Beliefs in society

  • Created by: Holly
  • Created on: 13-12-12 19:46

Religion as the 'opium of the masses'

Marx described religion as 'opium of the masses'. By this he meant that he saw religion as being like a drug that distorts reality and helps individuals deal with pain (oppression) He gave several examples of how religion does this:

  • People have heaven to look forward to if they're good, so they don't break the rules and don't challenge the capitalist system
  • Religion consoles people with the promise of life after death and so they put up with their suffering here on Earth more easily
  • Religion often tells people that their position is decided by God. This encourages false consciousness by blaming God instead of blaming capitalism
  • If God is all-powerful he could do something about the suffering if he wanted to. He doesn't do anything - so this must be how society is meant to be

Marxism says that religion passes on beliefs that oppress the working class. Religion is a conservative force which prevents revolution. The rich stay rich and the poor keep on working. It's a mechanism of social control.

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Functionalist perspective on religion

From a functionalist perspective, religion contributes to meeting society's needs through providing a shared culture, particularly shared moral values, thereby creating harmony and integration.

Emile Durkheim noted that all societies distinguish between :

  • sacred objects, rituals and people, which are regarded as having special significance and are treated with awe and veneration 
  • profane objects, activies and people, which are ordinary, everyday and not treated as special

Functionalists believe the main role of religion is... to reinforce shared values and moral beliefs, this helps to strengthen the collective conscience or the conscience of society. By defining the shared values as sacred, religion gives those values greater power

Through acts of singing or chanting, give a sense of belonging to society. Religion therefore strengthens social solidarity and creates a sense of unity and belonging in society.

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Functionalist perspective on religion

Malinowski looked at how religion deals with situations of emotional stress that threaten social order. Unpredictable or stressful events like births and deaths create disruption. Religion manages these tensions and recreates stability.

Parsons wrote in the 1950s and 1960s that religion provides guidelines for human action in terms of "core values" Religion helps to integrate people into a value consensus and allows them to make sense of their lives.

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Criticisms of Marxist view on religion

Functionalist criticisms - Marxism ingores the positive benefits of religion to society, such as the way it creates stability and shared values, which are necessary for society to function effectively. Religion benefits everyone, not just a ruling class.

Feminist critcisms - Religion acts preserve male, patriarchal power, not ruling class power. Marxist ingore gender inequality.

Secularisation - Religion seems to have declined in many Western societies, suggesting it is no longer needed to maintain ruling-class power

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Age and religious belief - OLD

The attachment of older people to religion is often explained by three main factors:

  • Disengagement - means that, as people get older, they become detached from the integrating mechanisms of society, such as participation in workplaces through paid employment. Older people may face a growing privatization of their lives, with increasing social isolation as partners and friends die. Participation in religious organizations provides a form of social support in this situation and network of people to relate to.
  • Religious socialization - older people are more likely to have had a greater emphasis placed on religion through the education system and socialization in the family when they were younger. This may have laid seeds that flower as they grow older, as they rediscover a religiosity they may have previously ingored. 
  • Ill-health and death - older people tend to be faced with declining heath and death looms on the horizon. These are the very things that religion concerns itself with. The ageing process and disengagement from society may generate engagement with religion for comfort, coping and support. 
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Church attendance and membership is in decline

UK church membership and attendance has gone down - the number of people who go to church has fallen by almost 1 million in the last 20 years

Attendance at ceremonies such as baptisms and marriages has also dropped. Just 27% of babies were baptised in 1993, compared to 65% in 1900

Meauring secularisation has it's limitations:

  • People may attend church but not believe in God. They might attend a service, baptism or wedding out of friendship for the people involved, for some respectability or because of family duty. Or even to get their kids into a certain school
  • People may not attend church because of their lifestyle even though they believe in God. Not being in church doesn't tell you about belief. The last census found that 72% of the population identified themselves as Christians.
  • To make comparisons with the past you have to use old statistics, which may not be reliable.
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Religious pluralism means diversity in types of religious organisations and beliefs in society. As a result of this diversity the established, national church loses its influence in integrating people into shared values. Multicultural societies are more likely to have religious pluralism.

Some sociologists see pluralism as evidence against secularisation

  • The increase in New age movements since the 1980s can be seen as proof that the sacred is becoming important again - this is called resacrilisation.
  • It can be argued that pluralism is evidence of religion being transformed. It shows a trend towards individuation - people being free to search for their own religious meanings (to become "spiritual shoppers")

Other sociologists see pluralism as supporting evidence for secularisation

  • Pluralism gives people choice. People might feel freer to choose to reject religion altogether
  • Although some people in modern society have joined new religious movements, they are still a small proportion of the population. Some sociologists claim the growth in NRMs has been overestimated
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Gender and religious belief

  • Women are more likely to attend church and more likely to say they belong to a religion (British social attitudes survery). This has often been explained by women's traditional role as primary caregiver. Going to church and raising children to be religious is traditionally seen as an extension of that role
  • Differential socialisation is also a factor. The argument goes that girls are socialised to be passive and to conform - which fits in with the behaviour of more traditional and conservative religious groups
  • Women simply live longer. More women are on their own as they get older and they may turn to religion for a sense of community. Older people are more religious anyway
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Age and religious belief - YOUNG

Sects and cults are more likely to be populated with young adults.

Sects often appeal to young adults by messages of friendship and companionship - this can be attractive to those who are experiencing forms of anomie (lack of social/moral standards) and detachment from the world, and those who have few responsbilities (e.g marriage)

Cults appeal to the inner thoughts and feelings of young adults who are often alienated from the primary cultures of society. Cults are attractive to individuals who are often already engaging in counterculture activity. 

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Religion as a conservative force

The view that religion primarily acts to prevent change is supported by:

  • Functionalists, who argue that religion benefits society by promoting stability and integration
  • Marxists, who argue that it benefits the ruling class by helping promote false class consciousness and thereby retaining ruling class power
  • Most feminists , who argue that it helps to retain patriarchal power

Religion is sometimes seen as a conservative force. Conservative, in the context, can have two meanings: 

  • Preventing social change
  • Preserving traditional values and beliefs
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  1. A form of Protestant Christianity that upholds belief in the strict and literal interpretation of the Bible.
  2. Strict maintenance of ancient or fundamental doctrines of any religion or ideology, notably Islam

They claim that other versions of that religion have become distorted and watered-down.

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Evaluation of functionalism

Functionalists identify an importance aspect of religion, the way it can unite and integrate a group of people. However, critics argue that they ingore the possibility that religion can have other effects or functionsand their views may not be applicable to all societies, e.g. disagreement between religions can cause conflicts; feminists argue that religion maintains patriarchy; and Marxists claim it benefits the ruling class over others. 

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Religion and the value consensus

Parsons argued that religious beliefs provide guidelines for human action and standards against which people's conduct can be evaluated for example, The Ten Commandments, for example, provide the basis for many social norms. 

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