Applying material from the item, analyse two criticisms of the view that religion is merely a tool of oppression

This is one possible example of a 10 mark ‘with item’ question which could come up in the AQA’s A level sociology paper 2: topics in sociology (section B: beliefs in society option). 

Read the item, and then answer the question below.


Karl Marx famously argued that religion was the ‘opium of the masses’ and Simone de Beauvoir argued that religion compensated women for their second class status. Both theorists believed that religion was an ideological tool which pacified the oppressed.

These views have, however, been criticized:

Applying material from the item, analyse two criticisms of the view that religion is merely a tool of oppression (10)

Firstly, Marxist and Feminist views tend to downplay the positive functions of religion.

As Functionalists have pointed out, it is quite likely that some form of religious belief and organisation is functional (i.e. beneficial for the individual and society) given that religion is practically universal (i.e found in nearly all societies).

Functionalists have pointed to many positive functions of religion – such as helping people deal with death and societies deal with transition and times of uncertainty. Rather than this being about simply keeping inequality in place, it could be that religion benefits everyone by keeping society stable.

Furthermore, people still practiced religion in secret in communist countries when religion was banned, suggesting that they actively wanted religion for their own comfort, rather than it simply being something forced on them by elites.

You could argue that a similar thing is found with religion today in the form of ‘civil religion’ – where people find comfort in quasi-religious ceremonies such as Football matches and Royal Weddings… again this seems to be a matter of choice, and because attendance is optional, it’s hard to argue that these ‘shallower’ forms of religion have a  sinister social control function like Marxists and Feminists suggest!

Secondly, The above theories assume that people simply passively accept an elitist interpretation of religious doctrines. There is plenty of evidence that this is not always the case.

Liberation theology is a good example of this: where Catholic Church leaders in Latin America took the side of the landless peasants, and argued against the elitist interpretation that inequality was God’s will: instead helping the poor fight back against inequality and elite institutions and attempting to bring about a more equal society.

This is supporting evidence for the Neo-Marxist view that religion is not simply controlled by elites, but is relatively autonomous, thus meaning it can be a tool for social change.

From an Islamic Feminist point of view, Nawal el Sadawi argued that Islam was not inherently patriarchal, but rather that it had been interpreted in a patriarchal way in patriarchal societies (patriarchy comes first, if you like!). She further argued that it was perfectly possible for women to challenge Patriarchal interpretations of Islam, as she herself did, thus meaning it doesn’t have to be a tool of social control and pacification.

A postmodern analysis of religion further supports the ‘active intepretation’ criticisms of Marxism and Feminism – today people are much more likely to pick and mix their religious beliefs, and reject anything they don’t like, and use religion at selected times when they find it useful. This is hardly religion controlling and pacifying the population!



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