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Capitalism and Religion: Sociological Perspective

Religion in the form of beliefs and rituals has always played a significant role in the lives of all the known societies worldwide. Enlightenment and the subsequent development of social sciences led to attempts to rationally analyze the impact of religious traditions on the lives of nations and individuals. In sociological tradition, such scholars as Emil Durkheim, Karl Marx, and Max Weber are considered the most prominent researchers of religion’s role in society. While the former author was interested in examining the origin of this phenomenon and thus studied mostly primitive societies, the latter two writers investigated the relationship between religion and capitalism. As such, Weber argued that Protestantism impacted the development of capitalism immensely, whereas Marx viewed any religion as an instrument that helps to preserve the existing power relations between classes.

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Both sociologists lived during the time of the great social transformation, including the attempts to reevaluate the role of religion. On the one hand, Nietzsche (2007) ­– Marx’s and Weber’s contemporary – claimed “God is dead,” which partly expressed the common atheistic sentiments in the society of that time (p. 120). On the other hand, the 19th century saw the Second Great Awakening in the United States and other parts of the world. Therefore, it can be concluded that there was a strong urge to understand the place of religion in the ‘new’ world.

In this regard, Max Weber sought to examine religion as an antecedent of the capitalist development in Europe. The scholar argued that Protestantism in Europe and the U.S. was significantly different from Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity as it encouraged people to acquire capital which older churches condemned (Swatos and Kaelber, 2016). Moreover, such religious thinkers as Calvin claimed that God’s mercy could be evident during life on Earth as those who are blessed to ascend to heaven are also blessed with wealth. As a result, many people sought to become wealthy to prove their worth to others and themselves.

On the contrary, Marx analyzed religion as the instrument that capitalists use to maintain their power. The sociologist asserted that as capitalists hold many important positions in the government (which was true at his time), they can influence the church. Indeed, the history of slavery shows that many masters justified this institution by finding its approval in Bible. Therefore, Marx strongly advocated for the abolition of religion in his works.


Nietzsche, F. W. (2007). The gay science (B. Williams, Ed.). Cambridge University Press.

Swatos Jr, W. H., & Kaelber, L. (2016). The protestant ethic turns 100: Essays on the centenary of the Weber thesis. Routledge.

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