Religion's Role

Religion's Role


The debate concerning the role of religion in society is essentially a debate about cause and effect.

Some approaches see change in society causing changes in religion. This is the main argument behind the secularisation thesis. Thus, the form of a religion is a societal effect.

Some see religion as preventing change in society. Religion is a cause of the retention of conservative or traditional values. Thus the form of society is an effect of the religious form in that society.

Another position is that religion can cause change in society, and society adopts a new moral order. Again, the form of a society is an effect of religion.

A final approach is to view religion as a driving force for change but of an essentially reactionary rather than as above a radical kind.

There are then clear differences of opinion as to the precise relationship between a religion and the society in which it is embedded. Be careful, however, not to adopt any of these positions uncritically. The issue is not as clear-cut as the above positions would seem to suggest. Indeed, the most likely position is that all of the above are sometimes correct, but not always. We are looking at a dynamic relationship, and as such it will be constantly evolving. What might be an accurate assessment at one historical point, may be totally incorrect at another.

The first of the above positions has been covered in the 'Secularisation' Learn-It, so lets proceed to the others. I want to characterize these positions as either inhibiting or promoting change. Remember throughout that religion must be viewed sociologically as a system of knowledge, and the nature of that knowledge informs the role that a religion adopts in a particular society, since knowledge as belief leads to social action.

There are two main perspectives to be aware of here. They both adopt the view that religion inhibits change, that is they identify a similar role for religion, but functionalism views one approach as a 'good' thing, while the other, Marxism views it as a 'bad' thing. In other words, values are to the forefront in the analysis.


The key concern of functionalist writing on religion is the contribution that religion makes to the well being of society, its contribution to social stability and, value-consensus.

Emile Durkheim

In his Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Durkheim argues that the function of religious ritual is to maintain social solidarity by affirming the moral superiority of society over its individual members. Durkheim believed that social life could only exist if values were shared and society integrated into a coherent whole. Religion is an important aspect of this process, not only providing a set of unifying practices and beliefs, but also by providing a way in which people can interpret and give meaning to the world.

Durkheim's distinction between the sacred and profane, is, in effect, the distinction between people and society. For Durkheim the sacred are symbols for society, thus in worshipping God, humans are really worshipping society. The relationship between god and humans (power and dependence) outlined in most religions is a reflection of the relationship between humans and society. It is not God that makes us behave, and punishes our misdemeanors, but society.

Thus religion reinforces the collective conscience, it strengthens values and beliefs and promotes social solidarity since the attitude of respect to the sacred is extended to the individual's social duties. Collective worship is regarded as particularly important for the integration of society since it enables members to express their shared values and strengthens group unity. By worshipping together, people have a sense of commitment and belonging and individuals are united into a group with shared values - thus social solidarity is reinforced, deviant behaviour is restrained and social change restricted.

In maintaining social solidarity, religion acts as a conservative force; when it fails to perform this function new ideas emerge, which become the new religion. Thus Durkheim regarded Nationalism and Communism as the new religions of industrial society, taking over from Christianity but performing the same essential functions. Thus Durkheim, and other functionalists are not saying that religion does not change; clearly its form does. Parson's argument concerning differentiation, but what does not change is the function, and that essentially is to offer support for the existing status quo. Politics and its associated rituals - for example, flag waving, parades) - are the new forms by which collective sentiments are symbolically expressed. Consequently religion, in one form or another, is a necessary and essential feature of society.


Elementary Forms was based on bad (and second hand) anthropology. It is argued that Durkheim misunderstood both totemism and the aboriginal tribes on which his study was based.

It is claimed that Durkheim's analysis is not applicable to societies that are typified by cultural diversity.


The idea that religion is the worship of society has been criticised - as an argument it is difficult to substantiate other than through some notion of false consciousness since people clearly believe they are worshipping God. Also, the idea depends on a particular conception of worship; collective, and a particular definition of religion - inclusive.

Marxists, (see below), would argue that religion, far from being an instrument of social solidarity, is an instrument of social control and exploitation. However, Durkheim clearly recognised this:

'Religion instructed the humble to be content with their situation, and, at the same time, it taught them that the social order is providential; that it is God himself who has determined each one's share. Religion gave man a perception of a world beyond this earth where everything would be rectified; this prospect made inequalities seem less noticeable, it stopped men from feeling aggrieved.'

Clearly, the functionalist position is weak on the dysfunctional aspects of religion, for example, societies with more than one faith, like Northern Ireland and Lebanon.



'Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the sentiment of a heartless world... the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people'. (Marx, Early Writings)
'Religion is a kind of spiritual gin in which the slaves of capital drown their human shape and their claims to any decent life'. (Lenin)

Not all Marxists claim that religion is exclusively conservative, of which more later, but for Marx religion was essentially a tool of class exploitation and oppression. Religion disguises and legitimates the exploitative relationships of society by suggesting that the world is shaped by god's will and is therefore unchangeable. While people are diverted from revolutionary action they are also promised rewards in the afterlife (if they are 'good' - do as instructed by the religion), thereby easing the pain of exploitation.

Marxist theory starts from the belief that God is made by humans, originally used by earlier societies to explain the world (the plausibility structure), and gradually becoming an aspect in the legitimation of the status quo. Religion involves the distortion of 'reality', it is ideological. It provides the basis of ruling class ideology and false consciousness. Marx then argued that in communist society religion will disappear since the conditions which produce religion will have disappeared. Note here that Marx is using an exclusive definition of religion.

Religion acts as an opiate in that it does not solve any problems that people may have but merely dulls the pain, and therefore, argued Marx, most religious movements originate in the oppressed classes.

'Christianity was originally a movement of oppressed people; it first appeared as the religion of slaves and emancipated slaves, of poor people deprived of all rights or peoples subjugated and dispersed by Rome'. (Engels)

Religion dulls the pain of oppression by:

The promise of paradise in the next life.

Some religions make a virtue of suffering produced by oppression. 'Blessed are they... hunger, thirst, etc'. (Beatitudes). Camel and eye of the needle. (Parables).

The hope of supernatural intervention. Jehovah's Witnesses, Millenarian movements. Anticipation of the future makes the present bearable, moreover they don't have to get off their backsides and change things because god will do it for them.

Religion justifies the social order. All things bright and beautiful... The Rich Man in his castle, the poor man at his gate; god made them high or lowly and ordered their estate.

Social relationships seem inevitable and god given.

Religion thus discourages people from attempting change, and thus the dominant groups can retain their power. Religion is used by the ruling class to justify their position. Church and ruling class are mutually reinforcing;

'The parson has never gone hand in hand with the landlord'.

However, evidence for the traditional Marxist position is partial and tends to be of a documentary nature; looking at the nature of faith and the way in which the religion of the poor concentrates on the afterlife. Also there are some traditional Marxists who adopt the view that religion can bring about social change, a position also adopted by some neo-Marxists.