Sociological Approach to the Study of Religion

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Outline and assess one of the main approaches to the study of religions. Religion and ‘The Study of Religions’ has many approaches which try to investigate the core of what religion is and what it means to the people who practice it. Sociology is one such approach that this essay will be looking at through its founding fathers Emile Durkheim, Max Weber and Karl Marx. Sociology in general looks at people’s dynamics and explains a group’s influence. It demonstrates how religious belief and practices have become so important over time and emphasises their role and significance throughout. Each of these three sociologists has a link to these ideas which will be the main thesis in this essay. Emile Durkheim looks at religion from a functionalist perspective in the sense that he assumes that religion has a positive role in society, as it acts as an important socialisation process for all members. The theory is largely based on the Arunta tribe in Australia, where he discovered objects worshipped which he calls ‘totems.’ These totems according to him were an important factor in the society; seeing that the objects became a symbol of the group’s identity and unity. These objects he claims are “collective representation” (Fish, Jonathan S. 2005: 30) as they have reinforced the importance of integration into the community via the worshipped objects. The worshipped object have an emotional significance to them as the “totems serve as evocative device for reminding individuals of their initial feelings long after the assemblies” (Fish, Jonathan S. 2005:51) therefore evidently it becomes more about the idea and symbolism of the object rather than the object itself that unites all. Thus making the idea of rituals of greater significance as it generally binds people together which for Durkheim is always a positive thing. On the other hand, Durkheim does not offer a real explanation on why some deviate from such society’s e.g. Islamic fundamentalists such as the Taliban. Perhaps his theory generally works on a tribal base rather than bigger societies, where conflicts and divides are more common; in a smaller community less people are likely to go against the status quo. Moreover, to say that religion only plays a positive role is absurd. How can one explain the atrocities that occur on the name of religion for instance? For this reason I find Durkheim’s theory limiting as it does not look at all aspects of religion or religious life but merely draws a quick conclusion to it. Also according to this perspective religion instils the same norms and values for everyone, making it a regulatory function in society. Religion for Marx then becomes a form of social control which provides guidelines through religious texts e.g. 10 commandments. These norms which are shared gives people the opportunity to unite to what may be seen as morally incorrect or sinful. This can be vital in a society as it can allow social stability. Durkheim argument is plausible as there has been a significant rise in New Religious Movements. This evidently shows that people still require religion in their life. Moreover, the recent increase on religious fundamentalists can be a point that strengthens Durkheim argument as it can be evidence for people being threatened by a weakening society.

Karl Marx similar to Durkheim starts with the assumption that religion is in fact a product of society. Importantly, however, he disagrees with Durkheim as he does not see religion as beneficial for the whole of society but argues it benefits only the ruling class or what he calls the ‘bourgeoisie’. Religion, according to Marx only transmits bourgeoisie ideologies to convince the working class or ‘proletariats’ that inequality is natural and fair phenomena in the world. Making religion as a whole a “collective smoke-screen” (Connolly, P. 1999:100) as it distorts reality which gives explanation for inequality as being of religious significance i.e. sin. For Marx this is the core...
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