What is religion?

SUBSTANTIVE DEFINITIONS - Tylor defined religion as 'belief in spiritual beings' this definition was criticized for ignoring religious practices. Durkheim focuses on religion as a group activity and the way that symbols have sacred quality. - often associated with rituals. 

FUNCTIONAL DEFINITIONS - this definition states its function. religion is a product of society it needs to be defined in terms of its contributions to society. Problems with this are too broad - anti religious systems could be included. Functional definitions assume religion plays a usefull role in society anything that contributes to social stability can be considered as a religion.

POLYTHETIC DEFINITIONS - Defines religion by identifyingh a number of factors, a concern with the sacred, a focus on salvation from the ordinary world, rituals and practices, priests or some other religious elite. problem it is not clear how many factors need to be shared to be considered a religion.

Theistic religion centre around belief in a sacred higher controlling power. 

Monotheistic - one devine power

Polytheistic - number of seperate gods.

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Is religion a conservative force?

Functionalists see religion to prevent change and contributes to social stability and value consensus. Durkheim relates religion to the overall structure of society. he defined religion in terms of a distinction between the profane and sacred.


Socialization - societies members into a value consensus by investing values with a sacred quality. these values become 'moral code'. 

Social integration and solidarity - encouraging collective worship is regarded by functionalists as important for the integration of society as it enables members to express their shared values and strengthens group unity. social solidarity is enforced is reinforced by developing a sense of commitment.

Civil religion - rituals and ceremony are common aspects of national loyalties. In the UK street parades and swearing allegiance to Queen and country remind people of their relationship to the nation. sacred qualities are attached to aspects of the society itself. Bellah had the concept of civil religion, in america is a nation of immigrants with co-existing cultural and religious traditions. - faith in americanism unites them.

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Is religion a conservative force? 2

Preventing anomie - Durkeims fear for modern industrial society was that individuals would become less integrated and their behaviour less regulated. anomie could occur whereby society could not function because its members would not know how they should behave to each other. Religious ceremonies prevent this happening by encouraging an awareness of a greater entity that is supportive of the individual. 

Coming to terms with life-changing events - Malinowski and Parsons see religion as functioning to relieve the stress and anxiety created by life crises such as birth, marriage and death. these events can undermine peoples commitment to wider society and social order - religion gives events meaning through religious rites of passage ceremonies to minimize social disruption

Criticisms of functionalism - church attendance is declining in western societies so how can religion be functioning to socialize the the majority of societys members into morality and social integration.

Religion can have a negative effect on societies - it can be dysfunctional. rather than binding people together many of the worlds conflicts have been caused by religion - Sunni and Shiite. 

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Marxist and religion

Marx argue that religion is a conservative force in society, but not positive and beneficial to society. Marx argues that the primary function of religion is to reproduce, maintain and justify class inequality. Religion is an ideological apparatus which reflects ruling class ideas and interests. 'Opium of the people' as it prevents working class from becoming aware of their exploitation instead they see it as 'Gods will' and remain in a state of false consciousness. 

legitimating social inequality - controlling the population by promoting the idea that hierachy is natural, god given and unchangable. 

Disguising the true nature of exploitation - religion explains economic and social inequalities in supernatural terms. exploitation is obscured by religions insistence that inequality is the product of  sin.

Keeping the working classes passive - religion presents suffering and poverty as a virtue to be accepted. religion acts as a compensator, prevents change as people will be rewarded in heaven.

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Religion as a force for social change

Berger uses the metaphor of a sacred canopy to refer to dofferent theodicies that help people make sense of the world. some of these theodicies justify keeping things the same while some encourage change.

Calvinists were a protestant group who believed in predestination, fate is fixed but any form of social activity was of religious significance. material success arose from hard work and an ascetic life would demonstrate Gods favour and a place in heaven. Weber argued these ideas helped initiate Western economic development through the industrial revolution and capitalism.


Charasmatic - if the leader gains enough followers it can bring about social change. - Martin Luthor King, Jesus.

Traditional - continue a tradition and support the preservation and continuation of existing values and social ties. this authority can be responsible for change in the face of modernizing regimes.

Legal rational - not based on personal qualities, but on laws and regulations. individuals within the legal system, government exercise this form of authority.

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Criticisms of Weber and neo-marxist view

Some countries with a large calvinist population such as Norway and Sweden did not industrialize . However Marshall points out Weber did not not claim Calvinists caused capitalism he just claimed it was a contributor to a climate of change. Calvinist beliefs had to be supplimented by technology, a skilled and mobile workfoce and law and breaucracy.

Neo- Marxist view on religion - Antonio Gramsci wrote he was aware that churches were supporting ruling class interests he argued religious beliefs and practices could develop that would support and guide challenges to the ruling class, as the church is not directly under their control. Working class could challenge dominant class through the distrubution of more radical ideas.

Otto Maduro argued for the relative autonomy of religion, suggesting when there is no other outlet for grievances (Latin America) clergy can provide guidance for the oppressed in their struggle with dominant groups.

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why do some religions encourage social change?

MacGuire and Thompson argue that there are a number of factors that determine whether or not religion promotes social change.

Beliefs - religion that emphasize strong moral codes are more likely to produce members who will be critical and challenge social injustice. Martin Luthor King, black civil rights 1960s dismantling segregation and bringing political and social rights for black people.

Culture - where religion is central to the culture of society, anyone wishing to change that society is more likely to use religion to help bring about that change. In India Ghandi used Hindu concepts to attack british colonial rule, inspiring peasants and the urban poor to turn against the British.

Social location - religious organization plays a major role in political or economic life it can influence social change. clergy remain in close contact with their communities, they are able to mobilize them against negatively perceived outside influences

Internal and external organizations - religion with a strong centralized source of authority have more chance of affecting events. The Roman catholic church was important in bringing about the collapse of communism in Poland through its support of the movement 'solidarity' 

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Organized religion and religious activity

Weber and Troeltsch were the first to distinguish between churches and sects. A church is a large, well established religious body - mainstream religions. A sect is a smaller less highly organized grouping of committed believers. Churches claim to have the monopoly of truth, and little formal commitment. Sects claim to have monopoly of truth and exceptional commitment.

Denominations - Becker denomination is a sect that has cooled down and become an institutionalized body. Niebur argues that sects that survive over time become denominations beacuse a bureaucratic (non hierarchical) structure becomes necessary once the charasmatic leader died. so rarely survive as sects for more than a generation.They no longer claim a monopoly of truth and low level of commitment.

Cult - tend to be on individual experience. do not formally join. 

Lyotard - post modern society is characterized by a loss of confidence in meta narrative. Bauman this has led to a 'crisis of meaning' . newer expressions of religiosity have become more individualistic and less socially divisive. This can be seen in the decline of religious monopolies and the rise of NRM and NAMs. 

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Other established religions have counterresponded to internal secularization by returning to the fundamentals, basics of their religious roots.

They interpret 'infallible' sacred texts literally - in order to counter what they see as diluting influences of excessive intellectualism among liberal organisations

They reject religious pluralism - tolerance of other religious ideas water down personal faith.

They promote conservative beliefs, including patriachal ones - argue God intended humans to live in heterosexual societies dominated by men. 

Christian fundamentalist have grown in strength  in response to the policies of a modernizing government and international politics by globalization.

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Individual choice and the postmodern world

society has encouraged the development of NRM as peple asser their identity through individual consumption rather than membership. The infomation explosion created by new technologies has provided an opportunity for people to pick and choose from alternatives 'spiritual shopping'.

World affirming - individualistic and life positive aim to release human potential. 

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Gender, feminism and religion

Davie showed that men and women view god diffrerntly, women see god as a god of love, comfort and forgivness while men see god as power and control.

Chiristianity is patriachal as men are made in the image of god and women made for the glory of the man.

Sexuality and religion - seen to be dangerous by religion as women menstrate and give birth they seen to pollute religious rituals. and may distract men in worship. Bird points out that sexuality is an important issue in religion as roman catholic priests are expected to be cellibate. 

Feminism and religion - christian feminists argue there will never be gender equality in the church as long as notions of God continue to be associated with masculinity. Simone de Beauvoir - religion oppressive to women, used by men to oppress women, it also serves as compensating women for their second class status . religion gives women a false belief that they will be compensated for their suffering on earth by equality in heaven. El Sadaawi a muslim feminist does not blame religion itself for its oppresive influences on women, but blames the patriachal domination of religion that cam from the development of monotheistic religions. 

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why are women more religious than men?

Miller and Hoffman report that women; are more likely to express a greater interest in religion, have a stronger personal religious commitment, attend church more often.

during the last 20 years women have begun to leave the church at a faster rate than men, between 1989 and 1998 more than 65000 women are lost from churches each year. Aune et al cite an number of reasons women are not going to church

Fertility levels - women have fewer children so the older generation lost from the church is not replaced. Feminist values - feminist values bagan influencing wonen in 60 -70 challenging traditional christian views about womens roles.

religious orientation to women - Greeley. - Differential socialization - females are taught to be more submissive and nurturing than males. there traits are compatibal to religiosity as they are esteemed by religions Differential roles - females have lower rates of participation in paid work  so have more time for church related activities but also for personal identity and commitment.

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religion ethnicity and youth

reasons why immigrants have placed greater emphasis on religion than long establishe population:

Weber suggested being members of deprived groups tend to be more religious. religion provides an explanation for disadvantage and offers hope of salvation in the afterlife.

Religion helps bond new communities Durkheim argued it provides members with a sense of shared norms and values.

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