Religion as an institution, while having declined since the Enlightenment, fundamentally affects individuals and the whole within most modern societies. Sociological theories of religion tend to avoid evaluating religion’s specific truth claims to instead focus upon the function and role that religion plays within a broader social context. In this essay, I consider three sociological understandings of religion – Marx’s, Weber’s and Durkheim’s – and evaluate which understanding most adequately describes the social function that religion plays.
Marx argued that religion primarily serves the purpose of pacifying discontent among the lower classes, promising grandiose future rewards to leave them satisfied with the estrangement of their labour and their dismal conditions. For Marx, religion thus acts in a manner resembling a painkiller, a pain relief which is in many ways illusory, failing to address the root problem of the original ailment (the unfair system of class).
The numbing role that Marx ascribes to religion does seem to be a significant component of most religions. Christianity often offers an eschatological vision, focusing on future rewards to placate individuals with the present. In the Beatitudes, Jesus suggests that the worst off in society, the repressed and downtrodden, will face future treasures in heaven, and, later in the Sermon on the Mount, that one’s future position is significantly more important than their present, worldly predicament. Such statements occupy much of the space that Marx suggests is the social purpose of religion. Furthermore, by suggesting religion is like a painkiller, Marx correctly notes that religion can provide pain relief for those who partake in it.
However, Marx’s social understanding of religion is overly narrow and restrictive for a few reasons. Firstly, it is incorrect to suggest, as Marx does, that religion solely serves to placate economic and material hardship. If this were to be the case, it would follow that the wealthiest in society, who do not suffer such hardship, would not be religious – a proposition that can clearly be disproved. Religion serves to placate the fears arising from not only one's material condition but also from the human condition itself. As several existentialists note, religion has historically served as a crutch that can explain the sheer absurdity of the human condition and neutralise the feelings of ‘dread’ that Kierkegaard describes relating to the fact that we lack a predefined purpose, and all must inevitably die.
Furthermore, the extent to which religion does serve to neutralise the horror of the working class is reduced in a modern context, where the previous binary split between Proletariat and Bourgeoisie has become significantly more fluid and less defined than it was during the Industrial Revolution. While still in many instances appalling, most workers nowadays face significantly better wages, lower working hours, and a higher status in society than they did in Marx’s time. There is far greater capacity for social mobility now than 150 years ago. This consequently reduces the extent to which religion serves to neutralise their concerns, as, on average, there are fewer concerns to neutralise. Marx thus provides a sociological understanding of religion which strikes upon one key aspect of religion but is overly narrow. In a modern context, Marx’s concept of religion is insufficient to fully unpack the place of religion in society.
Max Weber, in his understanding of religion as arising as a form of theodicy, rationalising suffering and the discomfort of the human condition, goes some way to resolve the narrowness of Marx’s sociology of religion. Weber’s sociology of religion is broad and covers many topics; however, the most important aspects of Weber’s sociology of religion describe the development of religion, from primitive to medieval to modern societies, and the role that religion has played in shaping the modern order, with the ‘Protestant Work Ethic’ representing a significant factor why many countries, such as Germany or Britain, have historically been economically ascendant.
Many of Weber’s statements, such as his description of the origins of religion in ‘primitive’ societies, are anthropological rather than sociological. His anthropological theories are limited somewhat by his relatively simplistic outlook and method. Weber fails to sufficiently account for the sheer variety and complexity of different societies and cultures and is wrong to suggest that we can simply map the cultures and religious development of his contemporaries into a universal blueprint of religious development. Furthermore, Weber is limited by his proclivity to lapse into ‘armchair anthropology’, failing to personally witness or assimilate within the cultures he describes.
Weber’s ideas on the role of Protestant work ethic, while perhaps true to an extent, are insufficient in many ways in a modern context. As Bong Joong Chang argues particularly eloquently in Bad Samaritans, the effect that culture has on economic productivity, while perhaps appealing as an explanation for why some countries are richer than others, is generally overstated. Culture is a highly variegated institution and within each culture it is easy to find reasons for why a particular culture or faith may make one group more and less economically successful than others. For centuries, many Western critics suggested that the ‘Confucian’ systems of belief governing East Asia were the reason that many countries such as China or South Korea were stuck in an economic rut, until these same beliefs, to many other commentators, have more recently been seen as what has made their meteoric rise so successful. Weber's theories fail to account for how, nowadays, many non-Protestant countries across the world such as Japan or South Korea, including a couple of notable Catholic countries, most notably France, have been able to achieve extraordinarily disciplined work ethics, and overall seem designed to fit an explanation of why Germany, Britain and the US were so successful economically, which may have in large part been coincidental and due to other factors external to religion.
Weber’s account of religion, while in many ways compelling, fails to sufficiently describe many social purposes of religion – religion’s pacification of those of a lower class, its ability to provide solidarity, and its comforting factor. Weber’s ideas largely focus on the historical development of religion rather than its contemporary place in society. Furthermore, his ideas are limited by their dubious economic and anthropological footing. Thus, while Weber does propose several intriguing concepts, he offers a poor social understanding of religion as a whole.
Durkheim, in his study of primitive societies, runs into many of the same problems as Weber. Some of his studies of primitive societies and the development of spirituality and the totem lack sufficient anthropological grounding. However, Durkheim, in his sociology, adequately describes many of the core functions of society in a comprehensive, robust manner which elevates him above the issues faced by Weber.
Durkheim’s ideas of collective effervescence helps to explain how, in a secular society where it is almost certain that not every religion’s truth claims are true, individuals and communities from a wide gamut of faiths report common experiences of the metaphysical.
Furthermore, Durkheim correctly notes the social function of solidarity in religion. A substantial share of religious believers are ‘culturally’ religious. As of 2014, 42% of the British population described themselves as Christian, yet a 2013 YouGov survey found that just 27% of the population believe that Jesus Christ was the son of God and that only 26% believe in the Biblical account of the crucifixion, fundamental aspects of Christian belief. Durkheim thus sufficiently describes the social purpose of religion in a way that both Marx and Weber miss.
Durkheim’s description of religion as a moral community also rings true in a modern context, where religion, especially in the US, often serves as one of the most telling signs of one's political and moral outlook. In the 2020 US election, according to national exit polls, 81% of white evangelical protestant voters voted for Trump, compared to 58% of the white population as a whole. This consequently is emblematic of religion having significant effects on one's moral outlook, which Marx and Weber once more miss.
Durkheim thus provides the most well-developed and useful sociological theory of religion out of the three sociological thinkers this essay considers. While interesting, and largely correct, Marx’s thought on religion as a pacification mechanism is overly narrow, and fails to account for the positive, communal purpose religion can develop beyond the mere illusions of happiness that he describes. Weber’s theory is limited by his limited economic and anthropological method, as well as how he in many ways does not directly describe the social purpose of religion. Meanwhile, Durkheim, by describing the social function of religion, the concept of a moral community and the mechanism of collective effervescence, provides a robust explanation of the social function of religion. Thus, Durkheim’s theories thus have the greatest capacity to explain religion out of the three thinkers.