Theories of Religion - Beliefs in Society

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  • Created on: 29-10-18 10:46

Substantive Definitions

Focus on the context or substance of religious beliefs, e.g. the belief in God or the supernatural

  • Weber (1905) - religion is the belief in superior or supernatural power that is above nature and cannot be explained scientifically

Exclusive - 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

Conform to a widespread view of religion as belief in God


  • Defining religions in this way leaves no room for beliefs and practices that perform similar functions to religion, but do not involve belief in God
  • These definitions have a Western bias because they exclude religions such as Buddhism, which do not have the Western idea of God
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Functional Definitions

Religion performs a social or psychological function for individuals and society

  • Durkheim (1915) - religion is defined based on the contribution it makes to social integration
  • Yinger (1970) - religion has a function - it answers 'ultimate questions' about the meaning of life and what happens when we die

Inclusive - include a whole range of beliefs and practices that perform functions

There is no Western bias as they do not specify belief in God or the supernatural


  • Just because an institution helps integrate individuals into groups does not make it a religion
  • Example - collective chanting at football matches creates a sense of integration, but it does not make it a religion
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Social Constructionist Definitions

A interpretivist approach - it focuses on how members of society define religion

  • It is not possible to produce a single universal definition of religion to cover all cases

Definitions of religion are constructed, challenged and fought over

  • Aldridge (2007) - for its followers, Scientology is a religion, but several governments have denied it legal status as a religion
  • Definitions of religion can be contested and are influenced by those with the power to shape definitions

Religion does not mean a belief in God or the supernatural; it is dependent on the individual


  • Although this approach allows the research to get close to the meanings people give to religion, it makes it impossible to generalise the nature of religion
  • People have widely different views about what counts as a religion
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Functionalist theories of religion - Durkheim

Religion - a set of beliefs, definite rituals or practices in relation to the sacred, which are collective - performed by social groups

The Sacred - things that are set apart and forbidden, that inspire feelings of awe, fear and wonder. They are surrounded by taboos and prohibitions

The Profane - things that have no special significance - ordinary and mundane

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Functionalist theories of religion - Durkheim


The essence of religion can be found by studying it in its simplest form, in the simplest type of society - clan society

  • Arunta - Australian Aboriginal Tribe with a clan system
  • Bands of kin come together periodically to perform rituals involving worship of a sacred totem
  • The totem is the clan's emblem, symbolising the clan's origins and identity
  • It reinforces the group's solidarity and sense of belonging

For Durkheim, worshipping the totem, is in fact worshipping reality

  • The totem inspires feelings of awe because it represents the power of the group on which the individual is utterly dependent
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Functionalist theories of religion - Durkheim

The collective conscious

  • Sacred symbols represented society's collective conscience
  • Shared rituals reinforce the collective conscience and reinforce social integration
  • Religion makes the individual feel part of something greater

Cognitive Functions of Religion

  • Religion is a source of our ability to reason and think conceptually
  • In order to share our thoughts, we need to use the same categories as others
  • Example - the division of tribes into clans gives humans their first nation of classification
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Functionalist theories of religion - Durkheim


  • Worsley - there is no sharp division between the sacred and the profane
  • Even if Durkheim is right about totemism, he has not proved the essence of all other religions
  • It is difficult to apply Durkheim's theory to large societies, with two or more religious communities
  • Mestrovic - increasing diversity in contemporary society has fragmented the collective conscience, so there is no longer a single shared value system for religion to reinforce
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Functionalist theories of religion - Malinowski

Religion promotes solidarity by performing psychological functions

Religion helps individuals cope with emotional stress that would undermine social solidarity

There are two types of situation

  • Where the outcome is important and this uncertain
    • Trobriand Islanders of Western Pacific
    • Lagoon fishing - safe, predictable, successful methods of poisoning, no ritual
    • Ocean fishing - dangerous, uncertain, accompanied by 'canoe magic' (rituals to ensure safe and successful expedition) - 'god of the gaps'
  • At times of life crisis
    • Helps minimise disruption
    • Argued death is main reason for existence of religious beliefs
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Functionalist theories of religion - Parsons

Religion helps individuals cope with unforeseen events and uncontrollable outcomes

  • Religion also creates and legitimates society's central norms
    • US - Protestantism sacralised the core America values of indidividualism, meritocracy and self-discipline. Promotes value consensus and social stability
  • Religion is the primary source of meaning
    • Answers ultimate questions about human condition e.g. explaining as a test of faith that will be rewarded in heaven. Helps people adjust to adverse events and maintains stability
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Functionalist theories of religion - Bellah

Religion can unify a multi-faith society like America as there is an overarching civil religiom - a belief system that attaches sacred qualitites to society itself (American way of life)

Civil religion integrates society as it involves loyalty to the nation-state and a belief in God

It is expressed in various rituals, symbols and beliefs

Example - the pledge of allegiance to the flag, singing the national anthem, the Lincoln memorial, etc.

There is an American God, sacralising the American way of life. It binds Americans from many ethnic and religious backgrounds

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Functionalist theories of religion - Evaluation

  • Functionalism neglects negative aspects of religion e.g. as a source of oppression of the poor or women
  • It ignores religion as a source of division and conflict, especially in complex modern societies where there is more than one religion
  • Is civil religion really a religion if it is based on belief in the supernatural?
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Marxist theories of religion

The Caste System and the Legitimation of Inequality

  • An example of religion justifying social inequality is the Hindu caste system
  • You are born into the same caste as your parents and marriage between castes is forbidden
  • Highest caste = the priests, warrior caste, merchant caste, servants & labourers, untouchables (not considered to have a caste)
  • Doctrine of karma teaches if you behave well in this world by accepting and observing the rules of the caste, after death you will be reincarnated into a higher caste
  • Higher castes must maintain higher levels of purity
  • Doctrine of reincarnation and karma maintain inequality by assuring those at the bottom of the caste system that their obedience will be rewarded and disobedience punished
  • Higher castes perceive priviledged positions as a reward for their virtue in a previous life
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Marxist theories of religion

Religion as Ideology

Marixism sees religion as a feature of class-divided society. In a classless society, there will be no need for religion and it will disappear

  • Ideology - a belief system that distorts people's perceptions of reality in ways that serve the interests of the ruling class

Religion is an ideological weapon used by the ruling class to legitimate the suffering of the poor as something inevitable and God-given

  • The poor are misled into believing that their suffering is virtuous and that they will be favoured in the afterlife
  • These ideas create a false consciousness - a distorted view of reality that prevents the poor from acting to change their situation

"Religion is the opium of the masses." Karl Marx

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Marxist theories of religion - Lenin

  • Religion is a 'spiritual gin' - an intoxicant doled out to the masses by the ruling class to confuse them and keep them in their place
  • 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 legitimates the power and priviledge of the dominant class by making their position appear to be divinely ordained

  • The 16th century idea of the Divine Right of kings was the belief that the king is God's representative on earth and is owed total obedience
  • Disobedience is illegal and a sinful challenge to God's authority
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Marxist theories of religion

Religion and Alienation

Alienation - the product of becoming separated from or losing control over something that one has produced or created

It is extreme under capitalism, as workers are alienated because they do not own what the produce and have no control over the produce process

It reaches a peak with the detailed division of labour -> the worker repeats the same minute task, devoid of all meaning or skill

The exploited turn to religion as a form of consolation because religion 'is the opium of the people. It is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, the soul of soulless conditions, the spirit of a spiritless situation'

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Marxist theories of religion - Evaluation

  • Marx ignores that positive functions of religion, such as psychological adjustment to misfortune
  • Althusser (1971) - rejects concept of alienation as unscientific and based on a romantic idea that human beings have a 'true self'
  • Religion does not function effectively as an ideology to control the population. In pre-industrial society, Christianity was a major element of ruling class ideology, but it had only limiter impact on the peasantry
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Feminist theories of religion - Patriarchy

Patriarchy - male domination of women

Religion is a patriarchal institution that reflects and perpetuates this inequality

Religious Organisations

  • Mainly male-dominated despite the fact that woman oftern aprticipate more than men in these organisations
  • Orthodox Judaism and Catholicism forbid women to become priests
  • Armstrong (1993) - women's exclusion from the priesthood of most religions as evidence of their marginalisation

Sacred Texts

  • Largely feature the doings of male gods, prophets, etc.
  • Usually written and interpreted by men
  • Stories often reflect anti-female stereotypes e.g. Eve caused humanity's fall from grace and expulsion from the garden of Eden
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Feminist theories of religion - Patriarchy

Places of Worship

  • Segregation of the sexes and marginalises women
  • Women's participation may be restricted
  • Taboos regarding menstruation, pregnancy and childbirth as polluting prevent participant
  • In Islam, menstruating women are not allowed to touch the Qur'an
  • Holm (1994) - this is the devaluation of women in contemporary religion

Religious Laws and Customs

  • Women have fewer rights than men e.g. in access to divorce, how many spouses they may marry, decision making and dress code, etc.
  • Influence cultural norms e.g. genital mutilation or punishments for sexual trangressions
  • Legitimation and regulation of women's traditional domestic and reproductive role e.g. the Catholic Church bans abortion and artificial contraception
  • Woodhead (2002) - the exclusion of women from the Catholic priesthood is evidence of the Church's deep unease about the emancipation of women generally
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Feminist theories of religion - Armstrong

  • Early religions often placed women at the centre
  • E.g. earth mother goddesses, fertility cults and female priesthoods
  • These were throughout the Middle East until about 6000 years ago
  • From about 4000 years ago - the rise of monotheistic religions and the establishment of a single, all-powerful male God - saw the decline of women at the centre of religion
  • El Saadawi (1980) - the rise of monotheism legitimates the power of men over women
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Feminist theories of religion - Woodhead

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

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