Beliefs in Society- Revision Notes/Key Sociologists (Whole Topic)

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Beliefs in Society 

Theories of Religion 

  • Substantive Definition: A belief in a god or supernatural being (Weber)
  • Functional Definition: Defines in terms of the function it performs for society (Durkheim) 
  • Constructionist Definition: Cannot produce a single definition to cover all cases 

Functionalist Theories 

  • Durkheim: Difference between sacred (things special/unique which inspire feelings) and profane (ordinary/mundane things) as well as cognitive functions (ability to reason/categorise)
  • Malinowski: Psychological functions; Outcome is important but uncontrollable (Ocean fishing), At time of life crises (death/funerals)
  • Parsons: Two functions; creation of societal values/morals and a primary source of meaning 
  • Evaluation of Theory: Neglects negative aspects of religion (e.g. oppression), ignores religion as a source of conflict

Marxist Theories 

  • Marx: “Opium of the masses” Used as a tool to ease pain of exploitation, creates idea of afterlife (something to look forward to) and creates alienation (workers alienated due to not owning what they produce)
  • Lenin: ‘Spiritual gin’ and ‘mystical fog’; religion is an intoxicant used to keep people in their place and prevent overthrowing of the ruling class 
  • Evaluation of Theory: Ignores positive functions of religion (e.g. psychological functions), concept of alienation is unscientific (Althusser)

Feminist Theories 

  • Evidence of Patriarchy: Religious organisations (Catholicism forbid female priests), Places of worship (segregation of sexes), Sacred texts (interpreted by men), Religious laws and customs (women have fewer rights than men)
  • Karen Armstrong: Women are marginalised (excluded from leadership)
  • Evaluation of Theory: Burka is seen as liberating (Watson)

Social Change 

  • Conservative Force: Defending traditional religious customs and maintain the status quo 
  • Weber: Created Calvinism; a religion which surrounded the Protestant Work Ethic (Investing what was earned) which resulted in the creation of Capitalism. This Spirit of Capitalism brings about Rationalism (scientific beliefs overriding religion)
  • Liberation Theology: Example of religion and social change, Catholic Church in Latin America radicalised religious ideas and became in defence of poverty seeing it as a Christian duty. Allowed for democracy over dictatorship in some countries 
  • Otto Maduro: Religion can be a revolutionary force that brings about change (Marxist)
  • Civil Rights Movement: Martin Luther King; Pastor used his pacifist beliefs to challenge racism and promote equality 


  • Wilson (Definition): Process whereby religious thinking, practices and institutions lose social significance 
  • Weber: Reason is steadily replacing faith (Rationalism), religion is no longer needed to


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