The Sociological Challenges to Religious Belief
The sociological approach to religious belief looks at how society
behaves on a whole, to answer the question, "Why are people
religious?" Durkheim tried to show that religion, despite its
importance to the religious individual, was a separate social
experience. He defined religion as a "unified system of beliefs and
practices related to sacred things." Therefore we must understand
sacred symbols and what they represent. As a Functionalist, religion
maintains social stability by removing tension that can disrupt social
order. Religion is seen in a positive light, promoting harmony in
He studied the Australian Aborigines, where each clan had a symbolic,
usually of nature, totem, to identify itself by and used in sacred
ceremonies. He therefore concluded that since the totem was involved
in scared ritual, it was a symbol of both society and God, so the
Aborigines worshiped both God and society. He suggested that we
worship society because just as sacred things were superior to man, so
was society. In worship, man finds it difficult to direct his feelings
to something, which is superior to him, so he directs his feelings at
a symbol. Individually experienced, religion is then a representation
of the realities and forces of society itself.
Upon the influence of Durkheim, Marx approached religion from Hegel's
evolutionary dialectic of society evolving through the three
principles of; a thesis produces an opposite (antithesis), the two are
then resolved in a synthesis, this a new thesis that can be
challenged. He applied this dialectic to the material, in the form of
dialectical materialism. He sought to reaffirm the Hegelian dialectic
into an idea of development by conflict in society.
Marx had a utopian vision of the future in which all people would be
equal because the class system would no longer exist and no one would
be exploited. He thought society fell into two groups, the proletariat
and the bourgeoisie. The ruling class owned the means of production
whilst the working class could sell their labour to the ruling class.
The ruling class exploited the proletariat by paying them very little.
This resulted in the proletariat feeling alienated from society. He
believed that the only way out of this situation was for the
proletariat to rise up against the ruling class and seize the means of
production. Once the people owned the means of production, social
classes would disappear and there would be no need for religion, since
it existed only under the old social conditions.
Religion was seen as an illusion, it dulls the pain of oppression for
the proletariat but at the same time it blinds them form their true
reality, stopping them seeing what needs to be done to end their
exploitation, as Marx infamously puts it,...