Sociological Theories of Religion: Durkheim, Weber, and Marx

Abstract Religion can be perceived as a system of beliefs that adds meaning to our existence. In simpler terms, religion is a cultural system consisting of moral beliefs, values, myths, and rituals that are present in every society in one form or another. Understanding religion is quite challenging in contemporary times due to its diverse nature and significance in different communities. Nevertheless, it is crucial to study religion and its multi-dimensional character since it continues to play a pivotal role in almost every aspect of society. This article foregrounds the sociological understanding of religion and underlines the contribution of classical sociological theorists in intensifying the study of religion.

Consensus Understanding of Religion

Religion can be defined in many ways varying from person to person. For some, it is something personal since it is deeply rooted in an individual’s conscience. Whereas for others, it can be an instrument of governing an individual’s actions. In simpler terms, religion is something that is practiced in the form of festivals, rituals, art, music, or any other cultural aspect.

Interestingly, religion is influenced by culture and location, thus it holds different interpretations. However, religion is a universal network present in every society with a prominent role of acting as a mechanism of social control and order.

Sociological Understanding of Religion

In the discipline of sociology, religion can be comprehended as something that is superficial or powerful beyond human explanation. The primary concern of social scientists has been to examine the interconnection between religion and society. Evidently, religion has a multitude of implications on every other institution of society whether it is kinship, marriage, or education. From a sociological perspective, it is essential to trace the origin of religion in primitive societies in order to draw a comparative analysis.

Plenty of theories and arguments have been established on religion, however, the sociological approach to religion is strongly influenced by the ideas of three classical theorists of sociology – Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, and Karl Marx.

Durkheim and religion:

Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) was a French sociologist who developed the Functionalist school of thought. He strongly supported the idea of collective functioning and solidarity in society.  According to the functionalist school of thought, society functions as a whole. Each part of society has a specific role that ultimately contributes to the better functioning of society. Functionalism defines religion as an institution that serves as a mechanism of solidarity and social control. Durkheim did a great deal of work on religion concentrating particularly on primitive societies. In his book “The Elementary Forms of Religious Life”(1912) he defined religion in terms of sacred and profane. He explained that society practices religion by regarding certain things as sacred and others as profane. Furthermore, he stated that ‘Totemism’ represents the simplest form of religion that is found in the Australian aboriginal society. ‘Totem’ is a plant or an animal that represents a symbolic significance. According to Durkheim, religion is not just confined to the system of beliefs. It includes rites, rituals, and ceremonies where a specific religious community unites and performs religious activities together. Thus, religion as a social institution plays a significant role in binding people together and strengthening the sense of solidarity amongst them.

Weber and religion:

Max Weber (1864-1920) was a German sociologist whose primary concern was to study the origin of rationalization and how religion impacts the economy of any society. He was interested in studying the reasons behind the rapid growth of western societies in terms of rationality and the barriers preventing the same in the rest of the world. According to Weber, religion was the main reason behind the rise of the capitalist spirit in western societies. Unlike Durkheim who focused on studying religion in primitive society, Weber embarked on his study of religion all over the world. He studied various religions including Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and ancient Judaism. Weber strongly emphasizes the fact that religion acted as the foundation of social change, especially in western societies.

In his book “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism”(1905)  he described the role played by the Protestant institutions in the economic transformation and growth of their society. He illustrated that protestant work ethics and values led to the emerging spirit of capitalism in western societies. According to Weber, in protestant societies, the pursuit of hard work for the accumulation of material wealth is considered as God’s will rather than considering it as a sin. On the contrary, in the eastern societies, material wealth is reflected as a mere product of capitalism, and spiritual existence is considered as the highest value. Weber claimed religion in eastern societies as the ‘irrational religious systems’ because they acted as barriers to achieving rationality.

Marx and religion:

Karl Marx (1818-1883) was a German philosopher and a socialist. He was primarily concerned with the economic aspect of society and conflict arising within it. Marx did not do a detailed study on religion. His ideas on religion are derived from the writings of Ludwig Feuerbach(1804-1872) who wrote: “The Essence of Christianity”(1841). He considered religion as a system of social stratification and inequality that prohibits social change and promotes the perpetual state of injustice and conflict in society.

Marx defines religion as the “opium of the people” (1844). Religion assures people the attainment of happiness and salvation in the afterlife, thus making them accept their fate. According to him, religion makes people ignorant of the existing inequality in society and promotes the suffering of the deprived and underprivileged class.


In simpler terms, religion is a rigid system of moral beliefs and norms that exist in various forms in every society.  Whereas in the sociological context, the role of religion can be comprehended through various perspectives as all of them provide significant assertions. For Durkheim, who was a functionalist, religion acts as a binding force that governs an individual’s moral conduct. For Weber, religion is something that has a massive influence on every society and it may cause social change. On the contrary, for Marx, “religion is the opium of the masses”(1844). It is a system of stratification that further strengthens the existing disparity in society.

However, all of them believed that religion might lose its rigidity and it will fade away from its traditional form in the advanced, modern, and capitalist world.


  • Emile Durkheim.1995. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life”. Translated by Karen. E. Fields. New York: The Free Press. Book one and Conclusion, pp. 21-39, 418-440.
  • George Ritzer, “Modern Sociological Theory” (seventh edition). McGraw Hill Education Private Limited. (Edition 2016) pp. 19-24, 32-35.
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