The Influence of Religion – AS and A Level Sociology Notes

Religion has always been centered around a huge debate. Questions pertaining whether it has undergone a notional change or has involved materialistic aspects in its selfless realm; whether religion favours one particular segment of society or is constructed for the well-being of all; such inquisitiveness has tried to be resolved in the present article. Besides that, the real picture of working dynamics of religion under the garb of Social Change and Development, has also been extensively discussed. The analysis of fundamentalist religious movements, intersectionality of gender and religion; all these aspects have been tried to cover meticulously in this article.

Influence of Religion

The analysis of concept of religion in itself, is multidimensional where every dimension caters to different perspectives and varied viewpoints. According to Emile Durkheim (1915), “Religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relating to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden.” However, for Marx (1844), “religion is the opium of the masses.” For a holistic understanding of religion and its impact, it is important to look it from different vantage points and draw conclusions simultaneously from multifarious debates hovering around it, ranging from the Great Secularization Debate to the Feminist arguments to its inter-mingling with the Post-modernistic approach.

The Secularization Debate

Secularisation, according to Brian Wilson (1966), is “the process by which religious thinking, practices, and institutions lose their social significance.” Diverse ideas and points of view have accompanied the beginning of secularisation. The main contention, however, is laid towards the onset of industrialization, urbanization, and  globalisation; which has a huge negative impact on traditional religion. Historically, Max Weber also discussed the rationalization process and the disenchantment of the world where people preferred rational phenomena over divine-logic. Weber viewed secularisation primarily in terms of shifting religious views i.e. from Catholicism to Protestantism and a growing disconnection between religion and mundane life. Other sociologists have catered to different reasonings for the waning impact of the religion in the present scenario. declining impacts. Peter Berger, in his work, has discussed the disappearance of the shared sacred canopy in religion. He stated that people are no longer bound together by a common set of beliefs and it is majorly the result of pluralism and rationalization.

Quantitative observations can be made about the relationship between religion and other spheres of the society. According to Lynd’s research,  94% of the young, church-going Christians in the US believed that Christianity was ‘the one true religion’ in the 1920s, but the number had dropped to 41% by the late 1970s. Talcott Parsons remarks substantiated to this rationale for the decline. He claimed that the state now controls most of the areas where religious institutions once exercised influence, such as education and health. For him, structural division in the society was one of the reason for declining religious impact. Steve Bruce mentioned how the advent of technology has contributed to the loss of religion. In the late 19th century, it was observed that  certain religions started aligning themselves with modernization’s guiding ideals. An illustration would be Church of England leaders, such as the late Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins, who questioned some of the central beliefs of Christianity in order to fit the modern morality  such as the ordination of women or changes in attitudes towards one’s sexual orientation.

Gender, Feminism and Religion

The feminists have done an extremely intriguing analysis of how gender and religion overlap.  Majority of them agreed with the complementary claims made by Marxists and functionalists. They held the opinion that religion serves as a conservative force that works to uphold the existing status quo. This skewed quo’s establishment was questioned by feminists since it was highly distorted and repressive. Through the arguments of Traditional Marxists and Simone De Beauvoir, a semantic labelling on the intersectionality of gender and religion can be inferred. Just as Marxists regarded religion as aiding in the exploitation of workers, feminists saw religion as aiding in the exploitation of women. Additionally, it urges women to subjugate and accept the status quo in order to receive the reward in the afterlife. Feminists strongly protest against the use of religious texts, rituals, and the execution of unequal power relations in the religious institutions. For instance, all of the renowned posts in the Roman Catholic Church, such as bishop, archbishops etc. are held by the patriarchs. Even within Islam, the majority does not properly recognize female imams.  According to Karen Armstrong (1993), the exclusion of women from the priesthood served as an example of how women are marginalized in the social and religious life.

There are various viewpoints that exists within the dynamic range of the feminist school of thought. Some stated that not all demographic groups adhere to the religion’s conservatism. Besides that, they stated that there had been the portrayal of the motherly-figured goddesses in the early religions but men modified everything to maintain their patriarchal norms. Strong proponents for such arguments included Karen Armstrong and Nawal El Sadaawi. Some feminists, such as Linda Woodhead, noted that occasionally scholars completely misinterpret religion. For instance, wearing a veil is regarded as a  choice of freedom for women in the Islamic religion, yet many people believe it to be a tool of oppression against women. As a result, the feminist school of thought accommodates a variety of viewpoints on religion as a concept and its use as a tool; however patriarchy as a polluting factor of religion; is the central tenet of their argument. Feminists collectively argue that patriarchy is ingrained in practically all major world religions. In this universe, men have always seen themselves as the sovereign beings and have been the only ones to represent the divine to the rest of creation. The patriarchs considered themselves to be the exclusive interpreters of religious texts and doctrines. For instance, men do believe that women have an inseparable identity with their spouses, hence widowhood is regarded as impure in Hinduism. Even in monotheistic religion, one can see masculine deities, which is fundamentally sexist and perpetuates patriarchy. All these instances show male-dominance and prominent base of patriarchy in the society.

However, the early notion of religious trajectory was being challenged continuously by the feminists and other Marxist scholars. Mary Daly (1968) criticized Christianity for ignoring the presence of the feminine Goddesses. Such criticisms paved a positive way of transformations in the realm of religion. Even the New Age Movements, contributed immensely for bringing in the change. The concept of embodied spirituality given by Carol Christ (1997) which explains that there is an omnipresent Goddess and can be experienced through their personal experiences; recognizes the feminine sovereignty. Gender equality in religious sphere has also been seen as one of the most notable contributions of the feminists. For example – Zainah Anwar  empowers women by making them a member of the organization named ‘Sister in Islam’ where they aim to achieve gender equality within the Islamic superstructure. Bishop Vashti McKenzie was also the first woman to hold such a prestigious position in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Even, Sally Jane Priesand was the first person to be recognized as a Rabbi in the United States. Thus, it can be inferred that the contemporary religious system is expanding to include people from both genders, which encourages the egalitarian ideal.

Also Read: Sociological Understanding of Religion

Religion and Post-Modernity

Postmodernism is also centered around defying an objective ultimate truth about religion. Rejecting metanarratives means that religion is merely another narrative that competes with all the others. An important element in the resacrilization of society is the notion that individuals can select their own truth. In the postmodern era, people would discover truth that benefitted them and place them in which they were living, according to Bauman. Individuals, according to the post-modernists, are reluctant to find the universal truths. Therefore, the overlapping of religion and post-modernism opens a whole new arena of understanding the concept of religion.

The increasing trend of privatization of religion can be inferred from David Lyon’s book Jesus in Disneyland (2000), where he illustrated the postmodern perspective on religion. In it, Lyon explained how religion has lost its embeddedness in postmodern society. He noted that the religious decline gave individual the freedom to combine various components from multiple belief systems, accepting what they like and discarding what they don’t. The work also discovers that religion may be found in unexpected places, like Disneyland i.e. the privatized realm of an individual. In the post-modernist approach, religion is no longer considered as a matter of obligation as it was traditionally, but rather as a matter of choice and consumption. This is consistent with the notion of the expansion of the holistic milieu and the idea that New Age Religious Movements are becoming more and more like businesses that offer spirituality as a product. Technology is a big element in all of this as it has moved religion from church structures to the television channels and websites. Thus, it can be stated that the instruments of religions are even undergoing the change.

Many religious and spiritual organizations active in modern society, according to Brian Wilson, do not fall into the categories of churches and sects. As a result, multiple cult and other New Religious Movement typologies have emerged in the contemporary times. According to Wallis, there are three divisions in the New Religious Movements. These three types of NRMs are world-affirming, world-rejecting, and world-accommodating. World-accepting NRMs segregate life into spiritual and worldly spheres, focusing on the spiritual; whereas world-rejecting NRMs believe that the world is intrinsically wicked or corrupt. World-affirming NRMs attempt to provide their followers with spiritual enrichment. A postmodernist named John Drane (1999) asserts that the rise of New Age movements is related to the perception that science has failed as a foundation for knowledge. He contends that while the Enlightenment and rationalization caused people to reject old religions, they also came to realize that science did not have all the answers, thus reiterating that people are going away from science and moving towards spirituality while searching within; looking for an identity.

Many sociologists considers religion as a source of identity. They state that religion can be a desirable form of identification in a culture where other sources of identity are eroding. According to postmodernists, nationality, gender, class, race, and sexuality are all fluid and fractured identities. However they consider that in the diverse, pluralistic, and globalized society, religion has been the source of identity that are occasionally fiercely guarded and fought against perceived attacks from other faiths or secularization. One of its example being the emergence of fundamentalism. The rise of fundamentalism in the modern religion is a significant trend. Although this movement, appears to be directly opposing to secularisation on the surface, there are actually important linkages between them. Almond (2003) classified fundamentalism as “a pattern of religious militancy” driven by “self-styled true believers” and characterized their purpose as being directly opposed to secularisation. Fundamentalists are strongly criticized because they wish to transform the modern, multicultural, liberal world into a conservative, traditional culture.  The tendency of fundamentalism is at its height due to fears of cultural defence, cultural shift, marginalization, cultural rebirth, etc. In order to protect the local and parochial cultures, such groupism has resurged. For example – In Afghanistan, the Islamic Fundamentalists have put on strict rules and regulations on the clothing and religious interpretations by people; thereby implementing the protectionist attitude to safeguard their group identity from globalization.


To conclude, the influence of religion historically was like a canopy covering every important aspect of the society. However, the current trend shares a completely different picture. Multifarious religions in the world have brought itself in sync with the principles of modernity; thereby blurring the lines of functional difference in the larger structure. Its embeddness in the society; is still a debatable topic and different schools of thought shares different light to it.  Religion is now an entirely separate unit of analysis and it is yet to portray a different paradigm-shift in the social structure.

Also Read: Religion and Social Order


Armstrong, K. (1993). A History of God: the 4000-year quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Almond, G. (2003). Strong Religion: The Rise of Fundamentalism around the World.

Christ, C.P. 1997. Rebirth of the Goddess: Finding Meaning in Feminist Spirituality. New York: Routledge.

Daly, M. (1968). Daly, M. 1975.The Church and the Second Sex. Revised edition. New York. Harper.

Drane, J. (1999). Introducing the New Testament.

Durkheim,E. (1915). The Elementary forms of the Religious life, a study in religious sociology. London : New York :G. Allen & Unwin; Macmillan.

Fagan, P. (1996). Why Religion Matters: The Impact of Religious Practice on Social Stability; accessed on 7th May, 2023.

Katz, J. (1966). The Influence of Religion and Society on Each Other at the time of the Emancipation. accessed on 5th May, 2023.

Lyon, D. (2000). Jesus in Disneyland.

Marx, K. (1844). A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.

Nath, S. (2015). Religion and Its Role in Society. IOSR Journal Of Humanities And Social Science (IOSR-JHSS). Volume 20, Issue 11, Ver. IV (Nov. 2015) PP 82-85; e-ISSN: 2279-0837, p-ISSN: 2279-0845.

Feminist Views on the Role of Religions (2018).

Rees, J. (2017). Religion and Culture. E- International Relations. accessed on 7th May, 2023.

Wilson, B. ( 1966). Religion in Sociological Perspective.

Share on:

My name is Pushpanjali Kumari. I am a 2nd year student of Miranda House and currently pursuing BA Hons. Sociology. My field of interest lies in reading fictional novels, capturing aesthetics under the garb of beauty in mundane and penning down my topsy-turvy emotions. Being a stalwart of every faces of feminism, I believe in channelizing my opinions to have an impact on the people and will always strive to be instrumental in bringing in change for a good cause.