Society and Religion

What is the role of religion in society? Is it a driving force for good, or does it have oppressive roots?

Society and Religion Society and Religion

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Table of contents
    • We will start with the sociology of religion.
    • Then we will look at the role of religion in society.
    • We will move on to discuss the relationship between religion and different social groups (class, age, ethnicity, and gender).
    • Finally, we will mention the link between religion and oppression in modern society, analysing the views of Marxists and Feminists.

    This is a summary article; you can find more detailed explanations on each of the subtopics below in separate StudySmarter articles!

    Influence of religion on culture and society

    Religion has been part of human societies since ancient times. Religious beliefs and practices show how people react to their environments.

    Society and Religion, Egyptian Tomb with Hieroglyphs, StudySmarterFig. 1 - We know from archaeological evidence that religion has been an important part of society in ancient times, in Ancient Egypt for example.

    As a core part of human societies, religion has been an important topic in sociology for a long time. Sociologists have researched religions both as belief systems, and as social organisations and institutions. They have tried to find objective answers to questions regarding religion and human society.

    • What is the role of religion in society?
    • How do religions organise themselves?
    • What are the different patterns regarding religion and different social classes, ethnicities, genders, and ages?
    • How does religion influence politics or education?
    • Does religion promote social change or social stability?

    While all theorists attempt to provide objective answers, explanations differ between different perspectives.

    Role of science and religion in society

    The role of religion in society has varied across time, place, and culture. Different sociological perspectives have argued for different roles that religion fulfils in society.

    • Functionalists like Émile Durkheim, Bronisław Malinowski and Talcott Parsons argue that religion plays a role in establishing a value system for society, thus establishing social order. They also believe religion gives meaning and purpose to human life and helps people deal with emotional distress.
    • Marxists and Feminists are critical of religion, as they view it as benefitting the ruling classes (the bourgeoisie and men, respectively), by deceiving the working-class and women into thinking that the social order they exist in is God's will.
    • Neo-Marxists recognise religion's role in promoting social change.
    • Postmodernists argue that people use religion to support them in dying rather than in living, as the functionalists believe.

    Relationship between religion and society

    Religion has a different influence on different social classes, on people from different generations, and on different genders and ethnicities.

    Religion and class

    Voas and Watt found that middle-class people attend church in higher numbers in the UK than lower-class people (2014). At the same time, Ashworth and Farthing (2007) claimed that working-class people are more likely to believe in God.

    Max Weber believed that there was a connection between religiosity and poverty (1920). He said that certain sects and religious movements appeal to people of the lower classes, as they offer support and comfort for the financial troubles and social deprivation that people from these classes often suffer from.

    Following Weber, Ken Pryce argued that the core values of Pentecostalism e.g. the importance of community, family, and hard work, are all useful in coping with poverty and emotional deprivation, which the working classes and ethnic minorities often suffer from.

    The middle class often uses religion to find comfort for psychological and social deprivation. They also look at religious activities as opportunities for social networking.

    Religion and age

    People generally turn to religion as they get older. However, minority religions have a younger base than Christianity in the UK. New Religious Movements and New Age Movements are often popular among the young as well.

    Voas and Crockett established two main reasons for these age trends (2005).

    The ageing effect

    The ageing effect highlights the fact that people seem to turn to religion and spirituality as they get older. As people approach death, they think more about the afterlife, and search more for answers to the ultimate questions of life. Religions offer various explanations and answers, and the positive idea of 'Heaven'; together, these may be comforting for people as they get older and closer to the end of their lives.

    The generational effect

    The generational effect refers to the idea that each new generation is less religious than the previous one, as a result of secularisation. The older population, who attend church and are overall more religious, grew up in a society where religion was much more a part of everyday life, socialisation, and education than it is in the lives of young people today.

    Sociologists argue that New Religious Movements and New Age Movements have an extensive following among younger people because they tend to look for means of spirituality that can serve as alternatives to the traditional religions and their outdated dogmas.

    Religion and ethnicity

    Tariq Modood et al. (1997) found that the rates of religious participation are higher than average among ethnic minority communities in the UK. While less than one-third of Christians said they practised religion regularly, 80 per cent of Muslims and around two-thirds of Hindus, Sikhs, and Jews said religion is an important part of their everyday lives.

    Sociologists argue that there are four main reasons for the higher level of religious involvement among minority ethnic groups.

    Cultural defence theory

    Steve Bruce claimed that religion can be a source of emotional support for those who live in an uncertain, often hostile, new cultural environment (2002). Religious communities provide space for the preservation of the minority culture and language in an oppressive, sometimes racist atmosphere (1999).

    Cultural transition theory

    Most ethnic minority migrants in Britain came from rather traditional, religious societies; and religion has helped these migrants cope with the practical and emotional difficulties of adjusting to a new culture. Religious institutions provide a sense of community and a common cause for all their followers.

    According to cultural transition theory, once a community has settled into a new environment, their religiosity gradually decreases.


    Max Weber drew a connection between religiosity, ethnicity, and poverty (1920). He claimed that ethnic minorities usually experience higher levels of social and economic deprivation, and living in poverty eventually turns them towards religion. This is because religious faith can provide guidance and support in difficult circumstances.


    Neo-Marxists, led by Otto Maduro, claim that religious institutions can generate revolutionary change for the oppressed in society thanks to their economic independence. Ethnic minorities are often exploited in society; neo-Marxists have observed that their resistance is often based in religious institutions.

    Religion and gender roles in society

    Miller and Hoffmann found that women were more interested in religion than men, had stronger religious commitment, and attended church services in higher numbers than men (1995). A few explanations have been offered for this.

    Traditional social role theory

    One explanation for women's more active engagement with religion is rooted in traditional social role theory. In traditional society, women assumed a more passive, caring, and nurturing role, through childcare, home-making, and taking care of the elderly and sick. These all fit well with the teachings of conventional religions, e.g. Christianity.

    Women often didn't work outside the home, so they had more time to participate in religious practices.

    According to sociologists, as long as women accepted the traditional gender role of being mothers and home-makers, they found comfort, guidance, and a supportive community through traditional religions like Christianity, Islam, or Judaism.

    Society and Religion, Vintage illustration of women and girls in kitchen, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Traditionally, women had a more passive, nurturing role in society, taking care of the home and the children, which fit well with conventional religions such as Christianity.

    A New Age of Spirituality

    Linda Woodhead (2007) and Steve Bruce (2012) note that since the 1960s, more and more women have been leaving traditional religions and joining New Religious Movements and New Age Movements. They argue that these new organisations provide more freeing practices and means of spirituality than the conservative, often patriarchal doctrines of traditional religions that feminists condemn.

    Religion and oppression in modern society

    Let's look at how a few approaches view the role of religion in maintaining and combating oppression in society.

    Society and Religion: Marxism

    Karl Marx argued that religion is the primary source of oppression and deceit in society (1843). It deceives the working-class into believing that the social setup, built on their exploitation, is God's will; this benefits the bourgeoisie.

    According to Marx, the claim that there is an all-powerful God who created and controls the universe prevents the working class from rising up against their oppression. The Bible even preaches that being poor is a direct path to 'Heaven', where all work and suffering will be rewarded. Marx believed that the proletariat must wake up from religion-induced 'false consciousness' and take their liberation into their own hands.

    Society and Religion: Feminism

    Radical feminists of the second half of the 20th century argue that traditional religions evolved in patriarchal societies, where men used religious texts and dogmas to justify women's oppression.

    Simone de Beauvoir saw religion as a tool of deception rather than a tool of direct control, while Mary Daly believed that women live in a ‘planetary sexual caste system’ which is built on the exploitation of women (1968). Nawal El Saadawi offers a new perspective on religion and gender - according to her, Islam is not an inherently patriarchal religion. Men have simply shaped and twisted the Islamic doctrine over the years to justify their superior status in society and to control women.

    Society and Religion - Key takeaways

    • Sociology has researched religions both as belief systems and as social organisations and institutions.
    • While all sociologists attempt to give objective answers, explanations differ between different sociological perspectives.
    • Religion has a different influence on different social classes, on people from different generations, and of different genders and ethnicities.
    • Sociological perspectives such as Marxism and feminism argue that religion is one of the primary sources of oppression in society.
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Society and Religion

    How are religion and society related?

    Religion has been part of human societies since ancient times. The existence of different religious beliefs and practices show how people react to their environments. 

    The role of religion in society is varied across time, place, and culture. Different sociological perspectives have argued for different roles religion has fulfilled in society. 

    How does religion affect culture and society?

    Religious beliefs and practices show how people reacted to their environments. These beliefs and practices are integrated into a society's culture over time, and are closely linked with other parts of that society's culture, such as art, music, literature, and language. 

    What are society and religion?

    As religions have always developed in societies, the two are closely connected. Sociology has researched religions both as belief systems, and as social organisations and institutions, to find the relationship between society and religion.

    What is the difference between religion and society?

    Globalisation has contributed to the spread of religions, so people of a certain society can have different religions. At the same time, different societies all over the world can practise the same religious rituals and believe in the same faith. Religion is not necessarily a signifier of a certain society anymore, or vice versa. 

    What are the characteristics of the Sumerian religion and society?

    The social structure and beliefs of the Sumerian society of ancient Mesopotamia were highly based on their religion. This was a polytheistic religion; they believed in multiple gods. The Sumerian society is famous for being the first literate society that we know of.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Talcott Parsons argues that religions split the world into two groups: profane and sacred. True or false?

    According to Malinowski, a funeral is a way to reintegrate society, as it is an expression of social solidarity. True or false?

    Which of these religions is not an example of an ethnic religion in the UK?

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