An Introduction to the Socioloogy of Religion


This is a massive area of study, and this file draws largely upon the Reader edited by Robertson (1969).  The file is designed to do two basic things:

1. Define what is sociological about religion, what makes a sociology of religion possible, using, largely Durkheim, Marx and Weber.
2. Explore some basic points about "secularisation" (briefly).
What is social about religion? It does not look as if anything to do with anything social, it seems a matter of personal faith.  It seems to have nothing to do with sociology either - religion relates to some other world, to a divine order rather than the social order, and knowledge of the religious world is a matter of faith and/or revelation rather than logical argument and sociological analysis. Yet, at the very least,  religion does have a social dimension: religious belief has very imporant social origins, and social consequences.


The easiest argument is found in Durkheim  (Elementary Forms of the Religious Life) (Durkheim 1961) ( extract in Robertson). Durkheim has a very broad definition of religion as a "unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things". 

Let's explore this key notion of the sacred.  All societies make a distinction between sacred and profane realism.  Durkheim was not interested in what actually counts as sacred - it could be certain fetishes, God, a particular way of life, etc.  He says the crucial sociological point is that the sacred constitutes a realm set apart from ordinary social life, beyond doubt, a realm that cannot be questioned, the realm of the absolute. 

"The sacred" as beyond debate and conflict gives a clue to the social role of the sacred - it exists to unify societies, to function as "social glue". To be specific, beliefs about the sacred "unite all those who adhere to them into a community, a church".  So religions contain a set of collective beliefs  designed to be undoubtable, above all the petty divisions and differences found in profane life.  Hence for Durkheim, religion is an inevitably social phenomenon, produced by social life and the social need for some glue to hold it all together.

In fact, the sacred represents the ideal form of society - an idealised society is necessary in the maintenance of social order.  Religious forces are therefore human forces expressed as objective sentiments.  Durkheim goes on to defend this view against other interpretations of religion like psychological or theological ones, naturalistic views, or materialist views (like Marx's).

One argument is especially interesting- there are social roots to religious experience too for Durkheim.  The extraordinary nature of religious experience, like the feelings of divine revelation or grace or ecstasy, are often used by believers to justifytheir own personal  convictions or theological views that the religious realm is separate and real.  For Durkheim, these extraordinary experiences can be explained as a function of the collective rituals of worship - the ritual excitation of individual sensibility that produces collective ecstasy.  Individuals interact in the course of worship, and have their feelings, behaviours and experiences amplified by the group, and experience these amplifications as divine revelation.  This is the same process thatproduces excitable crowds at football matches, and indeed for some literal Durkheimists, football fanaticism is a religious experience.

Some implications follow.  Religion is defined very broadly, to include any collective sentiments referring to the sacred.  Nationalism and socialism can act as religions.  This may be too broad - to explain Christianity, for example, we need much more detailed analysis. Broad analysis misses some crucial differences between Christianity and less rational religions (see Weber below). Too simple a view also leads to problems in explaining splits, differences,conflicts in religion.

Durkheim says religion in industrial societies is split and complex because these societies themselves are complex (have a fragmented conscience collective).  But there are problems with his views even in pre-industrial societies as Worsley argues (TheTrumpet Shall Sound)(in Robertson): briefly, Worsley wants to suggest that the sacred/profane split is not universal, or at least not always central, and that functionalist analysis often underestimates the critical potential of the ideal form of society that is worshipped. 

There is also a comment on secularisation here - if religion is the key to social order, if it is functional, it must always be present in all societies.  It cannot decline, although it can change.

Marx and Engels

Marx, and Marx and Engels (1952), (1970) (excerpts in Thompson and Tunstall 1971) adopt a relentlessly sociological approach to religion too.  Their work is largely about Christianity, but the specific analysis is connected to much more complex categories like alienation, fetishism and ideology ( see file). 

Briefly, they borrow from Feuerbach the idea that Christianity is a literal inversion of truth:  God does not make man, but the reverse.  Humans possess enormous power to change history and the world - but this power is unrecognised.  Instead,in a curious alienated way, it is projected onto God.  God is a metaphor, a misrecognition of the truth, a representation of human power really. 

Religion does offer something ofan alternative to the status quo - a "sigh of the oppresed", and it does contain a wished for alternative to the miseries of the alienated masses(leading to much stress on the implicit "hope" in marxism, identified byChristian Marxists). 

A more orthodox reading sees Christianityas ideology in three basic ways:

(a) as an "opiate of thepeople", in the famous phrase in the Communist Manifesto (Marx and Engels1952)(a phrase which closely follows the one about a sigh of the oppresed). Christianity exists as a means to cope with the pains and troubles of this world - you get pie in the sky when you die;
(b) as a justification of the orderof society, seen at its clearest in the doctrine of the "divine right ofkings", or less obviously in the close parallels between the structureof the divine order and the hierarchies of the political system;
(c) as a general mystification ofthe truth about humans linking to concepts like the "fetishism" of commodities in Capital (Marx 1977)(see the reading guide to that famous section here)

It is important to make these links to stave off a common view that marxism offers only a crude materialism - class interests produce religion in a direct sense. Few marxists thesedays would accept such a direct reduction to class interests, and the wholediscussion of ideology is much more complex than the simple selection ofpassages on Christianity would suggest. 

Althusser, for example, a leading French marxist theorist, sees the secret of Christianity as an ideology to lie in its "hailing mechanism" - the process whereby Christianity reproduces a particular kind of submissive but flatteringly personal subjective identity for its believers. This is a mechanism that can be detected in "ideologyin general", and Althusser is repeating the advice of Marx and Engels -to thoroughly criticise Christianity first, as a kind of exemplar of allideology. See Althusser 1971 - and the reading guide to his work


The sociology of religion was a major area of study for Weber.  A nice excerpt (The Nature of World Religions) in Robertson shows Weber's style.   Weber explains how the emergence of world religions is the result of a great complexity of interrelated factors.  Some are economic/political - particular religions are associated with particular social strata (e.g. Confucianism with a cultivated literary elite, Christianity originally with "itinerant artisan journeymen" and later "civic and urban groups").  But this is not enough - thereare independent cultural elements too, associated with the special natureof religion as a promise, as theodicy, (a theory of, and explanation for suffering).

These independent beliefs are also modified by intellectuals who continually interpret theodicy to meet new conditions.  In particular, in Weber's work, Christian intellectuals develop an increasingly rational theodicy (and that is a crucial breakwith early religions, denying Durkheim) There are some specific connsequences of this as we shall see below. 

Religions are adopted by large sectors of the population for all sorts of complex social and religious reasons too - not simply as a political divices or out of resentment.  InWestern Europe a combination of particular religious traditions plus their adoption by particular sets of urban civic intellectuals led to a specific belief in "active asceticism", the adoption of a practical, rational ethic specifically suited to civic conditions, (offering technical/economic calculations, and the practical mastery of nature).

"Active asceticism" was to have crucial but unintended consequences for the development of capitalism.  Puritans had a very important role - to introduce their particular practical ethic and to ensure its spread far beyond the groups themselves.  This led to the famed "work ethic" so characteristic of capitalism in its modern forms - work became a duty, there was a heavy emphasis on individual responsibility, and an emphasis on rational action. All  these were introduced by Puritans as somehow sanctioned by religion.  This is the theme of the famed book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (Weber 1948)

The book offers a very complex and careful exposition of the major themes of Protestant doctrine as in founders like Calvin, and in more modern exponents.  Briefly, Protestant extremists like Calvin scorned this world as irrelevant.  Heaven was only for the elect, the rest were condemned to eternal death.  The elect were chosen by God in an unknowable way.  There was no redemption for the non-elect.  The only possible stance was simply to have faith in one's election:  there was no way to win it.  This doctrine seems to offer no connection with capitalism - or any other wordly activity - at all, and strict Calvinists were as contemptuous of the newly emerging social forms as of any.

However, this stark and terrifying doctrine was actually not much use as a theodicy. Inevitably, it became interpreted, and modified in a more palatable and  graspable direction so that gradually, and ironically, it came to mean: 

(a) A stress on unceasing work as a duty:
(b) a stress on individual responsibility (no intermediaries);
(c) unceasing rational control at all times (no allowance for lapses and no atonement);
(d) work as a safeguard against sins of flesh;
(e) success in business to be pursued, but not to accumulate wealth in order to enjoy oneself. Success in business also eventually became an unofficial prerequisite for admission to Protestant communities as a sign of the practical application of the principles.
The "work ethic" became diffused throughoutWestern societies, as a whole way of life. This explains why there is a definite link with Protestantism and the spread of capitalism (which Weber was at pains to try and demonstrate). Clearly, relentless drives to work lie at the heart of the restless desire to invent, improve, and make progress that Weber admired in people like Benjamin Franklin on his visit to theUSA.

Work is ethical, good in its own right, the proper pursuit of men even when they have earned enough.  This helped to attack traditional limits and modernise.  It was diffused far beyond Puritans and persists now in secular versions, no longer linked to religious goals - but it was introduced by religious groups!!

Weber on secularisation

Weber is famous for showing these unintended consequences of the development of religion.  He is also famed for introducing a theory of secularisation, for explaining the decline of religious belief as a major force in society. 

The basis lies in the notion of rationalisation (the spread of a special kind of calculative rationality, a concern with choosing the most efficient means to achieve pre-specified ends, a type of rationality that Weber called zweckrationalitat) (see Wrong 1971).  This brings with it rational mastery of the world, rational organisation (e.g. bureaucracy) - and rational explanations for, and mastery of, suffering (e.g. mastery of disease, flood, famine etc.).  Religious explanations lose ground therefore - driven further and further back as science explains the formerly mysterious world.  The paradox is that one element involved in establishing this rationalisation was the Protestant religion itself. Rationalisation, once unleashed, turns back upon religion and cuts the ground from under its feet.

Weber's views then are often used as a basis for the view that industrial socieites will be secular ones, that religion will decline and eventually disappear.  This was clearly hoped for in Marx - religion ends with the end of alienation.  It is a popular view too - science replaces religion.  However:

  1. Luckmann (The Invisible Religion)(excerpts in Robertson) points to the survival of Church-orientated religion in elements of industrial societies - among the old, women, and rural or ethnic minorities.  Above all, there is even a revival in the USA (although there are problems with this as we'll see)
  2. Adorno and Horkheimer point to the amazing irrationalism of modern man (1979). Hindess 1977 characterises the whole structure of modern social science itself as fundamentally "religious" at the  deepest level,  and in its most characteristic forms of argument.
  3. Further, a careful reading of Weber suggests he never intended to say religion disappears in the face of rationalisation-  it becomes privatised rather than social or collective (see Wrong op.cit). 
  4. Another angle comes from Worsley - there was no golden age of religious commitment in pre-industrial societies either (see also Laslett (1971)). 
So in general, no simple line exists between the spread and deployment of modern science or social science, or the growth of industrialisation, and secularisation.

There are considerable problems defining our terms anyway (see Glasner 1977 for the best general account). If religion is broadly defined as in Durkheim it cannot disappear but can only change.  There does seem to be a consensus of opinion that orthodox Church-oriented religious Christianity is in decline, in Britain at least, but even this is difficult to pin down.   How could we measure this - by Church attendance? (crude)  People's knowledge of Christian doctrine (irrelevant)? 

Even if there is some decline is this inevitable or just a temporary phase.  Are there signs of revival even in Britain?

The Martin/Wilson Controversies

Many of these debates and issues are crystallised in the debates between David Martin and Bryan Wilson. Martin's work is a suitable base for analysis for several reasons. He is a Sociologist and a Christian priest and theologian. His work leads to a remarkable sensitivity to complexity and concreteness, despite its rather unpromising conceptual resources in functionalism and social phenomenology (Martin's work remains separated from much recent marxist and marxissantwork on ideology, and his views on Marxism are Popperian).

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Martin (1967) was engaged in a famous debate with B. Wilson (1969) about the fate of religion in modern societies - the processes of secularisation and the renewal of belief. Already, the argument had progressed far beyond the rather simple view that religion was necessarily in decline in industrial societies, even as a public force ( the nub of the secularisation debate). 

Martin had wanted to suggest that religious impulses still had a major part to play in the life of modern Britain at least at the level of consciousness - that ethical judgements were still largely made on a Christain basis, or that religiosity (even if non-Christian religiosity) still played a major part in the thinking and belief systems of most people - and so on. 

Nevertheless, the debate ended on a rather pessimistic note for Christians, with Wilson forecasting contradictions and problems for each of the three main survival strategies then being pursued by the Anglican Church:

(a) Ecumenicalism - a good organizational solution but one which dilutes the popular faith of the loyal supporters.
(b) Revivalism - the growth of sects and cults, which is good at renewing faith at the grass-roots level, but encounters the old problems of moral pluralism as soon as the development to a Church is contemplated.
(c) Secularization - the Church finds a new secular relevance in community work, counselling, marriage guidance, or other secular theodicies. This strategy renews sympathy and popularity, but the Church rapidly becomes indistinguishable from other thoroughly secular agencies.
These issues set the agenda for Martin's more recent work which offers much more detailed and concrete analyses of the ways in which Christianity becomes combined with other ideologies and forces as it struggles for its existence. This phase is exemplified in his study of different (and complex) patterns of secularisation in a variety of industrial societies (Martin 1978), and in his collection of essays The Dilemmas of Contemporary Religion (Martin 1980). Despite the diversity of the analyses and topics in the work, there is only one essential dilemma - how religious organizations manage to hold together a necessary dualism in their existence. How can they manage and survive in this world, having to ally themselves with, or struggle against other powerful organizations like the State or economic organizations and uphold a public interest in an extramundane level of reality? 

Martin's comparative studies of Christian churches in different societies and countries discuss several possible combinations of Christian, liberal, nationalist, and Communist organizations.The analysis at this level is a familiar one of political alliance, compromise, necessity, the politics of pressure groups.

The supernatural level also involves alliances and conflicts with other powerful belief systems. Martin identifies a number of powerful ideological rivals to Christianity, and agrees these are in the ascendant in Europe:

(a) 'Civic religion' - that part of Christian ritual and belief which has become 'fused with the State'(to use marxist terms: Martin uses Durkheimian ones). The Anglican Church legitimates and sanctifies the central organizations of State, celebrated and revealed best in rituals like Remembrance Sunday. Like the charismatic revival, civic religion represents only a partial Christianity (God the Father, the Almighty is being addressed). It exists in uneasy alliance with other civic religions (eg nationalism), and it has a tendency to evoke countercultures (well beyond Durkheim here, surely, although even the usual theoretical debates - how the conscience collective can produce social change - within Durkheimianism are not pursued).
(b) The 'Charismatic', 'Pentecostal','Restoration', 'House Church' movement(s). Martin is very critical of the movement, chiding it for its mixture of idealistic pantheism, its 'grass-roots ecumenism of the Spirit', and its refusal to consider problems of organization, which leaves a vacuum for authoritarian leadership to exploit. The movement is obsessed with the Holy Ghost this time. Its characteristic immediacy, impatience with routine or rationality, and its totally abstract view of community offer marked similarities to youth cultures and the student movement:all share 'an addiction to ecstasy'.
(c) The 'invisible religion' with its pan-European pagan roots and symbolism. This is common, widespread in Europe, and has been around for a long time. Its persistence can be used to fight off simple views of secularisation which almost convinced some bourgeois intellectuals that a new age of Science and Reason was increasingly dominating their own lives, and thus, by an ideology mechanism familiar to us since Marx mocked Bentham, dominating the lives of all (Marx accused Bentham of simply erecting the perceptions and worldview of the small shopkeeper to the status of a universal philosophy). 
Most people, perhaps, still live in a world dominated not by Enlightenment but by superstition, 'fate', 'luck',and magic. Although there is no explicit recognition of a link, Martin diagnoses the appeal of magic (as opposed to prayer) in a way which is strikingly reminiscent of Adorno ( Adorno T et al (eds)1976): magic offers a feeling of involvement, as it permits its adherents to manipulate actual objects 'sympathetically' connected to the real world. Unlike Adorno, Martin does not proceed to establish the ironic links between magic and the rituals of positivistic 'method', which also claim to subdue real objects by mysteriously operationalizing them first, but this time in the name of 'science': a'critical rationalist' position emerges instead. 

Martin is concerned to preserve the rational theology of Protestantism against all three rivals. Marxists might recognise in this a desire to uphold some totalising claim, or dialectic unity (between the parts of the Trinity). Martin himself uses the terms of Berger and Luckmann (1967) - Christianity constructs a reality and offers sources, symbols, and conceptual equipment to critique that reality in liberating and enlightening ways: the Protestant emphasis on choice and dissent are the two most prominent examples. The overall picture is oneof dynamic interrelations, ('fields of possibility' or 'constellations' in Adorno's terms (1976)), which crystallise in different concrete and 'overdetermined' conjunctures.

The whole debate is intriguing in its attempt to both indicate the complexities of Christian doctrine as it struggles for a place in the world,  and an attempt to preserve its releavnce as a living philosophical resource - a new kind of theodicy. In both cases, the struggle is far from over.

How well do any of these definitions,of religiosity or secularisation, describe the state of modern thinkingor practice? 
How would you use this material to analyse, say, televangelism, or pentecostalism?
Can religiosity be studied sociologically?


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