Classical, seminal sociological theorists of the late 19th and early 20th century such as Émile Durkheim, Max Weber, and Karl Marx were greatly interested in religion and its effects on society. Like those of Plato and Aristotle from ancient Greece, and Enlightenment philosophers from the 17th through 19th centuries, the ideas posited by these sociologists continue to be examined today. More recent prominent sociologists of religion include Peter L. Berger, Robert Neelly Bellah, Thomas Luckmann, Rodney Stark, William Sims Bainbridge, Robert Wuthnow, Christian Smith, and Bryan R. Wilson.
Durkheim, Marx, and Weber had very complex and developed theories about the nature and effects of religion. Of these, Durkheim and Weber are often more difficult to understand, especially in light of the lack of context and examples in their primary texts. Religion was considered to be an extremely important social variable in the work of all three.
"Marx was the product of the Enlightenment, embracing its call to replace faith by reason and religion by science." Despite his later influence, Karl Marx did not view his work as an ethical or ideological response to nineteenth-century capitalism (as most later commentators have). His efforts were, in his mind, based solely on what can be called applied science. Marx saw himself as doing morally neutral sociology and economic theory for the sake of human development. As Christiano states, "Marx did not believe in science for science's sake…he believed that he was also advancing a theory that would…be a useful tool…[in] effecting a revolutionary upheaval of the capitalist system in favor of socialism." (124) As such, the crux of his arguments was that humans are best guided by reason. Religion, Marx held, was a significant hindrance to reason, inherently masking the truth and misguiding followers. As we will later see, Marx viewed alienation as the heart of social inequality. The antithesis to this alienation is freedom. Thus, to propagate freedom means to present individuals with the truth and give them a choice to accept or deny it. In this, "Marx never suggested that religion ought to be prohibited." (Christiano 126)
Central to Marx's theories was the oppressive economic situation in which he dwelt. With the rise of European industrialism, Marx and his colleague Friedrich Engels witnessed and responded to the growth of what he called "surplus value". Marx's view of capitalism saw rich capitalists getting richer and their workers getting poorer (the gap, the exploitation, was the "surplus value"). Not only were workers getting exploited, but in the process they were being further detached from the products they helped create. By simply selling their work for wages, "workers simultaneously lose connection with the object of labor and become objects themselves. Workers are devalued to the level of a commodity – a thing…" (Ibid 125) From this objectification comes alienation. The common worker is led to believe that he or she is a replaceable tool, and is alienated to the point of extreme discontent. Here, in Marx's eyes, religion enters. Capitalism utilizes our tendency towards religion as a tool or ideological state apparatus to justify this alienation. Christianity teaches that those who gather up riches and power in this life will almost certainly not be rewarded in the next ("it is harder for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven than it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle...") while those who suffer oppression and poverty in this life, while cultivating their spiritual wealth, will be rewarded in the Kingdom of God. Thus Marx's famous line – "religion is the opium of the people", as it soothes them and dulls their senses to the pain of oppression. Some scholars have recently noted that this is a contradictory (or dialectical) metaphor, referring to religion as both an expression of suffering and a protest against suffering.
Émile Durkheim placed himself in the positivist tradition, meaning that he thought of his study of society as dispassionate and scientific. He was deeply interested in the problem of what held complex modern societies together. Religion, he argued, was an expression of social cohesion.
In the fieldwork that led to his famous Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Durkheim, a secular Frenchman, looked at anthropological data of Indigenous Australians. His underlying interest was to understand the basic forms of religious life for all societies. In Elementary Forms, Durkheim argues that the totems the Aborigines venerate are actually expressions of their own conceptions of society itself. This is true not only for the Aborigines, he argues, but for all societies.
Religion, for Durkheim, is not "imaginary", although he does deprive it of what many believers find essential. Religion is very real; it is an expression of society itself, and indeed, there is no society that does not have religion. We perceive as individuals a force greater than ourselves, which is our social life, and give that perception a supernatural face. We then express ourselves religiously in groups, which for Durkheim makes the symbolic power greater. Religion is an expression of our collective consciousness, which is the fusion of all of our individual consciousnesses, which then creates a reality of its own.
It follows, then, that less complex societies, such as the Australian Aborigines, have less complex religious systems, involving totems associated with particular clans. The more complex a particular society, the more complex the religious system is. As societies come in contact with other societies, there is a tendency for religious systems to emphasize universalism to a greater and greater extent. However, as the division of labour makes the individual seem more important (a subject that Durkheim treats extensively in his famous The Division of Labour in Society), religious systems increasingly focus on individual salvation and conscience.
Durkheim's definition of religion, from Elementary Forms, is as follows: "A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden – beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them." (Marx, introduction) This is a functional definition of religion, meaning that it explains what religion does in social life: essentially, it unites societies. Durkheim defined religion as a clear distinction between the sacred and the profane, in effect this can be paralleled with the distinction between God and humans.
This definition also does not stipulate what exactly may be considered sacred. Thus later sociologists of religion (notably Robert Neelly Bellah) have extended Durkheimian insights to talk about notions of civil religion, or the religion of a state. American civil religion, for example, might be said to have its own set of sacred "things": the flag of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., etc. Other sociologists have taken Durkheim's concept of what religion is in the direction of the religion of professional sports, the military, or of rock music.
Max Weber published four major texts on religion in a context of economic sociology and his rationalization thesis: The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), The Religion of China: Confucianism and Taoism (1915), The Religion of India: The Sociology of Hinduism and Buddhism (1915), and Ancient Judaism (1920).
In his sociology, Weber uses the German term "Verstehen" to describe his method of interpretation of the intention and context of human action. Weber is not a positivist; he does not believe we can find out "facts" in sociology that can be causally linked. Although he believes some generalized statements about social life can be made, he is not interested in hard positivist claims, but instead in linkages and sequences, in historical narratives and particular cases.
Weber argues for making sense of religious action on its own terms. A religious group or individual is influenced by all kinds of things, he says, but if they claim to be acting in the name of religion, we should attempt to understand their perspective on religious grounds first. Weber gives religion credit for shaping a person's image of the world, and this image of the world can affect their view of their interests, and ultimately how they decide to take action.
For Weber, religion is best understood as it responds to the human need for theodicy and soteriology. Human beings are troubled, he says, with the question of theodicy – the question of how the extraordinary power of a divine god may be reconciled with the imperfection of the world that he has created and rules over. People need to know, for example, why there is undeserved good fortune and suffering in the world. Religion offers people soteriological answers, or answers that provide opportunities for salvation – relief from suffering, and reassuring meaning. The pursuit of salvation, like the pursuit of wealth, becomes a part of human motivation.
Because religion helps to define motivation, Weber believed that religion (and specifically Calvinism) actually helped to give rise to modern capitalism, as he asserted in his most famous and controversial work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.
In The Protestant Ethic, Weber argues that capitalism arose in Europe in part because of how the belief in predestination was interpreted by everyday English Puritans. Puritan theology was based on the Calvinist notion that not everyone would be saved; there was only a specific number of the elect who would avoid damnation, and this was based sheerly on God's predetermined will and not on any action you could perform in this life. Official doctrine held that one could not ever really know whether one was among the elect.
Practically, Weber noted, this was difficult psychologically: people were (understandably) anxious to know whether they would be eternally damned or not. Thus Puritan leaders began assuring members that if they began doing well financially in their businesses, this would be one unofficial sign they had God's approval and were among the saved – but only if they used the fruits of their labour well. This along with the rationalism implied by monotheism led to the development of rational bookkeeping and the calculated pursuit of financial success beyond what one needed simply to live – and this is the "spirit of capitalism". Over time, the habits associated with the spirit of capitalism lost their religious significance, and rational pursuit of profit became its own aim.
The Protestant Ethic thesis has been much critiqued, refined, and disputed, but is still a lively source of theoretical debate in sociology of religion. Weber also did considerable work in world religions, including Hinduism and Buddhism.
In his magnum opus Economy and Society Weber distinguished three ideal types of religious attitudes:
- world-flying mysticism
- world-rejecting asceticism
- inner-worldly asceticism.
He also separated magic as pre-religious activity.
Symbolic anthropology and some versions of phenomenology argue that all humans require reassurance that the world is safe and ordered place – that is, they have a need for ontological security. Therefore, all societies have forms of knowledge that perform this psychological task. The inability of science to offer psychological and emotional comfort explains the presence and influence of non-scientific knowledge in human lives, even in rational world.
Unlike symbolic anthropology and phenomenology, functionalism points to the benefits for social organization which non-scientific belief systems provide and which scientific knowledge fails to deliver. Belief systems are seen as encouraging social order and social stability in ways that rationally based knowledge cannot. From this perspective, the existence of non-rational accounts of reality can be explained by the benefits they offer to society.
Rationalists object to the phenomenological and functionalist approaches, arguing that they fail to understand why believers in systems of non-scientific knowledge do think they tell the truth and that their ideas are right, even though science has shown them to be wrong. We cannot explain forms of knowledge in terms of the beneficial psychological or societal effects that an outside observer may see them as producing. We have to look at the point of view of those who believe in them. People do not believe in God, practice magic, or think that witches cause misfortune because they think they are providing themselves with psychological reassurance, or to achieve greater cohesion for their social groups. They do so because they think their beliefs are correct – that they tell them the truth about the way the world is.
Nineteenth-century rationalist writers, reflecting the evolutionist spirits of their times, tended to explain the lack of rationality and the dominance of false beliefs in pre-modern worlds in terms of the deficient mental equipment of their inhabitants. Such people were seen as possessing pre-logical, or non-rational, mentality. Twentieth-century rationalist thinking generally rejected such a view, reasoning that pre-modern people didn't possess inferior minds, but lacked the social and cultural conditions needed to promote rationalism. Rationalists see the history of modern societies as the rise of scientific knowledge and the subsequent decline of non-rational belief. Some of these beliefs, such as magic and witchcraft, had disappeared, while others, such as religion, had become marginalized. This rationalist perspective has led to secularization theories of various kinds.
One common typology among sociologists, religious groups are classified as ecclesias, denominations, sects, or cults (now more commonly referred to in scholarship as new religious movements). Note that sociologists give these words precise definitions which differ from how they are commonly used. In particular, sociologists use the words 'cult' and 'sect' without negative connotations, even though the popular use of these words is often pejorative.
In prosperous democracies, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion. As the author Stephen Law paraphrases in his book War For the Children's Mind, "The most theistic prosperous democracy, the U.S., is exceptional, but not in the manner Franklin predicted. The United States is almost always the most dysfunctional of the developed democracies, sometimes spectacularly so...The view of the U.S. as a "shining city on the hill" to the rest of the world is falsified when it comes to basic measures of societal health."
The study also notes that it is the more secular, pro-evolution societies that come close to "cultures of life". The authors conclude that the reasonable success of non-religious democracies like Japan, France and Scandinavia has refuted the idea that godless societies suffer disaster. They add "Contradicting these conclusions requires demonstrating a positive link between theism and societal conditions in the first world with a similarly large body of data – a doubtful possibility in view of the observable trends."
BBC News reported on a study that attempted to use mathematical modelling ('nonlinear dynamics') to predict future religious orientations of populations. The study suggests that religion is headed towards 'extinction' in various nations where it has been on the decline: Australia, Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Switzerland. The model considers, not only the changing number of people with certain beliefs, but also attempts to assign utility values of a belief as per each nation.
In relation to the processes of rationalization associated with the development of modernity, it was predicted in the works of many classical sociologists that religion would decline. Despite the claims of many classical theorists and sociologists immediately after World War II, many contemporary theorists have critiqued secularization thesis, arguing that religion has continued to play a vital role in the lives of individuals worldwide. In the United States, in particular, church attendance has remained relatively stable in the past 40 years. In Africa, the emergence of Christianity has occurred at a high rate. While Africa could claim roughly 10 million Christians in 1900, recent estimates put that number closer to 200 million. The rise of Islam as a major world religion, especially its new-found influence in the West, is another significant development. Furthermore, arguments may be presented regarding the concept of civil religion and new world belief systems. In short, presupposed secularization as a decline in religiosity might seem to be a myth, depending on its definition and the definition of its scope. For instance, some sociologists have argued that steady church attendance and personal religious belief may coexist with a decline in the influence of religious authorities on social or political issues. Additionally, the regular attendance or affiliation do not necessarily translate into a behaviour according to their doctrinal teachings. In other words, there might be still a growing in numbers of members but it does not mean that all members are faithfully following the rules of pious behaviours expected. In that sense, religion may be seen as declining because its waning ability to influence behaviour.
Bryan R. Wilson is a writer on secularization who is alarmed about the nature of life in a society dominated by scientific knowledge. His work is in the tradition of Max Weber, who saw modern societies as places in which rationality dominates life and thought. Weber saw rationality as concerned with identifying causes and working out technical efficiency, with a focus on how things work and with calculating how they can be made to work more effectively, rather than why they are as they are. According to Weber, such rational worlds are disenchanted. Existential questions about the mysteries of human existence, about who we are and why we are here, have become less and less significant.
Wilson insists that non-scientific systems – and religious ones in particular – have experienced an irreversible decline in influence. He has engaged in a long debate with those who dispute the secularization thesis, some of which argue that the traditional religions, such as church-centered ones, have become displaced by an abundance of non-traditional ones, such as cults and sects of various kinds. Others argue that religion has become an individual, rather than a collective, organized affair. Still others suggest that functional alternatives to traditional religion, such as nationalism and patriotism, have emerged to promote social solidarity. Wilson does accept the presence of a large variety of non-scientific forms of meaning and knowledge, but he argues that this is actually evidence of the decline of religion. The increase in the number and diversity of such systems is proof of the removal of religion from the central structural location that it occupied in pre-modern times.
Unlike Wilson and Weber, Ernest Gellner (1974) acknowledges that there are drawbacks to living in a world whose main form of knowledge is confined to facts we can do nothing about and that provide us with no guidelines on how to live and how to organize ourselves. In this regard, we are worse off than pre-modern people, whose knowledge, while incorrect, at least provided them with prescriptions for living. However, Gellner insists that these disadvantages are far outweighed by the huge technological advances modern societies have experienced as a result of the application of scientific knowledge.
Gellner doesn't claim that non-scientific knowledge is in the process of dying out. For example, he accepts that religions in various forms continue to attract adherents. He also acknowledges that other forms of belief and meaning, such as those provided by art, music, literature, popular culture (a specifically modern phenomenon), drug taking, political protest, and so on are important for many people. Nevertheless, he rejects the relativist interpretation of this situation – that in modernity, scientific knowledge is just one of many accounts of existence, all of which have equal validity. This is because, for Gellner, such alternatives to science are profoundly insignificant since they are technically impotent, as opposed to science. He sees that modern preoccupations with meaning and being as a self-indulgence that is only possible because scientific knowledge has enabled our world to advance so far. Unlike those in pre-modern times, whose overriding priority is to get hold of scientific knowledge in order to begin to develop, we can afford to sit back in the luxury of our well-appointed world and ponder upon such questions because we can take for granted the kind of world science has constructed for us.
Michel Foucault was a post-structuralist who saw human existence as being dependent on forms of knowledge – discourses – that work like languages. Languages/discourses define reality for us. In order to think at all, we are obliged to use these definitions. The knowledge we have about the world is provided for us by the languages and discourses we encounter in the times and places in which we live our lives. Thus, who we are, what we know to be true, and what we think are discursively constructed.
Foucault defined history as the rise and fall of discourses. Social change is about changes in prevailing forms of knowledge. The job of the historian is to chart these changes and identify the reasons for them. Unlike rationalists, however, Foucault saw no element of progress in this process. To Foucault, what is distinctive about modernity is the emergence of discourses concerned with the control and regulation of the body. According to Foucault, the rise of body-centered discourses necessarily involved a process of secularization. Pre-modern discourses were dominated by religion, where things were defined as good and evil, and social life was centered around these concepts. With the emergence of modern urban societies, scientific discourses took over, and medical science was a crucial element of this new knowledge. Modern life because increasingly subject to medical control – the medical gaze, as Foucault called it.
The rise to power of science, and of medicine in particular, coincided with a progressive reduction of the power of religious forms of knowledge. For example, normality and deviance became more of a matter of health and illness than of good and evil, and the physician took over from the priest the role of defining, promoting, and healing deviance.
The sociology of religion continues to grow throughout the world, attempting to understand the relationship between religion and globalization. Two older approaches to globalization include modernization theory, a functionalist derivative, and world-systems theory, a Marxist approach. One of the differences between these theories is whether they view capitalism as positive or problematic. However, both assumed that modernization and capitalism would diminish the hold of religion.
To the contrary, as globalization intensified many different cultures started to look into different religions and incorporate different beliefs into society. New interpretations emerged that recognize the tensions. For example, according to Paul James and Peter Mandaville:
Religion and globalization have been intertwined with each other since the early empires attempted to extend their reach across what they perceived to be world-space. Processes of globalization carried religious cosmologies – including traditional conceptions of universalism – to the corners of the world, while these cosmologies legitimated processes of globalization. This dynamic of inter-relation has continued to the present, but with changing and sometimes new and intensifying contradictions.