Defining Religion Sociologist define religion in three main ways: substantive, functional and social constructionist.
Focuses on the content (substantive, think ‘substance’) or religious belief in God or the supernatural.
Substantive definitions are exclusive– drawing a clear line between religious and non-religious beliefs. To be a religion, a set of beliefs must believe in God or the supernatural.
Example: Max Weber (1905)
Defines religion as belief in a superior or supernatural power that is above nature and cannot be explained scientifically.
Defines religion in terms of the social or psychological functions it performs for individuals or society.
Example 1: Emile Durkheim (1915)
Defines religion in terms of contributions it makes to social integration, rather than to any specific belief in God or the supernatural.
Example 2: Milton Yinger (1970)
Identifies function of religion performs for individuals such as answering the ‘ultimate question’ about meaning of life, and what happens after we die.
Social Constructionist Definitions
Interpretivist approach focuses on how the members of a society define religion.
say it is NOT possible to produce a single universal definition of religion since so many different religions exist & there is no consensus on the term ‘religion’ amongst any of them.
They are interested in how definitions are constructed, challenged & fought over.
Alan Aldridge (2007) argues Scientology is a legitimate religion despite many governments saying it is illegal & have tried to ban it.
Shows that definitions of religion can be contested & are influenced by those with power to define it.
Social Constructionist Definitions continued Do not assume religion always involves belief in God/supernatural. Doe not assume that religion performs similar functions for everyone in all societies. Positive: allows them to get close to the meanings people give to religion. Negative: makes it impossible to generalise about the nature of religion, since there are very broad definitions amongst people across the planet about what can be counted as a religion.
Check your learning In pairs, 10 minutes. Make a list of similarities and differences between attending a football match and a religious service. Is it fair to compare attending a football match to a religious experience? Why/why not?
Durkheim and religion Functionalist, 1858-1917. Developed the idea that religious institutions play a central role in creating and maintaining value consensus, order and solidarity in society. He is known for three contributions to the theory of religion: The Sacred and the Profane Totemism The Collective Conscience
The Sacred and the Profane Sacred are things which are things which are set apart & forbidden, inspire feelings of awe, fear & wonder. Surrounded by taboos & prohibitions. Profane have no special significance– it is the ordinary & mundane. This plays hand in hand with the rituals & practices that support & reinforce the religious belief in the sacred, collectively done rituals performed by a group.
Totemism Durkheim studied clan society. Particularly the Arunta, an Australian Aboriginal Tribe with a clan system. Consisted of bands of kin who came together to periodically perform rituals involving worship of a sacred totem. The totem is the clans emblem, typically a plant or animal and symbolises the clan’s origins and identity. The rituals serve to reinforce the groups solidarity and sense of belonging.
Totemism analysis Worshipping a totem is the same as worshipping their society, even if they are not aware of it. Totem inspires feelings of awe in the clan’s members since it represents the power of the group on which they are totally ‘utterly dependent’.
The Collective conscience Sacred symbols represent society’s collective conscience. Collective Conscience is the shared norms and values, beliefs and knowledge that make social life and cooperation between individuals possible. Without this, society would disintegrate according to Durkheim. Durkheim says regular shared religious rituals reinforce the collective conscience and maintain social integration. Shared rituals remind them that they are part of a single moral community to which they owe their loyalty. Benefits the individuals by making them realise there is something greater than themselves.
Malinowski and Psychological Function Agrees with Durkheim that religion promotes social solidarity. Malinowski says it happens because religion performs a psychological function for individuals, helping them to cope with stress which would otherwise undermine their solidarity with wider society. Identifies 2 situations where religion fills this role: Where the outcome is important but is uncontrollable and thus uncertain. Fishing example, pg. 11 At times of life crisis. Birth, death, marriage etc…
Check Your Understanding In what ways might the birth of a new baby disrupt social relationships? Discuss.
Parsons: Values and Meaning Sees religion much as Malinowski does, with religion helping people to cope with unforeseen events. Identifies 2 other essential functions: Creates and legitimates society’s central values. Is the primary source of meaning. Religion creates and legitimates society’s basic norms and values by sacralising them. Religion answers ‘ultimate’ questions about the human condition– why do good people suffer or die at an early age? Religion answers that suffering is a test of faith etc…
Robert Bellah: Civil Religion Active sociologist in1970s. Interested in howreligion unites society. Particularly interested in the US due to its multi-faith culture, or ‘melting pot’ approach to society. American society is an overarching civil religion given that it is based on a belief system that attaches sacred qualities to society itself. Example: Faith in the ‘American way of life’ Argues civil religion is better at integrating society than individual religions. Civil religion is expressed by pledges like pledge allegiance to the flag, singing the national anthem, and even on the money– ‘one nation, under God’. These ritualistic ideas create a false consciousness.
Bellah and Civil religion Continued false consciousnessis a distorted view of reality that prevents the poor from acting to change their circumstances. Might be seen as anti-patriotic Might be seen as a malcontent or ‘bad American’
Lenin (1870-1924) Religion seen as a Spiritual Gin Spiritual Gin: an intoxicant dolled out to the masses by the ruling class to confuse and control them by keeping them in their places, as lower and poorer. Lenin argues the ruling class uses religion to manipulate the masses which keeps them from attempting to overthrow their oppressors (ruling class) by creating a ‘mystical fog’ that distorts their reality.
Lenin’s Mystical Fog: A Look into History Religion legitimates the power and privilege of ruling class, and appear to be divinely ordained. 16th century ‘Divine Right of Kings’ makes royalty God’s direct representative on earth. King is thus owed total obedience; disobedience is not only illegal, but a sin against God himself.
Marx: Religion and Alienation Active in 1844. Religion as the product of alienation. Alienation involved becoming separated form or losing control over something you have produced or created. Alienation exists in all class societies, but it is more acute in those which are capitalist. Workers are alienated since they do not own what they produce, have no say over the method of production and thus no ability to express themselves or creativity.
Marx: Dehumanisation and Exploit These are dehumanising and exploitive conditions, so the exploited turn to religion for consolation. This is where the phrase ‘Opiate of the Masses’ originated. Religion is the opium of the people; in other words, it dulls the pain of exploitation. Religion thus masks or dulls the pain, but does not treat the cause, thus religion masks the underlying problem of exploitation that creates the need for it. Because religion is a distorted view of the world it cannot offer any real, tangible solution to earthly misery.
Evaluating Marx Religion as a tool for oppression, which masks exploitation and creates false conciseness. He ignores any positive function of religion– like psychological adjustment to misfortune. Some Neo-Marxists see certain types of religion as helping and not hindering class consciousness. Religion does not necessarily function well as an ideology to control a population.