Influence of Durkheim, Weber, and Marx
Durkheim's Views on Religion
Durkheim argued that totemism serves several functions in society. First, it contributes to the development of a collective conscience, a set of generally accepted social rules, norms, values, and beliefs that have become embodied in institutions and form the basis of society. Durkheim wrote that this leads to the development of mechanical solidarity, a sense of unity between people who share ties, values, and beliefs, leading to cooperation. This mechanical solidarity was a hallmark of preindustrial and premodern societies. Durkheim also believed that totemism works to create social cohesion, serves as a form of social control, and offers comfort to people in times of suffering. He argued that all these elements are also present in more hierarchical and organized religions.
Weber's Views on Religion
Marx's Views on Religion
Religion and Functionalism
Functionalism is an approach that views society as a system of parts working together to maintain a social equilibrium, or balance. By studying the roles and relationships of social institutions, functionalism analyzes how society functions. This approach incorporates many of the ideas of Durkheim and Weber. In the functionalist view, religion is a social institution that serves several functions in society. These functions include giving life meaning and purpose, providing social unity and stability, providing social control, promoting physical and psychological well-being, and motivating social change.
Religion performs the first function—giving life meaning and purpose—by providing its adherents with answers to questions about life and the universe. In ancient times people turned to religions for answers about natural phenomena, such as the sun and moon, lightning, floods, and volcanoes. They also sought explanations for the mysteries of life, including birth and death. People in modern societies also rely on religion for answers for questions about death, the meaning and purpose of life, and other mysteries science has not solved.
Religion also can serve to unify a society and provide social stability. It is an important social institution, a complex set of interdependent social forces that reproduce stable, valued patterns of behavior. Religion gives people a common set of beliefs, norms, and practices, as well as the sense of belonging to a group. Religion also provides common social rituals to mark major life events, such as birth, death, and marriage. It can also serve as a source of social control, encouraging certain types of behavior and discouraging others. For example, religious beliefs and practices can influence sexual behavior and family structure. It can encourage respect for laws, governments, and figures of authority. Another function religion serves is providing avenues for social interaction. It provides places and reasons for members of a society to gather and interact. It can be a source of social support, organizing people to provide meals and other care in emergencies.
Finally, religion can motivate social change. Members of a religion, as a unified group, can come together to effect changes that are based on their deeply held beliefs and values. For example, Quakers worked for the abolition of slavery in the United States. Members of many religious groups often organize around political issues, promoting candidates and laws that correspond to their beliefs.
Religion and Conflict Theory
Marx's ideas about society and social and economic relations form the basis of conflict theory, which posits that society is characterized by conflict between social groups. Groups with unequal power and competing interests compete for scarce resources. From the conflict theory perspective, as from the functionalist perspective, religion serves a function. According to conflict theory, the function of religion is to maintain the status quo of inequality between the powerless class and the ruling class. Thus conflict theory argues that religion preserves class inequality. It views religion as a force that persuades less powerful members of society to accept their lot, while allowing more powerful groups to stay in power. Religious beliefs, norms, and practices serve to prevent the rebellion of oppressed members of society.Conflict theorists also look at how religion can function to promote social change. One example is liberation theology, a Christian theology developed by Roman Catholics in Latin America in the mid-20th century. Liberation theology emphasizes a religious duty to free people from political, social, and economic oppression. It encourages religious leaders to organize programs to help the poor and call for the government to enact policies to reduce poverty.
Liberation Theology in Latin America
Religion and Symbolic Interactionism
Functionalism and conflict theory look at how religion impacts society as a whole. The approach of symbolic interactionism, on the other hand, is to look at how religion impacts people's daily lives. Symbolic interactionism is a view of social behavior that emphasizes subjective understanding and interaction of the individual and society. Symbolic interactionists argue that individuals create their roles and self-concepts through interpreting gestures, words, and symbols in social interactions. Society is created and changed through the constant interpretations of these symbols.
The social interactionist approach to religion focuses on the ways people incorporate religious symbols and meanings into their everyday lives. It looks at the ways people interpret these symbols in religious interactions. According to the symbolic interactionist perspective, religious objects, gestures, and beliefs only become sacred because members of a religion decide and agree they are sacred.
For example, a six-pointed star does not carry meaning in and of itself, but this symbol does have a meaning (or set of meanings) in relation to Judaism. Often called a Star of David, it is sometimes used to symbolize the Jewish religion. It appears on the flag of Israel as a symbol of Jewish identity. The Star of David holds and communicates meanings that are socially constructed and understood. In the same way, a gesture such as pressing one's hands together while bowing one's head holds no meaning independently. But for people of many religions around the world, that gesture holds significant religious meaning. It is a symbol of religious prayer. Symbols that are deeply significant in one religion may not hold any significance in others. To many people, a cow is merely a farm animal with no religious meaning or significance. For many Hindus, however, cows are sacred.
A religious ritual is a series of actions performed in a prescribed order. These actions carry a great deal of significance because people interpret the series of actions to have symbolic meaning. Religious rituals can draw out a deeply emotional reaction, giving the group of people participating in the ritual a sense of oneness.