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Theories of Religion
Topic 1 – AQA Sociology
Definitions
There are three definitions you need to know…
• Substantive
• Functional
• Social Constructionist
Substantive Definition
• Weber defines religion as a belief in a superior or
supernatural power that is above nature and cannot be
explained scientifically.
• Exclusive (draw a clear line between religious and non-
religious beliefs)
• 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.
Functional Definitions
• The social and psychological functions religion performs for
society.
• Durkheim defines religion as the contribution it makes to social
integration rather than any specific belief in God or the
supernatural.
• 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.
Social Constructionist
Definitions
• This is how members of a society define religion – social
constructionists believe it is not possible to produce a single, universal
definition.
• Aldridge argues for it’s followers, Scientology is a religion even
though governments denied its legal status as a religion and sought to
ban it.
• 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.
Functionalist Theories
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.
Durkheim
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
moral community.
• 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
collective.
Durkheim
Totemism
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
dependent’.
Durkheim
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.
Durkheim
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.
Criticisms
• Worsley says there is no sharp division between the
sacred and the profane and different clans actually share
the totem.
• 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.
Psychological Functions
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
tasks.
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.
Civil Religion
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”
Functional Alternatives
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
and different.
Evaluation of Functionalism
• Neglects negative aspects of religion (e.g.
oppression of women and the poor)
• Ignores religion as a source of division and
conflict.
• Is civil religion really a religion? Especially since is
it not based on a belief in the supernatural.
Marxist Theories
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.
Criticisms
• 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
the peasantry.
Feminist Theories
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
Religion
• 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
participation.
• Sarced texts: feature the doing of male Gods and are
written and interpreted by men. They also reflect anti-
female stereotypes.
• 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
God.
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.
Religious Feminism
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.
Marxist Feminist
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
it.

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Theories of Religion

  • 1. Theories of Religion Topic 1 – AQA Sociology
  • 2. Definitions There are three definitions you need to know… • Substantive • Functional • Social Constructionist
  • 3. Substantive Definition • Weber defines religion as a belief in a superior or supernatural power that is above nature and cannot be explained scientifically. • Exclusive (draw a clear line between religious and non- religious beliefs) • 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.
  • 4. Functional Definitions • The social and psychological functions religion performs for society. • Durkheim defines religion as the contribution it makes to social integration rather than any specific belief in God or the supernatural. • 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.
  • 5. Social Constructionist Definitions • This is how members of a society define religion – social constructionists believe it is not possible to produce a single, universal definition. • Aldridge argues for it’s followers, Scientology is a religion even though governments denied its legal status as a religion and sought to ban it. • 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.
  • 6. Functionalist Theories 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.
  • 7. Durkheim 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 moral community. • 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 collective.
  • 8. Durkheim Totemism 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 dependent’.
  • 9. Durkheim 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.
  • 10. Durkheim 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.
  • 11. Criticisms • Worsley says there is no sharp division between the sacred and the profane and different clans actually share the totem. • 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.
  • 12. Psychological Functions 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 tasks.
  • 13. 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.
  • 14. Civil Religion 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”
  • 15. Functional Alternatives 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 and different.
  • 16. Evaluation of Functionalism • Neglects negative aspects of religion (e.g. oppression of women and the poor) • Ignores religion as a source of division and conflict. • Is civil religion really a religion? Especially since is it not based on a belief in the supernatural.
  • 17. Marxist Theories 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.
  • 18. 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.
  • 19. 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.
  • 20. 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.
  • 21. Criticisms • 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 the peasantry.
  • 22. Feminist Theories 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.
  • 23. Evidence of Patriarchy in Religion • 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 participation. • Sarced texts: feature the doing of male Gods and are written and interpreted by men. They also reflect anti- female stereotypes.
  • 24. • 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.
  • 25. 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 God. 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.
  • 26. Religious Feminism 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.
  • 27. Marxist Feminist 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 it.