Sociology: Theories of religion


Functionalist theories of religion

  • Functionalists see society as like an organism, with basic needs that it must meet to survive. Each institution performs certain functions to maintain the social system by meeting a need

  • Society's most basic need is for social order and solidarity. For functionalists, what makes order possible is value consensus – a set of shared norms and values for people to follow

  •  Durkheim (1915) argues that religious institutions play a central part in creating and maintaining value consensus, order and solidarity

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The sacred and the profane

For Durkheim, the key feature of all religions is a fundamental distinction between the sacred and the profane

  • The sacred are things set apart and forbidden, inspiring feelings of awe, fear and wonder, with taboos and prohibitions

  • The profane are ordinary things that have no special significance
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Rituals A religion is more than a set of beliefs: it has sacred rituals or practices and these rituals are collective – performed by social groups.

  • Durkheim argues that sacred things create powerful feelings in believers because they are symbols representing something of great power, and this thing can only be society

  • When people worship sacred symbols, they are worshipping society itself. For Durkheim, sacred symbols perform the essential function of uniting believers into a single moral community

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Rituals 2

  • Durkheim believed the essence of all religion could be found by studying its simplest form, in the simplest type of society. Thus he used studies of the Arunta, an Aboriginal Australian tribe with a clan system

  • Among the Arunta, bands of kin come together to perform ritual worship of a sacred totem. The totem is the clan's emblem, such as an animal or plant that symbolises the clan's identity. The totemic rituals venerating it reinforce the group's solidarity and sense of belonging

  • For Durkheim, when clan members worship their totem, they are in reality worshipping society – the totem inspires awe in the clan's members precisely because it represents the power of the group

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Durkheim did not carry out any research on the Arunta himself; all his information came from secondary sources. Furthermore, religion in the simplest society may not be the same as religion in other societies.

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The collective conscience

For Durkheim, the sacred symbols represent society's collective conscience or consciousness – the shared norms, values and beliefs that make cooperation between individuals possible. Without these, society would disintegrate.

  • Regular shared religious rituals reinforce the collective conscience and maintain social integration

  •  Rituals also remind individuals of the power of society – without which they themselves are nothing, and to which they owe everything

  • Thus, religion also performs an important function for the individual. By making us feel part of something greater than ourselves, it strengthens us to face life's problems

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In large-scale societies, where two or more religious communities exist, religion may cause conflict rather than consensus. Durkheim's theory may explain integration within communities, but not the conflicts between them

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Cognitive functions of religion

Durkheim sees religion as also being the source of our cognitive capacities – our ability to reason and think conceptually

  • in order to think at all, we need categories such as time, space etc

  • Religion provides the concepts and categories we need for understanding the world and communicating with others. Durkheim and Mauss (1903) argue that religion provides basic categories such as time, space and causation – e.g. with ideas about a creator bringing the world into being at the beginning of time. For Durkheim, religion is the origin of human thought, reason and science

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Psychological functions

Malinowski argues that religion promotes solidarity by performing psychological functions for individuals, helping them cope with emotional stress that would undermine social solidarity. There are two situations where it performs this role:

  • Where the outcome is important but uncontrollable and uncertain In his study of the Trobriand Islanders, Malinowski contrasts lagoon and ocean fishing. Lagoon fishing is safe but ocean fishing is dangerous and uncertain, so it is always accompanied by 'canoe magic' – rituals to ensure a safe expedition. This gives people a sense of control, which eases tension, gives them confidence to undertake hazardous tasks and reinforces group solidarity

  • At times of life crises Events such as birth, puberty, marriage and especially death are potentially disruptive changes. Malinowski argues that death is the main reason for the existence of religious belief
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Parsons: values and meaning

Parsons identifies two other essential functions of religion in modern society:

  • It creates and legitimates society's basic norms and values by sacralising them (making them sacred). This promotes value consensus and social stability

 It provides a source of meaning, answering ‘ultimate' questions about life, e.g. why good people suffer. These may undermine our commitment to society's values. By answering such questions, religion helps people to adjust to adverse events and maintains stability.

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Civil religion

Bellah argues that religion unifies society, especially a multi-faith society like America. What unifies American society is an overarching civil religion – a belief system that attaches sacred qualities to society itself. Civil religion is a faith in 'the American way of life'.

  • Civil religion integrates society in a way that individual religions cannot. American civil religion involves loyalty to the nation-state and belief in God, both of which are equated with being a true American. It is expressed in various rituals, symbols and beliefs, e.g. the pledge of allegiance to the flag

  • It sacralises the American way of life and binds together Americans from many different ethnic and religious backgrounds

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Marxist theories of religion

Functionalism emphasises the positive functions religion performs, but it neglects negative aspects

Unlike functionalists, Marxists see all societies as divided into two classes, one of which exploits the labour of the other. In modern capitalist society, the capitalist class who own the means of production exploit the working class

This creates class conflict. Marx predicted that the working class would ultimately become aware of their exploitation and overthrow capitalism, leading to a classless society and an end to exploitation

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1. Religion as ideology

For Marxists, ideology is a belief system that distorts people's perception of reality in the interests of the ruling class

  • The class that controls economic production also controls the production and distribution of ideas, through institutions such as religion and the media

  • In Marx's view, religion operates as an ideological weapon used by the ruling class to legitimate (justify) the suffering of the poor as something inevitable and god-given. Religion misleads the poor into believing they will be rewarded in the afterlife

  • Such ideas create a false consciousness – a distorted view of reality that prevents the poor from acting to change their situation

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1. Religion as ideology 2

  • Lenin (1870-1924) describes religion as 'spiritual gin' that confuses the working class and keeps them in their place. The ruling class use religion to manipulate the masses and keep them from attempting to overthrow capitalism by creating a 'mystical fog' that obscures reality

  • Religion also legitimates the power and privilege of the dominant class by making their position appear divinely ordained. Disobedience is not just illegal, but a sinful challenge to God's authority

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Marxism ignores positive functions of religion and some Neo-Marxists see certain forms of religion as assisting, not hindering, the development of class consciousness

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2. Religion and alienation

Marx  also sees religion as the product of alienation – becoming separated from or nsina control over something that one has produced or created

  • Under capitalism, workers are alienated because they do not own what they produce, have no control over the production process and in the factory-based division of labour, the worker endlessly repeats the same monotonous task

  • In these dehumanising conditions, religion is a form of consolation – it is 'the opium of the people. It is the sigh of the oppressed creature'

  • Religion acts as an opiate to dull the pain of exploitation. Its promises of the afterlife distract attention from the true source of the suffering, namely capitalism

  • However, some Marxists, such as Althusser (1971), reject the concept of alienation as unscientific. This would make the concept an inadequate basis for a theory of religion

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Feminist theories of religion

Feminists see society as patriarchal – based on male domination.

  • Religious institutions are patriarchal. They reflect and perpetuate gender inequality

  •  Religious beliefs are patriarchal ideologies that legitimate women's subordination

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Some feminists argue that women have not always been subordinate to men within religion; e.g. Armstrong argues that early religions often placed women at the centre  

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Examples of patriarchy in religion

There are many examples of patriarchy in religion

  • Religious organisations are mainly male-dominated; e.g. Orthodox Judaism and Catholicism forbid women from becoming priests. Armstrong (1993) sees women exclusion from the priesthoods of most religions as evidence of their marginalisation

  • Places of Worship often segregate the sexes and marginalise women in acts on worship. e.g. not being allowed to preach or to read from sacred texts. Taboos that see menstruation, pregnancy and childbirth as polluting may also prevent participation

  • Sacred texts largely feature the doings of male gods and prophets and onenance anti-female stereotypes e a Eve who, in the Judaeo-Christian story of Genesis humanity's fall from grace and expulsion from the Garden of Eden

  • Religious laws and customs often give women fewer rights than men, e.g. mace divorce. dress codes etc. They may also lead to unequal treatment, e.g. genital mutilation, punishment for sexual transgressions. Many religions legitimate and regulate womens traditional domestic and reproductive role, e.g. the Catholic Church bans abortion and artificial contraception

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Religious feminism

Woodhead argues that although much traditional religion is patriarchal, this is not true of all religion. There are 'religious forms of feminism' – ways women use religion to gain greater freedom and respect

  • While Western feminists often see the hijab (veil) worn by Muslim women as a symbol of oppression, to the wearer it may symbolise resistance to oppression: a symbol of liberation that enables her to enter the public sphere without losing her culture and history

  • Rinaldo (2010) argues that even in conservative religions, women may use religion to gain status and respect for their roles within the home and family; e.g. a strongly held belief among Pentecostal and evangelical Christians is that men must respect women

  • The position of women in liberal Protestant organisations is often more equal, e.g. since 1992, the Church of England has admitted women to the priesthood; about a fifth of its priests are now female. Other Protestant denominations, Reform Judaism and Sikhism all allow women priests

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