Functionalists believe that religion is a cause of harmony in religion whereas, Marxists would argue that religion is more a cause of conflict in society. Karl Marx believes that religion is an illusion that eases the pain of exploitation, it is a way of providing many of the deceptions that the form the basis of the ruling class ideology and false class consciousness. Religion therefore acts like an opiate to dull the oppression. It does nothing to solve the problem and it is simply a misguided attempt to make life more bearable.

Marxists argue that religious movements begin in oppressed classes; their social conditions provide the most fertile ground for the growth of new religions. Engels said that Christianity was originally a movement of oppressed people; it first appeared as the religion of slaves, of poor people deprived of all rights, or peoples subjugated or dispersed by Rome. The Christian vision of heaven can make life on earth more bearable by giving people something to look forward to. This is the idea of promising a paradise of eternal bliss in the life after death, just one of the ways religion can dull the pain caused by oppression.

Religion also makes poverty more tolerable by offering a reward in promising compensation in the afterlife. Marx also argued that religion acts as a mechanism of social control maintaining the existing system of exploitation and reinforcing class relationships. By offering an illusion of hope it prevents thoughts of revolution. By providing explanations and justifications it distorts reality and produces a false class consciousness. In this way religion diverts people’s attention from the real source of their oppression and so helps to maintain ruling class power.

It is pointed out that religion is now solely the province of oppressed people; the ruling class adopt religious beliefs to justify their position both to themselves and others. The ruling class often directly support religion to their interests. Marx and Engels argued ‘the parson has ever gone hand in hand with the landlord. ‘ Landlords in feudal Britain would reward the church in return for their support. An example of a religious conflict would be the conflict in Northern Ireland, which has killed thousands of people, has both political and religious roots that are centuries old.

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The conflict began many years ago as a minority of Catholics that lived in Ireland were being politically marginalized by the Protestants. This ‘problem’ has lead to brutal violence and the loss of many lives over a long period of time. There is a lot of evidence to support the Marxist view of the role of religion in society. The caste system of traditional India was justified by Hindu religious beliefs. In medieval Europe, kings and queens ruled by divine right, the Egyptian Pharaohs went one step further by combining both god and king in the same person.

It has been argued that in the early days of Industrial Revolution in England, employers used religion as a means of controlling the masses and encouraging them to remain sober and to work hard. A more recent example which can be used to support the Marxist theory has been discussed by Steve Bruce (1988), he has pointed out that in the USA, conservative protestants- the ‘New Christian Right’ consistently support right wing political candidates in the Republican Party, and attack more liberal candidates in the Democratic Party.

In 1980 they targeted 27 liberal candidates for attack, 23 of them lost. Although Bruce emphasizes that they have had a limited influence on American politics, it is clear that they have tended to defend the interests of the rich and powerful at the expense of other groups in the population. However, conflicting evidence would suggest that religion does not always legitimate power; it is not simply a justification of alienation of privilege. This is reflected in Engels later work and in the perspectives on religion.

Also the fact that religion sometimes acts as an ideological force does not explain the existence of religion. Max Weber argued that capitalism developed as a result of religious movement, more specifically Calvinism. It was based on the idea that God gave salvation to those who pursued economic interest, in the name of religious duty. They did not spend money too stupidly; instead they’d invest in businesses, engaged in trading and hard work, striving for economic success.

Religious duty and a higher calling for a moral meaning were behind the development of capitalism, according to Weber. The church assured the business owners of their salvation, so they became more self assured and confident, allowing them to progress even more. Religion also limited using money for pleasure or donating it to the poor, as they were perceived as not serving God and burdening others. Overtime, capitalism developed as a religion of its own and the religious drive behind it got eliminated.

Weber was concerned that social values of ethics and was replaced by utilitarian values of capitalism, which is similar to Marx’s notion of alienation. However, the Functionalists perspective examines religion in terms of society’s needs. They would say that society requires a certain degree of social solidarity, value consensus, harmony and integration between its parts. The function of religion according to Functionalists is the contribution it makes to meeting such functional prerequisites for example its contribution to social solidarity.

Durkheim argued that all societies divide the world into two categories, the sacred and the profane. Religion is based upon this division; it is a unified system of beliefs and practices related to sacred things. Sacred things must be symbols they must represent something. Durkheim uses the example of Australian totemism as the “elementary form”, he describes the totem as a symbol both for a society and it’s sacredness. This is because, he states in his fundamental hypothesis, “god and society are one and the same,” though not necessarily on a conscious level.

Durkheim’s ideas are still influential today although they have been criticized. It has been argued that Durkheim studied only a small number of aboriginal groups which were somewhat untypical of other aboriginal tribes. Therefore it could be untrue to generalize his findings to other aboriginal beliefs. Many sociologists believe that Durkheim overstated his case, while agreeing that religion is important for promoting social solidarity and reinforcing social values they would not support his view that religion is ‘the worship of society’.

Parsons argued that human action is directed and controlled by norms provided by the social system. The cultural system provides more general guidelines for action in the form of beliefs, values and systems of meaning. Religion is part of the cultural system, as such religious beliefs provide guidelines for human action and standards against which people’s conduct can be evaluated. In a Christian society the Ten Commandments operate in this way. They demonstrate how many of the norms of the social system can be integrated by religious beliefs.

For example the commandment ‘thou shalt not kill’ integrates such diverse norms as the ways to drive a car, to settle an argument. The norms that direct these areas of behaviour prohibit manslaughter, murder and euthanasia but they are all based on the same religious commandment. The Functionalist perspective emphasizes the positive contributions of religion to society and tends to ignore its dysfunctional aspects. With its preoccupation with harmony, integration and solidarity, Functionalism neglects the many instances where religion can be seen as a divisive and disruptive force.

It gives very little consideration to hostility between religious groups within the same society, such as catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland or Hindus and Muslims in India. In such cases religion can be seen as a direct threat to society instead of ‘keeping it peaceful’. There are many arguments for and against both Marxism and Functionalists theories of religion. Nowadays it would seem that religion can cause major conflict with all the different wars happening between different religions. Perhaps religion could be said to be a cause of harmony for the people living in the same society whom believe in the same religion.


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