Religion is a social institution involving specific statements that people hold to be true and specific things people do in daily lives based on a sense of awe, reverence, and even fear. Thus, it involves beliefs and practices. The sense of awe, reverence and fear is a conception of the sacred, which is the contrary of the conception of the profane. The profane is, Durkheim explained, people defining most objects, events or experiences surrounded us as ordinary elements of everyday life.
People distinguish sacred from profane, for example, statues of a person are to remember who have great importance in the history and treated as profane, but a statue of any God in its respective religion would be sacred. (Macionis & Plummer, pp462-3) These are just few basic ideas of what religion is to our societies. This essay is to compare and contrast the views of Durkheim and Marx towards the social implications of religion in classical sociology. Marx is a sociologist who has taken the conflict paradigm.
He saw the conflicts generated from different classes’ interests. Religion, according to Marx, is a compensating and comforting illusion and that would be made unnecessary when human beings lost their need for illusions. Marx did not see religion as an integral part of human society or life in itself as the typical functionalist theorists did, which this perspective would be considered in the later sessions of this essay. Marx has placed much attention to the class society and that religion is the essential product of a class society.
It is a tool to manipulate and oppress the proletariat (and the petit bourgeoisie as sooner or later they would become the masses of proletariat). Religion is then part of, Marx named it, ideology. Ideology is the mental means of production, which is used by the bourgeois to extend their interests and on the other hand to oppress the proletariat. As the material means of production, i. e. land, labour and capital, generated alienation by division of labour, religion is a result of alienation. Hamilton, pp90)
Thus, religion is “… an expression of the protest against oppression and a form of resignation and consolation in the face of oppression” (Hamilton, pp91) In pre-class society, like the theological stage Comte stated, human beings knew nothing or perhaps just little about nature and they could not control it either. They were powerless against the natural processes which seems inevitable, but unchangeable. Human beings then attempted to gain control over it through magical and religious means.
Yet in this society of class division nowadays, supposed to be the scientific stage of Comte’s theory which people have reasoning towards understanding of nature and other philosophy of knowledge, but once again human beings are still unable to control the forces which affect them and their understandings towards nature seems not enough. In class society, the “nature” behind is actually the social order. This is the fixed social order that control and determine human behaviour. People thus maintain the social order through their own actions. (Hamilton, pp90)
In his “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law” (1976, pp174-5), Marx stated his view that religion is a social construction of the higher class to support their own interests by suppressing the interests of the less powerful working class and at the same time to produce a false consciousness for those less powerful proletariat. “The basis of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet found himself or has already lost himself again.
But man is no abstract being encamped outside the world. Man is the world of man, the state, the society. This state, this society, produce religion, an inverted world consciousness, because they are an inverted world. [… ] It is the fantastic realisation of the human essence because the human essence has no true reality. The struggle against religion is therefore indirectly a fight against the world of which religion is the spiritual aroma. [… ] It is the opium of the people. ” (quoted in Marsh, pp 88-9)
By the term “opium of the people”, Marx meant that consolation given by religion in whatever kind would only give a temporary relief to the repressed or those who suffered. Not only that it would decrease the functioning of senses, but also would produce undesirably side effects as any other drugs do. Hence, religion provides no real solution to suppression. Instead, “it tends to inhabit any real solution by making suffering and repression bearable” (Hamilton, pp93) Furthermore, not only the oppressed classed are “addicted”. Members of the ruling class are often as religious.
Religion might be generated in the concern that it is a device to control or manipulate the exploited group. However, the ruling class might also unconsciously see the need of social order by external forces like religion. And in that case, the ruling class itself must be considerably alienated. The ruling class on one hand use the rationalisation and religious legitimation to control the less powerful. On the other hand, the ruling class is fearful of its dependence on this force which is beyond its own control in a certain degree. In short, Marx suggested, to achieve real happiness, people should abolish the illusory happiness.
To abolish this illusory happiness, the social conditions involved should be abolished. It is because religion is the product of the social conditions. (Hamilton, pp94-5) Durkheim, another founder of sociology, has taken the functional approach towards his study of religion. Regardless Marx’s interests of classes, Durkheim looked at how religion functions to make itself an integral part of the society. Durkheim stated that there are three functions of religion for the structuring and order of society. First, religion makes people united by shared symbols, values and norms.
This social cohesion could be achieved by religious doctrine and ritual. It also expressed strongly about the idea of love. This brings people together. Thus, both moral and emotional ties to others are produced. For example, the Bible said to do adultery is not a good behaviour. Then, if someone did adultery, the Christian society would generate conscience hatred to this person and labelled it as guilty. However, in some other cultures, it might consider to be reasonable for a man to marry his brothers’ widows to maintain the order of the family. Second, social control is produced by using religious imagery and rhetoric.
This conformity is restrained within cultural norms and these behavioural norms are always legitimated by the political system. For instance, marriage is bounded by not only the contract, but also the blessing of God, in which the groom and bride should be faithful and responsible to each other until death. Divorce is for sure regarded as wrong and unjust. The last function of religion in the society is to provide meaning and purpose of life. Strengthened by such comforting convictions, human beings are less likely to commit suicide when they have to confront their most difficult times in lifetimes.
For example, in Christianity, the death of a beloved family member is celebrated in the church with family and friends and such actions put religious implications that the died person would be peaceful in the heaven with the prayers from family and friends and his or her sins is forgiven hopefully due to the goodness he or she had made. The result is not that the died person is in heaven or not, but the fact that their family and friends felt faithful to this friend until the end and they would not collapse in great despair. Macionis & Plummer, pp463) Both Marx and Durkheim saw religion as a social construction. On one hand, Durkheim overlooked the dysfunctions of religion. Religion could generate social conflict as Marx stated. On the other hand, Marx also somehow downplayed the positive changes and equality provided by religion. In conclusion, the theories of Marx and Durkheim thus make up a better and more complete view of the social implications of religion rather than considering anyone per se.