Religion and Social Order – AS and A Level Sociology Notes

The present article discusses about the role and importance of religion in the functioning of the society. The inter-mingling role of religion in other domains like social, economic, political etc. have been analyzed and its impact has been extensively elaborated upon. Different set of theories like structural and interactionist have been meticulously connected with the arguments drawn; thereby relating the concept of religion with the social structure and exercising of human agency in it. Besides that, the article also presents explicitly the ways in which religion acts as an instrument of social change.

religion and social order

Religion is a complex phenomenon. In a sociological sense, the meaning of religion has its implications beyond what is cited in the religious books and scriptures. Different sociological thinkers have defined religion in sync with their own vantage point. 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.” Religion has two basic elements embedded in it. These are – Elements of sacredness and elements of profanities. For him, the term “sacred” referred to something extraordinary, tied to the idea of “the divine,” while the term “profane” denoted anything besides the realm of sacredness. For example- If a piece of wood is used to make idols of God, it is considered to be sacred, however if it’s used for ‘tool-making’, it then becomes profane. Religion, thus, is a concept which has multifarious connotations subsumed in its larger realm of societal organization.

Religion and Society

Emile Durkheim was the first sociologist who analyzed religion in connection with the societal impact. He emphasized that “religion happens” in the society. Religion exists as a structured and integrated body of ideas, practices, and standards based on fundamental social requirements and ideals. All social groupings have this cultural universal, yet different societies have different sets of rituals and beliefs. For example- Funeral rites are practiced in every community but the rituals and customs involved are highly subjective. Religious beliefs, practices and rituals make religiosity difficult to measure. Since religion is one of the organizing principles of the society therefore objectively defining religion becomes very difficult as every society has its own ways of interpreting religion. Besides that, it has also been observed that different social groups have different attitudes towards religion. Age, gender, and class all have a role in the development of societal patterns of religiosity. Women are more engaged in religion than men, have stronger attachments to religious causes, and attend church services in greater numbers than men, according to research done by A.S. Miller and J.P. Hoffmann (1995). Steve Bruce’s (2012) research notes that more women than men are abandoning traditional churches and there are twice the number of women as men participating in sects and New Age movements. Even Simone de Beauvoir came up with similar conclusions. According to a study by Ashworth and Farthing (2007), people from working-class backgrounds are more likely to believe in God. Even Voas and Watt in 2014 came to the similar conclusions after looking at religious trends in the Church of England. Tariq Modood et al. (1997) discovered that ethnic minorities in the UK have a higher than average percentage of religious engagement, taking into account that ethnicity is a crucial component of religion. According to research done by O’Beirne (2004); Black Christians, Muslims, and Hindus consider religion to be a crucial element in their identity construction. In terms of age groups, it is found that, older age groups are more inclined towards religion than the younger ones. In addition to these, there are multifarious belief systems that exists in a particular religion. Presence of multiple sects and cult groups provides evidences for the same. Many religions go for idol worships, some stand by the side of nature worship and animal protection; a few believe in the ancestral worship etc.; thereby clubbing in together under one roof objectively; will skew down the concept of religion.

Religion and Social Order

Religion is a social institution and is highly instrumental in the promotion of social order and stability. Functionalists like Emile Durkheim, Talcott Parsons state that religion and society both depend on each other for their existence, value and significance. They contend that religions offer a setting for interpersonal communication and the creation of social groups. It enables people to unite behind a shared set of ideals, which is a crucial stage in the socialization process. It  then binds different social groups together and helps in the implementation of behaviour consistency in them. Religion teaches people morally upright behavior and helps being a ‘good’ member of the community. Besides that, religion helps in strengthening the bond of social cohesion, collective consciousness and value consensus in the community. Bronislaw Malinowski (1954), in his work ‘Magic, Science and Religion’ stated that religion also helps in the maintenance of the psychological well-being during distress, death etc. For example- Funeral rites always take place as a community activity and members support each other in those odd times . Religion brings society under one umbrella and provides a base of social networking to an individual thereby promoting the social security. It can be seen through multifarious religions like Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism, Jainism, Islam etc. According to certain research, religion even seems to help people live longer than non-religious people and also seems to promote greater physical health (Moberg,2008). Thus, for the functionalists, religion can be observed in every nook and corner of the society ranging from individuals behaviour to their interaction to shared set of base of rituals, cultures etc.

Functionalists underwent criticisms by different school of thoughts. It is considered to be lop-sided in its perspectives as it is considers only the idealistic impacts of religion. Religion for them, promotes peace, harmony, brotherhood etc. but the reality presents a harsher, different picture. There have been multiple instances where religion has deepened the divide between the social groups. For example- Religious Violence existing between Hindus and Muslims in India. The growing trend of secularization in itself shows the negative implications of the social construction of religion.

However, Karl Marx had different opinions on religion. In his 1844 essay titled A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Marx stated that ‘Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the sentiment of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.’ He believed that religion is one of those social institutions who propagates the ideologies of the bourgeois of the society and promotes inequality in it. Marxists argue that religion may be used to propagate principles throughout society that uphold the position of the governing elite class while also supporting capitalism. According to Marxian theories, religion is a tool used by the bourgeois to hold onto power and perpetuate inequality by putting an end to the proletariat revolution. Marx notes that religion creates false consciousness among people and curbs proletariats potential to unite against their own exploitation and bring in revolution against the capitalistic class. Lenin’s description of religion as spiritual gin reflected Marx’s claim. He argued that the religious establishment was cynically employed by the ruling class to cloak reality for the working people in a magical mist.  For instance- In Europe, in the early 19th century, the Church didn’t let anyone question its legitimacy or authority. This led Marx state that religion infuses among men that their misery is the God’s will thereby hiding the bourgeois role in the proletariats exploitation. In the highly capitalistic world, religion prevents this exploited class to upgrade their conditions of existence. Capitalism and the religious institutions alienates the proletariats not only from their family, work and environment but also from their own self. Through Marxist vantage point, religion is an instrument of the ruling class to impose their ideological and material control on the proletariats.

Despite all these substantial arguments, Marxist viewpoints faced criticisms. Neo-Marxists argued that religion does not always prevent social change by creating false class consciousness rather there have been multiple instances where religion has been the instrument of unity and fraternity. Also, sociologists argued that religion shall exist even in communism where there is no oppression and the best example is of the USSR communist state which banned the practice and propagation of religion; but prominence of religion was stronger there than the capitalistic West in the 20th century. Another limitation of this viewpoint was that it was highly laid on the materialistic and objective base and did not take into consideration the positive side of religion altogether.

Religion as a source of social change

Max Weber (1904), in his work ‘The Protestant Ethics and the Spirit of Capitalism’  has explicitly discussed upon the ways in which religion brings in the social change. He thought that the forces behind societal transformation were economic reasons, together with the required attitudes and ideas. Weber found that a particular branch of Protestantism known as Calvinism played an important role in bringing the social change of capitalism in 17th century in the Western Europe. Calvinism advocates for two concepts:  predestination and the ascetic ideal. According to him, predestination meant one’s after life has already been decided by God. Calvinists were the major proponents of this belief and  believed that only a few were chosen for heaven . They stated that success is one of the determinants to go to heaven thereby people had to work hard for it. The second kind was to lead a life of ‘asceticism’.The early Calvinists adopted a rigid and orderly lifestyle based on the principles of toil and modest pleasures. This ascetic ideal gave rise to a work culture based on discipline and perseverance, which is the essence of capitalism. It encouraged the spirit of hard work for greater glory of God and motivated people to stick to the  ethical codes of work. Due to these, capital was being accumulated as people invested it in their ventures since they can’t collect wealth for their personal use; thus religion played a crucial role in bringing the social change.

In Latin America, liberation theology emerged as a movement inside the Roman Catholic Church in the 1950s and 1960s, fusing Christian ethics with political engagement. It used the church as a tool to advance social change in the realms of politics and commerce.  In the lives of the underclass, it makes an effort to lessen or end social injustice, prejudice, and poverty. They demanded redistribution of wealth and power rationally and equitably in the society. Gustavo Gutierrez’s (1928) work on ‘A Theology of Liberation’ was considered to be the leading text of those periods. It had so much of impact that in Europe and North America, feminist theology has emerged from this ideology to bring in the social justice for women.

In addition of these, the influence of religious movements highly impacts the political domain. It can be analyzed through the two case studies. Firstly, the Evangelicals movement in the U.S. politics and secondly, Ayatollahs in the Iranian Revolution.

Case Study 1: Evangelists are the sub-groups of the Protestant Christians. Evangelicals from a variety of denominations, including Baptist, Mennonite, Methodist, Pentecostal, Plymouth Brethren, Quaker, Reformed, and nondenominational churches, make up the US population. Many evangelicals participated in US social and political reform movements during the 19th century, but disagreements over how to interpret God’s role in history led to the emergence of Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism. By 1970, they had begun to engage in political discourse and had addressed issues including LGBT rights, tax-exempt status for religious institutions, and sex education in public schools. Evangelicals continued to favour Democrats in the 1970s, but during the Carter administration, many began to support Republicans. As a result, the Republican Party and Ronald Reagan’s campaign acknowledged the significance of evangelical Christians and actively sought their support. In response, evangelical voters supported Reagan strongly in 1980 and 1984.  In this way, evangelicals became a larger base of the Republicans and influenced the US politics massively.

Case Study 2: Iranian political and religious figure Ruhollah Khomeini, also referred to as Ayatollah Khomeini, was the architect of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the creator of the Islamic Republic of Iran. He is said to have overthrown Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi from the reign which led to the end of the Persian monarchy. Sharia was established during Khomeini’s leadership, and the Islamic dress code was upheld for both men and women by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards and other Islamic organizations. He thought that only an Islamic jurist could guarantee the application of Sharia. Ayatollah Khomeini oppressed feminists, members of racial and religious minorities, liberals, and leftists in the name of Islam. However, after 1979, his fatwa served as the foundation for a national policy, demonstrating how religion influences politics in various ways.


To conclude, religion can’t be analyzed in isolation. It has fluid boundaries with the political, social and economic realm. Religion, in the contemporary times, has undergone changes manifold. The protests in the name of religion across the globe, seems to substantiate its subverted implications. Religion is highly instrumental in maintaining social order, social stability; however sometimes also becomes the victims of the political propaganda. Besides that, the elements of sacredness and profanities that it embeds, is highly subjective, varying from one community to the other. In this way, religion can be best studied through comparative approach. Considering this larger realm of relativity, it can be stated that thus, religion and society both influence each other.


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~ Pushpanjali Kumari

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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.