Compare and contrast Marxist and Functionalist accounts of religion

Both functionalists and Marxists share the common view that religion serves to legitimise the morals and laws within society. Many functionalists as well as Marxists do agree that society creates religion as a visual symbol of itself. Followers are ultimately not worshipping their religion, their worshipping society and everything it stands for. However, this is where the split in views begins. Functionalists see Religion as serving towards the 4 pre-requisites of society. (Namely: Social integration, shared values, social solidarity, and social harmony).

By ensuring these needs are met, religion reinforces collective values and promotes solidarity. Functionalism is not over concerned about the ‘why’ religion is allowed to assume this falsified symbolism, but instead recognises it’s use in keeping harmony and faith in society. Durkheim demonstrates this in admitting that religion does not have to be ‘super natural’. It’s important to note that mortal people and objects can gain a sacred status in society similar to that of the idols of religion.

For instance: Princess Diana – a national symbol of charity and possibly the last real ‘princess’ of the British Nation in the people’s hearts. She has become sacred because she represents a good quality of society. From this, Durkheim believes “Understand what sacred things represent and you understand the values of a society”. Here we come into the first major difference between functionalism and Marxism. The former believes that there is a positive relationship between society and the individual. Worship society; believe in society. Marxists, however, inherently are discontent and have an ill view of society as it is.

It is understandable how they are opposed to religion indoctrinating the people into a value set, pulling them into the collective conscience that ultimately supports capitalism and the idea that people deserve to “have their place”. Religion has allows supported class systems and promoted inequality. In gender. In work. In authority. Everything that Marxism is opposed to. “The rich man placed in his castle – The poor man placed at his gate” Malinowski, famed for his research at the Trabaind islands, did not see religion as a celebration of society, despite the same functionalist perspective as Durkheim.

He did, however, agree that religion promotes solidarity. It does so by dealing with emotional stress / life crisis (disruptive events). Religion goes as far as to introduce ceremonies for dealing with various life crisis. Death is given a funeral. Love is given marriage. In all cases then hope is given through the expressed belief in immortality and fellow mourners serve to comfort and support the bereaved, so they can become functional members of society once again. Dangerous and unpredictable events are also surrounded in religious ceremony. Prayer is common before a possibly hazardous experience.

These rituals reduce anxiety and increase confidence, strengthening unity in shared situations. Talcott Parsons shares this view and goes onto show how religious devices, such as the 10 commandments, provide the basis for many social norms and morals. Religion guides behaviour and helps in the formulation of decision through this. Finally, Religion is looked to answer the “ultimate questions” and give meaning to our existence. Humanity needs to feel as though there is meaning in all significant things; meaning to death and suffering, and justification of existence in itself.

Religion works to show sense in contradictory scenarios that threaten the balance of ultimate beliefs. For instance, a man who is profiting through the doing of evil will be punished in the after life for his wrongful gain in life. Religion is a warning, a giver of justice, a provider of guidance and ultimate supernatural fear if one goes astray. Marx himself rejects any idea of

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supernatural aspect of religion. He describes religion as the “Heart of a heartless world”; The heartless world being the society moulded by capitalism. Religion is born out of a need for comfort, it does just this by cushioning the effect of worker oppression.

Marxists have placed religion as part of the super structure, it helps justify the capitalist base as well as the whole super structure. (See rich man quote page 1). Religion as a tool of the bourgeoisie plays an important roll in justifying worker oppression, by showing that all will gain equal reward in heaven for doing the ‘right thing’. Religion has varying levels of strictness according to socio-economic class placement, especially in India where the cast system places strict restrictions and categorisations on a persons place in society.

The idea of equal opportunity is ultimately crushed by harsh teachings and acceptance that a lower class worker is having a bad life because super natural forces placed them in that situation as punishment for wrongfulness in previous life. In conclusion, Marxist and functionalist similarities on the subject start and end with the acceptance of religion as a conservative force in society. Neo Marxism does accept the idea (like functionalism) that religion can sometimes be useful to society in bringing about change for the better. For instance the radical role of Liberation Theology. (Madura).

Traditional Marxism is totally opposed to the oppressive role of religion and would be surprised to see that radical forces have emerged with some minority religious groups. Functionalists such as Durkheim and Parsons see religion as being a positive and perhaps essential part of the harmonious workings of society but have been criticised for ignoring the dysfunctional, disruptive, and divisive aspects of religion. They fail to consider hostility between religious groups within the same society. “It would seem that religion threatens social integration as readily as it contributes to it” (Stark & Glock).

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