Theories of religion

Sociologist define religion as three things:

  • Substantive – they focus on the substance of religion e.g. a belief in God, there is a very clear line made between what is classed as a religion and what isn’t. They conform to the widespread (western) views of religion but leave no space for any practices outside of a belief in God. Weber defines religion as a belief in a superior or supernatural being that cannot be explained scientifically.
  • Functional – they believe that religion plays a specific social and psychological functions for society, Durkheim defines religion in terms of its contribution to social integration rather than a belief in God. Functional definitions of God are inclusive to all those who have a range of beliefs and practice functions needed for integration, there’s no western bias as no belief in god is mentioned. However just because it helps integration doesn’t mean it’s a religion.
  • Constructionist – this view focuses on how the members of society define religion themselves, it isn’t possible to create one universal outlook of religion. Aldridge uses scientology to show how members believe that it’s a religion however the government would class it more as a cult. They do not assume a belief in God or the supernatural, or that it performs a function for society. Their approach allows them to get close to the followers and the definitions they give, however this makes it impossible to generalise what counts as a religion.

Functionalist theories of religion

Durkheim’s view on religion-

  • The key to religion is the fundamental distinction between the sacred and profane, the sacred are the forbidden things that are taboo or inspire awe and the profane are things that have no special significance that are ordinary. Sacred things evoke powerful feelings due to how they represent something greater, the only greater thing is society so religious worship is worship to society.
  • Durkheim believe that to study something in great detail we must study its origin, so for society we would study a clan society e.g. Arunta. These tribe worship totem poles as it symbolises the clan’s origins, they create a feeling of solidarity. To Durkheim they’re really worshipping society.
  • Sacred symbols represent society’s collective conscience which maintains social integration and brings them all together. Also, to the individual society makes us feel part of something greater than us.
  • Worsley (1956) found that many tribes share totems (not sacred to individual clan), and even if Durkheim is right about Totems it doesn’t prove that he has found the essence of religion.
  • Mestrovic (2011) argues that the postmodern society doesn’t apply to Durkheim’s research, as increasing diversity has fragmented the collective conscience.

Psychological functions-

  • Malinowski (1954) argues that religion promotes social solidarity due to its psychological functions (helping them cope with emotional stress).
  • 2 situations in which religion promotes social solidarity: where the outcome is important but is uncontrollable and thus uncertain (lagoon fishing is safe but ocean fishing is dangerous so islanders perform rituals), and at times of life crises (birth, puberty, marriage, funeral rituals).

Parsons: values and meaning-

  • Parsons sees religion as a way to help people cope with unforeseen events and uncontrollable outcomes.
  • Religion also creates and legitimates society’s central values (Protestantism in the US sacralised the core American value of individualism) and is the primary source of meaning (it answers ultimate questions and gives meaning to lives).

Civil religion-

  • Bellah (2013) saw religion as a way to unify society, especially in such multifaith societies as the US. A civil religion (a belief system that attaches sacred qualities to society) unifies over all e.g. ‘the American way of life’.
  • Functional alternatives are non-religious beliefs that perform functions similar to those of organised religion, such as reinforcing shared values or maintaining social cohesion.


  • Neglects the negative aspects of religion such as religion being a source for oppression.
  • Ignores religion as a source for conflict and division, for example societies with more than one religion (Civil religions).

Marxist theories of religion

Religion as an ideology-

  • Marx believes that religion operates as an ideological weapon used to legitimate the suffering of the proletariat. Religion misleads the poor into thinking that their suffering is virtuous and will be rewarded in the afterlife.
  • Lenin describes religion as ‘spiritual gin’ in how it used an intoxicant to drown out oppression, creating a ‘mystical fog’ that obscures reality.
  • Religion also acts a way to legitimate the position of the ruling class, they’re roles are ‘divinely ordained’

Religion and alienation-

  • Religion acts as an opiate to dull the pain the lower classes feel over alienation which is the separation they have from the rewards of their hard work. It acts as no solution, aspects as an afterlife just provides a source of consolation.

Evaluation of Marxism-

  • Ignores the positive functions of religion such as psychological adjustment to misfortune. Neo-Marxists see certain forms of religion as assisting not hindering the development of class consciousness.
  • Althusser (1971) reject alienation as a scientific concept due to the idea that humans have an idea of their ‘true self’.

Feminist theories of religion

  • Evidence of the patriarchy: religious organisations (male dominated despite how women participate more), places of worship (segregate the sexes, women’s participation may also be restricted, taboos concerning periods, pregnancy and childbirth), sacred texts (all feature male figures such as gods of prophets), religious laws and customs (women are given fewer rights)
  • Armstrong argued that a lot of earlier religion placed women at the centre e.g. mother nature or the goddess of fertility, however the development of monotheistic religions saw the establishment of a single patriarchal figure of god.

Religious forms of feminism-

  • Woodhead (2009) admitted while there is a lot of oppression in many religions, it is not true of all.
  • Wearing the hijab is seen as modern-day oppression to westerners, however to Muslim women it is seen as a symbol of liberation that allows them to enter public spheres with being condemned as being immodest
  • Women also use religion to gain status and respect within the private sphere of their home, they use activities link to the church (e.g. Bible studies) to share their experiences.
  • Liberal Protestant organisations are often committed to gender equality within their religion and allow women to play leading roles