Discuss the Contribution Feminism Has Made to Our Understanding of the Sociology of Religion. Illustrate Your Arguments with Sociological Examples.

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Paula Gourley
Discuss the contribution feminism has made to our understanding of the sociology of religion. Illustrate your arguments with sociological examples.

The sociology of religion examines the significance of the role of religion within society. It is not concerned with philosophical or theological issues such as the existence of God. Rather the sociology of religion examines how beliefs and practices affect behaviour, how religion is understood and how it influences social life. It also looks at the characteristics common to all religions and the factors which influence the way it is organised. Feminism is one area within sociology which takes a critical view of religion. Feminists regard religion as a source of social opium to sedate and control women. They believe patriarchy rather than capitalism is the source of women's oppression and religion is a means of patriarchal control. 'Feminist theory has been concerned with enabling women and men to understand the subordination and exploitation of women' (Selfe and Starbuck, 1998:52). As de Beauvoir (1953) argued men have gained control over religious scripts and ideologies and this ideology permeates all of the social institutions. By the same token religion legitimates women's social roles as wives and mothers and god will reward women for their suffering in this life in the next one.(de Beauvoir, 1953: cited by Kirby et al 2000:444).

One social purpose of religion is to reinforce the socialisation process. At birth we are born into a religious community and religion becomes part of our identity. According to Tischler et al, 'religion performs a number of important social functions' (Tischler,1986: cited by Selfe & Starbuck, 1998:26). The Functionalist view of religion is that it brings people together and promotes social cohesion. It reaffirms the groups values, beliefs and norms. It helps transmit cultural heritage and offers emotional support in times of need.

Functionalists like Durkheim take a positive interpretation of religion and Durkheim argued that 'religion was the source of all harmonious social life' (Selfe and Starbuck 1998:27) despite his atheism. However in countries like Northern Ireland religious identities have resulted in disharmony. Durkheim sees religion as a social construction and famously said that religion is 'society worshipping itself'. (Aldridge, 2004:8) He argued the entity we see as God is actually the power of society. However this is difficult to prove in a scientific way. Durkheim distinguished between the sacred and the profane. He argued sacred things and places become invested over time with awe and holy significance. He suggested sacred ceremonies and rituals draw people together and give a sense of community, belonging and protection. In modern society events like George Best's funeral help to illustrate this. Durkheim argued that religion creates social order, people conform, it shapes their behaviour and legitimates the political system. Durkheim also suggested that religion provides meaning and purpose and this is why life-course transitions are marked by religious ceremonies. It reinforces your belief and your change in status has purpose. Durkheim argued that religion socialises individuals into the culture of society and that this is functional as it creates social order and stability within society by shaping our behaviour, therefore all stable societies must have a religion. He suggested the shared beliefs and norms of society becomes their 'collective consciousness'. However the divisive influence of religion finds little mention in Durkheim's work. Weber was critical of Durkheim's interpretation, instead suggesting that religion can promote division, conflict and change as well as solidarity. When individuals feel very close to their own religious beliefs it is easy to feel different from those who do not share your beliefs (Aldridge, 2004).

In contrast Karl Marx was influenced by Feuerbach who...
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