Sociological Theories of Religion

We all think of the 'big questions' in life every once in a while. What is the meaning of life? Where do we go when we die? Is there such as thing as a soul?

Sociological Theories of Religion Sociological Theories of Religion

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    According to Weber, people turn to religion with these questions and search for answers in different religious belief systems. According to him, that is the reason why religion will always exist in society. Sociologists of other perspectives, however, disagree.

    • We will look at sociological theories of religion.
    • We will discuss beliefs in society and the nature of the sociological analysis of religion.
    • Then, we will move on to the sociological theories of religion.
    • We will discuss the sociological theories of religion by Durkheim, Marx, and Weber.
    • We will also mention the feminist theory of religion and the postmodernist theory of religion.

    Beliefs in society in sociology

    There exist many belief systems within society, including ideologies and religions. We have already discussed the difference between these two in our explanation of Ideology. We also looked at science as a belief system. Here, we will discuss different sociological views on religion as a belief system in society.

    Sociological analysis of religion

    Sociologists of different sociological perspectives analyse religion in diverse ways. Their focus is different, which means they often arrive at opposing arguments on the development, purpose and transformation of religion in society.

    Functionalists zoom in on the function of religion in society, while Marxists research its place in the maintenance of social inequality. Feminists focus on gender within the sociology of religion, and postmodernists discuss whether religion is a relevant point in sociology in the increasingly secularised world.

    Let us go through all these theories in detail.

    Sociological theories of religion: Durkheim

    We will start by discussing the functionalist perspective on religion in society.

    The functionalist theory is a consensus theory. This means it believes that society is maintained by some kind of social order (in other words, an agreement about the norms and rules of society). According to functionalist theory, religion contributes to social solidarity and integration and adds value to people's lives. It helps people cope with stress and gives them meaning.

    Émile Durkheim was a famous French sociologist. He argued that religion was a social construction that reinforced a collective consciousness. He looked at religious symbols and argued that religion was proof of the superiority of the interests of society over the interests of the individual. For Durkheim, religion shows how people can accept the importance of a wider society and demonstrate their dependence on and responsibility for it. He saw religious ceremonies such as weddings and funerals as a way of forming the collective consciousness.

    Durkheim's work was based on the research he did, on the religion of one tribe of Australian aborigines. He named the religion 'Totemism'. Each clan had a unique totem (symbol) that was sacred and represented God. Durkheim argued when they were worshipping the totem (God), they were worshipping society.

    You can read further about totemism in our explanation of Types of Religion.

    Further functionalist thinkers on religion

    Let's now look at what other functionalist theorists have to say about religion.

    Talcott Parsons

    Talcott Parsons thought religion created a feeling of collective consciousness even in those who were not religious, as the societal norms and values creating social cohesion were often based on religious traditions.

    He thought people used religion as a 'mechanism of adjustment' in times of difficulty and meaninglessness (at times of unexpected events, like wars or extreme weather). Religion provided meaning to people, it helped them adjust to situations and strengthened social solidarity.

    Bronislaw Malinowski

    Malinowski - the founding father of anthropology - believed that religion was created to help individuals deal with the stresses that come with significant life events, such as birth, death, marriage, and puberty. Religion, Malinowski stated, helps people deal with these difficulties through rituals and beliefs.

    For instance, in Christianity, death is dealt with through the ritual of a funeral and the belief that the dead person will go to heaven.

    Malinowski also believed that religion helps people deal with unexpected, uncontrollable events. If one had the necessary knowledge and skill to deal with an unexpected situation, there would be no need for religion. However, when people do not know how to deal with something, they turn to religion to explain it, and for help. They engage in rituals to ensure a certain outcome.

    For instance, they pray that a loved one gets better when they are sick.

    Sociological Theories of Religion, Four friends hugging while facing a sunset, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Functionalists believe that religion helps people come together.

    Evaluating the functionalist theory of religion

    In support:

    • Functionalist theory shows how religion impacts both society and the individual.

    • We have evidence that people turn to religion in times of stress and crisis, like 9/11.

    In opposition:

    • There are many different religions in modern society. If there are so many, how can they unite society?

    • Increasing secularisation suggests that religion is not the social glue it once was.

    • Often, religion is at the heart of social conflict. For example, Northern Ireland experienced terror and violence because of religious differences. Religion served to promote conflict there, instead of integrating people and providing them peace.

    Sociological theories of religion: Marx

    Marxists argue that religion plays a role in maintaining class divisions and in oppressing the proletariat. They think religion stops people from clearly understanding their situation.

    Marxists assert that religion serves capitalism in two ways:

    • It allows the ruling class (capitalists) to oppress people.

    • It softens the blow of oppression for the working class.

    The originator of Marxism and legendary social theorist Karl Marx himself argued that religion made people tolerate the difficulties of life in order to prosper in the afterlife.

    This is the opposite of the functionalist view - Marxists see religion as based on conflict instead of harmony.

    How is religion the 'opium of the people'?

    Karl Marx described religion as the 'opium of the people'.

    He stated that religion cushions the effects of capitalist oppression in many ways. It promises an afterlife which is better than our current life (for Christians this is heaven, for Muslims it's paradise). Religion tells us that a day of judgment will come, and we will receive all that we deserve. The hope of a good afterlife helps people think their current situation is worth suffering through.


    How does religion maintain class divisions?

    Religion provides a set of beliefs and ideas, which - according to Marx - benefits the ruling class. Religion suggests that the existing capitalist social order is God's will, thus justifying the rule of the bourgeoisie and the exploitation of the proletariat. It would be 'sinful' to alter the way things are.

    This is relevant for religions all over the world. In traditional Hindu beliefs, being born into a low caste could be due to an improperly lived former life.

    For Marxists, religion oppresses people by trapping them in their current place and not allowing them the power to change the system. He argued that it produces false class consciousness.

    Evaluating the Marxist theory of religion

    In support:

    • It understands how religion may help to control the masses and stop people from revolting against oppression.

    • Religion is often used to justify high positions of power, such as heads of churches and the high status of Brahmins (members of the high caste in Hinduism).

    In opposition:

    • Not very many people attend church (less than 10% of the population attend church on a Sunday), so it is difficult to see religion as a major tool of ruling class power (at least in the West).

    • There are a lot of examples of religion being used to overthrow the ruling class (instead of being oppressed by it, as Marxism would argue), such as Catholicism in Latin America.

    • Marxism fails to explain why people are religious in the first place.

    • Marx thought religion would decrease with the rise of communism because people would no longer need it. But we can see that this is not true; despite attempts in the Soviet Union to suppress religious activity, it continued to flourish.

    Neo-Marxist theory of religion

    This theory proposes that rather than being a conservative force, as Marx claimed, religion can be a force for radical social change. Otto Maduro has spearheaded this approach, stating that because most religions are independent of state control, they can be a force for change.

    Feminist theory of religion

    Feminists tend to be critical of religion because of its patriarchal foundations. Certain religions are more liberal than others, but in general, they are seen as maintaining male dominance over women.

    The conversation about women and religion started with feminist theorist Simone de Beauvoir in the 1950s. She argued that religion reinforces gender roles within the household and traps women in the domestic side of family life. This clearly benefits men at the expense of women.

    How do religions oppress women?

    Religions often justify their oppression of women by appealing to divine justification.

    Jean Holm argues that religion portrays menstruation and childbirth as dirty and 'polluting'. This means women aren't allowed to do certain things.

    For example, Muslim women are not allowed to touch the Quran, enter a mosque, or fast for Ramadan while they are menstruating.

    According to feminists, menstruation clearly does not make women dirty or less than men; therefore, these restrictions are a way of controlling women.

    Many feminists see religion in the same way as Marx and argue that it generates false consciousness. It encourages women to be passive and tolerant so that they will prosper in the afterlife.

    The top jobs in religious organisations are usually only allowed to be filled by men. This is often called the 'stained-glass ceiling'. Only recently, the Church of England started allowing women to be priests, though this remains banned in the Catholic Church. In many other religions, women are marginalised in order to confirm their status as inferior to men.

    Nawal El Saadawi discusses women and religion in the context of Islam. She writes about rituals and beliefs that are all for reducing women's power.

    For example, female circumcision has religious reasoning, but as El Saadawi points out, its purpose is to increase male sexual pleasure and decrease female sexual pleasure and discourage sexual activity.

    The religious act of veiling women, with hijabs and burkas, for example, is also sometimes interpreted as a means of controlling and objectifying women's bodies. This can be seen in the state-sanctioned enforcement of hijab and covering up for women in countries such as Iran. Sociologist Alan Aldridge sees it as an Islamic symbol of patriarchy.

    However, some Muslim feminists see the burka as liberating, arguing that it avoids the male gaze and makes them feel more connected to God.

    Different feminist views of religion

    Of course, different branches of feminism have differing perspectives on religion.

    Liberal feminists

    These are the most optimistic feminists. They are happy about progressions in the Church of England and look to change education and legislation to move society towards equality.

    Some feminists see religion as having positive functions. For example, El Saadawi argues that a positive aspect of Islam is that it allows women to keep their names and identities when they get married.

    Radical feminists

    This branch of feminism sees all religions as patriarchal. This is because they generally reinforce women's positions within the family and domestic sphere. Radical feminists believe the family is the key source of oppression for women.

    Marxist feminists

    These feminists believe that religion promotes a false consciousness and inhibits social change. They point out that women are more likely to be living in poverty than men and that religion serves as a compensator for their exploitation both as workers and as women.

    Evaluating the feminist theory of religion

    In support:

    • There are few opportunities for women to hold positions of leadership and power in religious organisations, which means religion is largely male-dominated and interpretations of religious rules are likely to be in favour of men at the expense of women.

    • Religion is used to justify women's roles at home and in childcare.

    • Religion is also used to undermine women's autonomy, e.g. by forcing them to cover up or denying them the same rights as men.

    • Many religious practices and rules are centred around gender, often at the expense of women. For example, in Hinduism, it is forbidden for women to enter temples during menstruation because they are considered unclean during that time.

    In opposition:

    • Woodhead (2002) believes there are religious forms of feminism and that women can use religion to gain freedom and respect.

    • Some religions are, at least on the surface, promoters of equality.

    • There are useful functions of religion for women. For example, women can often find solace and company in church-based activities or groups.

    • Some religions worship women as divine beings and Goddesses, such as in Hinduism.

    Sociological theories of religion: Weber

    Religion has traditionally provided a 'sacred canopy' (Berger, 1967), protecting us from the things about the world that we do not understand. It helps us make life meaningful by giving us rituals and rules to follow. However, with scientific advancements and the exponential growth of media influence, religion has lost its role in giving us the answers to the big questions in life. Many people no longer use religion to give them meaning, and look to science, reason, and logic instead.

    Max Weber, a symbolic interactionist, however, argued that religion would always exist while we were looking for answers to the 'big questions' in life.

    Sociological Theories of Religion, Max Weber, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Max Weber argued that religion would always exist while we are looking for answers to the 'big questions' in life.

    The Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism

    Weber focused on the relationship between religion (Protestantism in particular) and the development of the capitalist system in the Western world. He argued that the value system of Protestantism encouraged people to be active, work hard and save money, thus contributing to the emergence of capitalism.

    Catholicism, on the other hand, encouraged passivity and the showcasing of the Church's wealth and luxury, Weber pointed out. They were conservative and did not encourage change.

    Protestantism also encouraged people to believe in God for their own sake and find him on their own. According to Weber, this approach bore individualism, without which capitalism could not flourish the way it does.

    Evaluation of Weber's theory of religion

    In support:

    • Weber's theory shows that we must take individual motivations into consideration if we want to make conclusions about major societal changes.

    In opposition:

    • Sociologists pointed out that there isn't a very clear connection between the emergence of Protestantism and capitalism. They often point to Italian Mercantilism as a capitalist system that emerged in front of a strong Catholic background.

    Postmodernist theory of religion

    Postmodernists think other theories of religion are outdated and that society is changing and religion is changing with it.

    Jean-François Lyotard states that religion has become very personal due to all the complexities of our modern society. He also thinks that religion is becoming increasingly influenced by science, leading to New Age Movements within religion. People find it more and more important to have religious beliefs that are consistent with their scientific knowledge.

    Michel Foucault argues that the meta-narrative of religion is breaking down, which is thus leading to the breakdown of society. Postmodernists also acknowledge that the diversity of society means that people pick religions that suit them, and therefore religion cannot be a force for social change because it affects everyone differently.

    Evaluating the postmodernist theory of religion

    In support:

    • The postmodernist perspective of religion highlights the changing nature of religion.

    In opposition:

    • It fails to see the functions that religion provides us with, how institutions use it to control us, and the ideological foundations it has. Postmodernism sees religion as relatively unimportant, which may be a shortcoming.

    Sociological Theories of Religion - Key takeaways

    • The functionalist theory believes that religion contributes to social solidarity and integration, and adds value to people's lives. It helps people cope with stress and gives them meaning.
    • Marxists see religion as a way of maintaining class divisions and oppressing the proletariat. They think it stops people from clearly understanding their situation, which is called 'false consciousness'.
    • Feminists tend to be critical of religion because of its patriarchal undertones. Women are prevented by the 'stained-glass ceiling' from jobs in religious institutions. Some aspects of some religions are oppressive towards women and their rights.
    • Max Weber argued that religion would always exist while we were looking for answers to the 'big questions' in life. However, scientists argue that science is replacing the need for religion as it is steadily answering these questions.
    • Postmodernists think other theories of religion are outdated, and that we can't really have a theory of religion. They think religion is relatively unimportant in our very diverse society and cannot act as a social force for change.


    1. Berger, Peter (1967). The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion.
    Sociological Theories of Religion Sociological Theories of Religion
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Sociological Theories of Religion

    What is sociological theory of religion?

    Sociologists of different sociological perspectives analyse religion in diverse ways. Their focus is different, which means they often arrive at opposing arguments on the development, purpose and transformation of religion in society. 

    Functionalists zoom in on the function of religion in society, while Marxists research its place in the maintenance of social inequality. Feminists focus on gender within the sociology of religion, and postmodernists discuss whether religion is a relevant point in sociology in the increasingly secularized world.

    What are the major theories of religion?

    The major sociological perspectives that have dealt with religion are functionalism, Marxism, feminism, symbolic interactionism and postmodernism.

    What is the importance of sociology of religion?

    Religion is a very significant area of research in sociology. Almost all societies believe in something and follow a certain religion. Sociologists find it crucial to make conclusions on what function religion plays in people's lives in order to make more general conclusions about society.

    What is the relationship between sociology and religion?

    There exist many belief systems within society, including ideologies and religions. Sociologists have researched what role and purpose religion fulfils in society.

    What is a sociological analysis of religion concerned with?

    Sociologists of different sociological perspectives analyse religion in diverse ways. Their focus is different, which means they often arrive at opposing arguments on the development, purpose and transformation of religion in society. 

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