Durkheim saw religion as a positive force within society as it has essential and beneficial effects for society. In formulating his theory of religion, Durkheim thought it necessary to find evidence that could be used to support his views. He supported his theory by using secondary research on Aboriginals – research that someone else had already carried out. He decided to study the Australian Aboriginal society as it was simpler to study that complex westernised societies and therefore the effects of religion on that society were more apparent and obvious and therefore were easier to record. All societies, he argued, were primitive at one time and developed societies are, in essence, just more complicated versions of these basic communities and they still have the same basic needs/requirements.
Durkheim studied the aboriginal religion of totenism whereby certain clans associated themselves with certain objects imbued with sacred powers (birds, animals, plants) and adopted them as their mascots. By worshipping these objects they were celebrating their own society.
Religion, Durkheim proposed, performs a number of functions; it provides stability and cohesion within society, it gives people a social identity (for example, Muslim, Christian), it provides a collective conscience – morality, it causes socialisation and allows social control, it teaches key values which regulate peoples behaviour and it gives a meaning and purpose to life.
Marx support Durkheim’s view of religion being a conservative force within society. For Marx, religion was, “the opiate of the people”, pumping perception distorting drugs into the proletariat like a hypodermic needle. For him it was a mechanism of social control, it regulates the behaviour of the working class and prevents them from seeing their true situation. It dulled the main of oppression of the proletariat in several ways. Religion emphasised the existence of an afterlife of eternal bliss – thus giving the oppressed something to look forward to – they felt that their treatment and the injustice against them would not matter when they died and went to heaven, and therefore they did not feel it necessary to rebel or disrupt the existing system as it was not encouraged by religion. Religion made a virtue out of the suffering produced by oppression, a virtue which made their present situation of poverty more tolerable as they knew they would be rewarded in the afterlife. Religion made the present more acceptable as it gave hope of supernatural intervention in the future when the problems on earth would be sorted out by God – the oppressed waited for this to happen instead of rebelling and overturning the system current at that time. The existing social order and hierarchy was justified as religion explained that it was decided by God. The oppressed accepted this philosophically as they believed there was nothing that they could do about it. Religion made the proletariats unsatisfactory lives bearable a it gave them hope in the future (in the form of an afterlife) and explained to them that there was nothing they could do to change their situations.
Marx also saw religion as creating false class consciousness, whereby the subject class were blinded to their situation and therefore the interests of the ruling class, powerful and elite, were maintained. Religion was, in essence, another part of the ruling class ideology, i.e. the pervading ideas of the ruling class in society which ensure that the existing social order of capitalism continued. Orthodox Marxist see religion as integrating, stabilizing and regulating people’s behaviour.
Feminists argue that religion is a conservative force in society and prevents social change, allowing the ongoing dominance of the patriarchy and of male ideology within society, thus preventing women from fully achieving equal rights. This is not a desirable effect for feminists who say that women will not be equal while religion plays an important part in society as it promotes the male dominated existing social order.
However other sociologists argue that religion is a radical force in society, causing conflict, a lack of stability and change within the society which it is in operation in.
Weber argues that religion is a radical force in society – a force for change. Weber was a social action theorist and emphasised that meanings (beliefs) and motives direct human behaviour (action). Marx says that it is the economic system that shapes or determines religious belief, Weber concedes that while this might sometimes be the case the reverse could be true, i.e. religious beliefs can influence economic behaviour, therefore producing social change. He sets out this belief in his book, “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism”. The key to understanding his work is the appreciation that his real concern was with the relationship between ideas and society. Like Marx, he believes that ideas are important, however it is not the ideas of the ruling class, but rather the religious ideas of Calvinism and how these effect peoples economic behaviour. According to the Calvinist belief system wealth and the accumulation of money and property was considered an outward manifestation of God’s favour and a sign that God had allocated a place in heaven for that person.
The Calvinist belief system harboured a belief of pre-ordination within it, suggesting that the ‘elect’ have already been allocated their places in heaven and people do not have free will to make their own choices as their lives are predestined. This therefore created a great incentive to live sober, hard working and worthy lives, to be sure of their place in heaven – convince and prove to themselves that they are part of the ‘elect’ by becoming wealthy. Calvinism encouraged abstinence from pleasures of life and stipulated that money could not be wasted on personal luxuries and therefore the only channel for it was re-investment. Weber argued that many people in the industrial north of Europe were Calvinists and he concluded from this fact that the Calvinist belief system had had a massive economic impact (was a radical force) on society as it helped capitalism to start off.
Neo-Marxists dispute Carl Marx’s original position and agree with Weber in saying that religion can produce social change. It is believed that Engels was the first to recognize that religion may be a vehicle of social change. This is demonstrated through looking back in time when early Christian sects resisted Roman rule – this shows that religion could be a source of resistance. A more recent account of the potential revolutionary force of religion is demonstrated in the following claim of the neo-Marxist Otto Manduro; Religion is not necessarily a functional, reproductive or conservative factor in society. It is often one of the main and sometimes the only available channel to bring about a social revolution. This claim is demonstrated by looking at; the Nationalist and Loyalist Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, and the 1979 revolution in Iran when the Iranian royal family was deposed and Iran was turned into a strict Islamic fundamentalist state.
It can be said that religion is a key agent of socialisation, that is, although it may cause a certain amount of change its primary effect on society is one of stability and cohesion. There are more cases of religion being a conservative force in society than there are of it being a radical one.
Here's what a star student thought of this essay
Quality of writing
The writer has spelled the names of some key theorists wrong; it should be “Karl Marx” not “Carl Marx”, and “Otto Maduro” not “Otto Manduro”. Nonetheless these few mistakes would not lessen the overall high marks this essay would be sure to receive – it is very impressive at GCSE level and, to be honest, is just as good as lots of A Level essays I have seen. The quality of writing is quite good because the candidate uses a variety of punctuation, for example quotation marks and brackets, and also doesn’t make any major grammatical errors.
Level of analysis
Key terms are used correctly, “the elect”, “socialisation”, “revolutionary force” and are explained correctly, “...and the profane (not religious/secular)” which demonstrates sociological understanding. As this is essentially a purely theoretical question, the candidate does well to mention as many theories and theorists as possible, such as Durkheim’s “analysis of aboriginal society”. Usually Calvinism, Marxism and Neo-Marxism are poorly understood at GCSE so this essay is rather superior to lots I have seen – this candidate clearly knows them all inside out as they write a wealth of information about each one. Different areas of the globe are discussed; “North of Europe” “Northern Island”, “Iran” which is refreshing because it shows that religion may be a conservative force in some countries but not others. Candidates tend to completely focus on the UK in Sociology, which decreases the amount of marks to potentially be awarded as sociology is the study of all different societies around the world.
Response to question
The writer provides a good introduction, explaining consensus and conflict theories which are essential to understand in order to answer the question. It is correctly structured because it provides the Functionalist Durkheim’s views that religion is indeed a conservative force (which the question asks for) and then continues to discuss theories of Marxism, Feminism, Calvinism and Neo-Marxism - so it addresses religion as a radical force also, therefore gaining lots of evaluative marks. This essay is well concluded, “There are more cases of religion being a conservative force in society than there are of it being a radical one” because the writer provides a final assessment of the question, coming to answer after considering both sides throughout. Overall this is already very impressive at GCSE level!