Theories of Religion

Theories of Religion

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  • Created by: Natasha
  • Created on: 14-01-10 18:07

Theories of Religion

two types of definition:

  • inclusive - allowing us to include a wide range of beliefs an practices that perform functions such as intergration
  • exclusive - phenomena which refers to a supernatural being. it is a narrow definition allowing a line between religious and non-religious beliefs

three ways sociologists define R

  • substantive
    • focus is on content of religious beliefs such as belief in G or the s-natural
    • exclusive
    • conform to a widespread of R as belief in G
    • leaves no rooms for beliefs and practices that dont inolve a beleif in G
    • western bias because Buddhism is excluded
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  • functional
    • R defined in terms of social or psychological functions it performs for individuals or society
    • inclusive
    • no bias against non-western Rs
    • however, an institution helping to integrate individuals into groups doesnt make it a R
  • social constructionist
    • an interpretivist approach focusing on how members of society themselves define R
    • they argue that irs not possible to produce a single universal defintion of R
    • approach allows them to get close to the meaning people themselves give to R . its impossible to generalise the nature of R
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  • society is a system of interrelated parts or social institutions such as R, family and the economy
  • society is like an organism, with basic needs that it must meet in order to survive
  • each institution contributes to maintaining the social system by performing a function
  • societys most basic need is the need for social order and solidarity so that its members can cooperate. this is possible with the existence of value consensus


  • key feature of R is a fundamental distinction between the sacred and the profane
  • according to D, when individuals worship the sacred symbols, people are in fact worshipping society itself
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  • Totemism
    • D believed that the essence of all R could be found by studying its simplest form - clan society
    • he used studies of the Arunta, an Autralian Aboriginal tribe
    • Arunta clans consist of bands of kin who come together perdiocially to perform rituals involving worship of a sacred totem, which symbolises the clans origins and identity
    • totemic rituals reinforce groups solidarity and sense of belonging
    • collective conscience= shared norms, values, beliefs and knwoledge that make social life and cooperation between individuals possible, without these, society would disintegrate
    • regular shared rituals reinforce the collective conscience and maintain social integration, participating in shared rituals bind individuals together, reminding them they are part of a single moral community.
    • R also performs an important function for the individual, by making them feel part of something greater than ourselves, R reinvigorate and strangthens us to face lifes trials
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  • cognitive function
  • D also sees R as a source of out intellectual or cognitive capacities
  • in D's view, R is the origin of the concepts and categories we need for reasoning, understanding the world and community
  • criticisms
    • evidence on totemism is unsound. Worsley notes that there is no sharp division between the sacred and the profane
    • D's theory may apply better to small scale societies with a single R. it is harder to apply to large scale societies, where two or more religious communities communities may be in conflict. doesn't explain conflicts between communities
    • p-modernists such as Mestrovic argue that D's ideas cannot be applied to contemporary society, because increasing diversity has fragmented the collective conscience, so a single shared value system no longer exists
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  • agrees with D that R promotes solidarity
  • however, it does so by performing psychological functions for the individual, helping them cope with emotional stress that would undermine social solidarity
  • M identifies 2 types of situation in which R performs this role:
    • where the outcome is important but is uncontrollable and thus uncertain
    • at timesof life crisis. events such as birth, puberty, marriage and especially death mark major and disruptive changes in social groups. R helps to minimise disruption
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  • sees R as helping individuals to cope with unforeseen events and uncontrollable outcomes
  • he identifies 2 other essential functions that R performs in modern society
    • it creates and legitimates societys central values
    • it is the primary source of meaning
  • R creates and legitimates societys basic norms and values by sacralising them. thus in the USA, Protestantism has sacralised the core American Values of individualism, meritocracy and self discipline
  • R also provides a source of meaning, it answers ultimate questions about the human condition. such events defy our sense of justice and make it appear meaningless, and this may undermine our commitment to societys values
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  • is interested in how R unifies society, expecially a multi-faith society like America
  • what unifies society is an overarching civil R - a belief system that attaches sacred qualities to society itself. in the American case, civil R is a faith in Americanism
  • B argues that civil R integrates society in a way that individual Rs cannot
  • American civil R involves loyalty to the nation state and a belief in God, both of which are equated with being a true American
  • it is expressed in various rituals, symbols and beliefs such as the pledge of allegiance to the flag and singing the national anthem. it sacralises the American way of life and binds togethers Americans from many different ethnic and religious backgrounds
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Functional alternatives

  • non religious beliefs and practices that perform functions similar to those of organised R, such as reinforcing shared values or maintaining social cohesion
  • although civil R in America involves a believe in G, Bellah argues that this doesnt have to be the case, e.g. Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union had secular political belief and rituals around which they sought to unite society
  • they ignore what makes R distinctive and different, namely its belief in the supernatural


  • functionalism emphasises the social nature of R and the positive functions it performs, but it neglects negative aspects, such as R as a source of oppression of the poor or women
  • it itngores R as a source of division and conflict. where there is a religious pluralism it is hard to see how it can unite people and promote integration
  • the idea of civil R overcomes this problem to some extent, by arguing that society may still have an overarching belief system shared by all
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  • sees all societies as divided into two classes, one of which exploits the labour of the other. in modern capitalist society, the capitalist classes who own the means of production exploit the WC.
  • in such a society, there is always the potential for class conflict, and Marx predicted the WC would ultimately become conscious of their exploitation and unite to overthrow capitalism
  • sees R as a feature only of class-divided society. as such, there will be no need for R in classless society and it will disappear
  • for Marx, ideology is a belief system that distorts peoples perception of reality in wyas that serve the interests of the RC
  • he argues that the class that controls economic production also controls the production and distribution of ideas in society, through institutions such as the church, education system and the media
  • in Marx's view, R operates as an ideological weapon used by the RC to legitimate the suffering of the poor as something inevitable and god-given R misleads the poor into believing that their suffering is virtuous and that they will be favoured 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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  • Lenin describes R as a spiritual spin - an intoxicant doled out to the masses by the RC to confuse them and keep them in their place. in his view, the RC use R cynically to manipulate the massess and keep them from attempting to overthrow the RC by creating a mystical fog that obscures reality
  • R also legitimates the power and privilege of the dominant class by making their position appear to be divinely ordained
  • Marx also sees R as the product of alienation, which involves becoming separated from or losing control over something that one has produced or created
  • alienation exists in all class societies but is more extreme under capitalism because workers do not own what they produce and have no control over the production process, and thus no freedom to express their true natura as creating beings
  • R acts as an opiate to dull the pain of exploitation. it masks the underlying problem of exploitation that creates the need for it and because R is a distorted view of the world, it can offer no solution. instead, its promised of afterlife distracts attention from the true source of suffering, anmely capitalism
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  • thus, Marx sees R as the product of alienation. it arises out of suffering and acts as consolation for it, but fails to deal with its cause, namely class exploitations.
  • R also acts as an ideology that legitimates both the suffering of the poor and the privileges of the RC


  • Marx shows how R may be a tool of oppression that masks exploitation and creates false consciousness. however, he ignores positive functions of R, such as psychological adjustment to misfortune
  • Neo-MArxists see certain forms of R as assisting not hindering the development of class consciousness
  • Althusser rejects the concepts of alienation as unscientific and based on a romantic idea that human beings have a true self
  • R does not necessarily function effectively as an ideology to control the population
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  • see society as patriarchal that reflects this inequality
  • religious beliefs function as a patriarchal ideology that legitimates female subordination
  • although the formal teachings of Rs often stress equality between the sexes, there is considerable evidence of patriarchy within many of them. for example
    • religious organisations are mainly male dominated despite the fact more women participate. e.g, Orthadox Judasism and Catholicism forbid women to be priests. Karen Armstrong sees this as evidence of their marginalisation
    • places of worship often segregate the sexes and women, e.g. seating them behind the screens while the men occupy the central and more sacred speaces
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    • sacred texts largely features many male gods and are usually written and interpreted by men. stories often reflect anti-female stereotypes, such as that of Eve who caused humanitys fall from grace and explusion from the Garden of Eden
    • religious laws and customs may give women fewer rights than men e.g. in access to divorce, number of spouses they marry, decision making, dress codes etc. e.g. the Catholic Church bans abortion and artifical contraception. Woodhead argues that the exclusion of women from Catholic priesthood is evidence of the churches deep unease about the emancipation of women generally
  • Karen Armstrong argues that early Rs often placed women at the centre so have not always been subordinate to men, e.g. earth mother goddesses, fertility cults and female priesthoods were found throughout the Middle East until about 6,000 years ago
  • while R may be used to oppress women, Namai El Saadawi argues that it is not the direct cause of their subordination. rather, this is the result of patriarchal forms of society coming into existence in the last few thousand years. however, once in existence, patriarchy began to influence and re-shape R
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  • while accepting that much traditional R is patriarchal, she emphasises that this is not true of all R. she argues that there are religious forms of feminism - ways in which women use R to gain greater freedom and respect
  • uses the example of the veil worn by Muslim women, some women choose to wear it to escape the confines of the home and enter education and employment, they see it as symbol of liberating, whereas the Western Feminists tend to see it as a symbol of oppression
  • women also use R to gain status and respect for their roles within the private sphere of home and family
  • position of women within some R is changing, e.g. the Church of England has permitted womens ordination into the priesthood since 1992 and about 1/5 of all its priests are now female
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