Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Emile Durkheim had very different understandings and theories about religion (its function and its impacts on society). Describe the major theoretical contributions of Marx, Weber, and Durkheim to the sociological study of religion.
Marx viewed religion as an alienating agent that reinforced the stratification inherent in society. Faith is used to keep the downtrodden from questioning their lot in life, whereas the privileged use faith to justify their exploitation of the masses. As indicated in the text, history is replete with examples that support this thesis. From the oppression of the caste system in India, the suppression of conquered peoples in Europe by the Romans to the suppression of the conquered in Africa and Asia by Europeans, religion is used as a device in the conflict between classes.
Marx views religion as not just the means of oppression but also as the sign of that oppression. It is a symptom of the “illusionary happiness of the people”. People would have no need for that illusion if they were no longer oppressed.
According to many critics of Marx, Max Weber took religion more seriously than Marx. Weber showed that religious ideas have a power of their own. To Weber, ideas have power, and when large groups of people take up a common idea, that common set of beliefs can drive a change in the course of history. To understand the role of religion’s ideas in a person’s life, one needs to place oneself in the shoes of a believer and imagine the intentions and meanings.
Weber’s example for the power of ideas is the rise of Capitalism as an outcome of the Protestant work ethic. Calvinist predestination theology states that each person has a calling, which entails fulfilling one’s duty to God through day-to-day work in labor, since each person was chosen by God and his destiny in the afterlife predetermined. Thus the earlier Catholic teachings that profit and labor were necessarily evil were overcome and the way was open for the development of Capitalism, which emphasized the accumulation of Capital through profit and labor. In effect, Weber found that the link between class and religion was bi-directional in contrast to Marx’s unidirectional causal link from economic need to religious purpose.
Durkheim took a functionalist approach which also found purpose and power in religious ideas. Religion was a “fundamental and permanent aspect of humanity.” In his view, the task of the sociologist is not to determine which religion is “True”, but rather to treat each religion as real and to find the commonalities. Durkheim came to argue that all our categories of thought are created in and from religion. But religious ideas and thoughts, sacred things themselves, only derive their power from the collective investment made by the believers. Religious force is the feeling inspired by the rest of the society which believes. When people conform to these religious ideas they are submitting to the authority of society. “… social thought, with its imperative authority, has a power that individual thought cannot possibly have.”
This stands in contrast with both Marx and Weber. Durkheim doesn’t assign an economic role for religion, rather religion performs a social function; it creates social unity by strengthening the shared beliefs of the believing community. It strengthens the bonds between people and society, with God being a representation of society.