Sociological Theories of Religion | UPSC Notes

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Sociological Theories of Religion

The study of religion is difficult and puts a lot of pressure on sociologists’ ability to think outside the box. When we look at religious practises, we have to figure out how to make sense of all the different beliefs and rituals from different countries. We must be sensitive to ideas that make people feel very strongly, but we must also look at them in a fair way. We have to deal with ideas that look for the infinite, but we also have to be aware that religious groups also work towards very ordinary goals, like getting money or getting people to join them. We should not only acknowledge the different religious views and ways of living, but also try to figure out what religion is all about.

Sociologists say that religion is a cultural system of shared beliefs and practises that gives people a sense of ultimate meaning and purpose by making a sacred, all-encompassing, and supernatural version of reality.This description is based on three main points:

Culture includes religion. Culture is made up of the shared beliefs, values, rules, and ideas that give a group of people a sense of identity. All of these things are true of religion.

Religion is a set of ideas that are shown through rituals.So, all religions have something to do with how people act, like special things that people who follow the religion do that show they are part of that group.

Religion may be the most important thing because it gives people a sense of purpose and a feeling that life has a point.It does this by describing in a way that other parts of culture, like an educational system or a belief in democracy, usually can’t, what goes beyond or is bigger than everyday life.

What isn’t in the sociological meaning of religion is just as important as what is. For example, there is no mention of God anywhere in the definition. Theism, which comes from the Greek word for “God” and means “belief in one or more supernatural deities,” is often thought of as the foundation of faith. However, this is not always the case. Some faiths, like Buddhism, don’t believe in a single God but rather in spiritual forces.

Sociologists have these thoughts about religion:

Sociologists don’t care if religious views are right or wrong. From a sociological point of view, faiths are not seen as something that God told people to do. But as something that people make up together. Sociologists have to put their own views aside when they study religion.

They care more about how religion affects people than how it affects God.Sociologists wonder:

  • How is the faith put together?
  • What do its main beliefs and ideals look like?
  • How does it fit into the bigger picture?
  • What makes it work or not work at attracting and keeping believers?

Sociologists are especially interested in how religion is set up in society.Religion is one of society’s most important organisations.They are one of the main places where the most important rules and ideals come from. At the same time, faiths are often practised in a wide range of social ways, which adds to the diversity of society.In Christianity and Judaism, for example, religious practise often takes place in formal groups. In Asian faiths, on the other hand,

In Hinduism and Buddhism, most religious practises happen at home or in other nature places. Sociology of religion is the study of how different faith groups and institutions work in real life. In modern industrial society, however, religions have become separate, often bureaucratic organisations. Sociologists study these organisations because they are the only way for faiths to stay alive (Hammond 1992).

Sociologists often see religion as a big reason why people stick together. Religions are an important source of social unity to the extent that they give people a shared set of rules and ideals. Religious beliefs, rituals, and bonds help to form what Wuthnow (1988) calls a “moral community” in which everyone knows how to act towards each other. When one religion rules a country, things are stable. If people in a society follow a lot of different religions that don’t agree with each other, this could lead to social problems that make things worse. Recent examples of religious conflict in a society include fights between Sikhs, Hindus, and Muslims in India, fights between Muslims and Christians in Bosnia and other parts of the former Yugoslavia, and “hate crimes” against Jews, Muslims, and other religious communities in the United States.

Sociologists tend to understand “the appeal of religion” in terms of “social forces rather than purely personal, spiritual, or psychological factors.” Many people’s religious beliefs are very personal and involve a strong sense of connection with forces that go beyond normal life. Sociologists don’t doubt how strong these feelings and experiences are, but they aren’t going to stop at a spiritual explanation of religious commitment.

Some researchers say that people often “get religion” when their basic sense of social order is threatened by economic hardship, loneliness, loss or grief, physical suffering, or poor health (Berger, 1967). When explaining the appeal of religious movements, sociologists are more likely to focus on the problems of the social order than on the psychological response of the individual.

Karl Marx’s theory about religion was:

Karl Marx, a German thinker, looked at religion from a conflict point of view. Marx saw religion as a reflection of society, not as an expression of “primitive” or psychological needs, as other thinkers of his time did. Marx, unlike theorists like Durkheim, focused on religion’s problems as a social organisation.Marx thought that religion served the interests of the ruling class at the cost of the powerless masses, while Durkheim thought that religion helped everyone by encouraging social commitment.

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Marx said, “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the feeling of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.” It is the drug that keeps folks going.

Marx said, “Just as a painkiller covers up the signs of illness and makes the sick person think he or she is fine, so does religion cover up the exploitation of workers and make them think that the way things are now is fair or, if not fair, unavoidable.”

So, Marx said that religion as a social institution teaches that people will be rewarded in heaven based on their place on earth. In this way, religion hides the exploitative traits that are hidden in the class system and the elite’s interest in keeping things the same.

In this way, faith becomes a way for the rich to take advantage of and control the poor.

Marx saw religion as “the personification of alienation,” which is the feeling of being separated from oneself that people have when they feel like they no longer have control over social structures. He used the word “alienation” to talk about how a modern worker feels like they are just “a cog in a machine.” He also used this idea to talk about how faith, in his view, made people less human. “The more a worker puts himself into his work, the more powerful the world of objects he creates in front of himself, the poorer he becomes in his inner life, and the less he belongs to himself.” The same thing happens in religion. Marx said, “The more of himself a man gives to God, the less of himself he has left.”

Marx’s condemnation and rejection of religion in society was total, as the quotes above show. He said that people won’t start to want real happiness until they give up the fake happiness they get from religion.

He wrote, “The institution of religion disillusions man so that he will think, act, and shape his reality as a man who has…regained his reason.” This was part of his attack on religion as an exploitative social institution in the hands of the bourgeois class. He thought that religion wouldn’t be important or useful in a society without classes and with a communist form of economic order. Religion would die of old age, just like the ruling class.

So, Karl Marx thought that religion was a pointless and manipulative organisation that was part of the exploitative superstructure. When the economic foundation or base changes, both religious and cultural groups change as well. Religion and culture come from the way power is distributed in society, and religion would die out if society changed from a class society to a classless society.

Functionalism and holy(religious) rituals:

Unlike Marx, Emile Durkheim spent much of his professional life studying religion. Durkheim’s work “The Elementary Forms of Religious Life” is one of the most important studies in the sociology of religion. It focuses on religion in small-scale, traditional cultures. Durkheim doesn’t think that religion is mostly about social inequality or power. Instead, he thinks that religion is about how the structures of a society work as a whole. His work is based on a study of totemism as it is practised by Australian Aboriginal tribes. He says that totemism is religion in its most “elementary” or basic form, which is why his book is called “Elementary Religion.”

In the past, a totem was an animal or plant that was seen as having a special meaning for a group. It is a sacred item that is treated with respect and surrounded by different rituals.Durkheim says that religion is the difference between what is holy and what is not holy. He says that sacred objects and symbols are treated differently from everyday things. For example, killing a totemic animal or plant, unless it’s for a special ceremony, is usually forbidden. As a sacred object, the totem is thought to have divine properties that make it different from other animals that could be hunted or crops that could be gathered and eaten.

What makes the totem holy? Durkheim says it’s because it’s a sign of the group itself and represents the values that are most important to the group or community.The respect people have for the totem comes from how much they value important social values.The thing that people worship in religion is actually society itself.

Durkheim made it clear that faiths are never just about what people believe. All religions have ceremonies and rituals that take place on a daily basis and bring people together. In group ceremonies, the feeling of being part of the same group is reaffirmed and made stronger.Ceremonies take people away from the worries of everyday life and into a higher realm where they feel in touch with higher forces. These forces, which are often credited to totems, divine influence, or goods, are really the result of the power of the group over the individual.

Durkheim thought that ceremony and ritual were important for bringing people together, not just during worship but also during big life changes like birth, marriage, and death.Almost everywhere, rituals and ceremonies are done on these kinds of events. Durkheim thinks that group ceremonies help people feel more connected to their group when they are having to deal with big changes in their lives. Funeral traditions show that a group’s values live on after a person dies, which helps grieving people get used to their new lives. Grief doesn’t always come out in the form of mourning, or at least it doesn’t for those who are directly touched by the death. The group makes it a job to mourn.

Durkheim said that faith affects almost every part of life in small, traditional cultures. Religious ceremonies both create new ideas and ways of thinking and reaffirm ideals that people already believe in.Religion is more than just a set of feelings and actions. In traditional countries, it actually shapes the way people think.Even the most basic ways of thinking, like how we think about time and place, were first explained in religious terms. For example, the idea of “time” came from counting the breaks in religious ceremonies.

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Durkheim thought that as cultures become more modern, religion loses its power. Religious explanations are being replaced by scientific ones, and ceremonies and rituals are becoming a smaller and smaller part of people’s lives.Durkheim agrees with Marx that traditional religion, which is religion based on gods or a higher power, is about to die out. Durkheim writes, “The old gods are dead.” Still, he says that religion, in different ways, is likely to keep going on.routines that remind people of their values keep even modern societies together. Because of this, you can expect new routines to replace the old ones. Durkheim isn’t clear about what these might be, but it seems like he has in mind the celebration of humanist and political ideals like freedom, equality, and social cooperation.

Aside from Durkheim, many other social scientists have looked at what religion does for the person, the group, or society by looking at how it works and how it doesn’t work. A lot of these social scientists are known to follow the functionalist way of thinking. Malinowski, a famous social anthropologist from the early 20th century, thought that faith and magic helped people deal with stress and anxiety. He says that religious rituals can help people who have lost a loved one reaffirm their collective solidarity and show their shared norms and values, which are important for the community to work well. Religion can also add to practical, empirical knowledge, giving a sense of understanding and control in places where practical, empirical knowledge doesn’t reach.

Radcliffe-Brown says that religious rituals, like dancing together as a group, helped keep people together and made it easier for the society to stay together and stay alive.He says that the religious views in myths and legends show how people feel about things like food, weapons, the day and night, etc., which have a big impact on social life. They make up the shared set of values that society is built on.

Recently, functionalism has rejected Durkheim’s idea that religious beliefs are just symbols of society, even though it still believes that religion is an important part of keeping society together.Kingsley Davis says that religious beliefs are the reason for and justification of socially valued goals. Religion gives people a shared sense of identity and an endless supply of awards and punishments for how they act.

The fact that religious belief and involvement seem to be going down is a problem for functionalist theories of religion.In functionalist words, what other theories call “secularisation” is just a change in religion. Functionalist theorists say that religion looks different in societies that seem to be secular. They say that religion is more personal and less tied to religious structures in these societies.Modern industrial capitalism and its strong sense of independence can be seen in the different ways people practise religion in places like the United States. Even though celebrating independence doesn’t seem to have much in common with other religions, it is one of the things that brings them together. Also, new and unique forms of religion may have hidden benefits for the system by keeping followers from being critical of their society and how awards are given out.

In non-religious societies, like some communist states, this theory doesn’t work, but here, it’s said that traditional religion isn’t the only way things work. In other places, other ways of believing, like communism, play the same role as faith. National ceremonies and rituals that celebrate communist wins, heroes, etc., fill the same need for shared rituals that remind people of how they feel and make them more committed to the same goals.

Lastly, civil religion occurs even in societies in the West that are very secular.This is made up of abstract beliefs and practises that connect society to the ultimate and give a reason for national history and a transcendental foundation for national goals and purposes.

Robert King Merton, a functionalist from the 20th century, came up with the idea of disorder. When he talked about religion, for example, he pointed out the parts of religion that don’t work in a society with many different religions.In this kind of culture, religion could lead to chaos and division instead of bringing people together.

Besides Merton, many other social thinkers have also pointed out how faith can go wrong. Karl Marx thought that faith gave the proletariat a false sense of self, which stopped the ‘class for itself’ from growing.It keeps them from becoming who they really are and reaching their full potential.

The theory of religion by Max Weber:

Even though Durkheim says his ideas apply to religion in general, he only used a small number of cases to back up his claims.Max Weber, on the other hand, started a huge study of faiths all over the world. No scholar has taken on a project of this size before or since.Most of his attention was on what he called the “world religions.” These are the religions that have a lot of followers and have had a big impact on world history.He did in-depth research on Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and ancient Judaism. He also wrote a lot about how Christianity changed the past of the West in the Protestant Ethnic and the Spirit of Capitalism and other places. He did not finish his planned study of Islam, though.

Weber’s writings about religion are different from those of Durkheim because they focus on the link between faith and social change. Durkheim didn’t pay much attention to this. They are different from Marx’s ideas because Weber says that religion is not always a conservative force. On the contrary, Weber says that religiously inspired groups have often led to big changes in society.So, Protestantism was the cause of the modern West’s focus on making money.Most of the first business people were Calvinists. Their desire to do well, which helped start the economic growth of the West, came from a desire to serve God. For them, having money was a sign that God was looking out for them.

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He talks about how Protestantism affected the growth of the west as part of a larger effort to understand how religion affects social and economic life in different countries.Weber looked at the Eastern religions and came to the conclusion that they made it impossible for industrial capitalism to grow like it did in the West. This isn’t because non-Western cultures are behind the times; they just have different values than those that came to be most important in Europe.Weber pointed out that in traditional China and India, there were times when trade, manufacturing, and urbanisation grew a lot. However, these changes did not lead to the extreme patterns of social change that came with the rise of industrial capitalism in the West.Religion was a big reason why this didn’t happen.

Weber used the word “other-worldly” to describe religions like Hinduism. That is, its greatest ideals stress getting away from the troubles of the material world and living on a more spiritual level. Hinduism doesn’t try to control or change the material world through its religious feelings and motives.On the other hand, Hinduism thinks that material world is just a mask that hides the real things that people should care about.Confucianism also took people’s attention away from economic development as it was known in the West. Instead of trying to take control of the world, it stressed harmony with it. China was for a long time the most powerful and culturally advanced country in the world. However, its strong faith values made it hard for the country to focus on economic growth for its own sake.

Weber thought of Christianity as a faith of salvation, which means that people can be “saved” if they believe what the religion says and follow its moral rules. The ideas of sin and how God’s forgiveness can save us from sin are important here. They make people feel tense and emotional in a way that most Eastern religions don’t. Salvation religions have a’revolutionary’ side. While the faiths of the East teach people to accept the way things are, Christianity teaches people to constantly fight against sin, which can make people rebel against the way things are. There are religious leaders, like Jesus, who rethink the teachings of the past in a way that challenges the power structure at the time.

A critical look at the old ( classical) ways of thinking:

Marx, Durkheim, and Weber all pointed out some important general aspects of religion, and in some ways, their ideas about religion are similar to each other. Karl Marx was probably right when he said that religion is often used to justify the interests of those in power at the cost of others. There are many examples of this throughout history.Take, for example, how Christianity affected the way European colonialists tried to rule over other societies. There’s no question that the missionaries who tried to convert “heathen” peoples to Christianity were sincere, but their teachings only helped to destroy traditional societies and put white people in charge. Up until the 1800s, almost all Christian groups in the United States and other parts of the world either didn’t mind slavery or supported it. People made up doctrines that said slavery was based on God’s law and that slaves who didn’t obey their masters broke God’s law as well.

But Max Weber was right to point out that religious ideas can shake up and even change the way things are done in society. For example, many church leaders were very important in the fight to end slavery in the United States, even though churches at first supported it. Many social movements to remove unjust systems of power have been fueled by religious beliefs. For example, the civil rights movements of the 1960s in the United States were largely driven by religious beliefs.

Religion has also changed society by causing armed fights and wars, which often lead to a lot of bloodshed.For example, Khalistan uprising, ISIS etc.

Durkheim’s work doesn’t talk much about these dividing effects of religion that have been so important in history.Durkheim focused most on how faith helps people get along with each other.Still, it’s not hard to change his ideas so that they explain religious division, conflict, change, and unity.After all, a lot of the anger that may be felt towards other religious groups comes from the strong commitment to religious ideals that each group of believers has.

One of the best things about Durkheim’s work is that he puts a lot of emphasis on ritual and ceremony. All faiths have regular gatherings of people who believe in them. These rituals also mark the big changes in life, such as birth, becoming an adult (many cultures have rituals for this), marriage, and death (Van Gennep, 1977).