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Theoretical Approaches to Religion

Influence of Durkheim, Weber, and Marx

Émile Durkheim, Max Weber, and Karl Marx investigated how religion maintains social order, encourages conformity, and contributes to the broader social structure.
The sociological approach to religion is shaped in large part by three sociological thinkers often referred to as the principal founders of modern sociology: Émile Durkheim, Max Weber, and Karl Marx. Each of these theorists considered the role and functions of religion in a society.

Durkheim's Views on Religion

French sociologist Émile Durkheim (1858–1917) was one of the first theorists to study religion as a social institution. In his 1912 book, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Durkheim defined religion as a "unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, i.e., things set apart and forbidden—beliefs and practices which unite in one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them." Durkheim considered how religion creates an understanding of the sacred and the profane. Durkheim's definition of the sacred refers to objects, symbols, and ideas that are awe-inspiring, unexplainable, and spiritually significant. His definition of the profane refers to the practical objects and ideas of everyday life. Durkheim was not interested in proving or disproving religious beliefs. Rather, he was interested in the function religion serves in a group or society.
Durkheim proposed that the dichotomy of the sacred and the profane (the nonsacred) characterizes religion. He argued that classifying something as sacred is a social act.
Durkheim's work has a had great deal of influence on the sociological approach to religion. One form of religion that interested Durkheim is totemism, a broad category of religions that includes many practiced by various African peoples, Australian Aborigines, and Native Americans. Totemism is the belief in a kinship or mystical relationship between humans and a totem—a natural object, animal, or plant believed to have a particular symbolic significance. Durkheim believed totemism was religion in its most elemental form. In his view, studying totemism could answer questions about religion's impact on social life, social structure, and social change.

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

German sociologist and political economist Max Weber (1864–1920) studied religion as a worldwide concept. He particularly focused on religion as it relates to economics and politics. In his 1905 book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber argued that the Protestant ethic was a major contributing factor to both the rise of capitalism and the Industrial Revolution. The Protestant ethic is Weber's term for a belief in the moral value of hard work and traits such as orderliness, efficiency, and frugality. Also called the Protestant work ethic or Puritan work ethic, this term refers to beliefs and practices espoused by some Protestant churches—Christian churches that broke from Catholicism during the Reformation in the 16th century. The Protestant ethic stems from a religious view that material success is related to personal faith and virtue. Weber considered how the notion of predestination—the belief that God has already chosen who will receive eternal salvation and who will not—influenced some Protestant groups. Individuals chosen for salvation were called the Elect. A related belief was that material, worldly success was a sign of being chosen as one of the Elect. According to Weber's theory, this belief drove Protestants to work harder in order to demonstrate that God favored them and that they had been chosen for salvation. He argued that internalizing these beliefs about the religious and spiritual value of hard work and material success was compatible with a capitalist spirit.

Marx's Views on Religion

German economist and theorist Karl Marx (1818–83) argued that religion maintains inequality. He saw it as an institution that reinforces and perpetuates social stratification, the hierarchical arrangement of groups based on wealth or social status. He argued that religion helps those in power stay in power by convincing the lower classes that their poverty is the will of a higher power. Marx famously described religion as "the opiate of the people." He meant that people turn to religion to find solace in difficult or uncertain times. Many religions promise happiness in an afterlife, helping people to bear suffering and injustice in their lives. Religion can encourage socially and economically oppressed groups to accept their suffering rather than to see it as a consequence of oppression by the economic ruling class. In this way religion serves to keep oppressed people under control, providing enough comfort to oppressed classes that they continue provide labor for the privileged class.

Religion and Functionalism

Functionalism suggests that religion has a function in society to shape everyday behavior and to give meaning to people's lives.

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

Conflict theorists look at the ways in which religion can promote inequality, conflict, and change.

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

Catholic members of the clergy who embraced liberation theology influenced social change in Latin America by challenging social, political, and economic institutions, specifically Latin American military dictatorships and capitalism.

Religion and Symbolic Interactionism

Symbolic interactionists analyze how religious meaning is incorporated into the everyday life of individuals and groups.

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.