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Weber and Durkheims theories about the source/origins and social bearing of religion

By Haya-Malik Apr 19, 2014 2111 Words
Both Durkheim and Weber have theories about the origins/source and the social bearing of religion that differ from one another respectively. Durkheim focuses more on the effects of religion as a group activity while Weber focused on the individual and their relationship with their God. Durkheim played more emphasis on the moral role while Weber focused on the economic effects. Through the course of this essay we will be comparing and contrasting each of their theories concluding with why I feel Weber to have the more persuasive account. Durkheim in his study highlights the social role religion plays in society. Durkheim being a functionalist sees religion as having distinct social roles. The first is that it provides social cohesion to help maintain social solidarity through shared rituals and beliefs. Secondly, it provides social control to enforce religious based morals and norms to help maintain conformity and control in society. And last but not least it offers meaning and purpose to answer any existential question. Durkheim wanted to ‘find a means of discerning the ever present causes upon which the most essential forms of religious thought and practice depend’ (Thompson, page 107). He was interested in the problem of what held complex modern societies together. Religion, for him was an expression of social cohesion. He saw ‘the first systems of representations with which men had pictured themselves of the world and they were of religious origin’ (Thompson, page 107). Further, for Durkheim ‘religion is something eminently social. Religious representations are collective representations, which express collective realities. The rites are a manner of acting which take rise in the midst of the assembled groups and which are destined to excite maintain or recreate certain mental states in these groups’. (Thompson, page 108). Durkheim focused on the moral effects of religion on real life social behavior and for him religious rituals had a very conditioning effect on the individual, which made the individual feel apart of the group, they were in. Thus, religion was something that created the moral base of society and it was what held society together on a more fundamental level. Religious rites are a manner of acting which take rise in the midst of the assembled groups and which are destined to excite maintain certain states in these groups. ‘All known religious beliefs, whether simple or complex, present one common characteristic they pre suppose a classification of all the things, real and ideal, of which men think into two classes or opposed groups, generally designated by two distinct terms which are translated well enough by the words profane and sacred’ (Thompson, page 109). The division of the world in two domains of sacred and profane is the distinctive trait of all religious thought. The beliefs, myths dogmas and legends are either representations or they are systems of representations which express the nature of sacred things the virtues and powers which are attributed to them or their relations with each other and with profane things. Religion was the practices and beliefs pertaining to the ‘sacred’. ‘ Sacred things are those which the interdictions protect and isolate; profane those to which these interdictions are applied and which must remain at a distance from the first. Religious beliefs are the representations, which express the nature of sacred things, and the relations whom they sustain both with each other and with profane things’ (Thompson, page 110). He knew members of the community adopt a common religion and tend to think/act the same way where ‘unified system of beliefs and practices that related to sacred things’ (Thompson, page 110). Through sharing common beliefs and engaging in repetitive group ritual and activity the morals that are required for restraint through religion are maintained. It was the frenzy created by group ritual that internalized and socialized society’s moral being, the individual relinquishes his own self-interest for the greater social good. God was society and was the creation of society. ‘A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, things set apart and forbidden – beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a church all those who adhere to them’ (Thompson, page 113). He makes it clear that religion should be an eminently collective thing. God is not just an authority on which we depend. It’s a force where our strength relies. The one who believes God is with him approaches the world with confidence and with increased energy. In the same way ‘social action does not confine itself to demanding sacrifices, privations and efforts from us’ (Thompson, page 113). The fundamental categories of thought and science are of religious origin. Religion was a product of society that affected behavior and social action through mechanical and organic solidarity. Mechanical solidarity is a concept based on the sum of beliefs and sentiments that are common to members of the same society and they form a particular system with a life of its own which may be called the collective consciousness. Organic solidarity however consists of a return to a previous state and aims to restore to its normal condition. We see for Durkheim religion is something that brings society together and is the fundamental base of society for it’s functioning. It is what unites groups and brings them under one roof. It gives a meaning to life and a conduct by which to live their life. Society creates sacred things out of ordinary ones. Like social action, does not confine to demanding sacrifices privation and effort from us. He sees religion as realistic. There is no physical or moral ugliness, there are no vices or evils which do not have a special divinity’ (Thompson, page 118). Weber theories on religion differ from that of Durkheim. Weber focused on the individual and their relationship with God, the economic effects and he argued that it was the rewards of the after life that drove religious behavior. He stated the ‘religious determination of life conduct is one of the determinants of the economic ethic’ (Page 268) the religiously determined way of life is itself profoundly influenced by economic and political factors operating within given geographical, political, social and national boundaries. For him ‘ the type of religion once stamped has usually exerted a rather far reaching influence upon the life-conduct of very heterogeneous strata’ (page 270). For him ‘the annunciation and the promise of religion have naturally been addressed to the masses of those who were in need of salvation’ (Page 272) Weber states that we need to find meaning for problems. He draws a distinction between religions. He divides it into two categories; this worldly and the otherworldly. He says that religion has tapped the incredible will to power. It has tapped into something really profound in human beings. It tends to restrict a lot of your pleasure, so the question is where is it going to sublimate? All the energy that one would be expending into spending money on is not going anywhere so what is one to do? Religion is ultimately going to channel all that energy into pursuits. The key to him is multi-causality. And there are two things that drive; interest -material, interest and ideas. He says people are likely to have the belief system of mysticism, as it tends to embrace ideas of fate. The concrete things that one does everyday is what shapes ideas. He says what one does is going to condition what one believes. There are only specific groups of people like farmers and peasants that believe in magic, as it is what gives one control over the Gods. Religion In comparison to magic is much more formalized. With religion God is no longer from our world but in Magic God is with us, we may fool them or trick them. Religion is an organized structure of knowledge; it is more systematic than any other belief system. Religion is dense. Why is there evil in the world and what is the function of it? Religion tries to work out these questions systematically. Religion is the highest point of the drive of the ‘theodicy problem’ – the drive to make the world meaningful. ‘The theodicy of suffering can be rooted by resentment’ (Page 276). There is no religion that gives control over God. Further, he states ‘Religion provides the theodicy of good fortune for those who are fortunate. This theodicy is anchored in highly robust needs of a man and is therefore easily understood, even if sufficient attention is often not paid to its effects’ (Page 271). If one follows the steps correctly, then they will get what they want. He believes ‘eternal bliss is reserved for the pious’ (Page 276). Religion is of appeal to the urban strap. He goes on to talk of ‘umkipen’- which is the tipping point. The way all religions tackled the theodicy problem was by taking this world and putting it into boxes, find explanations for things and in the mean while make things more meaningful. In trying to make the world simpler, it tends to become more complicated. There comes a point where religion loses its credibility, where it starts organizing things, thus creating new problems by organizing things. The point where all problems are created is the tipping point. For weber, one can remain rational while embracing irrationality. Weber had no unilever idea of the way the world evolves. He further examined religious ideas in relation to economics and politics. Sometimes spheres are in conflict and other times they are not. He compares different spheres against religion. He states ‘religion has been shifted into the realm of the irrational’ (Page 281). He talks of religion and economics and how they conflict one another as in economics the other person is a means to get to another end and religion teaches one to care for the other. He says ‘material and ideal interests directly govern men’s conduct’ (Page 280). He then compares politics and religion and sees tension between these two, as politics is something that treats you without love or hate, it is impersonal. They both are competing for loyalty. Further, there is no tension between science and religion and conflict only exists if one believes that the holy Book is actually how history occurred. Science answers questions related to ‘how’ while religion answers questions pertaining to ‘why’. The greatest tension is with the intellectual sphere as logic is required. The only thing that aesthetic and religion compete for is the ability to fill one with wonder and divinity. He goes on to explain the erotic sphere as something that is in tension. It’s about the fusion of souls. The erotic sphere is the only sphere where there is so much intensity. (Love/intimate relationships). I feel Weber to have the more persuasive account as his ideas were based on the personal and the deliberate action of each individual in response to the religious beliefs of the society in which the individual seemed dependent on. Each individual acted for his own benefit to receive rewards in the hereafter and it was his/her moral duty to do so. He saw that individuals create societies and he focused his study on the effect of religion on the development of economic and social systems including the rise of capitalism, class structures and class conflicts. He was interested in the ‘rationalization’ of society and its focus on individuals and between their personal God rather than with society as a whole. He saw religious experience as something highly individual and argued that men drew subjective meaning to life through personal religious experiences. He saw the fear of punishment or rewards in the afterlife as the prime motivator of religious behavior. For weber, the moral duty lay in serving God than society. He saw the effect of religion on capitalism and did not see making money as selfish pursuit but a moral one as it meant being busy and productive, hard work was seen as a service to God. In comparison to Durkheim where I felt he ignored the real subjective meaning of religion as it exists for each individuals and in the real world and individuals don’t really see God as the spirit of society. Individuals tend to regard their religious belief as part of a personal quest. Durkheim focused on moral and social implication where weber saw it through the development of economic systems.

Durkheim, Émile, and Kenneth Thompson. Readings from Emile Durkheim. London: Routledge, 2004. Print Weber, Max."Religious Rationalization: Class and Interests." The Social Psychology of World Religions (n.d.): n. pag. Print.

Weber, Max. "Social Rationalization: The Conflict of Value Spheres." The Religious Rejections of the World and Their Directions (n.d.): n. pag. Print.

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