Evaluate the view that religion no longer acts as a ‘shared universe of meaning’ for people today

Last Updated on October 28, 2018 by Karl Thompson

Item B

Berger (1990) argues that religion once provided a ‘shared universe of meaning’ and was used by people to make sense of the world, and to give their lives focus and order. He refers to religion as a ‘sacred canopy’, stretching over society and helping people to cope with the uncertainties of life.

Other sociologists disagree about the role that religion fulfils in society today. Marxists, for example, argue that religion acts to dull the pain of oppression experienced by the working class under capitalism and to conceal domination by the bourgeoisie. Some feminists argue that religion oppresses or disadvantages women.

Using material from Item A and elsewhere, assess the view that religion no longer acts as a ‘shared universe of meaning’ for people today.


  • This is a relatively straightforward question if you take it as a ‘consensus versus conflict’ essay.
  • You could also throw in elements of postmodernisation and secularization.
  • And counter criticize (kind of) from a globalist perspective.

Supporting evidence from Functionalism

  • Durkheim’s argued that religion reinforces the ‘collective conscience’ by representing the social order.
  • Malinowski argued religious rituals helped the Trobriand Islanders deal with risky situations with uncertain outcomes (such as deep sea rather than lagoon fishing)
  • He also argued religious rituals help people cope with social change, such as when people die.
  • Parsons seems to be the main man who agreed with Berger: the main function of religion was to help people make sense of contradictory events.
  • In one sense you could say that religion forms the basis of the law and this provides a shared universe of meaning.

Other supporting evidence drawn from across the syllabus

  • It’s unlikely that anything other than religion can provide a ‘sacred canopy’ (Science doesn’t provide all of the answers to ‘big questions’ for example)
  • Goddess religions could be interpreted as forming a ‘sacred canopy’ – one ‘divine reality, but many paths to it’.
  • This seems to be more the case for older rather than younger people (older people are more religious)
  • Some newer religions might be providing a more ‘general’ sacred canopy… for example ecumenicalism and The New Age movement.
  • Giddens argues that religion today provides a vital role in answering big questions and providing moral purpose

Marxism/ Feminism

  • Criticize the idea of a ‘shared universe of meaning’ because religion works in the interest of elite groups.
  • It’s the meaning of the elite that is taught through religion – such as the idea that inequality is God’s will and cannot be changed.
  • Neo-Marxism and Feminist resistance against elitist and patriarchal religions are evidence against this.

Postmodernisation/ Increasing diversity of religion means there is no sacred canopy

  • The increasing diversity of religion with postmodernity suggests there is no ‘shared universe of meaning’.
  • Religion has become more about ‘me’, less about aligning with society, e.g. the New Age Movement.
  • Religion has become more about entertainment, thus is arguably no ‘deeper’ than Disneyland.

Secularisation/ growth of science means there is no sacred canopy

  • Secularization is further evidence against – fewer people believe in God.
  • It’s more likely that belief in science, rather than religion provides a ‘sacred canopy’.

Examples of religious conflicts

  • Fundamentalism
  • World Rejecting NRMs

Thoughts on a conclusion

Pick up on the different ‘functions’ in the item to write a differentiated conclusion… maybe religion doesn’t provide a ‘shared universe of meaning’ any more, but maybe it’s still used selectively by people some of the time to deal with uncertainties.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Discover more from ReviseSociology

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading