Chapter 13, 14 and 17
Religion: a set of organized beliefs about the supernatural or spiritual world and its associated
ceremonies that guide peoples behaviour
One of the key concepts of religion is faith
Faith: a belief system based on conviction that does not require objective evidence to substantiate its
claims (faith that God exists without first-hand evidence to support the claim).
Emile Durkheims The Elementary Forms of Religious Life is the defining analysis of religion from a
functionalist perspective. He asserts that all religions originate in society which creates religion by
separating the world into the profane and the sacred.
Elements of the everyday world that do not inspire or motivate.
Sacred: encompasses those things that we set apart, ritualize and at time have deep emotional
connections to. (Wine for catholics) Sacred originates within members of society who collectively assign
special meanings to certain objects or rituals.
Totem: an object that has special significance and meaning for a group of believers
Collective conscience: Members of a group joined according to shared meanings and world views. The
group awareness that manifests itself in part, through religion.
Durkheim believed that religion was a strong source of social power that could inspire collective action
Collective effervescence: when people feel caught up in a heightened sense of collection. It is expressed
when a social group achieves a new and dynamic expression of the groups will and can motivate rapid
changed in the social structure.
Functionalists believe that religion serves an important purpose, particularly in the face of a common
enemy. Religion answers the problems of meaning. Other functions of religion in society include
1. Religion joins people into communities of believers that promote social stability and a sense of
2. Religion provides people with a social identity
3. Religion provides social control through the establishment of moral standards of behaviour
4. Religion provides people with a sense of purpose and brings meaning to their lives
5. Religion provides a social service functions
Limitations to Durkheims functional interpretation: Assuming religion is purely functional dismisses when it is clearly dysfunctional as it is the reason for
much conflict, tension and bloodshed between groups.
Some religious traditions are very strict and deny people the ability to think for themselves
Durkeims analysis of the profane and sacred is overly rigid and does not fit the anthropological record.
Religions today must compete with other social institutions and categories that are sources of personal
identity (race, social class and nationality). These are becoming more important.
Functional analysis of religions fails to recognize the roles that social class, power and gender play in the
development and maintenance of religions.
Since religion is considered to be the expression of a collective conscience it suggests very little
opportunity for individual agency- that is the ability of people to define and experience their own sense
of spirituality and morality.
Three primary assumptions
1. Religion is socially constructed and built upon economic relationships.
2. Religion diminishes feelings of frustration resulting from the forces of alienation.
3. Religion is used by the social, political and economic elite to control the workers.
Marx viewed religion as a form of social control that dulls the pain of oppression for the proletariat and
prevents them from seeing the world as it truly exists. Religion is one of the primary ways that the
bourgeoisie ensures that the proletariat maintains a state of false consciousness. To Marx religion is an
illusion that makes the pain of oppression bearable but also keeps them submissive.
“The first requisite for the happiness of the people is the abolition of religion”
“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a
spiritless condition. It is the opium of the people”
Marx perceived religion as an ideological expression of the contradictions and tensions present in
human relations and that by studying religion one is able to uncover the problems at the root of social
Marx considered the capitalist economic system to be the cause of human misery, he envisioned its
forcible removal and replacement by a non-exploitative economic system (communism). Ideologies are deeply rooted in the very coditions in which people live. When people are ppressed and
exploited in the real world the illusory happiness of religion may be a necessary substitute for real
Predestination: the doctrine that God alone chooses who is saved.
Calling: One’s work, believed to be an expression of God’s will, particualarly if that work brings financial
1. Weber argued that religion can be the inspiration behind great social change.
2. Some contemporary religious movements actually challenge the rich and powerful by
advocating income redistribution. Liberation theology is a movement by religious
fundamentalists who advocate a literal interpretation of the Bible to promote greater social
3. The sense of community that some people find in religion is a positive force, inspiring many to
help the less fortunate and to participate in political movements.
Symbolic Interactionist Theory
Symbolic interactionists view religion as an important source of rituals and symbols that help to define
perceptions of their social world.
Swenson defines rituals as: repeated consecrated behaviour that is a symbolic expression of the moods
and motivations of religious participants and unseen powers. Ritual forms a bond of friendship,
community and unity with the believer and their god.
Religious rituals bond a group of believers into a moral community by logical extension it influences how
these believers behave and identify themselves. Help to reinforce group member ship in these ways:
1. Rituals as remembering
2. Ritual as a social bonding
3. Rituals as regulating moral behaviour
4. Rituals as empowerment
Religious Indoctrination and Identity:
Anderson and Taylor outline a three-phase process that people undergo when converting to a new
First phase occurs when potential converts experience events or episodes that make them
question themselves and wonder whether there is more to life than what they have experienced. These
emotions make people open to significant changes in their lives. The second phase occurs when initiates begin to incorporate the ideas of the new group into
their own world views. The initiate must sever all ties to their previous lives and become increasingly
reliant on the new group for social and emotional support.
Final phase occurs during periods of intense interaction with the new group wherein the
initiates time is completely dominated by duties and obligations ; they have very little time to reflect and
consider the often drastic changes to their lives. The conversion is solidified when the new members
sacrifice their materials wealth.
Symbolic interactionists view religion from a microsociological perspective that attempts to understand
individuals thoughts, feelings and motivations.
Cady Stanton published The Woman’s Bible to correct biblical interpretations that she believed were
biased against women. First example of a woman challenging the traditional Christian interpretation of
Cady Stanton and her colleagues emphasized that the Bible was a literary work. They pointed out it was
written by men and constitutes a clear expression of the patriarchal culture. Argued that women needed
a different belief system given that Christianity is based fundamentally on the oppression of women.
Feminist scholars argue that the same criticism holds for virtually all organized religions. Dhruvarajan
and Vickers asset the kinds of answers women receive from the world’s dominant religions are different
from those given to men. Religions have portrayed women as being unclean because of menstruation
and childbirth, impulsive, morally deficient and unable to control their sexual urges. As a result of
growing up in environments that advocate these religious positions, women are socialized to believe in
and accept their lower status.
Dhruvarajan and Vickers point out that three of the world’s monotheistic religions view the divine
presence as male. Pg 340 for other criticisms.
Modernity emerged during the Enlightenment and was grounded in the belief that the human sciences
could give rise to a meaningful understanding of the human condition.
Focuses on the pursuit of truth, reason and social progress.
Postmodernism is the belief that all of our thinking is contextual and the result of negotiated realities
that vary by such factors as time, place, social class and gender.
Postmodern emphasis on the value of subjective knowledge and personal experience has inspired many
to explore spirituality outside of organized religion. Secularization: the process by which developed societies move away from explanations based on
religion to ones based on science, rationality and logic.
According to Sommerville secularization is associated with
1. An increasing d