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The role and function of religion in society Essay

Many feminists would say that religion (like the family and the welfare state…) is another site of patriarchy. It is a place where women are oppressed by men, and it serves to reproduce this oppression and spread it throughout the wider society. The Catholic Church is a favourite target. It is against women’s rights such as contraception, abortion, and divorce. It is headed and run exclusively by men. God is seen in male terms; Jesus is a man; and although there is great respect for the Virgin Mary, she is hardly a useful role model for most women today. Islam has also been criticised on similar grounds. We will look at the practice of veiling, which many feminists see as oppressive. Watson’s qualitative research, on the other hand, tries to show that veiling can be liberating for women. Further arguments against the feminist view of religion being always patriarchal include the Church of England, now accepting women priests; and the growth of some new religious movements which value femininity, such as Wicca and “Earth Goddesses”.

The key concern of functionalist writing on religion is the contribution that religion makes to the well being of society, its contribution to social stability and, value-consensus. Durkheim argues that the function of religious ritual is to maintain social solidarity by affirming the moral superiority of society over its individual members. Durkheim believed that social life could only exist if values were shared and society integrated into a coherent whole. Religion is an important aspect of this process, not only providing a set of unifying practices and beliefs, but also by providing a way in which people can interpret and give meaning to the world. Durkheim’s distinction between the sacred and profane is, in effect, the distinction between people and society. For Durkheim the sacred are symbols for society, thus in worshipping God, humans are really worshipping society. The relationship between god and humans (power and dependence) outlined in most religions is a reflection of the relationship between humans and society. It is not God that makes us behave, and punishes our misdemeanours, but society.

Therefore religion reinforces the collective conscience; it strengthens values and beliefs and promotes social solidarity since the attitude of respect to the sacred is extended to the individual’s social duties. Collective worship is regarded as particularly important for the integration of society since it enables members to express their shared values and strengthens group unity. By worshipping together people have a sense of commitment and belonging and individuals are united into a group with shared values, thus social solidarity is reinforced, deviant behaviour is restrained and social change restricted. In maintaining social solidarity, religion acts as a conservative force.

When it fails to perform this function new ideas emerge, which become the new religion. So Durkheim regarded Nationalism and Communism as the new religions of industrial society, taking over from Christianity but performing the same essential functions. As a result Durkheim and other functionalists are not saying that religion does not change, clearly its form does. Parson’s argument concerning differentiation, but what does not change is the function, and that essentially is to offer support for the existing status quo. Politics and its associated rituals for example, flag waving; parades are the new forms by which collective sentiments are symbolically expressed. Consequently religion, in one form or another is a necessary and essential feature of society.

Criticisms of the functionalist views are that Elementary Forms was based on bad (and second hand) anthropology. It is argued that Durkheim misunderstood both totemism and the aboriginal tribes on which his study was based. It is claimed that Durkheim’s analysis is not applicable to societies that are typified by cultural diversity.

The idea that religion is the worship of society has been criticised. As an argument it is difficult to substantiate other than through some notion of false consciousness since people clearly believe they are worshipping God. Also, the idea depends on a particular conception of worship; collective, and a particular definition of religion (inclusive).

Marxists would argue that religion, far from being an instrument of social solidarity, is an instrument of social control and exploitation. However Durkhiem clearly recognised this he argued thatReligion instructed the humble to be content with their situation and at the same time it taught them that the social order is providential and that it is God himself who has determined each one’s share. Religion gave man a perception of a world beyond this earth where everything would be rectified. This prospect made inequalities seem less noticeable and it stopped men from feeling aggrieved. Clearly, the functionalist position is weak on the dysfunctional aspects of religion for example, societies with more than one faith, for example; Northern Ireland, Lebanon.

‘Religion is a kind of spiritual gin in which the slaves of capital drown their human shape and their claims to any decent life’.


Not all Marxists claim that religion is exclusively conservative, but for Karl Marx religion was essentially a tool of class exploitation and oppression. Religion disguises and legitimates the exploitative relationships of society by suggesting that the world is shaped by god’s will and is therefore unchangeable. While people are diverted from revolutionary action they are also promised rewards in the afterlife (if they are ‘good’ and do as instructed by the religion they will be rewarded), thereby easing the pain of exploitation.

Marxist theory starts from the belief that God is made by humans, originally used by earlier societies to explain the world (the plausibility structure), and gradually becoming an aspect in the legitimating of the status quo. Religion involves the distortion of ‘reality’ as it is ideological. It provides the basis of ruling class ideology and false consciousness. Marx then argued that in communist society, religion will disappear since the conditions which produce religion will have disappeared.

‘Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the sentiment of a heartless world… the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people’.

(Karl Marx)

In this quote he argues that Religion acts as an opiate in that it does not solve any problems that people may have but merely dulls the pain and therefore he argued that most religious movements originate in the oppressed classes.

Engels argues that Christianity was originally a movement of oppressed people. It first appeared as the religion of slaves and emancipated slaves, poor people deprived of all rights or peoples subjugated and dispersed by Rome. Religion dulls the pain of oppression by giving the promise of paradise in the next life. Some religions make a virtue of suffering produced by oppression.

It is believed that those who go through hunger, thirst, etc’ will be blessed. Also the hope of supernatural intervention, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Millenarian movements suggest that Anticipation of the future makes the present bearable, they believe they don’t have to change things because god will do it for them. Social relationships seem inevitable and god given. Religion therefore discourages people from attempting change, and as a consequence the dominant groups can retain their power. Religion is used by the ruling class to justify their position. Church and ruling class are mutually reinforcing;

However, evidence for the traditional Marxist position is partial and tends to be of a documentary nature; looking at the nature of faith and the way in which the religion of the poor concentrates on the afterlife. Also there are some traditional Marxists who adopt the view that religion can bring about social change, a position also adopted by some neo-Marxists.

Weber’s general approach to sociology is known as ‘verstehen’ sociology; that human action is directed by meaning and that action can only be understood by appreciating the world-view of the social actor concerned. Since religion is an important component of the social actors’ world-view, religious beliefs can direct social action, and hence bring about social change. In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber explores the relationship between religious ideas and social change, attempting to show how the ideas and beliefs of Protestantism were particularly conducive to capitalist development. In explaining why capitalism developed first in Northern Europe Weber argues that there was an affinity between religious belief (ascetic Protestantism) and the ethos of capitalism, most notably in the notion of accumulation.

While other societies, such as India, had the technology and monetary systems, their belief systems made the development of rational capitalism unlikely. Factors such as the emphasis on hard work, thrift, modesty and the avoidance of idleness and self-indulgence, the emphasis on investment and frugality were all aspects of God’s grace, a sign that the individual was one of the chosen. Another factor, more emphasised by Troeltsch was the rejection of the canonical veto on usury.

These characteristics were also important factors in the development of business. The Protestant Ethic matched the Spirit of Capitalism. As a result the religious beliefs of Protestantism coupled with the presence of the necessary economic conditions resulted in the development of the capitalist system. The importance of Weber’s work is its recognition of the importance of ideas and beliefs in the process of social change. He is not saying that religion always causes change, simply that it can be an important factor.

The main criticisms of Weber’s theory are that Weber misallocated capitalism (historically), misinterpreted Protestantism, misunderstood Catholicism and misplaced causality. The criticisms apply to the example that Weber uses protestant belief/capitalism. There are numerous other examples that can demonstrate the usefulness of his idea. It would seem clear that there can be no absolute answer to the question of the role of religion in preventing or furthering change in society. There is however clear evidence that it can be both, it depends on the circumstances. An important point concerning change however is that religion can promote two main types of change: radical – a new direction in society, or conservative- a return to the social arrangements of the past.

Neo-Marxists have also started to take a fresh look at the role of religion in society, and the traditional approach has been considerably modified right at the centre of traditional Marxism – the base – superstructure distinction. The Neo-Marxists have tried to re-theorize the traditional Marxist assumption that the superstructure of a society (including its religion) merely reflects that society’s economic base – that base determines structure. This reformulation takes the form of an argument in favour of relative autonomy.

Antonio Gramsci, is perhaps the most important theorist to have presented the relative autonomy argument. For him, beliefs were no less real or important than economic forces (like Weber). Gramsci argued that action must be guided by theoretical ideas. Gramsci noted the ideological control that the church exercised over Italians, this ideological central he termed ‘hegemony’. Although aware that at the time he was writing that the church was supporting ruling class interests he did not believe this to be inevitable. He argued that religious beliefs and practices could develop which would support and guide popular challenges to the dominant class.

Otto Maduro, also argues for the relative autonomy of religion. He claims that Religion is not necessarily a functional, reproductive or conservative factor in society: It often is one of the main (and sometimes the only) available channels to bring about a social revolution. Maduro argues that in a situation where there is no other outlet for grievances, such as Latin America, the clergy become a variety of Gramsci’s proletarian intellectuals and provide guidance for the oppressed in their struggle with dominant groups.

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