Religious Ideas of Marx and Durkheim

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What are the main ideas put forward by Durkheim and Marx about religion?

Sociological theories regarding religion were put forth by both Durkheim and Marx, however their theories had quite differing views. Marx believed that religion was essentially a detriment to society and eventually would not be needed (Kunin 2003 p.8), while Durkheim presents the idea that religion served a valid purpose as a means of promoting communal unity within society (Pickering 1984 p.267).

Durkheim established his own definition of religion, as follows: ‘[A] religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things which are set apart and forbidden – beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them’ (quoted in Davie 2007, p. 30). By this, Durkheim is saying that within a society, people will be bound together by religion as they follow the same spiritual beliefs through their lives. Ultimately, the religious faith of the individual is derived from those around them in the community. As the community is integrated together, the individuals are empowered by their shared beliefs. People within society recognise others who hold the same beliefs and practices as sacred and tend to form social connections with one another. According to Durkheim, the community itself is what generates the power of religion, as opposed to Marx’s view that religion is a tool used for controlling the masses.

One of Marx’s better known quotes is that “religion is the opium of the people” (quoted in Anderson & Taylor 2007 p.342) meaning that Marx regarded religion as a kind of social painkiller, numbing the masses into passivity and into the acceptance of the ideals of the ruling class. Marx saw religion as a method of dissuading change and preserving the existing social order among the working class.

For Marx, religion was the product of a class society – an ideological tool utilised...
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