Sociological in any sort of detail, with his

Sociological
Understanding of Religion

Religion
is a prevalent topic in sociology, with Emile Durkheim and his functionalist
theory, Karl Marx and his conflict theory, and Max Weber and his symbolic
interactionist theory all having their own opinions and perspectives on the
topic. While their views on religion do have differences when compared with
each other, there are similarities among them that point towards what the
general sociological understanding may be. These similarities are that they
believe that religion has a significant role or purpose in society, and that as
society continues to modernize, religion will eventually lose power and
possibly cease to exist.

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Despite Karl Marx’s influence on the
sociological understanding of religion, Marx never actually studied religion in
any in any sort of detail, with his ideas being mainly derived from various 19th
century philosophers and theologists such as Ludwig Feurbach, writer of The Essence of Christianity. Marx knew
that religion did serve a function or purpose in society, but did not agree with
the basis of its function. For example, most people see religion through faith
or teachings that are deemed to be truth, however Marx did not believe in truths
that are unseen. He believed that religion is preventing people from seeing the
truth of situations, that followers of religion are being misguided, and that
humans should be led by rational thought and reason rather than mere beliefs. A
well-known statement made by Karl Marx on religion is that, “Religion is the
opium of the people”, which in context is Marx arguing that humans constructed
religion as a way to calm any doubts over their roles in society and the
universe. With Marx’s “social-conflict approach”, he argued that one of
religion’s significant functions in society is to help maintain the status quo,
believing that religion accomplishes this by teaching people to accept their
lives as they presently are, no matter how bad they may be, and by promising
rewards for going through hardships in the supposed after-life rather than in
the life that they are currently living in. He believed that by focusing
attention on rewards that will only be present in another life, religion
prohibits social change from happening by making people show no forms of
resistance to oppressive conditions and inequalities that are present in this
world and by making them justify wealth and power inequalities for those who
are privileged. Marx also believed that religion could possibly be used by the
wealthy as a means to unconsciously control the less wealthy public.

Unlike Emile Durkheim who claimed
that his theory applied to religion as a whole despite basing his arguments on
a small set of examples, Max Weber conducted a large-scale study of religions
across the entire world, with his main interest being in large, global
religions with millions of followers. Weber conducted in-depth research on Christianity,
Ancient Judaism, Hinduism, Taosim, and Buddhism, and in 1904 wrote the book, The
Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, where he examined Christianity’s impact on thinking and culture in Western
Society. The main purpose of this research was to analyze how large of an impact
religion has on social change. For example, Weber analyzed capitalism in
different religions and noticed that in Western religions such as Protestantism,
capitalism did have significant roots. In the case of Protestantism, he believed
that the Protestant Ethic, which in sociological theory is the value that is
attached to efficiency, hard work and thrift in one’s worldly calling and how
it is deemed as a sign of an individual’s eternal salvation was an important factor
into the economic success of Protestant groups while capitalism in Europe was
in its early stages. This is because economic success and prosperity was
vigorously pursued due to the belief of it being a stepping stone into eternal
salvation. In comparison, Weber noticed that in Eastern religions such as
Hinduism, there were barriers to the development of capitalism as these
religions would generally focus on attaining spirituality by giving up or not
focusing on material goods and wealth, making the concept of earning and
spending money not appeal to this perspective and therefore resulting in
capitalism not being as prevalent.

The structural-functional
approach to religion is based on the Emile Durkheim’s work on religion. Emile
Durkheim was interested in religious behavior within a social context and was
known to stress religion’s social impact on society. Emile Durkheim believed
that religion serves several important functions for society regardless of the
way that it may be practiced or the religious beliefs that a certain society
may favor. He proposed that religion has three major functions in society: it helps
maintain social solidarity through shared beliefs and rituals by providing
social cohesion, it helps to maintain control and conformity in society by giving
social control to morals and norms based on religion, and it offers meaning and
purpose to answer existential questions. Durkheim believed that religion is not
“imaginary” and that it is very real. He viewed religion as being a representation
of our collective consciousness, which is a reality of its own created from the
fusion of everyone in a society’s individual consciousness and shared
sentiments. Durkheim predicted that as society modernized, the influence of
religion would decrease as a result and the concept of “God” would cease to
exist. He believed that this would eventually happen because of his beliefs
that in the future, the religious way of thinking would be replaced with a more
scientific of thinking, and envisioned society promoting civil religion rather
than the standard religion. As a result of civil religion becoming dominant,
events such as parades, civil celebrations and showings of patriotism would
replace the usual religious gatherings and prayer sessions such as church
services. In the event that traditional religion were to carry on however,
Durkheim believed that this would only be done as a way to preserve order and
social cohesion.