Civil Religion

Robert Bellah introduced the concept of civil religion to sociological debates surrounding the role and function of religion in society in the early 1960s. One of his best known works is his 1967 journal article ‘Civil Religion in America‘.

Robert Bellah argued that ‘civil religions’ had become the main type of religions in the 20th century, as mainstream, traditional religions declined. Civil religions effectively performing many of the same functions of ‘traditional religions’, just without the concept of a god or higher power.

Bellah analyses the role of religion in much the same way as classical functionalists such as Durkheim, hence he has been labelled a neo-functionalist in many A-level sociology text books.

He defined ‘civil religion’ as any belief system which didn’t rely on a conception of a God, or gods, but which still inspired a passionate mass response with members displaying a high degree of commitment to that belief system.

Historical examples of belief systems which might be regarded as ‘civil religions’ include Nazism, and other forms of nationalism, and at a more international level, Marxism. Such movements provided their adherents with an idea of the ‘true path’ to a ‘better life’, to be achieved through obeying certain moral codes as well as a degree of commitment to charismatic leaders. These movements also had plentiful symbols and rituals to generate a sense of shared identity.

Bellah argues that ‘Americanism’ is the civil religion of America. The civil religion of Americanism stresses a commitment to the ‘American way’: a belief in the ‘free market’ and a drive to make the most of available opportunities. It also emphasizes a commitment to God, but that God is an American first, rather than a Catholic, Jew or Muslim, and he welcomes everyone from all backgrounds who are willing accept commitment to the American dream.

According to Bellah, the American Civil Religion unites people across all sexes, classes and ethnic backgrounds.

It is possible to see expressions of the American Civil Religion in many aspects of American life:

  • Most obviously is the daily ‘pledging allegiance to the flag of America that children do in schools.
  • We see it in yearly rituals such as Independence Day and Thanksgiving.
  • The national anthem being sung at the beginning of various sporting events, most notably the Super Bowl.
  • Numerous Presidential speeches and address praise America, with the phrase ‘God Bless America’ featuring frequently.

<iframe width=”560″ height=”315″ src=”https://www.youtube.com/embed/69ShK4TYHJk&#8221; frameborder=”0″ allow=”autoplay; encrypted-media” allowfullscreen></iframe>

Are national sporting events manifestations of a civil religion?

Bellah argues that civil religion developed especially strongly in America because it is a relatively new nation, based on immigration from multiple countries. A civil religion which emphasizes both a belief in God, but with that God coming second to the idea of America itself, has served to quickly unite people with diverse beliefs into one nation under God.

Criticisms of the concept of civil religion

  • It is quite a loose concept in that it is possible to interpret any nationalistic activity as being part of a ‘civil religion’.
  • It is unlikely that people taking part in watching sporting events, or even ‘pledging allegiance’ to the flag are as committed in their belief in America as traditionally religious people are to their religions.
  • To criticise Bellah’s concept of Americanism specifically it is clear that not all Americans have been united equally into the American nation. American Muslims have experienced particularly high levels of ostracism since September 11th for example.

 

Radical Feminist Perspectives on Religion

Radical Feminists emphasize the patriarchal nature of some mainstream religions such as Catholicism and Islam. They argue that such religions have developed in patriarchal societies and have been ‘hijacked’ by men. Men have interpreted religious doctrines in order to justify their positions of power.

Radical Feminists also believe that religion often serves to compensate women for their second class status within religion and society more generally. For example, by providing psychological rewards if they accept their role as mothers and limit their horizons to fulfilling that role well.

However, Radical Feminists do not necessarily see religion as inherently patriarchal. Historically, for example, Goddess religions have celebrated the creative and nurturing power of the feminine. It is really men hijacking religion and downplaying the role of women in the development of some religions over the past couple of thousand years which is the problem.

It follows that women can use religion to lead fulfilling lives, but need to fight oppression within mainstream religions organisations to do so, or even to develop their own unique, individual paths to a feminine spirituality.

The mind map above summarises the following Feminist perspectives on religion. Please click the links below for more details:

Beliefs in society revision bundle for sale

If you like this sort of thing then you might like my ‘beliefs in society’ revision bundle.

The bundle contains the following:

  • Eight mind maps covering the sociological perspectives on beliefs in society. In colour!
  • 52 Pages of revision notes covering the entire AQA ‘beliefs in society’ specification: from perspectives on religion, organisations, class, gender ethnicity and age and secularisation, globalisation and fundamentalism.
  • Three 10 mark ‘outline and explain’ practice exam  questions and model answers
  • Three 10 mark ‘analyse using the item’ 10 practice exam questions and answers
  • Three 30 mark essay questions and extended essay plans.

The content focuses on the AQA A-level sociology specification. All at a bargain price of just £4.99!

I’ve taught A-level sociology for 16 years and have been an AQA examiner for 10 of those, so I know what I’m talking about, and if you purchase from me you’re avoiding all those horrible corporations that own the major A-level text books and supporting a fully fledged free-range human being, NOT a global corporate publishing company.

Carol Christ’s Feminist Spirituality

Carol P Christ is a feminist theologian and foremother of the Goddess movement. One of her best known works is her 1997 essay ‘[Why Women Need the Goddess]( http://www.iupui.edu/~womrel/Rel433%20Readings/Christ_WhyWomenNeedGoddess.pdf)’ in which she argues that feminine spirituality is rooted in the concept of a supreme Goddess.

Carol P Christ

Carol Christ is critical of any religion which is based on the idea of there being ‘one true God’ or ‘one true interpretation’ of what religious practices people should engage in.

And although the Enlightenment challenged the authority of the church, Carol Christ is also critical of Enlightenment thought.

In the Enlightenment, knowledge was held to be something independent of the individual, and thus objective and true. The Enlightenment also championed the ‘rational man’, someone who was dispassionate and detached from the process of uncovering true knowledge.

However, Carol Christ believes that detached, objective knowledge is not actually possible, as it is always tied up with the values, beliefs and interests of the person who creates that knowledge.

In at least two significant ways, the Enlightenment attitude towards knowledge is similar in that of traditional religious organisations’: they both believe that the source of ‘true knowledge’ is external to the individual and yet within both traditions, knowledge is basically created by men and reflects male values.

An alternative to both is what Carol Christ calls ‘embodied spirituality’ in which

‘we think through the body, we reflect upon the standpoints embedded in our life experiences, histories, judgments and interests…. Embodied thinking enlarges experiences through empathy… Empathy reaches out to others, desiring to understand the world from different points of view.” (1997).

Carol Christ argues that through such knowledge, traditional theology (in which men interpret religion) can be replaced with a new thea-ology, which means ‘reflection on the meaning of the Goddess’.

She believes that if embodied knowledge is the basis of spirituality, then we can overcome dualistic ways of thinking such as rational and irrational and mind and body because The Goddess is found all around, in everything, forming a web of life which integrates all things into a universal whole.

Historical Representations of the Goddess

Symbols and statues of the Goddess have been found in a wide variety of civilizations going back 25000 years.

Mythical stories which pay tribute to an Ancient Mother Goddess whose fertility and abundance give nourishment to a culture date back to prehistoric times.

Goddess Sprituality FeminismOne of the earliest examples, from the Paleothic era, is the ‘Venus of Willendorf. She is fat, showing her abundant life-energy, and representing the nurturing and support which mother-hood offers.

Later examples from the Mesopotamian era are the clay figurines of the Ishtar (circa 2000 BC) in her characteristic breast-offering pose which suggests her function as the Goddess of all nourishment and fertility.

A more recent example is found in the Macha Earth Goddess – a fertility goddess who was worshiped in ancient Ireland by the Picts before the arrival of the Celts and adopted by them. She is associated with war, horses, and independence.

How individuals can find the Goddess

Carol P Christ believes that people need to find their own spiritual paths through personal experience.

Christ had something of a traumatic time discovering the Goddess for herself. As a student of theology, she became increasingly frustrated with traditional interpretations of God as male, with God always being associated with the father, with Kings, and even with war. This all built up to a head one evening when she shouted out

‘I want you to know how much I have suffered because you let yourself be named in man’s image’, after which she heard a female voice in her head that said ‘In God is a woman like yourself. She shares your suffering.’  

Christ’s ideas on the Goddess were further developed by attending a workshop led by a woman called Starhalk who saw the Goddesss as Mother Earth, who was found in nature and in the spirit, emotions, mind and body of everyone.

Her understanding and spiritual awareness developed further in a women’s spirituality group called Rising Moon.

Carol Christ ultimately believes that personal experience has to be the starting point of valid knowledge. She believes that every woman on a spiritual path has a story to tell and their own spiritual journey to go on, but each finds a similar power through the Goddess.

In terms of Feminism, everyone can work together with other Feminists and valid spiritual knowledge can be co-created.

Evaluations of Goddess Religions

While it is hard to doubt the authenticity of Carol P Christ’s views (i.e. it is clear that she really believes what she saying), there are certain problems with this approach.

Firstly, It is difficult to evaluate an approach which rejects empirical research. It is difficult to assess its reliability or validity.

Secondly, it is difficult, if not impossible to make generalisations from personal approaches – for example, it is easy to find examples of religions which are not patriarchal.

Sources/ Find out More

Haralambos and Holborn (eighth edition) Sociology Themes and Perspectives

Faces and shapes of ancient mother goddesses

Nawal El Saadawi: The Hidden Face of Eve

Feminist El Saadawi argues that neither Islam in particular or religion in general are oppressive to women, but they become so when the develop within already existing patriarchal social structures

In The Hidden Face of Eve (1980), Nawal El Saadawi considers the role of religion in perpetuating female oppression in the Arab World. She offers an Egyptian Feminist perspective on the role of religion and thus broadens our understanding away from the typically white female voices of feminism.

El Saadawi.pngEl Saadawi is a women’s rights activist, who has herself experienced oppression within Egypt. She has campaigned vigorously for women’s rights in the Arab world and has been imprisoned for her activism.

She was forced to undergo female circumcision as a young girl, without any warning or explanation and points out that male violence against women within the family is common in many Arab cultures. Young females are frequently the victims of violence at the hands of their fathers, uncles or brothers. In addition, women are also victims of forced prostitution and slavery which provide further evidence of patriarchal dominance of Arab men over Arab women.

However, despite the prevalence of female oppression across the Islamic world, El Saadawi does not believe that female oppression is caused by Islam.

She points out that male female oppression exists in many non-Islamic cultures and is in fact just as common in Christian cultures. A classic example of this is in the 14th century when the Catholic Church declared that women who treated those who were ill, without special training, could be executed as witches.

(Possibly our fixation with the oppression of women in Islamic cultures is a result of a broader anti-Islamic prejudice?)

For El Saadawi, the oppression of women is caused by ‘the patriarchal system which came into being when society had reached a certain stage of development’. It just so happened that Islam developed in those areas of the world which already had extremely patriarchal social structures. Over the centuries, Islamic doctrine was thus shaped by men and reflected their interests, with women’s voices being effectively unheard in this process.

Ultimately, El Saadawi believes that where religion evolves within patriarchal cultures, men distort religion to act in their own interests and to help justify their own privilege and the oppression of women.

The Origins of Oppressive Religion

El Saadawi argues that religion became patriarchal through the misinterpretation of religious beliefs by men.

She uses the Greek myth of Isis and Osiris as an example of this in which the evil Touphoun overpowers the male Osiris. His body is cut into small pieces and dispersed in the sea, and fish eats his sexual organ.

To El Saadawi, this story clearly implies female superiority, but men have interpreted it quite differently. They have emphasised the superiority of Osiris because he was created from the head of the god Zeus, who was greater than Osiris, according to Homer and other writers, because he was more knowledgeable.

However, the above is a narrow interpretation which conveniently leaves out the next link in the ‘creation chain’: all male gods were created by or given the ability to move by the greatest deity of them all, the goddess Isis.

Similar distortions have entered the story of Adam and Eve. Males usually portray Eve as a temptress who created sin in the world. However, if we read the original story as described in the Old Testament, it is easy for us to see clearly that Eve was gifted with knowledge, intelligence and superior mental capacities, whereas Adam was only one of her instruments, utilized by her to increase her knowledge and give shape to her creativity.

Monotheistic Religions and Female Oppression

El Saadawi argues that forms of religion that were oppressive to women developed as monotheistic religions (believing in a single god). Such religions were interpreted in the context of patriarchal societies, primarily by men. For example, male representatives of early Judaism interpreted Abraham as a patriarchal figure which served to justify the patriarchal family in which wives and children came to be under the uncontested power of the father.

Islam similarly developed patriarchal doctrines because it was established in the context of a patriarchal social structure: Authority in Islamic society belonged ultimately to the political ruler (the Khalifa) or the religious leader (the Imam), and then down through a small male minority who had power due to their ownership of herds of horses, camels and sheep, and finally down to the level of the lifeworld via the male head of household.

As a result, the enforcement of many laws in Islamic culture remains highly unequal. For example:

  • Although the Qur’an states that both men and women can be stoned to death for adultery, this fate rarely befalls men.
  • Men are permitted many wives, but women are not permitted many husbands
  • Husbands can divorce their wives instantaneously.

Fighting back against religions which oppress women

El Saadawi concludes that female oppression is not essentially due to religion, but due to the patriarchal system that has long been dominant. She is not hostile to religion, but only to the domination of religion by patriarchal ideology.

‘The great religions of the world uphold similar principles in so far as the submission of women to men is concerned. They also agree in the attribution of masculine characteristics to their God. Islam and Christianity have both constituted important stages inn the evolution of humanity. Nevertheless, where the cause of women was concerned, they added a new load to their already heavy chains. (El Saadawi,1980.)

She believes that the only way for women to free themselves from oppression is to themselves fight for their own liberation.

Thankfully, there is a long tradition of religious radicals doing precisely this, probably the best-known example being Jesus Christ himself who El Saadawi describes as a revolutionary leader who opposed oppression. She also points out that early Christianity tended to have codes which enforced the equal treatment of men and women.

Finally, El Saadawi believes that revolutions are generally beneficial to women and so can thus be regarded as a Marxist Feminist as much as a Radical Feminist.

Sources

Adapted from Haralmabos and Holborn 8th edition 2013

Find out More

El Saadawi (2015) The Hidden Face of Eve: Women in the Arab World (new edition)

 

Mary Daly’s Perspective on Religion

Feminist Mary Daly argued that Christianity was a set of patriarchal myths. She was heavily inspired by Simon de Beavoir.

Mary Daly theorised that women were part of a ‘planetary sexual caste system’ which was patriarchal and exploitative of women. She saw this religious patriarchy as being maintained in a number of ways:

The early Catholic church systematically eliminated religions in which female gods were equal to or more powerful than male gods. It also ‘demoted’ the role of female figures in the historical record: for example, Mary Magdalene, who in reality played a large role in the spread of Christianity, is given less significance than is appropriate, according to Daly.

Churches have also tended to support a type of sex role segregation in society in which women are given a ‘derivative status’. This means that women derive their status not from their own contribution to society, but from their husband. Daly further argued that early socialisation of women into subordinate roles meant that women willingly consented to their inferior status.

Patriarchal religious ideology teaches that patriarchal religious institutions are bestowed by God. This ideology also teaches that the subordinate status of women is God’s will, and that it is virtuous for women to accept such positions.

Much like Simon de Beauvoir, Daly also believed that women encouraged false consciousness. It taught them that the way to redemption was through prayer, rather than concrete struggle against religious authorities in society.

Daly placed particular attention on the role of imagery and language in perpetuating male control and female subordination. For example God is often portrayed as male ‘ which serves to alienate women and places them in an inferior position to men.

In order to liberate themselves from religious oppression, women needed to abolish the male-centered language used by mainstream religions and replace it with a different language. Daly also believed that ultimately women needed to stop relying on ‘religion from above’, and should instead seek ‘spirituality from within’.

Simone de Beauvoir: Religion and the Second Sex

A brief summary of Radical Feminist Simone de Beauvoir’s perspective on the role of religion in oppressing and deceiving women into accepting their second class status.

Simone de Beauvoir theorized that religion oppresses women in much the same way as it oppresses the proletariat in Marxist theory.

‘There must be a religion for women as there must be one for the common people, and for exactly the same reason’ (Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 1949).

According to de Beauvoir, religion is used by men to oppress women and to compensate for them for the second-class status.

De Beauvoir argued that historically, men, who have traditionally controlled most institutions in society, also control religion. It is men who control religion beliefs, and they use God to justify their control of society.

De Beauvoir writes:

‘For the Jews, Mohammedans, and Christians, among others, men is master by divine right; the fear of God will therefor repress any impulse towards revolt in the downtrodden female.’

Religion Simone de Beauvoir.png

However, in modern societies, religion is more of a tool of deception than of direct control. Religion deceives women into thinking that are equal to, or even better than men, despite their inferior status in reality.

For example, the role of mother is given divine status in most religions, and thus encourages women to accept the role of ‘mother’ in society. Religion also provides psychological rewards for women who content themselves with being ‘good mothers’: simply being a ‘good mother’ is ‘divine’, and this effectively carries its own psychological and status rewards for women who accept this role.

However, according to radical feminist theory more generally, the motherhood role is one of the most oppressive for women: it means that women become financially dependent on men and end up doing a lot more work in society, especially in reproducing the next generation.

In fact, de Beauvoir says that those women who accept their religiously sanctioned roles as mother actually benefit religious institutions. This is because they socialise them into religious belief: thus reproducing power inequalities.

Finally, for de Beauvoir, the compensations women receive from traditional religious institutions for accepting their inferior status are not adequate.

Sources

Adapted from Haralambos and Holborne: Sociology Themes and Perspectives, edition 8.

The Neo-Marxist Perspective on Religion

In contrast to Marx’s view that religion was a conservative force, neo-marxists recognize the role that religion can play in bringing about radical social change.

Otto Maduro’s Neo-Marxist Perspective on Religion (1)

One of the earliest Marxists to recognize this was Engels, who saw similarities between some of the early Christian sects that resisted Roman rule and late 19th century communist and socialist movements.

So from a neo-Marxist point of view, while Christianity may have originated as an oppressive force, it is possible for it to ‘evolve’ into a source of resistance which has the potential to bring about radical social change.

Otto Maduro – the relative autonomy of religion 

neo-marxism religion otto maduro.png

Otto Maduro was a neo-Marxist who argued that religious institutions have a degree of freedom from the economic base. Religious institutions do not always work for the benefits of powerful elites, they can act independently (with autonomy).

Going even further, Maduro argued that in some societies, religion might actually be the only institution through which people can organise for radical social change.

Writing about Latin America, Maduro does argue that Catholicism has traditionally tended to act as a conservative force. It has tended to support the political and economic elites, even if they are military dictatorships.

However, towards the middle of the 19th century, some catholic priests became increasingly critical of the radical inequalities in Latin America. These priests took up the cause of landless peasants and became supporters/leaders of movements for social justice. One example of this is the Liberation Theology Movement (forthcoming post). In the late 1970s especially, Liberation Theology was very critical of the wealth and power of The Bourgeoisie in Latin America, and were vocal supports of wealth redistribution.

Maduro argues that where oppressed and impoverished populations have no outlet for their grievances other than the church, the clergy are ‘forced’ to represent them.

Related posts:

You might also like to check out this post on Marxist/ neo-Marxist theory and methods.

The Functionalist Perspective on Religion: Summary Revision Notes

According to Functionalism, religion acts as a conservative force by reinforcing social norms and promoting social solidarity. This post is A summary of the key ideas of the main Functionalist theorists of religion: Durkheim, Parsons and Malinowski.

According to Functionalism, religion acts as a conservative force by reinforcing social norms and promoting social solidarity. This post is A summary of the key ideas of the main Functionalist theorists of religion: Durkheim, Parsons and Malinowski.

The Functionalist Perspective on Religion_2.png

This is a work in progress, please click the links above for more detailed posts!

Emile Durkheim

  • Studied Totemism among Australian Aboriginal clans in which the sacred totem represented different clans.
  • Religious symbols are simultaneously symbols of God and Society, and thus when people worship religion they are also ‘worshipping society’, religious symbols serve as a simplified representation of a more complex whole, reminded individuals that they are merely small and part of a much ‘bigger picture’.
  • Religion acts as a constraining (conservative) force: through religious worship (ceremonies) the ‘collective conscience’ is imprinted on the individual: they literally ‘feel’ the weight of the community on them.
  • Religion reinforces a sense of belonging and shared identity to society.

Bronislow Malinowski

  • Argued religion had more specific functions than Durkheim:
  • Religion helps individuals to deal with the psychological stresses which occur in times of social change – such as births, marriage and deaths. Beliefs can help people ‘make sense’ of death for example and can act as a source of catharsis for the bereaved.
  • Religious rituals also help society through the disruption to social order caused by life changing events such as death.
  • Religion helps people deal with situations which they cannot predict or control – e.g. the Trobriand Islanders used religious ritual when fishing in the dangerous, unpredictable ocean, but not the calm lagoons.
  • Unlike Durkheim does not see religion as reflecting society as a whole, nor does he see religious ritual as ‘worshipping society’.

Talcott Parsons

  • Saw the main function of religion as being the maintenance of social order.
  • Religion promotes value consensus: many legal systems are based on religious morals for example.
  • Like Malinowski Parsons saw religious beliefs and rituals as helping maintain social order in times of social change (such as death) and to help individuals make sense of unpredictable events.
  • Religion can also help people make sense of contradictory events.

Criticisms of the Functionalist Perspective on Religion

  • Religion does not always promote harmony: it can promote conflict: there may be conflicts within religion, or between religions for example.
  • Ignores the role religion can play in promoting social change
  • Secularisation means that religion performs fewer functions today: thus functionalism may be less relevant.

Beliefs in society revision bundle for sale

If you like this sort of thing then you might like my ‘beliefs in society’ revision bundle.

The bundle contains the following:

  • Eight mind maps covering the sociological perspectives on beliefs in society. In colour!
  • 52 Pages of revision notes covering the entire AQA ‘beliefs in society’ specification: from perspectives on religion, organisations, class, gender ethnicity and age and secularisation, globalisation and fundamentalism.
  • Three 10 mark ‘outline and explain’ practice exam  questions and model answers
  • Three 10 mark ‘analyse using the item’ 10 practice exam questions and answers
  • Three 30 mark essay questions and extended essay plans.

The content focuses on the AQA A-level sociology specification. All at a bargain price of just £4.99!

I’ve taught A-level sociology for 16 years and have been an AQA examiner for 10 of those, so I know what I’m talking about, and if you purchase from me you’re avoiding all those horrible corporations that own the major A-level text books and supporting a fully fledged free-range human being, NOT a global corporate publishing company.

The Marxist Perspective on Religion

Marx and Engels saw religion as a conservative force which prevented social change by creating false consciousness. This post summarises their key ideas and offers some supporting evidence and criticisms.

From Marx’s materialistic perspective, religion serves to mystify the real relations between men and inanimate objects.

In reality, according to Marx, nature is an impersonal force which imposes limitations on man’s capacity to act, but nature can be understood scientifically and manipulated rationally, via technology, potentially for the benefit of man-kind.

However, through religion, humans project personal characteristics onto nature: they invent gods which they believe have control over nature, and come to believe that the way to manipulate nature is to appeal to these gods through ritual or sacrifice.

The Marxist Perspective on Religion (1).png

Religion as the ‘Opium of the People’

In Marx’s own words:

‘Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the sentiment of a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions. it is the opium of the people’.

marxist perspective religion

According to Marx, one of the main ‘functions’ of religion is to prevent people making demands for social change by dulling pain of oppression, as follows:

  1. The promise of an afterlife gives people something to look forwards to. It is easier to put up with misery now if you believe you have a life of ‘eternal bliss’ to look forward to after death.
  2. Religion makes a virtue out of suffering – making it appear as if the poor are more ‘Godly’ than the rich. One of the best illustrations of this is the line in the bible: ‘It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of heaven.
  3. Religion can offer hope of supernatural intervention to solve problems on earth: this makes it pointless for humans to try to do anything significant to help improve their current conditions.
  4. Religion can justify the social order and people’s position within that order, as in the line in the Victorian hymn ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’:
  • The rich man in his castle
  • The poor man at his gate
  • God made them high and lowly
  • And ordered their estate.

Such lines make social inequalities seem as if they are ‘God’s will’ an thus unchangeable.

From the Marxist Perspective, religion does not only ameliorate the sufferings of life, it also effectively creates false consciousness.

Marx believed that the ‘objective’ truth was that the proletariat (i.e. most people) suffer deprivations because of their exploitation by the Bourgeois (namely the extraction of surplus value empowers the minority Bourgeois class and leaves the majority of the proletariat with insufficient money to lead a decent quality of life), however, people fail to realise this because religion teaches them that all of the misery in life is God’s will.

Or in Marx’s own words:

‘In religion people make their empirical world into an entity that is only conceived, imagined, that confronts them as something foreign’.

Religion and Social Control

Religion also acts as a tool of social control in a more direct sense: according to Marx and Engels:

‘The parson has ever gone hand in hand with the landlord’.

This was especially true in feudal England when the landed classes’ decisions were frequently legitimated be religious decree: as Marx and Engels saw it, the bourgeois and the church supported one another: the former generously funded the later, and church legitimated social inequality, thus maintaining the established social order.

The non-necessity of religion under communism

Religion is only necessary under exploitative systems where the majority of men do not control the conditions under which they labour, under systems where men work for someone else rather than for themselves: in such systems, religious doctrines which teach that ‘you are insignificant in the eyes of gods/ the supernatural’ make sense, and serve a useful function for those who are in control of and who benefit from said exploitation.

Under communism, where man controls the conditions of his labour, he is essentially ‘for himself’, and thus will have no need of religion. Under communism, where reality is ‘fair’ religion will not be required, and so will simply whither away.

religion opium masses
The original text where Marx’s ‘opium’ line first appeared in 1844.

Evidence to support Marxism

There is a considerable body of historical evidence which supports the Marxist view of the role of religion in society: for example the traditional caste system in India was supported by Hindu religious believes (in reincarnation for example); and in Medieval Europe Kings ruled by the ‘divine right of God’. Possibly the most ‘extreme’ example, however, is in ancient the ancient Egyptian belief which held that Pharaohs were both men and gods at the same time.

A more recent example, drawn from the USA, lies in the support that Republican politicians have enjoyed from the ‘New Christian Right’ who, according to Steve Bruce (1988), support ‘a more aggressive anti-communist foreign policy, more military spending, less welfare spending and fewer restraints on enterprise’.

The new Christian right have persistently supported more right wing (neo) liberal candidates – such as Ronald Regan in 1984 and George Bush in 2004 – when the later was elected, an exit poll found that two thirds of voters who attended church more than once a week had voted for him.

While it might be debatable how successful the religious right in the USA are in getting their candidates elected to political power, what does seem clear is that they do tend to support more economically powerful sectors of the political elite, suggesting support for the Marxist view of religion.

Criticisms of the Marxist perspective on religion

Firstly, it is clear that religion does not always prevent social change by creating false class consciousness. There are plenty of examples of where oppressed groups have used religion to attempt (whether successful or not is moot here) to bring about social change, as we will see in the neo-Marxist perspective on religion.

Secondly, religion still exists where there is (arguably) no oppression: the USSR communist state placed limits on the practice of religion, including banning religious instruction to children, however, religious belief remained stronger in the 20th century in Russia and Eastern Europe than it did in the capitalist west.

Thirdly, and building on the previous point: just because religion can be used as a tool of manipulation and oppression, this does not explain its existence: religion seems to be more or less universal in all societies, so it is likely that it fulfills other individual and social needs, possibly in a more positive way as suggested by Functionalist theorists such as Durkheim, Malinowski, and Parsons.

Sources

Adapted from Haralmabos and Holborn (2008) Sociology Themes and Perspectives, 7th Edition, Collins.

Beliefs in society revision bundle for sale

If you like this sort of thing then you might like my ‘beliefs in society’ revision bundle.

The bundle contains the following:

  • Eight mind maps covering the sociological perspectives on beliefs in society. In colour!
  • 52 Pages of revision notes covering the entire AQA ‘beliefs in society’ specification: from perspectives on religion, organisations, class, gender ethnicity and age and secularisation, globalisation and fundamentalism.
  • Three 10 mark ‘outline and explain’ practice exam  questions and model answers
  • Three 10 mark ‘analyse using the item’ 10 practice exam questions and answers
  • Three 30 mark essay questions and extended essay plans.

The content focuses on the AQA A-level sociology specification. All at a bargain price of just £4.99!

I’ve taught A-level sociology for 16 years and have been an AQA examiner for 10 of those, so I know what I’m talking about, and if you purchase from me you’re avoiding all those horrible corporations that own the major A-level text books and supporting a fully fledged free-range human being, NOT a global corporate publishing company.

Talcott Parsons’ Perspective on Religion

A summary of Talcott Parson’s functionalist perspective on religion

More than any other Functionalist, Parsons developed Functionalism as a ‘systems theory’: he understands the role of one institution in terms of how it maintains the whole system. You might find it useful to review his general systems approach to social theory here before reading the rest of this post.

Functionalism parsons religion.jpg

For Talcott Parsons, religion is one sub-system among many, and it performs vital but limited functions in the maintenance of social order.

Religion and Value Consensus

Parsons sees religion as part of the cultural sub-system of society and religious beliefs provide a guideline for human action which give rise to a more specific set of norms according to which people should act.

For example, in many Christian societies, the 10 commandments form the basis of laws which govern human behaviour, such as:

  • ‘Thou shalt not kill’ forms the basis of laws against murder
  • ‘Thou shalt not steal’ forms the basis of laws against property theft.

So for Parsons, religious belief provides a set of values, or general principles which form the basis of value consensus, which other institutions then reinforce in more concrete ways.

Religion and Social Order

Much like Malinowski, Parsons sees one of religion’s primary functions as being to help people deal with problems which disrupt social life. There are two categories of problem, which basically mirror Malinowski’s thinking on the matter:

  • Firstly, there are those occasions when people are hit by events which are totally unexpected and have a negative impact, the main example being premature death. In such situations, religion can help people make sense of these events and restore normal patterns of life. A religious belief in the afterlife, for example, offers the bereaved a way of imagining that their dead son/ wife/ friend is ‘waiting for them on the other side’, and so not really ‘gone’ forever.
  • Secondly, there are those routine aspects of life in which people invest considerable time and effort in order to achieve a particular outcome, but are still characterized by uncertainty of outcome. Agriculture is a good example of this: several weeks or even months of the year might be spent sowing and tending crops, only for the whole harvest to be laid waste by droughts or disease. In such situation, religious belief offers an explanation for the disastrous outcome, helps people cope with the hardships with may follow, and helps to restore faith in the initial effort made despite said disastrous outcome.

As with Malinowski, Parsons argues that religion serves to maintain social stability by relieving the tensions and frustrations that arise following such unpredictable problems.

Religion and Meaning

A third function of religion according to Parsons is that it helps individuals to make sense of experiences which are contradictory.

Probably the best example of this is the way religion helps people to make sense of the injustice of people who profit through immoral behaviour – Christianity, for example, says that these people will reap their punishment in the afterlife, by going to purgatory or hell, while those who ‘suffer virtuously in poverty’ in this life, will reap the reward of heaven.

Thus religion helps people to adjust to the various worldly experiences of inequality and injustice, again maintaining harmony.

Evaluations to follow

Sources 

 

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