For centuries, humankind has struggled to explain the meaning of life through philosophy and religion. While philosophy tries to answer the eternal question using a rational approach, religion operates with notions that surpass the limits of human knowledge. Religion is a system of beliefs, values, and practices concerning sacred or spiritually significant matters (Johnstone, 2016). Although people consider it something personal, as beliefs may differ from one individual to another, religion is a social institution. Classical sociology offers three primary theoretical perspectives on the matter, including structural-functionalism, conflict theory, and symbolic interactionism. While the approaches seem to be contrasting in many aspects, the concepts complement each other and agree on some of the points.
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Three Theoretical Approaches
Functionalists view religion from the point of its social role and purpose. The theoretical approach argues that religion is one of the means to maintain order and harmony, as it facilitates the socialization of new members into certain roles (Furseth & Repstad, 2017). According to the theory, religion also gives people meaning in life and motivates them to work for improvements in society. Beliefs help to maintain a high level of psychological well-being through the reassurance and comfort of religious group members.
At the same time, functionalists agree that religion is an institution that facilitates social control of behavior, as it sets up norms of morale that must be followed by all the members. In short, functionalists believe that religion is a presupposition for the maintenance of a society that will always exist. While functionalists offer a sensible approach to religion, some points can be criticized. First, since the role of religion is to establish stability, it cannot be a source of innovation and change.
History has many examples where religion became a change factor in society including the rise of Heavenly Way religion in Korea in the 1860s and the introduction of Christianity in Russia in 988. Second, religion can be dysfunctional, as it may become a source of conflict and dissimilation. Examples of the issue are crusades, witch trials, and terrorist attacks. In brief, structural functionalism may be criticized for imaging religion as too harmonious and advantageous.
The conflict theory mostly inspired by the works of Karl Marx sees religion as a source of social inequity and conflict. Marx considers religion an opiate of the masses, as it makes people happy with what they have instead of fighting for their rights (Johnstone, 2016). According to the theory, the beliefs are designed by the upper class to maintain control and oppression over the working class. An example of the matter may be the caste system in India where “religion has been used to support the ‘divine right’ of oppressive monarchs and to justify unequal social structures” (McGivern, n.d., para. 31).
Moreover, religion may support gender inequality and intolerance. In short, the theory views religion as an outdated institution that will disappear in the process of social evolution. Although most of the arguments are well-presented, the conflict theory cannot be considered universal as it fails to acknowledge the positive impact of religion. Marx’s approach can be applied only in studies of how groups use religion to legitimate their interests. It cannot explain why Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, an Indian spiritual teacher, would travel to the US in his seventies to spread Hindu philosophy.
History has many examples of religion uniting people to comfort each other after natural disasters and leaders, such as Mahatma Gandhi, using religious principles to avoid conflict. In summary, Marx’s approach seems narrow and can be utilized to explain a limited amount of social phenomena. Symbolic interactionism does not explain micro aspects of religion; instead, it provides the interpretation of microelements. As interactionists study the symbols of everyday life, they point out that beliefs and experiences are not sacred by nature unless people consider them sacred (McGivern, n.d.).
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The examples of such symbols are the cross in Christianity and the Star of David in Judaism, as “human subjective relationship to the world gives the objective world meaning” (Furseth & Repstad, 2017, p. 58). The theory approaches the everyday aspect of religion, such as the interaction between community members and church leaders and the expression of religious values in ordinary life. In short, symbolic interactionism is not a universal approach to religion in its nature, as it aims at interpreting narrow situations.
Contrasting the Theories
The classical sociological theories differ from one another in their nature as they describe different aspects of religion. First, symbolic interactionist theory does not resolve large-scale issues of religion as functional and conflict theories do. On the contrary, it focuses on small-scale functions and essences of religion. Second, functionalists describe only the positive side of religion, while Marx’s theory considers religion a source of oppression and abuse.
Therefore, these two theories are the polar opposites of each other in their views on the matter. Third, the approaches different sets of tools and concepts to describe religion. While interactionists look at the issue through the prism of interpersonal communication, other theories focus on either functions or conflicts. In brief, the methods cover different aspects of religion and offer a view on the issue from various angles.
Uniting the Theories
While the three theories seem to be utterly alien to each other, they have more in common than it would appear at the first glance. All the assumptions can be used to describe the phenomenon of religion only partially. An in-depth analysis shows that each theory is good at explaining just a particular aspect of the notion while failing to acknowledge the bigger picture (McGivern, n.d.). Moreover, the approaches offer an outside view of religion staying neutral to spirituality and failing to recognize God’s existence.
While this approach may seem not biased, it provides only a limited insight into the matter, as it does not even assume that there may be a higher order of life that can unite people and provide life’s meaning. In short, all the three classical theoretical approaches of sociology towards religion are united by their limitations and close-mindedness. However, all of them seem to complement each other, as each of them contributes to the holistic understanding of religion.
Religion has been present in all the known human societies in one form or another. Sociology, while staying neutral, studies the functions religion serves, inequality and conflict it promotes, and the role it plays in daily lives. Structural functionalism, conflict theory, and symbolic interactionism are the three classical theories that describe a different aspect of religion. The approaches, while offering views from entirely different angles, have a lot in common and contribute to the appreciation of the controversial nature of religion.
Furseth, I., & Repstad, P. (2017). An introduction to the sociology of religion. Web.
Johnstone, R. (2016). Religion in society: A sociology of religion. Web.
McGivern, R. (n.d.). Introduction to sociology. Web.