Theories of Religion


What is Religion?

Substantive Definitions: (Weber) Belief in the supernatural or superior power

Functional Definitions: (Durkheim) Defines religion in the terms of contribution it makes to social integration

Social Constructionist Definitions: Focuses on how members of society define religion

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Functionalist Theories- Durkheim

Key feature of religion is the distinction between the profane & sacred

Profane are things found in everyday life whilst sacred are things which inspire feelings of awe and wonder

Durkheim believed that the essence of religion could be found by studying it’s simplest form – totemism. When the clan worships the totem, they are actually worshipping society. The totem represents the power of the group who individuals are utterly dependant on. Shared religious rituals reinforce the collective conscience and main social integration.

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Functionalist Criticism Durkheim

Evidence on totemism is unsound and based on flawed evidence.

Misleading to generalize about Aboriginal beliefs.

Worsley: No sharp division between the sacred and the profane

Theory applies better to small scale, illiterate societies.

Mestrovic: Study cannot be applied to modern society because increasing diversity has fragmented the collective conscience, there is no longer a single shared value

Hamilton: the theory doesn’t fit with the emergence of multi-faith society

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Functionalist Theories: Malinowski

Religion promotes solidarity and helps people to cope with times of emotional stress that would undermine social solidarity e.g. times of crises (death, birth etc.)

In his study of the Trobriand Islanders, Malinowski contrasts lagoon fishing with ocean fishing. Lagoon fishing is safe therefore, there is no ritual performed. Ocean fishing is dangerous and always accompanied by ‘canoe magic’. This gives people a sense of control and reinforces the group solidarity.


Exaggerates the importance of religious rituals

Tambiah: Points out that rituals related to the maintenance of prestige in society 

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Functionalist Theories: Bellah and Parsons


Sees religion helping individuals to cope with unseen events. It creates and legitimates society’s central values. It is the primary source of meaning. Religion protects society's norms and value by sacralising them. It answers the ‘ultimate questions’ about the human condition e.g. why the good die young or suffering is a test of faith


Civil religion integrates society in a way religion cannot. In America, civil religion involves loyally to the country and a belief in God. It is expressed through rituals, symbols and beliefs e.g. allegiance to the flag. It sacralises the American way of life and binds together Americans from different ethnic and religious backgrounds

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Evaluation of Functionalism

Emphasises the social nature of religion

Shows how religion can have a positive impact

Civil Religion is inclusive of all faiths

Neglects the negative aspects of religion

Gives little consideration to hostility between groups

In secular societies there is a declining church attendance which suggests religion is no longer an influential force

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Marxist Theories

Religion acts as an ideological weapon used to legitimate the suffering of the poor

Religion leads the poor into believing that their suffering will be rewarded later in life

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

Lenin: Describes religion as ‘spiritual gin’, an intoxicant used to confuse the masses

Religion also legitimates the power and privilege of the dominant classes

The 16th century, divine right of kings was the belief that the kings was God representative on earth

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Marxist Theories- Alienation

Religion is the product of alienation. Alienation involves becoming separated or losing control over something that one has produced. 

Under capitalism, workers become alienated and they lack freedom to express their true nature as creative beings. In these conditions, the exploited turn to religion as a form of consolation. 

Religion acts as an opium to dull the pain of exploitation. It promises an afterlife and creates an illusory happiness.

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Marxist Evaluation

Supported by ‘real world application’ and ignores the positive functions of religion.

Althusser: Rejects the concept of alienation as unscientific and based on the romantic idea that humans have a ‘true self’.

Religion does not necessarily provide an ideology to control the population.

Abercrombie: In pre-capitalist society , Christianity was a major element of ruling class ideology but had limited impact on the peasantry

It does not take secularisation into account. The church does not always support the ruling classes. In the 1980s the Catholic Church in Poland helped to bring the downfall of the communist regime. There is no evidence to support the idea of false consciousness.

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Feminist Theories

Religious organisations are often male dominated despite the fact women participate more e.g. Orthodox Judaism forbid women to become priest. 

Places of worship often segregate the sexes and marginalise women. Taboos often surround pregnancy and menstruation e.g. menstruating women cannot touch the Qur’an. 

Sacred texts often largely feature the doings of male Gods. Stories often reflect anti-female stereotypes e.g. Eve in the creation story. Religious laws and customs often give women less rights than men. Religious influences on cultural norms lead to unequal treatments like genital mutilation.

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Feminist Evaluation

Armstrong: Early religions often placed women at the centre

Saadawi: Religion is not the source of female oppression, rather it is the result of patriarchal society reinterpreting beliefs

Woodhead: There are religious forms of feminism e.g the hijab may be used as a symbol of liberation

Evangelical Christians believe men should respect women. The position of women is changing, the Church of England had allowed women to become priests since 1992. The Veil may be seen as a reaction to the west’ rather than a form of liberation.

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Postmodern Theories

Bunting: Religious belief is becoming a 'DIY Cocktail'. She argues that people are dipping in and out of different beliefs and taking from them what appeals the most. People are turning away from the traditional religions and seeking advice from elsewhere. It is more about the quality of the experience than the belief of truth of the doctrine.

Lyon: Religion is becoming disembedded from the church by the media and technology and is relocating to a different sphere; the sphere of consumption. Religion is now a cultural resource that we can draw upon and adapt to our own purposes.


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Postmodern Theories

Berger and Luckmann: Explain that society is socially constructed. They argue that religion is a very significant institution that categorises the world into the 'sacred and secular' and the 'moral and evil'.

Religion provides people with a set of beliefs or ethical codes which become part of their subjective understanding, he describes this as 'the universe of meaning' (shared set of moral values). This 'universe of meaning is socially constructed and arised from the myths, customs, values and beliefs of the society.

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Neomarxism Theories

Engles - Religion as a radical force: Engles recognised the active role religion played in in effecting revolutionary social change. He compared some of the early Christian sects that opposed Roman rule to communist and socialist political movements. Thus while Christianity origionated as a way of coping with exploitation among oppressed groups, it could become a source of resistance to the oppressors and so a force for social change.

Gramsci: Argued that at differet historical times, popular forms of religion had emerged which expressed and supported the interests of the oppressed classes. He accepted the possibility that religious beliefs and practices could develop and be popularised particularly by working class intellectuals, to challenge the dominant ruling class ideology and support working class consciousness and liberation.

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Neomarxism Theories

Maduro: Social liberation can only be achieved in a religious society if significant change occurs within the churches. This could occur if the oppressed, who find all possible forms of protest are bloked by central power, take their dicontent to the churches whereby their anguish and aspirationd may be reflected and voiced by members of the clergy. E.g. Martin Luthar King.

Turner: Argues than in modern capitalist societies religion is no more than an optional extra, as property has become depersonalised - most wealth is concentrated in the hands of organisations rather than that hands of the individual like it was in the past where property was passed to heirs.

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