Beliefs in Society Topic 1. Theories of religion

What do we mean by religion, and how does religion differ from other kinds of belief?

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  • Created by: teekie
  • Created on: 10-11-10 10:34

What is religion?

There are 3 main ways in which sociologists define religion: substantive, functional, social constructionist

Substantive definitions

  • Focuses on the content of religious belief e.g. belief in God or the supernatural.
  • They are exclusive - they draw a clear line between religious and non-religious belief.
  • To be a religion, a set of beliefs must include belief in God or the supernatural

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 accused of Western bias because they exclude religions such as Buddhism, which do not have a Western idea of God.



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Functional definitions


  • Defines it in terms of the social functions it performs for individuals or society
  • Milton Yinger identifies functions that religion performs for individuals, such as answering 'ultimate' questions, about the meaning of life and what happens when we die.
  • They are inclusive - this allows us to include a wide range of beliefs and practices that perform functions such as integration.
  • They are non-bias against non-western religions such as Buddhism.

Just because an institution helps integrate indivuals into a group, it does not make it a religion. For example, collective chanting at a football game might give individuals a sense of integration, but this doesn't mean it's a religion.


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Social constructionist definitions

  •  This takes an interpretivist approach that focuses on how members of society themselves define religion.
  • They argue that it isn't possible to produce a single universal definition of religion to cover all cases, because religion means different things to different individuals and groups.
  • They do not assume that religion always involve a belief in God or the supernatural, or that is performs similar functions for everyone in all societies.
  • Their approach allows themselves to give religion.

It makes it hard to generalise about the nature of religion, since people may have widely differing views about what counts as a religion.

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Functionalist theories of religion

  • Society is a system of interrelated parts of social institutions, such as religion, the family and the economy.
  • 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 - that is, each contributes to maintaining the social system by meeting a need.
  • Society's most basic need for social order and solidarity so that is members can cooperate.
  • For functionalists, what makes order possible is the existence of value consensus - a set if shared norms and values by which society's members live.
  • Without this, individuals would persue their own selfish desires and society would disintegrate.
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Durkheim on religion
For functionalists, religious institutions play a central part in creating an maintaining value consensus, order and solidarity.

The sacred and the profane

  • The key feature of religion was not a belief in Gods, spirtis or the supernatural, but a fundamental distinction between the sacred and the profane found in all religions.
  • Sacred - are things set apart and forbidden, that inspire feelings of awe, fear and wonder, and are surrounded by taboos and prohibitions.
  • Profane - Are things with no significant meaning, but ordinary and mundane.
  • Religion is never a set of beliefs, it also involves definite rituals in relation to the sacred, and these rituals are collective - performed by social groups
  • The fact that sacred things evoke such powerful feelings in believers indicates to Durkheim that this is because they are symbols representing something of great power.



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  • In Durkheim's view, this thing can only be society itself, since society is the only thing powerful enough to command such feelings.
  • When they worship the sacred symbols, therefore, people are worshipping society itself.
  • For Durkheim although sacred symbols vary from religion to religion, they all perform the essential function of uniting believers into a single moral community
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The collective conscience

  • The sacred symbols represent society's collective conscience or consciousness
  • 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.
  • Regular shared religious rituals reinforce the collective conscience and maintain social integration.
  • Participating in shared rituals binds individuals together, reminding them that they are part of a 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.
  • Religon also performs an important function for the individual:
    By making us feel part of something greater than ourselves, religion reinvigorates and strengthens us to face life's trials and motivates us to overcome obstacles that would otherwise defeat us.


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