Sociological Approach to the Study of Religion

Category: Capitalism, Sociology
Last Updated: 02 Apr 2020
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Outline and assess one of the main approaches to the study of religions. Religion and ‘The Study of Religions’ has many approaches which try to investigate the core of what religion is and what it means to the people who practice it. Sociology is one such approach that this essay will be looking at through its founding fathers Emile Durkheim, Max Weber and Karl Marx. Sociology in general looks at people’s dynamics and explains a group’s influence. It demonstrates how religious belief and practices have become so important over time and emphasises their role and significance throughout.

Each of these three sociologists has a link to these ideas which will be the main thesis in this essay. Emile Durkheim looks at religion from a functionalist perspective in the sense that he assumes that religion has a positive role in society, as it acts as an important socialisation process for all members. The theory is largely based on the Arunta tribe in Australia, where he discovered objects worshipped which he calls ‘totems. ’ These totems according to him were an important factor in the society; seeing that the objects became a symbol of the group’s identity and unity.

These objects he claims are “collective representation” (Fish, Jonathan S. 2005: 30) as they have reinforced the importance of integration into the community via the worshipped objects. The worshipped object have an emotional significance to them as the “totems serve as evocative device for reminding individuals of their initial feelings long after the assemblies” (Fish, Jonathan S. 2005:51) therefore evidently it becomes more about the idea and symbolism of the object rather than the object itself that unites all.

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Thus making the idea of rituals of greater significance as it generally binds people together which for Durkheim is always a positive thing. On the other hand, Durkheim does not offer a real explanation on why some deviate from such society’s e. g. Islamic fundamentalists such as the Taliban. Perhaps his theory generally works on a tribal base rather than bigger societies, where conflicts and divides are more common; in a smaller community less people are likely to go against the status quo. Moreover, to say that religion only plays a positive role is absurd.

How can one explain the atrocities that occur on the name of religion for instance? For this reason I find Durkheim’s theory limiting as it does not look at all aspects of religion or religious life but merely draws a quick conclusion to it. Also according to this perspective religion instils the same norms and values for everyone, making it a regulatory function in society. Religion for Marx then becomes a form of social control which provides guidelines through religious texts e. g. 10 commandments. These norms which are shared gives people the opportunity to unite to what may be seen as morally incorrect or sinful.

This can be vital in a society as it can allow social stability. Durkheim argument is plausible as there has been a significant rise in New Religious Movements. This evidently shows that people still require religion in their life. Moreover, the recent increase on religious fundamentalists can be a point that strengthens Durkheim argument as it can be evidence for people being threatened by a weakening society. Karl Marx similar to Durkheim starts with the assumption that religion is in fact a product of society.

Importantly, however, he disagrees with Durkheim as he does not see religion as beneficial for the whole of society but argues it benefits only the ruling class or what he calls the ‘bourgeoisie’. Religion, according to Marx only transmits bourgeoisie ideologies to convince the working class or ‘proletariats’ that inequality is natural and fair phenomena in the world. Making religion as a whole a “collective smoke-screen” (Connolly, P. 1999:100) as it distorts reality which gives explanation for inequality as being of religious significance i. e. sin.

For Marx this is the core idea behind religion making it a tool for oppression and a form of social control. Religion is claimed to be the “opium of the people” (Hamilton, Malcolm B 2001:81), making it a drug which is used by people as an illusion to hide or cover up the real causes of suffering, which for Marx is primarily capitalism. Capitalism covers up religion and manages to help the bourgeoisie greatly, as it becomes a “comforting illusion” (Hamilton, Malcolm B 2001:80) as the proletariats do not question the status quo due to their belief in getting a greater reward in the afterlife.

Religion itself is used to justify hierarchy in the world, a verse in a hymn such as the following are used, “the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate, god made them. Highly or lowly, and ordered their state”. This stresses Marx’s point that as it’s believed to be sanctioned by God it is unlikely to be challenged by anyone. The Marxists perspective generally makes many valid arguments which society can relate to even today. The idea of caste system is still relevant in many Hindu traditions (although generally frowned upon).

Buddhism has the idea of karma meaning if you are a poor person in this life then it’s to do with your own bad karma in the previous life. Therefore Marxism is correct in this aspect, that religion is used in order to justify inequality. Another key piece of evidence for the Marxists perspective is the fact that the Catholic Church is arguably allowing the spread of aids due to its stance against contraception. As a result of this, there is a continuation of social deprivation especially in Africa which further illustrates that religion is generally used to keep social inequality.

Marxism disagrees that religion can bring about social change, this, however can be disputed. This is mainly due to the fact religious leaders have challenged the status quo in order to bring about change in their societies. Two main examples being Father Camillo Torres Restrepo and Martin Luther King whose works brought about a vast amount of change to Colombia and America respectively. Evidently this contrasts to the Marxists view as it shows that religion can in fact bring about social change and consequently allow for equality.

Personally, I feel that the Marxists view limits human nature as it assumes they will simply follow rather than stand up to injustice. More importantly sociology in general claims to work in an objective and scientific way but I cannot see how it is possible with Marxists ideas such as on the religion being a drug and comforting as these ideas are impossible to measure. Max Weber is regarded as a social action theorist due to his claim that religion can shape and define society.

He argues that religion can indeed bring about social change; he bases his argument on a Christian group named the Calvinists whom according to him brought about a form of western capitalism. This form of “ascetic Protestantism” (Johnstone, Ronald L. 2004:196) allows for the growth of capitalism because of their belief on disciplined hard work which to them emphasised the Glory of God. This “spirit of capitalism” (Furseth, Inger and Pal Repstad 2006:36) did not allow for the accumulation of wealth but actually encouraged reinvestment back into the society according to Weber.

The so called Protestant ethics approach leads him to believe that this led to social change as society turned to mass producing mechanised industries. Another way the Calvinist were able to bring about social change, was thorough the apprehension people had. Calvinists believed in predestination which led to the belief that having a good business or being successful could have indicated that you were one of God’s chosen people. This gives the perception that people were competing over heaven and failure was not an option for people.

However, Weber does not limit the growth of capitalism to the Calvinist alone as he is aware of other factors. Weber’s argument must be treated with a degree of caution. Evidence suggests that Protestant nations were not always capitalistic and vice versa. Also many believe that Catholic countries were already flourishing before the breakaway from Catholicism occurred. The study of Religions deal with many wide and opposing issues some of which have been covered in this essay through the works of Durkheim, Marx and Weber.

Although, each sociologist does give a good account of explaining the dynamics within a religious group but with each case a very simplistic and generalised view was given by the sociologist about religion. It is plausible to argue that religion brings people together through rituals but is it not a natural thing for people to unite whilst doing something together? In this view then perhaps anything can be said to have religious significance as long as it brings people together.

Additionally, the idea of a greater reward in the afterlife is not the only justification given about inequality. In the greater sense inequality within religion can be about anything from the roles of men and women to dress code. Therefore once again this idea has been limited to it being about capitalism. Religion is said to be able to bring about social change which arguably is a factor but for it to be the only thing is for me far fetched. It is an inherent thing for people to fight when they are being wronged. It is about something within rather than it being about religion.

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Sociological Approach to the Study of Religion. (2017, Mar 24). Retrieved from

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