• Weber defines religion as a belief in a superior or
supernatural power that is above nature and cannot be
• Exclusive (draw a clear line between religious and non-
• Western bias (exclude religions which do not have the
Western idea of a God)
• Conform to a widespread view of religion as a belief in
God. However, this leaves no room for beliefs and
practices which don’t include God.
• The social and psychological functions religion performs for
• Durkheim defines religion as the contribution it makes to social
integration rather than any specific belief in God or the
• Yinger says one functions religion plays is that it answers
‘ultimate’ questions about the meaning of life and what happens
when we die.
• Inclusive (so non Western-bias)
• However, just because an institution helps integrate individuals,
it doesn’t mean it is a religion.
• This is how members of a society define religion – social
constructionists believe it is not possible to produce a single, universal
• Aldridge argues for it’s followers, Scientology is a religion even
though governments denied its legal status as a religion and sought to
• Definitions can be contested and are influences by those who have the
power to define the situation.
• Don’t assume a religion has to include a belief in God.
• This definition can get close to the meanings people give to religion.
• Can’t generalise the nature of religion.
Functionalists think society is like an organism whose
needs are met by different institutions. They believe there is
a need for social order and solidarity for cooperation
amongst members. The existence of a value consensus (a
set of shared norms and values) means people won’t
pursue selfish desires and society won’t disintegrate.
The Sacred and The Profane
• The Sacred: things set apart and forbidden which inspire
feelings of awe, fear and wonder and are surrounded by taboos
and prohibitions. They evoke powerful feelings as the symbols
represent things of a greater power, which Durkheim thinks is
society. So, when people worship the symbols, they are
worshipping society. By doing so, they are uniting as a single
• The Profane: these things have no special significance; they
are ordinary and mundane. It involves definite rituals or
practices in the relation to the sacred and these rituals are
Durkheim believes the essence of religion is found in a clan
society. So, he studied the Arunta Society. The Arunta clan
consists of bands of kin who come together periodically to
perform rituals which involve worshipping a sacred totem.
The totem symbolises the clans emblem, identity, origin,
solidarity and a sense of belonging. When they worship the
totem, they are therefore worshipping society. It represents
the power of a group which an individual is ‘utterly
The Collective Conscience
This is represented by the sacred symbols. The collective
conscious is the shared norms and values that make social
life and cooperation possible. Regular shared religious rituals
reinforce the collective conscious and maintain social
integration. This binds individuals together, reminding us of
our part in a single moral community to which we owe loyalty.
Without society’s power, we would be nothing and so by
feeling as if we are a part of something great, we feel strong
enough to face life’s trials and obstacles.
Cognitive Functions of Religion
Religion is the source of all intellectual/cognitive capacities.
In order to share our thoughts, we need to use the same
categories as others. Religion is the origin of the categories
we need for communication and reasoning.
Durkheim and Mauss’ book says religion provides basic
categories. Also, the division of tribes into clans gives us the
first notion of classification.
• Worsley says there is no sharp division between the
sacred and the profane and different clans actually share
• It is hard to apply to large scale societies. Durkheim does
not explain conflict between religious communities.
• Mestrovic argues Durkheim’s ideas can’t be applied to a
contemporary society because there is increased diversity,
so the collective conscious is fragmented.
Malinowski believes religion promotes solidarity by
performing psychological functions.
1. At Times of Life Crisis: (i.e. birth, puberty). This periods
mark disruptive changes which religion minimises. For
example, funerals reinforce solidarity amongst survivors
and immorality provides comfort by denying death.
2. Where the Outcome is Important but Uncontrollable and
Uncertain: Trobriand Islanders Study – Lagoon fishing is
safe and predictable. Ocean fishing is dangerous,
uncertain and gives confidence to undertake hazardous
Value and Meaning
Parsons argues religion helps individuals to cope with
unforseen events and controllable outcomes.
• Creates and Legitimates Society’s Sacred Values: by
sacralising them (making them sacred). This serves to
promote consensus value and social stability.
• Primary Source of Meaning: this answers ‘ultimate
questions’ about the human condition. This helps us to
adjust to adverse events and maintains stability.
Bellah defines civil religion as a belief system that attaches
sacred qualities to society itself. He believes civil religion
integrates society in a way that individual religion cannot.
Also, civil religion can claim the loyalty of all Americans,
unlike Churches and Denominations. American civil religion
involves loyalty to the nation and a belief in God (both of
which are equated with being a true American). It is
expressed through rituals, symbols and beliefs (i.e. the
national anthem). Civil religion is “the American way of life”
Bellah notes functional alternatives are non-religious
beliefs and practices which perform similar functions
to those of organised religions. Bellah argues that
although civil religion involves a belief in God, this
doesn’t have to be the case. Groups such as the
Nazis had secular, non-religious, political beliefs and
rituals around which they sought to unite society.
However, the problem with the idea of functional
alternatives is the same as with functional definitions
of religion; it ignores what makes religion distinctive
Evaluation of Functionalism
• Neglects negative aspects of religion (e.g.
oppression of women and the poor)
• Ignores religion as a source of division and
• Is civil religion really a religion? Especially since is
it not based on a belief in the supernatural.
Marxists see society as based on harmony and consensus.
They believe society is split into two classes: the ruling class
and the working class. The ruling class own the means of
production which exploit and alienate the working class.
There is always the potential for class conflict. Marx
predicted the working class will become conscious of their
exploitation and unite to overthrow capitalism.
Marxism sees religion as a feature only of class-divided
society. In a classless society, religion will not be needed and
it will disappear.
Religion as Ideology
Marx believes religion operates as an ideological weapon
used by the ruling class to legitimate the suffering of the poor
as inevitable and God-given. It misleads the poor into
believing that their suffering is virtuous and they will be
favoured in the after life. This creates a false consciousness
which prevents the poor from acting to change their situation.
Religion as Ideology
Lenin describes religion as a ‘spiritual gin’ – an intoxicant
doled out to the masses by the ruling class to confuse them
and keep them in their place. He believes the ruling class
use religion cynically to manipulate the masses and keep
them from trying to overthrow the ruling class by creating a
‘mystical fog’ which obscures reality.
Religion and Alienation
Marx believes religion is a product of alienation. In
the dehumanising work conditions, the working class
turn to religion for consolation. It acts an an opiate to
mask the problem, but as it is a distorted view of the
world it can’t offer a solution. But, the promises of an
afterlife create an illusory happiness that distracts
them from the source of suffering – capitalism.
• Marx ignores positive functions. Neo-Marxists see
certain forms of religion as assisting the
development of class consciousness.
• Althusser rejects the concept of alienation as
unscientific and based on a romantic idea that we
have a ‘true self’.
• Abercombie and Turner say in pre-capitalist
society, Christianity only had a limited impact on
Feminists see society ad patriarchal with many
feminists regarding religion as a patriarchal
institution that reflects and perpetuates this
inequality between men and women. Religious
beliefs function as a patriarchal ideology that
legitimates female subordination.
Evidence of Patriarchy in
• Religious organisations: feminists see them as male
dominated. Armstrong believes women’s exclusion from
priest hood is evidence of their marginalisation
• Places of worship: often segregate the sexes and
marginalise women. Women’s participation may be
restricted: taboos regarding menstruation for example will
mean they are seen as polluting and so this prevents
• Sarced texts: feature the doing of male Gods and are
written and interpreted by men. They also reflect anti-
• Religious laws and customs: give women fewer
rights by legitimating and regulating women’s
traditional domestic and reproductive role.
Woodhead says the exclusion from Catholic
priesthood is evidence of the Church’s deep
unease about emancipation.
However, women have not always been subordinate
to men in religion. Armstrong points out early
religions often placed women at the centre. But, from
about 4,000 years ago, the rise of monotheistic
religions saw the rise of a single, all powerful male
El Saadawi sees the rise of monotheism as
legitimating the power of men over women.
Patriarchy is actually re-shaping religion.
The C of E has now permitted women priests since
1992 and recently, female bishops also.
Woodhead argues there are ‘religious forms of
feminism’ (women can use religion to gain freedom
and respect). She uses the example of the Hijab.
She says the Hijab symbolises a woman’s resistance
to oppression and liberation so they can enter the
public sphere without losing culture and history
whilst increasing their power and influence.
De Beauvoir believes religion is used by the
oppressor to control the oppressed. Religion
compensates for women of the second class status.
Religion also acts as an instrument of a deception;
women are socialised to be relatively passive but are
promised false rewards. This is despite the fact that
women introduce kids to religion so they are vital to