Chapter 16 Religion
• The structure of society and a person’s place in it influence his or her religious beliefs
• Under Some circumstances, religion creates societal cohesion, while under other
circumstances it promotes social conflict and social change. When religion creates
societal cohesion, it also reinforces social inequality.
• Religion governs fewer aspects of most people’s lives today than in the past. However,
a religious revival has taken place in various parts of the world in recent decades and
many people still adhere strongly to religious beliefs and practices.
• Diverse possibilities for religious participation compete in modern societies. For
example, although most people are becoming more secularized, many people are
becoming more religious.
• Historical information suggests that the major world religions were movements of
moral and social improvement that arose in times of great adversity and were led by
charismatic figures. As they consolidated, they became more conservative.
• People are more religious if they were brought up in a religious family, if they reside in
regions where religion is highly authoritative, and when they are very young and very
---------Durkheim, Functionalism, and the Problem of Order.
Durkheim said that when people live together, they come to share common sentiments and
values. These common sentiments and values form a collective conscience that is larger than
any individual’s. On occasion, we experience the collective conscience directly. This causes us to
distinguish the secular, everyday world of the profane from the religious, transcendent world
of the sacred. We designate certain objects as symbolizing the sacred. Durkheim called these
objects totems. We invent certain public practices to connect us with the sacred. Durkheim
referred to these practices as rituals. The effect (or function) of rituals and of religion as a
whole is to reinforce social solidarity, said Durkheim.
These patterns are consistent with Durkheim’s theory of suicide, which predicts a lower suicide
rate when social solidarity increases and a higher suicide rate when social solidarity decreases.
Thus, the Stanley Cup playoffs may fairly be regarded as a sacred event in Durkheim’s terms.
They cement society in the way Durkheim said all religions do.
----------Marx, Conflict, and Religion as a Prop for Inequality
Durkheim’s theory of religion is a functionalist account that offers useful insights into the role
of religion in society. Yet conflict theorists have lodged two main criticisms against it. 1) It overemphasizes religion’s role in maintaining social cohesion. In reality, religion often
incites social conflict.
2) When religion does increase social cohesion, it often reinforces social inequality.
It was Marx who first stressed how religion often tranquilizes the underprivileged into
accepting their lot in life. According to Marx, religion diminishes class conflict; he called
religion “the opium of the people”
Most people celebrate the alleged absence of social hierarchy. This is part of what
sociologist Robert Bellah calls civil religion, a set of quasi-religious beliefs and practices that
binds the population together and justifies its way of life.
Tommy Douglas, a Baptist minister, the leader of the Co-operative Commonwealth
Federation, and the “father of medicare,” exemplify the Social Gospel concern with social
In sum, religion can maintain social order under some circumstances, as Durkheim said.
When it does so, however, it often reinforces social inequality, as Marx argued. Moreover,
under other circumstances religion can promote social conflict.
-----------Weber, Social Change, and Symbolic Interaction
If Durkheim highlighted the way religion contributes to social order, Max Weber stressed
the way religion can contribute to social change. Weber captured the core of his argument
in a memorable image: “If history is like a train, pushed along its tracks by economic and
political interests, then religious ideas are like railroad switches, determining exactly which
tracks the train will follow.”
Weber’s most famous illustration of his thesis is his short book The Protestant Ethic and the
Spirit of Capitalism.
Weber was also bent on proving the one-sidedness of any exclusively economic
interpretation. He did so by offering what he would today call a symbolic interactionist
For Weber, what prompted vigorous capitalist development in non-Catholic Europe and
North America was a combination of 1) Favorable economic conditions, such as those
discussed by Marx, 2)The spread of certain moral values by the Protestant reformers of the
sixteenth century and their followers.
According to Weber, the Protestant ethic had wholly unexpected economic consequences. Judaism and Christianity, these religions were rational in two senses. 1) Their followers
abstained from magic. 2) They engaged in legalistic interpretation of the holy writ. In
contrast, said Weber, Buddhism in India and Confucianism in China had strong magical
and otherworldly components. According to Weber, this hindered worldly success in
competition and capital accumulation. As a result, capitalism developed slowly in Asia.
The persecution of witches in this era was partly an effort to eliminate competition and
establish a Christian monopoly over spiritual life.
Max Weber remarked on how the world had become thoroughly “disenchanted”. By
the turn of the twentieth century, he said, scientific and other forms of rationalism were
replacing religious authority. His observations formed the basis of the secularization thesis.
The secularization thesis says that religious institutions, actions, and consciousness are on
the decline worldwide.
Despite the consensus about secularization that was still evident in the 1980s, many
sociologists modified their judgments in the 1990s. There were two reasons for this.
1) Accumulated survey evidence showed that religion was not in an advanced state of
decay. (The 1982 Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms assets that our country is
founded on principles that recognize the supremacy of God)
2) The second circumstance that has caused many sociologists to revise their judgment
about the secularization thesis is the revival of religious fundamentalism. Since the
1960s, fundamentalist religious organizations have rapidly increased their membership,
especially among Protestants.
• Fundamentalists interpret their scriptures literally, seek to establish a direct,
personal relationship with the higher being they worship, and are relatively
intolerant of non-fundamentalists.