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Sociology of Religion: Translating the Purpose of Religion within Society Essay

In a world where religious plurality dominates there is a fountain of contrasting ideologies available to be considered. Sociologists have tried to interpret and translate the purpose of religion within society since the early 19th century. This Essay aims to critically evaluate the different theories of ideology, science and religion from a sociological viewpoint. It will include the work of Karl Marx (1818-1883) & Emile Durkheim (1858-1917), two contrasting Theories that were influenced by the work of the French philosopher Auguste Comte (1798–1857) and his theory of positivism.

It will also aim to address the perspectives, of neo Marxists and postmodernists. Marx (1818-1883) held a negative view of religion; he compared it to ideological framework that had become a method of social control used by the ruling class to exert their domination over the lower class. There is much evidence to support the Marxist theory as excerpts from the bible make suggestions of non-resistance, offering eternal bliss in the afterlife. However Max Weber (1864 –1914) proposed that That Calvinism could have actually been the driving force for today’s capitalism in his book ‘Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism’.

Marx often suggested that religious dogma helped to subdue the working class and justify the unequal distribution of money and power within a capitalist society. He described religion as, ‘the opiate of the masses’ (Giddens,2009) Marx work was influenced by the work of Auguste Comte (1798–1857) who was a main protagonist in social thinking in the 19th century. According to Giddens (2009) Comte had previously noted the inequalities that would arise during industrialisation and agreed with Marx in that religion would eventually begin to decline with the advancements of science and rational thought.

In contrast of Marx’s idea to over throw the system in favour of a non-exploitive communist society, Comte vision was for sociology to become a ‘positive science’. He believed that the world would have to pass through the theological, metaphysical and positive stages in order to abandon religion in favour of science. The theological stage was said to be blind faith in god’s will, the metaphysic stage would be the abandonment of supernatural thinking and the positive stage would be the acceptance of science over religion to answer the questions of the universe.

In the philosophical system of positivism, positive scientific principles and empirical evidence would be used to find the answers. (Livesey, 2011) It has been argued that since religion has not been abandoned completely in the light of scientific reasoning, it must play an important role in social life and is not just be used as a form of knowledge regarding the social world (Fulcher & Scott 2009). Functionalist Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) also foresaw a possible decline in religion and focus on science but not to the same extent as Comte.

He argued that religion was a necessary integrating force that helped in creating a collective consciousness in society where people shared common values and beliefs. Unlike Marx theory of conflict, Durkheim concluded from his work on Totenism that religion was an important part of developing social cohesion amongst the members of society. Although his ideas seem plausible there is growing evidence to suggest that religion has been used as a force against social order, which can be seen when observing recent Christian and Islamic fundamentalist groups, which are often working against the interests of society (Fulcher & Scott).

Like Weber, Neo Marxist Otto Maduro, (1945) disagreed with Durkheim and Marx stating that religion was not a conservative force and that religion and ideology can be free from one another. He used an example of the Catholic Church in Latin America which denies notable oppression and exploitation between the higher and lower classes and even suggests that the priests will go against the capitalists in the defence of the oppressed. The lower classes would use the church to work for them.

Leading to the development of liberation theology (Harlembos & Holborn) According to postmodernists, Comte, Marx and Durkheim failed to recognise that science would not be able to explain everything. Arguably the failing of science, with regards to incurable diseases, has led to a disbelief of scientific explanations and a return to religion. Zygmunt Baumen (1992) Suggested that in a postmodern society there would be an end of ideology, gaining freedom of choice in which faith they would like to follow.

Jean Francois Lyotard (1984) agreed with Bauman and even suggested that in today’s society people could mix and match their religious faiths, accepting and declining to suit their lifestyle or preference. He felt that unlike Comte’s ‘scientific positivism’ ideas of absolute truth, conventional science was limited, partial with no stand point being fixed and all thought to have relevance.

According to Jean Baudrillard (1929–2007) Cultural products and images are being consumed and used to define reality in people’s lives with the abandonment of cientific knowledge (Fulcher & Scott) Marxist thinker Alex Callinicos (1989) disagrees with thinkers such as leotard and Baudrillard, arguing postmodernism is bred from political frustration and lacks an acceptance of economic globalisation. (Harlembos 2008) Marxist feminists also see religion an oppressive force, suggesting that religion was used as a tool to reinforce patriarchy and keep women’s position lower than that of a man. (Self & Starbuck) The Christian faith negatively portrays woman as evil, whores and anti-Christ.

They should not be seen equal to men; the following citation from the Old Testament is strikingly similar to the treatment of some women in Islamic Saudi woman today. Deuteronomy 22:13-21 (English standard version Anglicised) ‘He may not divorce her all his days. 20 But if the thing is true, that evidence of virginity was not found in the young woman, 21 then they shall bring out the young woman to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her to death with stones, because she has done an outrageous thing in Israel by whoring in her father’s house.

So you shall purge the evil from your midst. This essay has critically evaluated the contrasting ideas from thinkers such as Mark, Comte, and Durkheim with regards to science ideology and religion. It has put forward the ideas of neo-Marxist Otto Maduro, postmodernist perspectives from Jean Braudillard and Jean Francois Leotard, giving a critique from Marxist Alex Callinicos. Finally if not ironically it briefly outlines the feminist view of women’s position in society.


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