sociology concept cards theories of religion


Max Weber: substantive definition of religion

  • focuses on the content of the belife 
  • for example a core belife in God 
  • the basis of this defnition is that religon must have some kind of belife in God or the super natural 
  • this way of thinking however excludes belifes and practices that preform a similar function and exculde religons without a God such as buddhism  
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functionalist definitions of religion

Emile durkheim 

  • religion is all about the sociological and psychological functions it performs in society
  • she defines it in terms of its abilty to help people intergrate into socioety  

Milton Yinger 

  • religion performs a function of answering the big questions such as why we exist
  • as well as what happens when we die 

advantages of functional defnitions

  • they are inclusive to a wide range of belifes and practices 
  • no western religous bias


  • religion cannot just be used for integration otherwise chanting at a football match would also be considered a religion when it is not
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social constructionist definitions

  • they take an interpretivists approach they look at how others define religion
  • they take particular interest in how these definitions are constructed and formed, challenged & fought over

 Alan Aldridge 

  • an example is scientology to its members it is a religon but i the eyes of the law it is not a religon 
  • this shows that the definitions can be contested and it is those who have power who can influence the decision

what it means 

  • the definition is constructed by society 
  • they doesn’t believe it always involves a belief in God or performs functions 
  • however this also means that generalisations cannot be made 
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functionalist theories on religion

3 main theories 

  • Durkhime and totemism 
  • Malinowski and psychological functions 
  • Parsons: values and meanings 
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Durkheim and Totemism

The sacred and profane 

  • this is that basis of totemism that there has to be some kind of distinction between the normal and the rituals of religion 
  • Sacred = set apart and forbidden they inspire awe fear and wonder all surrounded by Taboos and prohibitions
  • profane= normal
  • without this you cannot have a religon 


  • she studied clans and noticed that they worshiped a sacred totem that was a symbol of their clan 
  • the main function this performed was to maintain the sense of the groups solidarity and belonging

  • she expanded on this saying that the totem reprsented their sociotey and that they were in fact worshiping their sociotey 

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functions the totem performs

The collective conscience 

  • this is the shared norms blifes and values that we use to function in sociotey 
  • for Durkhime shared rituals like the clan prasing a totem renforce this and maintain social intergration 
  • it binds indviduals together giving constant reminders they are part of a single moral community 
  • this also renforces the power of socioety 

Cognative fuctions of religon

  • he also see this as the source of our intellectual and conative ability’s
  • in order to think and reason we need to have set categories
  • religion provides that basis for these categories that we then expanded on such as time space and the cause of our existence
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CRITICISMS of Totemism


  • their is no way to sharply divide between the sacred and profane their is no sharp devision
  • many calns share the same totem and even if he is right about those totems this dosent prove it is the essance of all religons

overall views

  • this could only apply to small scale society’s
  • could also apply to those who have a religious monopoly
  • explains how religion integrates but not why their are conflicts between religions in larger society’s

postmodernist view


  • cannot be applied to western society as major religious diversity has caused collective consciences to fragment
  •  this has also caused the loss of a singular shared value system
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Malinowski psycological functions

  • religon performs psycological fuctions that allow members of sociotey to deal with intense emotaional stress

the two types of situation when religon performs this role

When the outcome is important but the situation is uncontrollable

  • an example of this is a clan of fishers when lagoon fishing which is very safe they don’t perform any rituals or put any importance on it 
  • however when they go to fish in the sea which is highly unsafe and unpredictable high importance is placed on it and many religious rituals are carried out to ensure the safety of the fishers

At times of life crisis

  • events like births deaths pregnancy and puberty
  • it helps to minimise the disruption and maintain the status quo  
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Parsons: value and menaing

he agrees with Malinowski

but it also

creates and legitimates the society’s central values

  • this means that it creates the norms we live by and legitimates them b making them something sacred
  • this promotes value consensus and social stability  

it is the primary source of meaning

  • answers the ultimate questions such as why some people die young
  •  by providing these answers it prevents us from undermine our commitment from society’s values( breaking the law)
  •  this allows adjustment to negative circumstances
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Robert Bellah and civil religon

this occurs in massive multi faith socioteys such as in America

  • this is said to be an overarching civil religon
  • this is a blife system that attaches sacred qualitys to the american sociotey itself 
  • it is a faith in the 'american way of life'
  • he adds that it intergrates members into socioety in a way that no tradional religon can
  • it is the only religon that can calim loyalty form all members of the maircan sociotey

how it is expressed

  • the plege of aligence under the flag
  • sing the national anthem
  • they use of phrases such as 'one nation under God'
  • this sacralises the american way of life and binds it's members together
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Functional altentive to civil religon

you don’t need a core belief in god to have a civil religion

  • Bellah suggested that Nazi Germany could be counted as a type of civil religion or the Soviet Union
  •  they were secular but used political beliefs and rituals to unite the society


  • the problem with this is that it entirely ignores what makes religion special distinctive and different
  • the belief in the supernatural 
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Evaluation of the functionlist thories on religon

  • it emphasises the positives functions it performs
  • neglects to look at the negative functions of religion such as religions use to oppress the poor and women
  • it ignores religion as a source of division and conflict this is more so true in multi religious society’s
  • the idea of civil religions may solve this but can it be considered a religion without a life in the supernatural
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marxist theories on religion

their are two ways that religion are used 

  1. used as a form of ideological control by the bourgeoisies
  2. used to comfort those who have been alienated from society allowing the bourgeoisies to have a constant workforce that will not upraise

Marxists view religion as another tool the top of the society use to manipulate and control the working class members of society 

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Marx religion as ideology

he states that a religion is a belief/ideological system used to distort reality in a way the serves the working class 

this is done by 

  • using religious scriptures and ideas to spread the idea that the workers would be rewarded this stops uprising by offering an reward for the peoples suffering 
  • it also gives the idea that suffering is virtuous

what this dose 

  • this creates a false class consciousness
  • this causes religion to act like a 'spiritual gin' it keeps them confused numb and in their place 
  • this allows the ruling class to use it as an ideological weapon 
  • finally it legitimates the power and the ruling classes position in society  
  • this is done thorough scripture that states that kings and queens were the representative of God on earth 
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Marx religion and alienation

He also sees religion as a product of the alienation created by the bourgeoisies

 This is caused by

  •  The lack of control over anything the workers do
  • Whatever they create severs only to benefit the reach not anyone else
  • Repeated monotonous work they have to carry out
  • The inability to express their true nature as creative human being 

this causes people to become separated form the society they live in to prevent this the boujousises use religon as an opiate to numb the pain of their exploitation

It does this by

  •  Offering a reward after death
  • Distorting the view of the world
  • Distracting them from the true source of their suffering
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Evaluation of marxist views

ignores how religion can be used in positive ways

it can be active to our life not always harming


  •  he rejects the idea of alienation as highly unscientific
  • he believes that this is based on a romanticised idea of human beings having a 'true self'
  • theirfore this is an inadequate theory

Abercrombie and turner

  •  religion doesn’t always function well as an ideological control
  • an example of this is pre-capitalist society while Christianity had a major effect on the ruling class it had almost no effect on the peasantry 
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Feminist theories on religion

feminists believe that religion is just another tool much like Marxists 

but instead they believe that it is a tool for patriarchy 

they have several pieces of evidence for this 

  • religious organisations = very much male dominated with men taking the highest positions within the organisations even though more women attend 
  • places of worship = they often segregate genders and marginalise women by putting them away from the most sacred places or placing them behind screens 
  • sacred texts = feature the doings of male Gods, written by male prophets and interpreted by men 
  • religious laws and customs= often give more rights to men than women, allow men more freedom and regulate the freedom of women using harsh punishments

however some say that 

  • patriarchy came first 
  • this instead reshaped religion 
  • religion then reinforced this patriarchy 
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Woodhead religious feminism counter argument


  • criticizes feminism for just equating religion to patriarchy and oppression
  • while she agrees that traditional religion can be very patriarchal she emphasizes this is not true for all religions
  • she argues that there are ways in which women use religion to gain greater freedom
  • examples of this

 the hijab worn by many Muslim women is seen as a sign of oppression by western feminist’s

  • however to the wearer it may be seen as a sign of resistance and freedom as when wearing these veils they are allowed to escape home and enter education and employment
  • religon can also be used to increase the power of women as many religions place great importance on women and the vital roles they perform in the family

also to note 

  • the postion of women in religon is slowly changeing for exaple a fith of the priests in the church of england are now female 
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summary of theories in religion

three definitions

  •  Substantive
  • Functional
  • social constructionist


  •  functionalist= consensus perspective religion performs positive functions in society
  • Marxist= conflict view acts as a tool and weapon used for ideological control of the poor working class
  • feminist= is an instrument of patriarchy also a conflict view


  •  functionalists= can perform negative functions that are not constructive
  • Marxists= doesn’t work when religion actually affects the ruling class far more than it will affect the poor so ideological demonization cannot be used
  • feminist= religion can be used as a tool against patriarchy to gain greater freedom and rights
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