Sociological Theories on Religion


There are several sociological approaches that have been used to discuss religion, most of which have originated from theoretical precursors such as Marx, Durkheim, and Weber, as well as from other notable figures in human society. Although most of these approaches have developed different analyses of religion, resulting from their different presuppositions of the same, the theories share a common functionalist tradition which they have inherited from Weber and Durkheim (Kunin, 2003, p.73). Though Durkheim, Marx and Weber have been described as the most influential sociological theorists, and have exerted tremendous influence on the sociological study of religion, none of them practiced any kind of religion. They however shared a perception that modernity would gradually lead to a decrease in religion’s significance to human society (Giddens & Griffiths, 2006, p.536).

A sociological definition of religion describes it as a culture in which members within a certain group, identify with each other through shared beliefs, ideas, norms and values. The ritualistic practices that are a common characteristic of religion create the sacred, supernatural, and all encompassing aspect of this discipline. Religion has strongly influenced or impacted upon human life for several thousand years and has been a common characteristic of all recognized human societies. Through religion, human beings have continually obtained a purpose or meaning for their very existence, because of religions ability to explain the things which are beyond human understanding, in a style that other cultural disciplines such as education have failed to do (Giddens & Griffiths, 2006, p.533-534).

According to sociologists, common religious values and norms are a source of solidarity within the societies they are practiced, as well as creating social stability or conflict depending on the nature of religion within a given society (Giddens & Griffiths, 2006, p.535). Whatever views that social theorists have had on the individual and society as a whole have greatly influenced their views on religion. Luckmann and Berger for example describe religion as a phenomenon that results from everyday human interaction, while Giddens argues that, religion is created by social actors, but on the larger platform of social development. Bourdieu, Habermas, Foucault and Luhmann claim that religion is produced form social structures (Dowe, 2005, p.72).

The Functional Perspective

The functionalist approach to religion describes it as a social custom or institution through which human beings fulfill either their social or individual needs (Kunin, 2003, p.73). Based on Durkheim’s definition, religion has a functional element in that it leads to integration of individuals into a common moral group, sharing the same interests, in their attempt to create some form of identity or meaning. The functionalist perspective approaches religion based o the effect that practice of the same should have for either individuals, and/or for society as a whole. Some of the various functional definitions of religion describe it as an involving human activity that is supposed to give meaning to life, and they therefore tend to largely dwell on what religion should do or what it does. Functionalists therefore define religion according to what it does for the individual or society, rather than what it is. Durkheim’s definition of religion for example, describing it as having the functional element of uniting its followers into a common moral community, has been criticized as being too broad. This is because its all inclusive nature brings in other phenomena that fulfill the functions of religion, although they may not essentially be thought of as religion. Its deliberate inclusiveness therefore accommodates such other systems as communism, nationalism, and fascism. Ideologies like communism are very anti-Christian and it is thus very odd to include them within religion (Furseth & Repstad, 2006, p.16,19-20).

Functionalism was a very influential theoretical approach during the 20th Century and though originally the work of Durkheim, it was later advanced by other theorists such as Merton and Parsons. The functionalist approach to religion tries to examine how particular religious practices or beliefs have acquired functional roles in individual lives or within society as a whole. Some theorists like Kingsley Davis have developed Durkheim’s societal emphasis while others like Milton Yinger and Bryan Wilson have advanced their study from the psychological and more individual approach developed by Malinowski. Kingsley Davis defines religion through a structural functionalist approach that shares common characteristics with anthropological functionalists like Radcliffe Brown. According to Davis, a holistic view of society is very essential in trying to understand the role that a religious institution plays in fulfilling societal needs. He argues that the principal societal need is cohesion, a function that is best fulfilled through sentiment. Religion contributes to societal cohesion when human beings learn do away with their private individual rights in favor of the wider societal needs. Societal or group ends are emphasized through the collective rituals, supernatural rewards and consequences, as well as the principles attached to religious values (Kunin, 2003, p.75).

Another famous functional theorist is Robert Bellah, who approaches religion from an evolutionary view, analyzing its evolution from the primitive to modern although the evolved practices may not necessarily be better than previous ones. Bellah traces this development of religion through five major stages, and particularly shares the concept of specialization and complexity with Durkheim. He particularly dwells on religion’s preference of a spiritual world to the real world, a tendency that is nevertheless most common with modern religions than primitive ones. According to Bellah, primitive religion is goal oriented and gives particular attention to functions and ends derived from it, for example rain and fertility. This type of religion is complex and offers no clear separation of religious organization, myth or ritual and like Durkheim, Bellah also views religion as a tool for enhancing social solidarity (Kunin, 2003, p.75-78). Functionalist theorists like Milton Yinger define religion as a system of practices and beliefs through which those involved try to find answers to ultimate problems facing them as human beings. Some of these problems for which human beings try to seek solutions from religion are such as death, tragedies, and suffering. Several functional definitions have an assumption that religion holds the ability to bring about integration (Furseth & Repstad, 2006, p.21).

The functionalist perspective states that whatever changes that take place in a society do not just happen, but that they occur in structured or rather organized, evolutionary ways. According to Durkheim, the parts of a social system are interdependent, that similar to a healthy human body, these parts of social system also exist in healthy or normal state of balance; and that when these parts are disturbed; they reorganize and also readjust to restore a balanced system. Durkheim acknowledged that as far as society plays an important role in influencing human actions, the same society also transcends individual. He therefore proposed that society should be studied or analyzed and understood through social facts which he described as laws, religious beliefs, rituals, values, customs, morals, fashions and all the social and varied cultural rules that govern social life. According to Durkheim, it is these social facts that made up the very structure of society. His principal concern was to find out how these social facts interrelated, what role or function each part fulfills and, what enables societies to maintain a state of equilibrium as well as why systems keep changing. This functionalist approach has been a very influential aspect in the study of sociology (Stolley, 2005, p.23-24). Erving Goffman compared society with a theater where people’s lives are controlled by the roles they have to play rather than doing what they choose to do. These roles are integrated in the strategies and rituals that are part of everyday human interaction and most of which are based on religion. All types of interaction in a society include some type of improvisation (Dowe, 2005, p.71).

Berger and Luckman analyze religion based on the influence that it exerts on social relations and how it legitimizes political power. Foucault goes on to add that the church’s confessional practices result in discipline of the body and self (Dowe, 2005, p.72). Those involved in religious rites do not however pay particular attention to group integration, and if any integration takes place, it is normally not the primary purpose of performing such rites. Participants also hold with regard what they are doing and would not embrace the view that all the rites practiced by different groups are the same. Different groups will normally perform different rites for different religious purposes. Religious beliefs and interrelated beliefs do not necessarily produce social order and may contrary to this belief result in the opposite to expected end.

Conflict Perspective

The conflict perspective focuses its study on the competition that takes place between groups. According to this perspective, the social relations that make up society are characterized by inequality and are prone to change. According to conflict theorists, there is high competition for resources such as power and wealth that different groups are always struggling to control for the sole benefit of their selfish interests. This conflict that is constantly taking place between groups is what brings about social change. Conflict theorists have a historical and global approach to social change. Conflict perspective originated from the works of Karl Marx (1818-1883) who observed the type of widespread inequality that was born from capitalism during the industrial revolution. Marx also observed the widening gap between the wealthy factory owners and the poor factory workers that resulted in some form of ongoing class struggle and subsequent social conflict (Stolley, 2005, p.25-26).

According to Karl Marx, the nature and form of religion is dependant on economic and social relations which form the basis of social analysis. Social change can only be understood through the existing economic order and the relationship the worker has to production means. He argues that religion conceals social malformations such as the capitalist society’s exploitive relationships, by making people believe that such exploitive relationships are not only natural but are also acceptable. Religion according to Marx is a distraction to every effort made towards revealing capitalism’s injustices and that it also disguises world difficulties that are otherwise so evident. Marx associated religion so much with the oppressed and believed that the disappearance of the class order from society would render religion meaningless (Davie, 2007, p.26-27).

Gramsci (1891-1937) in his thinking, develops the Marxist school of thought by adapting a concept in which the elite and dominant class, make great effort to maintain their grip on political power through exploitation of popular consensus or public opinion. Religion is a tool for the attack or affirmation of this view of world dominance. Dissatisfied religious groups adopt a concept of new theologies and ideas to lay criticism on the dominant elite. Oppressed groups therefore become a platform for intellectuals to instigate revolutionary consciousness among the masses (Davie, 2007, p.27). History reveals that organized religion while proclaiming peace, contrarily offers a lot of religious interception during wars. It has therefore diverged from its crucial role of fulfilling human needs and become an organization for the presentation of the power center. Religion is therefore continually viewed as a tool for the wealthy and powerful to help them maintain the privileged positions they have continually enjoyed (Davie, 2007, p.27-28).

Interactionist Perspective

According to the interactionist approach, social arrangements result from different actions among individuals that are nevertheless facts of life. This approach pays greater attention to the individual than any other approach (Conolly, 1999, p.21). Interactionism places great emphasis on daily individual interaction as the key factor that leads to creation of societies, and that large social structures that have received so much attention from conflicts and functionalists are the result of such smaller interactions. Shared symbols, understandings and languages give rise to social interactions that must be studied in order to understand the more broad social structures. The goal is to initiate communication with other members of society. This theory is partly based on the works of Marx Weber, a German Sociologist living between, 1864-1920. Weber defied the broader approach of other sociologists to give particular attention to individual interaction. The perspective was later developed by the American social psychologist and philosopher, Herbert Mead (1863-1931) and is therefore said to be deeply rooted in America. Critics accuse this perspective of being small-scaled, and specific in its approach thus overlooking the impact that a larger society produces (Stolley, 2005, p.27-29).

Max Weber through the interaction theory was of the opinion that religion gives rise to practices that go beyond the wider social world, in very unpredictable and independent ways. According to Weber, belief systems help people to derive meaning out of their daily life experiences and it is also difficult to predict the outcomes of a social world as compared to the more predictable natural world. He argues that religion acts in different contexts to give rise to social challenges and change, as well as bring out social order and legitimize things as they are. Weber goes on to add his views that religion is bound to fade out with time in terms of its social significance due to improvement of modern economic and social organization and therefore analyzes religion on the basis of its interaction with social organization (Connolly, 1999, p.199). Weber portrays a variable and contingent relationship between the world and religion and goes on to argue that religion varies with social change over time and in different locations in the process of trying to create meaning to the social world. Religion acts as some type of ideological structure for the understanding and interpretation of the world and the relationship between the world and religion can only be analyzed through the cultural and historical aspects within a certain religion. Different belief systems have different outcomes in society through individual and collective change and are capable of persisting even in dangerous or confusing situations such as war that has largely destroyed or even wiped out political systems (Davie, 2007, p.28-29).


Religion performs a very necessary function in the development of social order and will always exist in societies, with the nature of it varying between different societies and different time periods. According to George Simmel, different types of religion go through mutation alongside that of societies in which they exist. Religious change is part of modern societal changes and has become more individualized with modernization. There are limitations to religion in that, religious rites and interrelated beliefs do not necessarily produce social order and may contrary to this belief result in the disruption of social order (Davie, 2007, p.30-31).


Connolly Peter (1999). Approaches to the Study of Religion. London: Continuum International Publishing Group.

Davie Grace (2007). The Sociology of Religion. Seminole: SAGE.

Dowe Phil (2005). Galileo, Darwin, and Hawking: The Interplay of Science, Reason, and Religion. Grand Rapids: Wm.B. Eerdmans Publishing.

Furseth Inger and Repstad Pal (2006). An Introduction to the Sociology of Religion: Classical and Contemporary Perspectives. Burlington: Ashgate Publishing.

Griffiths Simon and Giddens Anthony (2006). Sociology. Cambridge: Polity.

Kunin Seth D. (2003). Religion: The Modern Theories. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Stolley Kathy S. (2005). The Basics of Sociology. London: Greenwood Publishing Group.

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