Sociology A2 Revision - Unit 3: Beliefs in society

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Sociology - religion

What is religion?

Substantive definitions:

Substantive definitions define religion as a belief in God, or a supernatural.

DISADVANTAGE: They are exclusive; they ignore beliefs and practices that have similar functions to religion, without a belief in God.

Weber defines religion as “belief in a superior or supernatural power that is above nature and cannot be explained scientifically”


Functional definitions:

Functional definitions define religion in terms of the functions it performs for individuals and society (social and psychological).

Durkheim defines religion in terms of the contribution it makes to social integration, rather than a specific belief in God or the supernatural.

-          Religion provides individuals with answers to ‘ultimate questions’ about the meaning of life and after life.

ADVANTAGE: They are inclusive; include a wide range of beliefs and practices that perform these functions, e.g Buddhism

DISADVANTAGE: Many things perform functions such as social integration, like football, however this does not mean it is a religion


Social constructionist definitions:

Social constructionists take an interactionist approach, focusing on the meaning of religion to individuals, and how members of society define religion. They argue there is no single way of defining religion as it means different things to different people.

-          They do not assume religion involves a belief in God or supernatural or that it performs similar functions for everybody.

DISADVANTAGE: Impossible to generalise the nature of religion



Functionalist theories of religion

Durkheim (1915)

For functionalists, religion plays an important role in creating and maintaining value consensus (shared set of norms and values), order and solidarity.

The sacred:

Durkheim believed that religion was not about a belief in God, spirits or the supernatural but a focus on the sacred (things that are powerful), found in all religions

-          Rituals and practices in relation to the sacred, that are performed by social groups (collective)

-           The sacred objects are symbols that represent great power, which Durkheim believes is society

-          Durkheim believes that sacred symbols unite believers into a single community

Collective conscience:

Durkheim believes that the sacred symbols represent society’s collective conscience.

Collective conscience refers to the shared norms, values, beliefs and knowledge that bring society together (social solidarity/intergration).

-          Participation in shared religious rituals binds individuals together, maintaining consensus in society.

-          Religion also performs a function for individuals – making them feel part of something greater than themselves.

Cognitive functions of religion:

Durkheim sees religion as the source of intellectual and cognitive abilities – helping people to reason and think conceptually.

-          Religion provides basic concepts and categories that are needed for understanding the world and communicating, such as time, creation.

-          Durkheim believes religion is the origin of human thought, reason and science.


-          Durkheim’s theory cannot be applied to large-scale societies where there is more than one religion.

-          Postmodernists argue that his theory does not apply to current society where there is religious diversity  - there is



This is awesome, thank you! There's a tiny correction to be made though - under rationalisation, it says protestant reformation was led by Martin Luther King. It wasn't. It was just Martin Luther, a completely different person. One lived in 16th century the other in the 20th ;P


wonderful notes. Thank you very much. Is there a pdf version available somewhere?

Pete Langley - Get Revising founder

Click on the 'printable pdf' link below the notes

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