion to gain greater freedom and respect. 

Woodhead uses the example of the hijab or veil worn by many Muslim women. While Western feminists tend to see it as a symbol of oppression, to the wearer it may symbolise resistance to oppression. Woodhead argues that some Muslim women choose to wear the hijab to escape the confines of the home and enter education and employment. For them, the hijab is a symbol of liberation that enables them to enter the public sphere  without losing their culture and history. 

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Religion as a Conservative Force

Religion can be seen as a conservative force in two different senses:

  • It is often seen as conservative in the sense of being 'traditional', defending traditional customs, institutions, moral views, roles etc. It uphold traditional beliefs about how society should be organised.
  • It is conservative because it functions to conserve or preserve things as they are. Its stabilises society and maintains the status quo.

Religion's Conservative Beliefs 

Most religions have traditional conservative beliefs about moral issues and many of them oppose changes that would allow individuals more freedom in personal and sexual matters. For example, the Catholic Church forbids divorce, abortion and artificial contraception. It opposes gay marriage and condemns homosexual behaviour. Most religions uphold family values and often favor a traditional patriarchal domestic division of labour. For example, the belief that the man should be the head of the family is embedded in the traditional marriage ceremony of the Church of England dating from 1602. The bride vows to 'love, honor and obey' but the groom only vows to 'love and honor' 

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Religion's Conservative Functions

Religion is also a conservative force in the second sense of the phrase - it functions to conserve or preserve things as they are and maintain the status quo.

Religion and consensus

Functionalists see religion as a conservative force because it functions to maintain social stability and prevent society from disintegrating. For example, it promotes social solidarity by creating value consensus, thus reducing the likelihood of society collapsing through individuals pursuing their own selfish interests at the expense of others. 

Religion and capitalism

Marx sees religion as a conservative ideology that prevents social change. By legitimating or disguising exploitation and inequality, it creates false class consciousness in the working class and prevents revolution, thereby maintaining the stability of capitalist society. 

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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. 

Weber: Religion as a Force for Change 

The most famous example of how religion can be a force for change is Max Weber's (1905) study of the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Weber argues that the religious beliefs of Calvinism helped to bring about major social change - specifically, the emergence of modern capitalism in Northern Europe in the 16th and 17th Centuries. Weber notes that many past societies had capitalism in the sense of greed for wealth, which they often spent on luxury consumption. However, modern capitalism is unique because it is based on the systematic, efficient, rational pursuit of profit for its own sake, rather than for consumption. Weber calls this the Spirit of Capitalism. According to Weber, this spirit had what he calls an elective affinity or unconscious similarity to he Calvinists' beliefs and attitudes. Calvinism had several distinctive beliefs. 

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Calvinist Beliefs

  • Predestination - God had predetermined which souls would be saved and which would not, even before birth. Individuals could do nothing whatsoever to change this, whether through their deeds, as the Catholics believed nor  through faith, as the Lutheran Protestants believed. God's decision is already made and cannot be altered. 
  • Divine Transcendence - God was so far above and beyond this world and so incomparably greater than any mortal, that no human being could possibly claim to know his will. This included the Church and its priests - leaving the Calvinists to feel an unprecedented inner loneliness. When combined with the doctrine of predestination, this created what Weber calls a salvation panic in the Calvinists. They could not know whether they were part of the elect or one of the damned. 
  • Asceticism - This refers to abstinence, self-discipline and self-denial. For example, monks lead an ascetic existence, refraining from luxury, wearing simple clothes and avoiding excess in order to devote themselves to God and a life of prayer. 
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  • The idea of a vocational or calling - before calvinism, the idea of a religious vocation meant joining a monastery or convent, Weber calls this other-worldly asceticism. 
  • By contrast, Calvinism introduces the idea of this-worldly asceticism. The only thing that Calvinists knew of God's plan for them came from the Bible. Thus, for Calvinists the idea of a calling or vocation meant constant methodical work in a vocation not in a monastery. Calvinists lead an ascetic lifestyle denying themselves luxuries, work long hours and practice vigorous self discipline. Calvinist Benjamin Franklin says 'Idleness is a sin; lose no time and be employed in something useful'. 
  • The Calvinists work hard and asceticism has two consequences: 
  • Firstly, their wealth and success performed a psychological function for the Calvinists that followed hem so as to deal with their salvation anxiety. As they grew wealthier they took this as a sign of God's favor.
  • Secondly, driven by their work ethic they systematically and methodically accumulated wealth by the mostefficient ad rational means possible but not permitting themselves to spend their money on luxuries and reinvested it in their businesses. 
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Hinduism and Confucianism

Weber does not argue that Calvinists are the cause of modern day capitalism but that they are simply one of the causes. The Protestant Ethic of Calvinists wasn't sufficient to bring modern capitalism into being. On the contrary, the number of material and economic factors that existed were necessary for the development of capitalism. There have been other societies that have had a higher economic development than Northern Europe had in the 16th and 17th centuries but they have failed to properly develop into capitalist societies. In particular, he argues that China and India were materially more advanced than Europe but capitalism didn't develop there. He argues that this was due to the lack of religious belief. 

Thus, in ancient India Hinduism was the ascetic religion like Calvinism favoring the renunciation of the material world. However, its orientation was other-worldly and directed its followers concerns away from the material world and towards the spiritual world. In ancient China, confucianism also discouraged the development of capitalism but for different reasons. Like Calvinism, confucianism discouraged its followers away from the material world but unlike calvinism it was ascetic. Both Hinduism and Confucianism lacked the drive to accumulate wealth that was necessary for modern capitalism. 

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Weber's work was often described as a debate with Marx's ghost. Marx saw economic or material factors as the driving force for change, whereas, Weber argues that material factors alone were not enough to bring about capitalism. In Weber's view it needed specific cultural factors to bring it into being.

  • Kaul Kautsky (1927) argues that Weber overestimates the role of ideas and underestimates the economic factors of bringing capitalism into being.
  • Similarly R.H.Tawney (1926) argues that technological change not religious ideas brought about the birth of capitalism. It was only after Capitalism was established that the bourgeoisie adopted Calvinist beliefs to legitimate their pursue of economic gain. 
  • Weber had also been criticised because capitalism did not develop in every country where there were calvinists. For example, Scotland had a large calvinist population but were slow to develop capitalism. 
  • However, Weberians such as Gordon Marshall (1982) argue that this is due to a lack of investment capital and skilled labour supporting Weber's view that both material and cultural factors need to be present for capitalism to emerge. 
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Religion and Social Protest

Like Weber, Steve Bruce (2003) is interested in the relationship between religion and social change. Using case studies, he compares two examples of the role of religiously inspired protest movements in America have tried to change society: the civil rights movement and the New Christian Right. 

The American Civil Rights Movement

Bruce describes the struggle of the black civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s to end racial segregation as an example of religiously motivated social change. Although slavery had been abolished in 1865, blacks were denied legal and political rights in many Southern states were segregation was enforced, preventing them from using the same amenities such as buses, shops and toilets as whites. Schools were segregated and inter-racial marriages forbidden. Blacks were often excluded from voting by various legal restrictions and intimidation. 

Bruce describes the black clergy as the backbone of the movement. Led by Dr Martin Luther King, they played a decisive role, giving support and moral legitimacy to civil rights activists. Their churches provided meeting places and sanctuary from the threat of white violence, and rituals such as prayer meetings were a source of unity in the face of oppression. 

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Bruce argues that the black clergy were able to shame whites into changing the law by appealing to their shared Christian values of equality. Although the impact on white clergy in the South was limited, their message reached a wide audience outside the Southern States and gained national support.

Bruce sees religion in this context as an ideological resource - it provided beliefs and practices that protesters could draw on for motivation and support. Using the civil rights movement as an example, he identifies several ways in which religious organisations are well equipped to support protests and contribute to social change:

  • Taking the Moral Highground - Black clergy pointed out the hypocrisy of white clergy who preached 'love thy neighbour' but supported racial segregation.
  • Channelling Dissent - Religion provides channels to express political dissent. For example, the funeral of Martin Luther King was a rallying point for the civil rights cause. 
  • Mobilising Public Opinion - Black churches in the South successfully campaigned for support across the whole of America. 
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Bruce sees the civil rights movement as an example of religion becoming involved in secular struggle and helping to bring about change. In his view, the movement achieved its aims because it shared the same values as wider society and those in power. It brought about change by shaming those in power to put into practice the principle of equality embodied in the American Constitution that all men and women are born equal. 

The New Christian Right

The New Christian Right is a politically and morally conservative, Protestant Fundamentalist Movement. It has gained prominence since the 1960s because of its opposition to the liberalising of American society. 

The aims of the New Christian Right are extremely ambitious seeking nothing less than to take America 'back to God'. They wish to make abortion, homosexuality and divorce illegal, turning back the clock back to a time before the liberalisation of American culture and society began. The New Christian Right believes strongly in the traditional family and traditional gender roles. It campaigns for the teaching of creationism and to ban sex education in schools. 

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These campaigns have raised the profile of the New Christian Right since the 1970s. It has made effective use of the media and networking, notably televangelism, where church-owned television stations raise funds and broadcast programmes aimed at making converts and recruiting new members. The Moral Majority, a right wing Christian pressure group founded in 1978, became the focus for political campaigning and for strengthening links with the Republican Party.

However, the New Christian Right has been largely unsuccessful in achieving its aims. Bruce suggests these reasons:

  • The Moral Majority was never a majority, but 15% of the population at most 
  • The campaigners find it very difficult to cooperate with people from other religious groups, even when campaigning on the same issue, such as abortion.
  • The New Christian Right lacks widespread support and has met with strong opposition from groups who stand for freedom of choice, such as Planned Parenthood and People for the American Way

Bruce describes the new Christian Right as a failed movement for change. Despite enormous publicity and a high profile in the media, it has not achieved its aim of taking America 'back to God'. 

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Marxism, Religion and Change

Marxists are often thought of as seeing religion as an entirely conservative ideology - a set of ruling class ideas that are shaped by and legitimate class inequalities in society's economic base. However, this is not the case - Marxists recognise that ideas can have relative autonomy. This means that they can be partly independent of the economic base of society. As a result, religion can have a dual character and can sometimes be a force for change as well as stability. 

Marx does not see religion in entirely negative terms describing it as 'the soul of soulless conditions' and the 'heart of a heartless world'. He sees religion as capable of humanising a world made inhuman by exploitation, even if the comfort it offers is illusionary.

The idea that religion has a dual character is taken up by Friedrich Engels (1895), Marx's life-long collaborator. Engels argues that although religion inhibits change by disguising inequality, it can also challenge the status quo and encourage social change. For example, religion sometimes preaches liberation from slavery and misery. Also, although senior clergy usually support the status quo, lower ranks within the church hierarchy have often supported or even inspired and organised popular protest. 

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Ernst Bloch:the Principle of Hope 

Ernst Bloch (1959) also sees religion as having a dual character. He argues for a view of religion that recognises both its positive and negative influence on social change. As a Marxist, he accepts that religion often inhibits change, but he emphasises that it can also inspire protest and rebellion. For Bloch, religion is an expression of 'the principle of hope' - our dreams of a better life that contain images of utopia (the perfect world). 

Millenarian Movements

Because religion raises the hope of a better world in the afterlife,  it may also create a desire to change things here and now, for example to bring about the kingdom of God on earth. Millenarian movements are an important example of this desire.

Millenarian movements take their name from the word 'millennium' meaning a thousand years. In Christian theology, this refers to the idea that Christ would come into the world for a second time and rule for a thousand years before the Day of Judgement and the end of the world. 

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Gramsci: Religion and Hegemony

Antonio Gramsci (1971) is interested in how the ruling class maintain their control over society through the use of ideas rather than simply through force. He uses the term hegemony to refer to the way that the ruling class are able to use ideas such as religion to maintain control.

By Hegemony, is never guaranteed. It is always possible for the working class to develop an alternative vision of how society should be organised - that is, a counter-hegemony. Like Engels, Gramsci sees religion as having a dual character and he notes that in some circumstances, it can challenge as well as support the ruling class. He argues that popular forms of religion can help workers see through the ruling class hegemony by offering a vision of a better, fairer world. 

Similarly, some clergy may act as organic intellectuals - that is, as educators, organisers and leaders. They can help workers see the situation they are in and support working class organisations such as the trade unions. 

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Secularisation In Britain

Based on evidence from the 1951 Census of Religious Worship, Crockett (1988) estimates that in a year 40% of more of the adult population attended church on Sundays. This is a much higher figure than today and has led some sociologists to claim that the 19th Century was a 'golden age' of religiosity. Whether this is a fair description is open to debate, but it is certainly the case that there have been some major changes in religion in the UK since then. For example:

  • A decline in the proportion of the population going to church 
  • An increase in the average age of churchgoers
  • Fewer baptisms and church weddings 
  • A decline in the numbers holding traditional Christian beliefs 
  • Greater religious diversity, including more non-Christian religions

Sociologists have put forward different explanations of these trends and reached different conclusions about whether, and how far, religion is declining. 

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In 1966, Bryan Wilson argued that Western societies had been undergoing a long-term process of secularisation. He defined secularisation as 'the process whereby religious beliefs, practices and institutions lose social significance'. For example, church attendance in England and Wales had fallen from 40% of the population in the mid 19th Century to 10-15% by the mid 1960s. Church weddings, baptisms and Sunday school attendance had also declined, leading Wilson to conclude that Britain had become a secular society. 

Church Attendance Today

The trends that Wilson identified have continued. Only 6.3% of the adult population attended church on Sunday in 2005. Churchgoing in Britain has therefore halved since Wilson's research in the 1960s and is projected to fall further, to 4.7% by 2015. Sunday school attendance had declined further and only a tiny proportion of children now attended. 

The English Church Census (2006) shows that attendance and membership of large religious organisations such as the Church of England and the Catholic Church have declined more than small organisations, some of which are remaining stable or have grown. 

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Similarly, while church weddings and baptisms remain more popular than attendance at Sunday services, here too the trends is downwards. In 1971, three-fifths of weddings were in church, but by 2006 the proportion was only a third. Similarly, baptisms of children fell from 55% in 1991 to 41% in 2005. 

Religious Beliefs Today

Evidence about religious beliefs from over 60 years of opinion polls and attitude surveys shows that:

  • More people claim they hold Christian beliefs than actually belong to or go to church.
  • Religious belief is declining in line with the decline in church attendance and membership. 

Robin Gill et al (1998) reviewed almost 100 national surveys on religious belief from 1939 to 1996. They show a significant decline in belief in a personal god, in Jesus as the son of God, and in the traditional teachings about the afterlife and the Bible. 

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Religious Institutions Today

The influence of religion has also declined as a social institution. Although the church has some influence on public life, this has declined significantly since the 19th century. In particular, the state has taken over many of the functions that the church used to perform. Thus, whereas religion once pervaded every aspect of life, it has increasingly been relegated to the private sphere of the individual and the family. 

For example, until the mid 19th century the churches provided education, but since then it had been provided mainly by the state. Although there are still faith schools, these are mainly state-funded and so must conform to the state's regulations, such as teaching the National Curriculum. Similarly, although there is a legal requirement for schools to provide a daily act of collective worship of a 'broadly Christian character', a BBC survey in 2005 found that over half the secondary schools in Wales failed to comply with this. 

One measure of the institutional weakness of the church is the number of clergy, which fell from 45,000 in 1900 to 34,000 in 2000 - at a time when the population almost doubled in size. 

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Summing up the overall trend, Steve Bruce (2002) agrees with Wilson that all the evidence on secularisation has now been pointing in the same direction for many years. Bruce predicts that if current trends continue, the Methodist Church will fold around 2030 and by then the Church of England will be merely a small voluntary organisation with a large amount of heritage property. 

Explanations of Secularisation

A major theme in explanations of secularisation is the growth of social and religious diversity. Not only are people increasingly diverse in terms of their occupational and cultural backgrounds but religious institutions are more varied. Secularisation theorists argue that the growth of diversity has undermined both the authority of religious institutions and the credibility of religious beliefs. As a result of these changes religious practice had declined. 

Max Weber: Rationalisation

In relation to secularisation, rationalisation refers to the process by which rational ways of thinking and acting come to replace religious ones. 

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Many sociologists have argued that Western society has undergone a process of rationalisation in the last few centuries. The most important of these is Max Weber (1905). He argued that the Protestant Reformation begun by Martin Luther in the 16th Century started a process of rationalisation of life in the West. This process undermined the religious worldview of the Middle Ages and replaced it with the rational scientific outlook found in modern society. 

For Weber, the medieval Catholic worldview that dominated Europe saw the world as an enchanted garden. God and other spiritual beings and forces, such as angels, the devils were believed to be present and active in this world, changing the course of events through their supernatural powers and miraculous interventions in it. Humans could try and influence these beings and forces by magical means such as prayers and spells, fasts and pilgrimages, the wearing of charms etc. in order to ensure a good harvest, protect against disease and so on.


The Protestant Reformation brought a new worldview. Instead of the interventionist God of medieval Catholicism, Protestantism saw God as transcendent - as existing above and beyond or outside, this world. 

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Although, God had created the world, he did not intervene in it, but instead left it to run according to its own laws of nature. Like a watchmaker, he made to world and set it in motion, but thereafter it ran according to its own principles and its creator played no further part. 

This meant that events were no longer to be explained as the work of supernatural beings, but as the predictable workings of natural forces. All that was needed to understand them was rationality - the power of reason. Using reason and science, humans could discover the laws of nature, understand and predict how the world works and control it through technology. There was no longer a need for religious explanations of the world, since the world was no longer an enchanted garden. 

A Technological Worldview

Bruce argues that the growth of a technological worldview has largely replaced religious or supernatural explanations of why things happen. For example, when a plane crashes with the loss of many lives, we are unlikely to regard it as the work of evil spirits or God's punishment of the wicked. Instead, we look for scientific and technological explanations. 

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A technological worldview thus leaves little room for religious explanations in everyday life, which only survive in areas where technology is least effective - for example, we may pray for help if we are suffering from an illness for which scientific medicine has no cure. 

Bruce concludes that although scientific explanations do not challenge religion directly, they have greatly reduced the scope for religious explanations. Scientific knowledge does not in itself make people into atheists, but the worldview it encourages results in people taking religion less seriously. 

Structural Differentiation

Talcott Parsons (1951) defines structural differentiation as a process of specialisation that occurs with the development of industrial society. Separate, specialised institutions develop to carry our functions that were previously performed by a single institution. Parsons sees this as having happened to religion - it dominated pre-industrial society, but with industrialisation it has become a smaller and more specialised institution. 

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According to Parsons, structural differentiation leads to the disengagement of religion. Its functions are transferred to other institutions such as the state and it becomes disconnected from wider society. For example, the church loses the influence it once had on education, social welfare and the law. 

Bruce agrees that religion has become separated from wider society and lost many of its former functions. It has become privatised - confined to the private sphere of the home and family. Religious beliefs are now largely a matter of personal choice and religious institutions have lost much of their influence on wider society. 

Social and Cultural Diversity

The move from pre-industrial society to industrial society brings about the decline of community and this contributes to the decline of religion

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brillian. i wish u would do the whole book im readlly bad at making notes



Isnt this just a copy from the ocr textbook? word for word...

Syed Afjal Ali


That is why I rated it a one out of five.



My friend Charlottes are way better. She just got full marks in her crime and deviance unit. Check them out!

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