Religion as a belief system


HideShow resource information
  • Created by: Kami
  • Created on: 08-05-12 12:38

Defining Religion

Substantive - EXCLUSIVE
- clearly distinguishes between religious and non-religious belief
- needs to be a belief in god or the supernatural
+ conforms to a widespread view
x leaves no room for religions that don't have a belief in a god (buddhism)

Functional - INCLUSIVE
- defines religion in terms of social functions (similar to Durkheims study of the arunta)
- doesn't look for a specific belief in god
+ allows a wide range of religions/practices to be included
x not all belief systems can be classed as a religion (the football debate)

Social Constructivist - INTERPRETIVIST
- members of society define religion themselves
- it is impossible to create a single universal definition, people are individuals and groups vary
+ does not assume that religion always involves a belief in god
x makes in impossible to generalise and take a macro view

Polythetic - ALTERNATIVE 
- defines religion by overlapping factors that most religions share: rituals/concern with the sacred etc
+ allows for many different beliefs to be included      x it's vague, how many factors must be shared?

1 of 22

Functionalist Theory

Functionalists see religion as a force that promotes social solidarity, religion reprisents societies collective conscience.

Cognative Functions
Religion enhances our ability to reason and think. It helps establish categories such as time, cause, effect. It also makes one feel part of something greater than just one person. It reinvigorates and helps people to face lifes trials.

"canoe magic" - religion helps people deal with stress. he noted that in the triobrand it helped in two ways 1) when the outcome is uncontrollable "god of the gaps" between uncertainty and safety. 2) at times of crisis, belief in the afterlife is a comfort.Bauman criticised this and said that the study is outdated and cant be applied to postmodern society it is too diverse.

Saw the Arunta as the simplest form of society. worshipping of totems united believers. the totem was not the key to society, the sacred symbol of the totem was, religion was seen to create a moral community.

Criticisms - Woresley criticises totemism and says there is no difference between the sacred and the profane. Durkeheims study is best suited to small scale societies with a single religion. hard to apply to multi-faith societies e.g. northern island (conflict)

2 of 22

Marxist Theory

Religion is:

  • a tool used to make the proletariat believe they will have a reward. 
  • helps to maintain inequality and prevents people from seeing the world as it really is.
  •  it legitimates the suffering of the prolertariat by claiming that is is inevitable and 'god given'.
  •  it is used as an 'ideological weapon'. religion claims that the poor will be rewarded in heaven, creating false class conciousness.  

Marx described it to be the 'opiate of the people' it dulls the pain of alienation, therefore they do not feel the need to overturn capitalism.

Lenin described it as 'spiritual gin' - it impairs judgement, encourages confusion and gives people something to turn to.


- Marx ignores any positive functions of religion, as mentioned by functionalists
- Althusser notes that you can't measure alienation
- Post Modernists recognise that due to secularisation there are many working class people who are not religious. 

3 of 22

Feminist Theory

Religion is patriarchal and 'malestream'.
The instituation is male dominated even though many women are participants. Legitimates female subordination e.g. sacred texts featuring mainly male gods and prophets.
Religious laws and customs e.g. sharia law are said to give women fewer rights than men. 
Some places of worship do not allow women and men to sit together.

However ...
-  El Saadawi states religion may be used to oppress women but it isn't the cause. religion is a tool of society, patriarchal society existed before religion did. 
- Armstrong argues that early religions often placed women at the centre (mother goddesses)
- the COE also now ordains female priests.  
- Woodhead argues that religion can actually be empowering for women. some people see the hijaab as a symbol of liberation. women cannot be judged when wearing it and for many it is their own decision to wear it.

4 of 22

Religion as a Force for Change

Key terms
Asceticism - avoidance of luxury, leading a non-material life, devoted to prayer instead.
Ideological Resource - when religion provides beliefs and values that others can relate to
Liberation Theology - religion as an influence toward liberation (Oscar Romero - El Salvador)
Dual Character - religion can both delude people with promises but still adress world problems

Weber - Protestant work ethic
Calvinists had a certain work ethic which coincedentally helped to promote capitalism. by encouraging people to lead humble lives the calvinists were encouraged to work hard and as a result earnt lots of money. this money had no need to be spent as members lead ascetic lifestyles so it was re-invested into the businesses creating the first signs of capitalism. calvinists believed in predestination but did not know who the chosen 'elect' were, working hard gave them a purpose to life. Weber studied other countries too and noted that along with the work ethic the right resources and economic climate must be in place too. However ... Tauney - changes in technology caused capitalism. / Kautsky - capitalism was around before calvinism. / Marshall - capitalism didnt develop in every calvinist country (scotland)

Bruce - Martin Luther King and Civil Rights
MLK used his faith to campaign for an end to racial segregation. He was a baptist. Blacks were unable to use many of the same amenities as whites and interracial marriage was forbidden. Rosa Parks furthered this movement when she refused to move from the back of a bus, boycotts were organised as a result. Bruce saw religion in this context as an ideological resource. it provided many key values that others could draw on for support. e.g. the black clergy showing hypocrisy of white christians 'love thy neighbour'. however ... there is still a race issue in many southern counties of america today
institutional racism? black male population of prisons

5 of 22

Religion as a Force for Change 2.

Bloch - Dual character of religion
Religion could deceive people with the promise of a reward in another life BUT can also help people see what needs to be changed in this world.
Engels supported this: religion can challenge the status quo. figures within the church can inspire protest and religious movements. e.g. Oscar Romero and the El Salvador liberation theology. Arch bishop that stood up for many human rights abuses after his best friend was shot dead. Encouraged America not to send aid to El Salvador as he knew it would be abused.
However ... the pope condemned liberation theology in the 1980's and said that it focused too deeply on political struggle rather than religious issues and resembled marxism.

6 of 22

Religion as a Conservative Force

Many sociological groups argue that religion can be used to maintain the 'status quo' (preserving things as they are) by upholding  traditional beliefs (gender roles, nuclear family etc) 

The Hindu caste system
hindu society is structured into rigid social classes with Brahmin at the top and untouchables at the bottom. Religious members beleive that they are there for a reason and will be rewarded for sticking to it; therefore people do not rebel against opression. (opiate of the people - Marx) Social inequality is encouraged by religion.

marx believes that religion is used as an ideological weapon to maintain social class inequality. it prevents people from uprising with the promise of a reward in heaven  e.g. "all things bright and beautiful" - the rich man at his castle, the poor man at his gate, god made them high and lowly and ordered their estate.
However ... Neo-Marxists would argue that religion can act as a force for change also "dual character"

The New Christian Right
christian fundamentalism in the USA. they want to promote christian values (nuclear family, no abortion, against homosexuality) and aim to get christianity into the public eye, by pushing it into the public sphere it often gains a political slant. it discourages single parent families and encourages traditional gender roles.

7 of 22

New Religious Movements

Since the 1960's there has been an explosion in the number of religions - lead to many people criticising Troeltsch and Niebuhr's typology (Troeltsch - church + sect / Neibuhr - denoimination and cult)

Word Rejecting NRM's: similar to troeltsch's sects, clear vision of god. highly critical of the outside world, seek radical change and force members to take a sharp break with their former life. members live communally (often accused of brainwashing) e.g. moonies, children of god etc.

World Accommodating NRM's: breakaways from mainstream churches or denominations, they neither accept no reject the wider world. e.g. neo-pentecostalists (split from the catholic church)

World Affirming NRM's: similar to Niebuhr's cults, not highly organised, do not require collective worship, they accept the world as it is. promise followers mainstream goals 'this worldy focus' such as careers and relationships. often allow followers to unlock their inner potential e.g. scientology, transcendental meditiation

Typology's ...

Troeltsch & Neibuhr (1912+1929)  - church, denomination, sect, cult.
Wallis (1984) - new religious movements (world rejecting, accomodating, affirming)
Stark and Bainbridge (1985) - cults (audience cults, client cults, cultic movements)

8 of 22

Dynamics of Sects and NRM's

Neibuhr - sects are world rejecting and come into existance because of schism. this means that they are short lived (usually only last one generation) and either die out or abandon extreme ideas to become a denomination. (schism - splitting from an established church due to disagreement over doctrines)

Stark and Bainbridge - The Sectarian Cycle
schism - tension between deprived and the privaleged. deprived move away from church -> world rejecting
initial fervour - charismatic leader is elected, tension is created towards wider society
denominationalism - protestant ethic and 2nd generation mean that fervour disappears
establishment - becomes more world accepting, extreme values subside
further schism - less privaleged members once more break away to stay true to original message.

'Denomination or death'
-second generation are born into sect and lack commitment that their parents had
- sects that practice asceticism become prosperous, members are subject to temptation of 'this worldly' pleasures and forget the 'other' world
- death of a charismatic leader either causes a sect to collapse or comprimise is made

Wilson - not all sects follow the sectarian cycle amish, mormons and quakers survived many generations
many children are socialised into a high level of commitment
globalisation will make it harder for sects to seperate themselves from the outside world

9 of 22

New age movements

Beliefs and activities that have been widespread since the 1980's, focus on individual potential (therefore mostly world-affirming) Beliefs often include astrology, tarot, crystals - extremely diverse.
Heelas stated that there are about 2000 NAM's in the UK

Drane - suggests the increase is due to postmodernity. lack of faith in meta-narratives and traditional forms of religion therefore turn to new-age movements.

Heelas - saw two characterising themes:
self-spirituality - members that turn away from traditional religion and look to discover spirituality
de-traditionalism - rejects spiritual authority of external sources (priests/sacred texts) instead they value personal experience.

Bruce - modernity values individualism which is a key principle of new age beliefs
new age beliefs are simply 'softer' versions of more demanding traditional religions e.g. Buddhism they have just been 'watered down' to suit western lifestyle.

Bruce - new age movements take two forms
audience cults - little face to face interaction, the audience are inlikely to know each other, they maintain contact through the internet
client cults - offer particular services to followers, these lead to rapid growth

10 of 22

Age and Religiosity

The older you are, the more likely you are to have attended a religious service.
 However there are two exceptions to this rule
- under 15's are more likely to attend as told to do so by parents
- and the over 65's less likely to go as sick disabled, or deceased.

Voas and Crockett -
Each religion is half as religious as the previous

the aging effect - people turn to religion as they get older, as they approach an older age there is more concern with the after life.
generational effect -
society becomes increasingly secular therefore each generation is less religious, the church population is aging.

Gill - argued that children are no longer recieving religious socialisation.

11 of 22

Ethnicity and Religiosity

Ethnic minorities generally have higher participation rates.
50% of Pentecostal churches are predominantly black.
Asian families = DUTY. they are often tight-knit communities. strong extended families therefore more pressure to follow religious values. It is often seen as a duty to be religious.
African Caribbean = VOLUTARISTIC. families see religion as more of a coping mechanism to deal with stress through the joyful nature of prayer.

Davie - higher levels of religiosity help maintain community and solidarity

Bruce - religion provides cultural identity in an uncertain environment

Herberg - religion can ease the transition into a new culture by providing support

12 of 22

Gender and Religiosity

Miller and Hoffman - women are more religious as they are socialised to be passive, caring and obedient
also suggested that women express greater interest and commitment so attend church more

Bruce - twice as many women in sects (supposts miller and hoffmans obedient and passive theory)

Davie - women have a closer proximity to life and death through childbearing, brings them closer to the meaning of life than men.

However ...

Women are also leaving the church at a quicker rate than men.
Brown  - Christianity supports traditional gender roles and womens modern rejection of this has lead to the rejection of religion also.

13 of 22

Religious Organisations - Key terms

Monopoly of Truth - a view that only the view point of the holder can be accepted as true.

Religious Pluralism - where a variety of religions co-exist

Spritiual Shoppers - post modern view (herveiu leger) that people consume religion in the same way as any other product.

Subjectivisation - increasing relavance of the self and personal experiences as a dominant feature of religion in late modern society.

14 of 22

Globalisation and Religion

Seek to go back to the scriptures and sacred texts, reject science and rational thinking, literalists, extremists
Wesboro baptist church "most hated family in america" - example of christian fundamentalism, they reject all other religions, believing that everybody but them are damned. however ... many fundamentalists reject modern society yet use the media, youtube etc to portray their message.
Giddens  (cosmopolitanism and fundamentalism) stated that they are attractive as in a globalised society there is too much choice and uncertainty. this allows people to ignore rational thinking and follow one strict faith.

embraces modernity, has a strong emphaisis on tollerance. Giddens called this 'reflexive thinking' - evidence based ideas. links to rationalization (secularisation theory) cosmopolitan religiion reflects personal needs. Giddens sees this as the enemy of fundamentalism.

Castells identifies two respeonses to post modernity
resistant identity - a defensive reaction of those who feel threatened and retreat into fundamentalism
project identity - the response of those who are forward looking and engage with social movements such as feminism + environmentalism.

Bauman - fundamentalism is a response to living in post modernity. it brings freedom, choice, uncertainty and heightened awareness of risk , undermines the certainty of tradition. some are attracted to fundamentalism as it claims absolute truth

15 of 22

Criticisms of Globalisation

Beckford - ignores hybrids (a mix of fundamentalism and cosmopolitanism) e.g. televangalism. defines the two movements as seperate when infact the do merge

fixated on fundamentalism, ignores other movements

Giddens is seen to 'lump' all fundamentalist movements together e.g. muslim extremists and christian exremists

Haynes - fundamentalism isn't necersarilly a resplonse to globalisation e.g. conflicts in the middle east (local problems rather than global)

Bruce - Monotheism and fundamentalism
sees globalisation as the main cause of fundamentalism (like giddens) BUT thinks giddens' explanation is confined to monotheistic religions e.g. islam not polytheistic religions e.g. hinduism
polytheistic = open to other interpretations/ no one single sacred text / no one sigle god
monotheistic = one scared text e.g. q'ran / claims to reveal the 'truth'

16 of 22

Cultural Defence and Clash of Civilisations (globa

Bruce sees one function of religion as cultural defence
when religion unites a community against an external threat, religion in this context sybolises the groups collective identity (links to functionalism)

Example of cultural defence - Poland - Communism and the catholic church
Enforced a sense of identity and provided an internal challenge to the communist system. Catholocism reinforced solidarity and although it didn't directly challenge the soviet union it provided strong support to many church goers.

Huntingdon identified 7 main civilisations with close links to one of the world's major religions e.g. islamic civilisation - islam and western civilisation - christianity
shared religion can create social cohesion but also conflict (clash of civilisation) between groups. huntingdon beleives that this is true in today's globalised society because religious differences have become a major source of identity.
these differences are creating hostile relationships with increased competition amongst civilisations for economic and military power. He sees the west as under threat "the west and the rest" e.g. 9/11

However ... Casanova suggests that Huntingdon ignores divisions within civilisations
Horrie and chippindale state that it is a grossly misleading ideology that sees the whole of islam as the enemy.

17 of 22

Evidence For the Secularisation Thesis

Wilson - Disengagement
people are becoming disengaged and religious belief is no longer central to most people's value systems. people are becoming increasingly concerned with materialism and less concerned with spiritual welfare. Links to Weber people are becoming too 'this worldly' and neglecting the 'other world' leading to secularisation. Hamilton claimed calvinism was it's own grave digger.

Hamilton - churches have secularised 'watered down' to compromise with those who reject traditional beliefs e.g. COE now ordaining female preists

Bruce - Lower status of clergy - number of clergy reflects popularity of religion
in 1900 there were 4500 clergies in 2000 there were 3400 (in britain)
shows clear decline in the popularity of traditional religion, almost a decline of 1000 clergy even though the population has doubled.

Brierly - Reduced moral influence
people no longer feel obliged to attend church/follow religious practice. church weddings made up 75% of all weddings 30 years ago, now they make up just 40%

Davie - collective religious practice is in decline, because it is no longer a mainstream value the importance of attending church has decreased. it has become private (praying at home) "believing without belonging"

18 of 22

Science as an open belief system

Science is often seen as the product of rationalisation. Weber believed that this is a period of disenchantment. which started with the protestant reformation (16th C)
science does allow humans to explain, predict and control the world in a way that non-scientific belief systems can not.
* cures for illness/communication/technology/transport
x weapons of mass destruction/cyber crime/ global warming?

Popper - science is an open belief system (open to scrutiny, criticism and testing by others)
it is governed by falsificationism - knowledge claims live and die by evidence - it is cumulative
Isaac Newton 'if i have been able to see further it was only because i have stood on the shoulders of giants' - he has developed the ideas of his predecessors. scientific knowledge is not an absolute truth it is always open to testing e.g. the century old idea that the sun revolved around the earth.

Merton - open
Communism - science is not private property (findings must be shared)
Universalism - the truth of knowledge is judged by objective universal criteria (not resarchers age/sex etc)
isinterestedness - commitment to finding knowledge for knowledges sake
Organised Scepticism - no knowledge claim is regarded as sacred
(CUDOS) norms - science can only thrive if it recieves support from other instituations and values. scientists must act in a way that serve the goal of increasing knowledge.

19 of 22

Closed belief systems

Horton - religious knowledge is different to scientific knowledge as  religion claims to have a special, perfect knowledge (an absolute truth) he believes that closed systems have a number of 'get out clauses' when beliefs are challenged, this is seen in the study of ...

Evans-Pritchard -
witchcraft amongst the Azande. the azande explain misfortune in their lives through withccraft e.g. a jel neighbour. they give Benge to a chicken and ask if the accuses was responsible for the witchcraft, if the answer is 'yes' then the chicken dies. they believe that the witchcraft is a psychic power held in the witches intestines.
it does perform some essential social functions  - clears the air, prevents grudges, encourages neighbours to behave to reduce risk of accusation, social control mechanism.
it is a closed belief system as it cannot be overturned by evcidence, if the chicken did not die it would just be blamed on bad benge. (get out clause) therefore they are trapped within their own idiom of belief.

Polyani  - Self sustinant belief systems have three devices to sustain themselves in the face of contradictory evidence, circularity (explaining something with another belief of the system), subsidary explanations (e.g. wrong use of benge) and denial of legitimacy to rivals (e.g. creationism rejecting any truth in evolution)


20 of 22

Science as a closed system

Kuhn -  mature science (puzzle solving) is based upon a paradigm (a broad outline) and missing bits must be filled in, success = reward, failure = ridicule.
this is supported by 'The case of Dr Velikovsky' - a scientist who proposed new theories of the origins of the world. these were rejected as he challenged some of the more fundamental scientific ideas, his publisher was boycotted as a result.

Interpretivism - further Kuhn's ideas.. argue that all scientific knowledge is socially constructed (therefore subjective) The 'truth' is created by social groups using the resources that are available to them. the truth is the product of shared paradigms that tell them what they should expect to see.

Woolgar - little green men (ethnomethodology)
Scientists attempt to make sense of the world but have to convince others to accept their interpretation. 
e.g. the discovery of 'pulsars' - scientists labelled them as LGM'S or little green men, however they recognised that publishing such a radical idea would end their career and settled for an alternative explanation to the 'pulsars'

Lyotard - Science is just another meta-narrative that hold false claims to truth. Science is merely another was of thinking used to dominate people  

21 of 22


ideology is a set of ideas and values. 

Marxist Ideology - two opposed classes/ruling class own means of production/ WC must sell labour/ RC exploit this to make a profit/ WC must overthrow this and replace with a classless communism/ WC need to develop class conciousness/ RC not only own means of produc. but also 'ideas' e.g. education, media, church - they produce RC ideology which prevents change
Gramsci - calls ideological RC domination hegemony. he believes that the WC can develop ideas to challenge it. due to workers having a duel conciousness (RC ideology and ideas that develop due to their struggle AGAINST IT) therefore capitalism can be overthrown with he help of organic intellectuals who have developed class conciousness.
ABERCROMBIE criticises this, it is not the dominant ideology that keeps workers in line, economic factors are (e.g. fear of unemployment)

Feminist ideology - gender differences are a feature of all societies so many ideologies are in place to justify it. (e.g. Marks science was used to exclude women from education) C19th doctors said it would lead them to be unable to suckle infants. religious practice is seen to define women as inferior e.g. being seen as unclean after childbirth or while menstruating. Although mother goddess' were present in early Asia before monotheistic religions were present. Females were celebrated. 

22 of 22



This is really helpful

Your a life saver !!!!!!!


yourr notess werr really gudd for me n ma last min revision lool .. gudd luckk ppz for tomorow **

Similar Sociology resources:

See all Sociology resources »See all Religion and beliefs resources »