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Religion as a conservative force..

Sociologists who have studied the role of religion in society often tend to fall into one of two broad camps:

1.   Those who see religion as a conservative force- 'Conservative' means keeping things the way they are. These sociologists see religion as a force for stability and order.

2.   Those who see religion as a force for social change- Supporters of this position point to the role of religion in encouraging societies to change.

·      Functionalists tend to see change as a 'good' thing whereas Marxists view it as a 'bad' thing.

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Functionalist approaches - Durkheim..

·      Durkheim argued that totemism represents the most elementary form of religion. The totem is believed to have divine properties leading to the worship of the totem which serves to bring the tribe together and consequently to reaffirm group identity.

·      Durkheim suggests that the totem is sacred because it is symbolically representative of the group itself i.e. it stands for the community, who, by worshipping the totem, are effectively 'worshipping' their society.

·      For Durkheim, however, gods are merely the expression of the influence over the individual of what he calls the collective conscience- the basic shared beliefs, values and norms that make society work.

·      Religion acts as a conservative force; when it fails to perform this function, new ideas may emerge that effectively become the new religion. Thus, Durkheim regards nationalism and communism as examples of new religions.

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The functions of religion in modern society..

·      Socialisation- The major function of religion is to socialise society's members into a value consensus by investing values with sacred quality. These values become 'moral codes'. Consequently, such codes regulate our social behaviour- e.g. the Ten Commandments.

·      Social integration and solidarity- Integration enables members to express their shared values and strengthens group unity. By worshipping together, people develop a sense of commitment and belonging; individuals are united into a group with shared values, so social solidarity is reinforced.

  • Civil religion- According to Bellah, God and Americanism appear to go hand in hand. American coins remind their users 'In God We Trust', and the phrase 'God bless America' is a ·      common concluding remark to an important speech. However, Bellah suggests that even civil religion is in a decline, as people now rank personal gratification above obligation to others and there is, in his view, a deepening cynicism about established social institutes. However the events of 9/11 have led to a reaffirmation of Americanism.

    ·      Preventing anomie- Durkheim's main fear for modern society was that individuals would become less integrated and their behaviour less regulated. Should this become widespread, anomie could occur whereby society could not function because its members would not know how they should behave relative to one another.

    ·      Coming to terms with life-changing events- Malinowski and Parsons see religion as functioning to relieve the stress and anxiety created by life crises such as birth, death etc. Such events can undermine people's commitment to the wider society and, therefore, social order. Religion gives such events meaning, helping people come to terms with change.

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Criticisms of functionalism..

·      Church attendance is declining in most Western societies. It is difficult to see how religion can be functioning to socialise the majority of society's members into morality and social integration, if only a minority of people regularly attend church.

·      Some argue that Durkheim's evidence is flawed. He misunderstood both totemism and the behaviour of aboriginal tribes themselves.

·      Religion can have a negative effect on societies- it can be dysfunctional. Rather than binding people, many of the world's conflicts have been caused by religion e.g. between Sunni and Shiite Muslims.

·      Much functionalist analysis is based upon the idea that a society has one religion, but many modern societies are multicultural, multi-faith societies.

·      The idea that religion can be seen as the worship of society depends on an assumption that worship is collective act- people joining together to celebrate their gods or god. However, religious belief may be expressed individually.

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Marxism and Religion..

·      Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the sentiment of a heartless world... the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. Karl Marx (1844)

·      Marx argues that the primary function of religion is to reproduce, maintain and justify class inequality. In other words, religion is an ideological apparatus, which serves to reflect ruling class ideas and interests.

·      Moreover, Marx describes religion as the 'opium of the people', because in his view it prevents the working class from becoming aware of the true nature of their exploitation by the ruling class. Instead they see it all as 'God's will' and passively accept things the way they are.

·      Religion acts as an opiate- a pacifying drug- in that it does not solve any problems people may have, but merely dulls the pain and, therefore, argued Marx, most religious movements originate in the oppressed classes.

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Religion is ideological in 3 ways- Marx & Engels..

1.    Legitimating social inequality- Religion serves as a means of controlling the population by promoting the idea that the existing hierarchy is natural, god-given and, therefore, unchangeable. We can particularly see this during the feudal period, when it was widely believed that kings had a divine right to rule.

2.    Disguising the true nature of exploitation- Religion explains economic and social inequalities in supernatural terms. In other words, the real causes are obscured and distorted by religion's insistence that inequality is the product of sin or a sign that people have been chosen by God.

3.    Keeping the W/C passive and resigned to their fate- Religion offers hope and promises happiness in a future world. This prevents the W/C from actually doing anything that challenges the R/C directly. Religion discourages people from attempting change, so the dominant groups can retain their power. Religion is used by the R/C to justify their position. However, evidence for the traditional Marxists position is partial and tends to be of a documentary nature, looking at the nature of faith and the way in which the religion of the poor concentrates on the afterlife. Also, some traditional Marxists adopt the view that religion can bring about social change.

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Evidence to support Marxist views..

·      Leach is critical of the Church of England because it recruits from what is essentially an upper class base (80% of bishops were educated at public school or Oxbridge). The Church is also extremely wealthy. Leach argues that, as a result, the Church has lost contact with ordinary people. He suggests it should be doing more to tackle inequality especially that found in inner cities.

  • Religion is used to support dominant groups in America. It has been suggested that modern Protestant fundamentalist religions in the USA support right wing, conservative values.    Fundamentalists often suggest that wealth and prosperity is a sign of God's favour.
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Criticisms of Marxism..

·      The Marxist theory of religion fails to consider secularisation. Surely the ideological power of religion is undermined by the fact that fewer than 10 per cent of people attend church?

·      Marx failed to explain the existence of religion where it does not appear to contribute to the oppression of a particular class. Nor does Marxism explain why religion continues to exist when, in theory, oppression has come to an end.

·      There are also some examples of religious movements that have brought about radical social changed and helped remove ruling elites. They demonstrate that religion can legitimise radical revolutionary ideas as well as ideologically conservative ones. Marx failed to recognise this. Neo-Marxists have recognised the way in which religion is sometimes used as the only means to oppose the ruling class.

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