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Topic 1: Theories of
Religion
What is religion?
Substantive definitions:these focus on the content or
substance ofreligious belief,such as beliefin God or
the supernatural.Weber (1905) defines religion as
beliefin superior or supernatural power thatis above
nature and cannotbe explained scientifically.
They are exclusive.
Conform to a widespread view of religion as a belief
in God.
They are accused ofWestern bias because they
exclude religions such as Buddhism,which do not
have the Western idea of God.
Functional definitions:define religion in terms of
specific kinds ofbelief,functional definitions define it
in terms ofsocial or psychological functions it
performs for individuals or society.Durkheim (1915)
defines religion in terms ofthe contribution it makes
to social integration,rather than any specific beliefin
God or the supernatural.
Yinger (1970) identifies functions thatreligion
performs for individuals such as answering ‘ultimate
questions’ aboutthe meaning oflife and what
happens when we die.
They are inclusive.
They do not specifybeliefin God or the supernatural.
However, justbecause an institution helps integrate
individuals into groups,this does notmake ita
religion.
Social constructionistdefinitions:take an interpretivist
approach that focuses on how members ofsociety
themselves define religion.They argue that it is not
possible to produce a single universe definition of
religion to cover all cases,since in reality different
individuals and groups mean very different things by
‘religion’.
They are interested in how definitions ofreligion are
constructed,challenged and foughtover. Aldridge
(2007) shows how,for its followers,Scientologyis a
religion,whereas several governments have denied it
legal status as a religion and soughtto ban it. This
shows thatdefinitions ofreligion can be contested
and are influenced by who has power to define the
situation.They do not assume that religion always
involves a beliefin God or the supernatural,or that it
performs similar functions for everyone in all
societies.Their approach allows them to get close to
the meanings people themselves give to religion.
Impossible to generalise aboutthe nature of religion.
Functionalist theories of religion
For functionalists,societyis a system of interrelated
parts or social institutions,such as religion,the family
and the economy. Society is like an organism,with
basic needs thatit mustmeetin order to survive.
These needs are metby the different institutions.
Each institution performs certain functions and each
contributes to maintaining the social system by
meeting a need.
Society’s mostbasic need is the need for social order
and solidarityso that its members can cooperate.For
functionalists,whatmakes order possible is the
existence of value consensus- a setof norms and
values by which society’s members live.Without this,
individuals would pursue their own selfish desires and
society would disintegrate.See Functionalism
revision tool.
Marxist theories of religion
Marxists see all societies as divided into two classes,
one of which exploits the labour of the other. In
modern capitalistsociety,the capitalistclass who own
the means ofproduction exploitthe working class.
In such a society, there is always the potential for
class conflict,and Marx predicted that that the
working class would ultimatelybecome conscious of
their exploitation and unite to overthrow capitalism.
This would bring into being a classless societyin
which there would no longer be exploitation.
See Marxism revision tool.
Feminist theories of religion
Feminists see societyas patriarchal- that is,based on
male domination.Many feminists regard religion as a
patriarchal institution thatreflects and perpetuates
this inequality.Religious beliefs function as
patriarchal ideologythat legitimates female
subordination. See Feminism revision tool.

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Theories of religion

  • 1. Topic 1: Theories of Religion What is religion? Substantive definitions:these focus on the content or substance ofreligious belief,such as beliefin God or the supernatural.Weber (1905) defines religion as beliefin superior or supernatural power thatis above nature and cannotbe explained scientifically. They are exclusive. Conform to a widespread view of religion as a belief in God. They are accused ofWestern bias because they exclude religions such as Buddhism,which do not have the Western idea of God. Functional definitions:define religion in terms of specific kinds ofbelief,functional definitions define it in terms ofsocial or psychological functions it performs for individuals or society.Durkheim (1915) defines religion in terms ofthe contribution it makes to social integration,rather than any specific beliefin God or the supernatural. Yinger (1970) identifies functions thatreligion performs for individuals such as answering ‘ultimate questions’ aboutthe meaning oflife and what happens when we die. They are inclusive. They do not specifybeliefin God or the supernatural. However, justbecause an institution helps integrate individuals into groups,this does notmake ita religion. Social constructionistdefinitions:take an interpretivist approach that focuses on how members ofsociety themselves define religion.They argue that it is not possible to produce a single universe definition of religion to cover all cases,since in reality different individuals and groups mean very different things by ‘religion’. They are interested in how definitions ofreligion are constructed,challenged and foughtover. Aldridge (2007) shows how,for its followers,Scientologyis a religion,whereas several governments have denied it legal status as a religion and soughtto ban it. This shows thatdefinitions ofreligion can be contested and are influenced by who has power to define the situation.They do not assume that religion always involves a beliefin God or the supernatural,or that it performs similar functions for everyone in all societies.Their approach allows them to get close to the meanings people themselves give to religion. Impossible to generalise aboutthe nature of religion. Functionalist theories of religion For functionalists,societyis a system of interrelated parts or social institutions,such as religion,the family and the economy. Society is like an organism,with basic needs thatit mustmeetin order to survive. These needs are metby the different institutions. Each institution performs certain functions and each contributes to maintaining the social system by meeting a need. Society’s mostbasic need is the need for social order and solidarityso that its members can cooperate.For functionalists,whatmakes order possible is the existence of value consensus- a setof norms and values by which society’s members live.Without this, individuals would pursue their own selfish desires and society would disintegrate.See Functionalism revision tool. Marxist theories of religion Marxists see all societies as divided into two classes, one of which exploits the labour of the other. In modern capitalistsociety,the capitalistclass who own the means ofproduction exploitthe working class. In such a society, there is always the potential for class conflict,and Marx predicted that that the working class would ultimatelybecome conscious of their exploitation and unite to overthrow capitalism. This would bring into being a classless societyin which there would no longer be exploitation. See Marxism revision tool. Feminist theories of religion Feminists see societyas patriarchal- that is,based on male domination.Many feminists regard religion as a patriarchal institution thatreflects and perpetuates this inequality.Religious beliefs function as patriarchal ideologythat legitimates female subordination. See Feminism revision tool.