Sociology Unit 3- Beliefs in Society

Substantive Definitions

What is religion?

SUBSTANTIVE DEFINITIONS- Focus on the content or substance of religious belief, such as the belief in God or the supernatural.

Max Weber (1905) defines religion as belief in a superior or superntural power that is above nature and cannot be explained scientifically.

- EXCLUSIVE - they draw a clear line between religious and non religious beliefs.

- Conform to a widespread view of of religion as belief in God.

- 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

- Define religion in terms of the social or psychological functions it performs for indivduals or society.

For Example- Emile Durkheim (1915) defines religion in terms of the contribution it makes to social integration, rather than a specific belief in God or the supernatural.

Milton Yinger (1970) identifies functions that religion performs for individuals, such as answering 'ultimate questions' about the meaning of life and what happens when we die.

- INCLUSIVE- allows us to include a wide range of beliefs and practices that perform functions such as integration.

- No bias against non-Western religions

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Social Constructionist Definitions

- Interpretivist approach - focuses on how members of society themselves define religion - argue that it is not possible to produce a single universal definition of religion to cover all cases

- Interested in how definitions of religion are constructed, challenged and fought over- Alan Aldridge (2007) shows how Scientology is a religion and how the government have denied it legal status as a religion and sought to ban it

- Do not assume that religion always involves a belief in God or the supernatural

- Their approach allows them to get close to the meaning people themselves give to religion. However, this makes it impossible to generalise about the nature of religion since people have widely differing views about what counts as a religion

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Functionalist Theories of Religion- Durkheim on Re


- Key feature of religion was not a belief in Gods, but a fundamental distinction between the sacred and the profance found in all religions

SACRED- Things that are set apart and forbidden, that inspire feelings of awe, fear and wonder, and are surrounded by taboos and prohibitions

PROFANE- Things that hold no special significance - ordinary and mundane

- A religion is never simply a set of beliefs, it involves definite rituals in relation to the sacred, and these rituals are collective - performed by social groups

- Sacred things evoke powerful feelings in believers because they are symbols representing something of great power. Durkheim believes that this can only be society itself

- All sacred symbols perform the essential function of uniting believers into a single moral community

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- Essence of all religion can be found by studying its simplest form, in the simplest type of society - CLAN SOCIETY

- Example - Australian Aboriginal tribe with a clan system

- Clan members worship their totemic animal, they are in reality worshipping society - even though they are not aware of this

- Totem inspires feelings of awe in the clan's members - represents the power of the group on which the individual is 'utterly dependent'

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The Collective Conscience

- Sacred symbols represent society's collective conscience.

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,

Religion performs an important function for the individual - Making us feel part of something bigger and 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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Cognitive functions of religion

- Sees religion not only as the source of social solidarity, but also of our intellectual or cognitive capacities - our ability to reason and think conceptually

- Religion is the origin of the concepts and categories we need for reasoning, understanding the world and communicating.


- Argue that religion provides basic categories such as time, space and causation

Thus for Durkheim, religion is the origin of human thought, reason and science

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Criticisms of Functionalist Theory

1) Worsley (1956)

- Notes that there is no sharp division between the sacred and the profane, and that different clans share the same totem

- If Durkheim is right about Totemism, it doesn't prove that he has discovered the essence of all other religions

2) Theory may apply better to small-scale societies with a single religion. It may explain social intergration within communities but not between them.

3) Postmodernists- STEJPAN MESTROVIC (1997) - These ideas cannot be applied to contemporary society becuase increasing diversity has fragmented the collective condcience so there is no longer a shared value system for religion to reinforce.

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Psychological Functions

Bronislaw Malinowski (1954) agrees with Durkheim that religion promotes solidarity.

- Does so by performing psychological functions for individuals, helping them cope with emotional stress that would undermine social solidarity. Malinowski identifies 2 types of situations in which religion performs this role:

1) Where the outcome is important but is uncontrollable and thus uncertain - Study of the Trobriand Islanders of the Western Pacific, Malinowski contrasts fishing in the lagoon and fishing in the ocean

2) At times of life crisis - Events such as birth, death, puberty, marriage etc.

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Parsons: Values and Meanings

Talcott Parsons (1967) - sees religion helping individuals to cope with unforeseen events and uncontrollable outcomes. He identifies 2 other essential functions that religion performs in modern society.

1) It creates and legitimates society's central values

2) Primary source of meaning

- Creates and legitimates values by sacralising them (making them sacred) E.g. Protestantism

- Provides a source of meaning - Answers 'ultimate' questions about the human condition, such as why the good suffer and why some die young.

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Civil Religion

Robert Bellah (1970) is interested in how religion unifies society.

He argues that civil religion integrates society in a way that individual religions cannot.

- American civil religion involves loyalty to the nation - state and the belief in God, both of which are equated with being a true American- Expressed in various rituals, symbols and beliefs such as the pledge of allegiance to the flag, singing the national anthem.

However this is not Catholic, Protestant or Jewish God, but rather an 'American' God. It sacralises the American way of life and binds together Americans from many different ethnic and religious backgrounds

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Functional Alternatives & Evaluation

- Non religious beliefs or practices that perform functions similar to those of organised religions such as reinforcing shared values or maintaining social cohesion

- The problem with the idea of functional alternatices is the same as with functional definitions - it ignores what makes religion distinctive and different - namely, its belief in the supernatural


- Emphasises the social nature of religion and the positive functions it performs, but it neglects negative aspects, such as religion as a source of oppresion for women & the poor

- Ignores religion as a source of division & conflict, especially in complex modern societies where there is more than one religion

- Idea of civil religion overcomes this problem to some extent by arguing that societies may still have an overarching belief system shared by all

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Marxist Theories of Religion- Religion as ideology

- Belief system that distorts people's perception of reality in ways that serve the interests of the ruling class

- Argues that the class that controls economic production and distribution of ideas in society through institutions such as the Chruch, efucation and the media

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

- Religion misleads the poor into believing that the suffering is virtuous and that they will be favoured in the afterlife

Such ideas create a false conciousness - a distorted view of reality that prevents the poor from acting to change their situation

Lenin (1870-1924) describes religion as 'spititual gin'- an intoxicant doled out to the masses by the ruling class to confuse them and keep them in their place.

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In Lenin's view, the R/C use religion cynically to manipulate the masses and keep them from attempting to overthrow the R/C by creating a 'mystical fog' that obscures society.

- Religion also legitimates the power and privilige of the dominant class by making their position appear to be divinely ordained.


- Alienation exists in all clan society's but it is more extreme under capitalism

- Alienation reaches a peak with the detailed division of labour in the capitalist factory, where the worker endlessly repeats the same minute task, devoid of all meaning and skill.

- Religion acts as an opiate to dull the pain of of exploitation. But just as opium makes pain rather than treating its cause, religion makes the underlying problem of exploitation that creates the need for it.

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- Marx sees religion as the product of alienation. It arises out of the suffering and acts as a consolation for it, but fails to deal with its cause, namely class exploitation

- Religion also acts as an ideology that legitimates both the suffering of the poor and the priviliges of the ruling class


- Marx shows how religion may be a tool of oppression that masks exploitation and creates false conciousness - Ignores positive fubnctions of religion, such s psychological adjustment to misfortune

- Althusser (1970) rejects the concept of alienation as unscientific andbased on a romantic ide that human beings have a 'true self' - inadequate basis for a theory of religion

- Religion does not necessarily function effectively as an ideology to control the population - Abercrombir and Turner (1978) argue that in pre-capitlist society, Christianity had a limited impact on the peasantry

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Feminist Theories of Religion

Evidence of Patriarchy

- Although the formal teachings of religion often stress equality between the sexes, this is considerate evidence of patriarchy within many of them

1) Religious Organisations are mainly male dominated despite the fact that women often participate more - Karen Armstrong (1993) sees women's exclusion from the priesthood of most religions as evidence of their marginalisation

2) Places of worship often segregate the sexes and marginalise women, for example seating them behind screens while men occupy the central and more sacred spaces. Participation may also be restricted

3) Sacred texts largely feature the doings of male gods, prophets etc. and are usually written and interpreted by men

4) Religious laws & customs may give women fewer rights than men, for example access to divorce

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Armstrong (1993) argues that early religions often placed women at the centre. For example, earth mother goddesses, fertility cults and female priesthoods were found throughout the Middle East until about 6000 years ago.

Nawal El Saadawi (1980) argues that oppression is not the direct cause of subordination. Rather it is the result of patriarchal forms of society coming into existence in the last few thousand years.


Linda Woodhead (2002) argues that there are "religious forms of feminism"- the ways in which women use religon to gain greater freedom and respect


- Women also use religion to gain status and respect for their roles within the private sphere of home and family

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Religion as a conservative force

- Can be seen as a conservative force in 2 different senses:

1) It is often seen as conservative in the sense of being 'traditional' - upholds traditional beliefs about how society should be organised

2) Functions to conserve or preserve things as they are - stabilises society and maintains the status quo

Religion's conservative beliefs

- Most religions have traditional conservative beliefs about moral isues and may of them oppose changes that would allow individuals more freedom in personal choice - Catholic Church

- Most religions uphold 'family values' and often favour a traditional patriarchal domestic division of labour

- Traditional conservative values also predominate in non-Christian religions - Hinduism

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Religion's conservative functions

- Religion and consensus - Functionalists see religion as a conservative force because it functions to maintain social stability and prevents society from disintegrating. E.g. It promotes social solidarity by creating value consensus, thus reducing the likelihood of society collapsing through individuals pursuing their own selfish interests at the expense of others. It also helps individuals to deal with stresses that would otherwise disrupt the life of society.

- Religion and capitalism - Marx sees religion as a conservative ideology that prevents social change. By legitimating or disguising expolitation and inequality, it creates false conciousness in the W/C and prevents revolution, thereby maintaing the stability of capitalist society.

- Religion and patriarchy- Feminists see religion as a conservative force because it acts as an ideology that legitimates patriarchal power and maintains women's subordination in the family and the wider society

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Weber: Religion as a force for change

Weber's study of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

- Argues that the religious beliefs of Calvinism helped to bring about social change. Calvinism had several distinctive beliefs:

1) Predestination - God has predetermined which souls would be saved and which wouldn't. Nothing can be done to change this, whether through their deeds, as the Catholics believed that God's decision has already been made and cannot be altered.

2) Divine Transcendence - God was so far above and beyond this world and so incomparably greater than any mortal, that no human being could possibly claim to know his will.

3) Asceticism - Refers to abstinence, self-discipline and self-denial. Monks led an ascetic existence, devoting themselves to God and a life of prayer

4) The idea of a vocation or calling - Calvinists led an ascetic lifestyle, shunning all luxury. Their hardwork had 2 consequences:

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1) Their wealth and success performed a psychological function for the Calvinists that allowed them to cope with their salvation panic

2) Driven by their work ethic, they systematically and methodically accumulated wealth by the most efficient and rational means possible. But not permitting themselves to squander it on luxuries, they reinvested it in their businesses which grew and prospered. Weber argued that this is the spirit of modern capitalism: where the object is simply the acquisition of more and more money as an end in itself.


- Weber argues that Ancient India and Ancient China were materially more advanced than Europe, but Capitalism did not take off there. He argues that the failure of capitalism to take off there was due to the lack of a religious belief system like that of Calvinism that would have spurred its development

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- Hinduism was an ascetic religion, favouring renunciation of the material world. However, its orientation was other-worldly- it directed it's followers concerns away from the material world and towards the spiritual world.

- In Ancient China, Confucianism also discouraged the growth of rational capitalism.

- Confucianism was a this-worldly religion, that directed its followers towards the material world but, it was not ascetic.

Both Hinduism and Confucianism thus lacked the drive to systematically accumulate wealth that is necessary for modern capitalism.

Capitalism was unique in combining asceticism with a this-worldly orientation to enable the spirit of modern capitalism to emerge

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Religion and social protest

Bruce (2003) is interested in the relationship between religion and social change

The American Civil Rights Movement

Bruce describes the struggle of the black civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s to end racial segregation as an example of  religiously motivated social change. The civil rights movement began in 1955 when Rosa Parks, a black civil rights activist in Montgomery, Alabama, refused to sit at the back of a bus, as blacks were expected to do.

Bruce describes the black clergy as the backbone of the movement. Led by Martin Luther King, they played a decisive role, giving support & moral legitimacy to civil rights activists. He sees religion in this context as an ideological resource- it provides beliefs and practices that protesters could draw on for motivation and support.

Sees civil rights movement as an example of religion becoming involved in secular struggle and helping to bring about change. In his view, the movement achieved its aims because it shared the same values as wider society and those in power.

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The New Christian Right

- Politically and morally conservative, Protestant fundamentalist movement - has gained prominence since the 1960's because of its opposition to the liberalising of American society.

- Aims of the New Christian Right are extremely ambitious, seeking nothing less that to take America 'back to God'.

- Believes strongly in the traditional family and traditional gender roles. It campaigns for the teaching of 'creationism' and to ban sex education is schools

- Has been largely unsuccessful in reaching its aims, Bruce suggests these reasons:

1) The 'Moral Majority' was never a majority, but 15% of the population at most

2) Its campaigners find it difficult to cooperate to other groups

3) Lacks widespread support and has had strong opposition from those who stand for choice

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Marxism, Religion & Change

Ernst Bloch: The Principle of Hope

- Sees religion as having a dual character. He argues for a view of religion that recognises both its positive and negative influence on social change.

- Religion is an expression of 'the principle of hope' - our dreams of a better life that contain images of utopia (the perfect world)

- Images of utopia can sometimes decieve people with promises of rewards in heaven, as Marx himself describes.

Liberation Theology

Liberation Theology is a movement that emerged within the Catholic Church in Latin America at the end of the 1960's, with a strong commitment to the poor and opposition to military dictatorships.

- Major change of direction for the Catholic Church in Latin America.

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The factors that led to the emergence of liberation theology were:

1) Deepening rural pverty and the growth of urban slums throughout Latin America

2) Human rights abuses following military take-overs, such as false imprisonment, torture and death squads murdering political opponents, for example in Argentina, Brazil & Chile

3) The growing commitment among Catholic priests to an ideology that supported the poor and opposed violations of human rights

The emphasis on liberation theology is on 'praxis' - practical action guided by theory. Unlike traditional Catholicism, which supported the status quo, liberation theology set out to change society. E.g. priests helped the poor to establish support groups, called 'base communities', and helped workers and peasants to fight oppression under the protection of the church.

Casanova (1994) emphasises that liberation theology played an important part in resisting state terror and bringing about democracy in Latin American countries

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Gramsci: Religion and hegemony

Antonio Gramsci (1971) is interested in how the ruling class maintain their control over society through the use of ideas rather than simply through coercion (force).  He uses the term hegemony to refer to the way that the ruling class are able to use ideas such as religion to maintain control. 

By hegemony, Gramsci means ideological domination or leadership of society. When hegemony is established, the ruling class can rely on popular consent to their rule, so there is less need for force.

Hegemony is never guaranteed! It is always possible for the W/C to develop an alternative vision of how society should be organised- counter hegemony.

Gramsci sees religion as having a dual character and he notes that in some circumstances, it cn challenge as well as having a R/C.

He argues that popular forms of religion can help workers see through the R/C hegemony by offering a vision of a better, fairer world

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Religion and class conflict

Dwight Billings (1990) - applies Gramsci's ideas in a case study comparing class struggle in 2 communities. Both were W/C and evangelical protestant, but they experienced very different levels of strike activity and industrial conflict.

- Billings argues that the differences in levels of militanct can be understood in terms of hegemony and the role of religion. Billings identifies 2 ways in which religion either supported or challenged the employers' hegemony:




Billings shows that religion was an important factor affecting the level of class struggle, but he notes that other factors also played a role.

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