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Chapter 13 Education and Religion

13.7 Sociological Perspectives on Religion

Sociological perspectives on religion aim to understand the functions religion serves, the inequality and other problems it can reinforce and perpetuate, and the role it plays in our daily lives (Emerson, Monahan, & Mirola, 2011). The following “Theory Snapshot” summarizes what these perspectives say.

Theory Snapshot


Major Assumption


Religion serves several functions for society. These include (a) giving meaning and purpose to life, (b) reinforcing social unity and stability, (c) serving as an agent of social control of behavior, (d) promoting physical and psychological well-being, and (e) motivating people to work for positive social change.

Conflict Perspective

Religion reinforces and promotes social inequality and social conflict. It helps convince the poor to accept their lot in life, and it leads to hostility and violence motivated by religious differences.


This perspective focuses on the ways in which individuals interpret their religious experiences. It emphasizes that beliefs and practices are not sacred unless people regard them as such. Once they are regarded as sacred, they take on special significance and give meaning to people’s lives.


The Functions of Religion

Much of the work of Émile Durkheim stressed the functions that religion serves for society regardless of how it is practiced or of what specific religious beliefs a society favors. Many of the functions identified by Durkheim are reminiscent of the earlier discussion of the elements all religions have in common. Durkheim’s insights continue to influence sociological thinking today on the functions of religion.

First, religion gives meaning and purpose to life. Many things in life are difficult to understand. That was certainly true, as we have seen, in prehistoric times, but even in today’s highly scientific age, much of life and death remains a mystery, and religious faith and belief help many people make sense of the things science cannot tell us.

Second, religion reinforces social unity and stability. This was one of Durkheim’s most important insights. Religion strengthens social stability in at least two ways. First, it gives people a common set of beliefs and thus is an important agent of socialization. Second, the communal practice of religion, as in houses of worship, brings people together physically, facilitates their communication and other social interaction, and thus strengthens their social bonds.

Photo of a Church worship service.

The communal practice of religion in a house of worship brings people together and allows them to interact and communicate. In this way religion helps reinforce social unity and stability. This function of religion was one of Émile Durkheim’s most important insights. J FPixabay

A third function of religion is related to the one just discussed. Religion is an agent of social control and thus strengthens social order. Religion reinforces learned cultural expectations of social groups and/or society, resulting in a high degree of social conformity. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the Ten Commandments are perhaps the most famous set of rules for moral behavior.

A fourth function of religion is greater psychological and physical well-being. Religious faith and practice can enhance psychological well-being by being a source of comfort to people in times of distress and by enhancing their social interaction with others in places of worship. Many studies find that people of all ages, not just the elderly, are happier and more satisfied with their lives if they are religious. Religiosity also apparently promotes better physical health, and some studies even find that religious people tend to live longer than those who are not religious (Moberg, 2008). We will return to this function later.

A final function of religion is that it may motivate people to work for positive social change. Religion played a central role in the development of the Southern civil rights movement a few decades ago. Religious beliefs motivated Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights activists to risk their lives to desegregate the South. Black churches in the South also served as settings in which the civil rights movement held meetings, recruited new members, and raised money (Morris, 1984).


Think Like a Sociologist

Graphic of 9 symbols representing 9 different religions.

CC-BY-SA 3.0 – Wikimedia Commons

Durkheim wrote that religion is a useful way to create social solidarity. Why?

How can symbols, such as those shown above, create social cohesion?


Religion, Inequality, and Conflict

Religion has all of these benefits, but, according to the conflict perspective, it can also reinforce and promote social inequality and social conflict. This view is partly inspired by the work of Karl Marx, who said that religion was the “opiate of the masses” (Marx, 1964). By this he meant that religion, like a drug, makes people happy with their existing unequal conditions. Marx repeatedly stressed that workers needed to rise up and overthrow the bourgeoisie. To do so, he said, they needed first to recognize that their poverty stemmed from their oppression by the bourgeoisie. But people who are religious, he said, tend to view their poverty in religious terms. They think it is God’s will that they are poor, either because he is testing their faith in him or because they have violated his rules. Many people believe that if they endure their suffering, they will be rewarded in the afterlife. Their religious views lead them not to blame the capitalist class for their poverty and thus not to revolt. For these reasons, said Marx, religion leads the poor to accept their fate and helps maintain the existing system of social inequality.

Religion also promotes gender inequality by presenting negative stereotypes about women and by reinforcing traditional views about their subordination to men (Klassen, 2009), which can have a profound impact on the societies where these religions are found. A 2013 study of major world religions by Klingorova and Havlicek found that three categories emerged: states with no or low religious affiliation had the lowest levels of gender inequality; states that practiced Christianity and Buddhism had average levels of gender inequality; and Islamic and Hindu states had the highest levels of gender inequality. Religions include exhortations to respect and honor women, while at the same time defining their positions as second to men by prohibiting them from leadership roles and even denying them access to religious sites when menstruating (Klingorova, 2013). Despite the fact that in the United States women are generally more religious than men (Murphy, 2020), only 20% of clergy were women (Campbell, 2021). A declaration in 1998 by the Southern Baptist Convention that a wife should “submit herself graciously” to her husband’s leadership reflected traditional religious belief (Gundy-Volf, 1998).

Similarly, traditional religious views are used to justify unequal treatment of members of the LGBTQ+ community. Catholics receive mixed messages as the Pope advocates for acceptance even as the church itself does not recognize LGBTQ+ people. Protestant churches have a more varied reaction since denominations range from very liberal to very conservative, plus each congregation has the ability to create its own set of values and norms regarding LGBTQ+ topics. One consequence of this lack of uniformity, is that the number of sexual minority clergy ranges from low to complete non-acceptance (i.e., Southern Baptists). Passages from religious texts are used to justify political beliefs, as marriage licenses and wedding cakes are denied gay couples (McCluny, 2018).

Photo of cake topper showing two males, representing a same sex couple on their wedding day.

A Colorado baker refused to bake a celebration cake for a gay couple based on his devout Christian beliefs. He took his case to the Supreme Court, which ruled in his favor. Ludovic Bertron – CC BY 2.0 – Flickr

Discussed earlier in the text, the Puritans’ persecution of non-Puritans illustrates religion can also promote social conflict, and the history of the world shows that individual people and whole communities and nations are quite ready to persecute, kill, and go to war over religious differences. History is littered with examples of religious wars, from the Israelites who wiped out the local citizenry after capturing it, to the Muslims who killed those in conquered lands who would not swear allegiance to their God, to the nine bloody Crusades that attempted to wrest control of the Holy Land. Unfortunately, religious persecution continues today. In the 20th century, there were 24 wars with a religious dimension: sometimes between two opposing faiths and sometimes between the government and a religious group. These events ranged from years-long skirmishes to intense and brutal fighting (Reychler, 1997). As such, while religion can be a source of unity and cohesion, it has also led to persecution, torture, and wanton bloodshed. Go to this site to read about current religious conflicts: Religious Conflicts Around the World.


Think Like a Sociologist

A different but no less serious problem that resulted more from the bureaucratic structure of the Catholic Church (rather than caused by its religious precepts) was the sexual abuse scandal first unearthed in the 1990’s. An unknown number of children were sexually abused by Catholic priests, nuns and deacons in the United States, Canada, and many other nations going back at least to the 1960’s. The Catholic Church’s hierarchy did little to stop the abuse or sanction it, choosing instead to simply move accused offenders to different parishes. The deep trust Catholics had in their church, along with lack of understanding or acknowledgement of sexual abuse in society in general, allowed the cycle to continue for decades. Once victims became vocal and aware of others who’d been victimized, they began to sue the church. Several priests were prosecuted, and the leadership that so mishandled what happened were defrocked. It is estimated that at least 5,100 clergy have had credible accusations of abuse made against them; the majority of those named have only been revealed by dioceses and religious orders since 2019. Concerns still exist around that almost 2,000 priests and clergy who have not been prosecuted and are living under the radar (Lauer, 2019).

The Conflict perspective states that power is a critical aspect of society, since those with power are able to mold the culture in accordance with their wishes.

How would a conflict theorist explain both the initial behavior of the Catholic Church as well as its current response in terms of its relative position in society?


Symbolic Interactionism and Religion

Photo of a chalk drawing on a blackboard of the Christian fish symbol.

The fish symbol has meaning to Christians, rooted in their early history of persecution. RobertCheaibPixabay

You may have seen the above image of a fish and understood it represented Christianity. The story of how this symbol came into use is an excellent illustration of the symbolic interactionist perspective. In the early years of Christianity, believers experienced much persecution to the point where it was dangerous to openly practice their faith. These early Christians were able to use the image of the fish as a signal of their faith when with strangers. They would draw a fish in the sand; if it got no reaction then they knew the other person was not Christian. Only true Christians would recognize that the picture referenced the word ‘fish,’ the first letters of which, when spelled in Greek, stood for “Jesus (is) Christ the Son of God.”

Functional and conflict theories look at the macro aspects of religion and society, while symbolic interactionism looks at the micro aspects. It examines the role that religion plays in our daily lives and the ways in which we interpret religious experiences. For example, it emphasizes that beliefs and practices are not sacred unless people regard them as such. Once we regard them as sacred, they take on special significance and give meaning to our lives. Symbolic interactionists study the ways in which people practice their faith and interact in houses of worship and other religious settings, and they study how and why religious faith and practice have positive consequences for individual psychological and physical well-being. Finally, this perspective examines how religious meaning imbues both material and non-material culture, as the example with the Jesus fish demonstrates.

Photo of a Gold hand from a statue of Buddha

Statues of Buddha typically show different mudras, or hand gestures, each of which has a different meaning. This Mudra serves to expel negative energy and is seen as helping to remove sickness or negative thoughts. Tenzing KalsangPexels

Religious symbols indicate the value of the symbolic interactionist approach. A crescent moon and a star are just two shapes in the sky, but together they constitute the international symbol of Islam. A cross is merely two lines or bars in the shape of a “t,” but to Christians it is a symbol with deeply religious significance. A Star of David consists of two superimposed triangles in the shape of a six-pointed star, but to Jews around the world it is a sign of their religious faith and a reminder of their history of persecution.

Religious rituals and ceremonies also illustrate the symbolic interaction approach. They can be deeply intense and can involve crying, laughing, screaming, trancelike conditions, a feeling of oneness with those around you, and other emotional and psychological states. For many people they can be transformative experiences, while for others they are not transformative but are deeply moving, nonetheless.

Test Yourself


Section 13.7 References

Campbell, E. (2021, March 8). State of clergywomen in the U.S.: A statistical update. Reed. Retrieved from https://eileencampbellreed.org/state-of-clergy/.

Emerson, M. O., S. C. Monahan and W. A. Mirola. (2011). Religion matters: What sociology teaches us about religion in our world. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall. 

Gundy-Volf, J. (1998, September–October). Neither Biblical nor just: Southern Baptists and the subordination of women. Sojourners, 12–13. 

Klassen, P. (Ed.). (2009). Women and religion. New York, NY: Routledge. 

Klingorová, K. and T. Havlíček. (2015, June 1). Religion and gender inequality: The status of women in the Societies of World religions. Moravian Geographical Reports. Retrieved from https://www.sciendo.com/article/10.1515/mgr-2015-0006.

Lauer, C. and M. Hoyer. (2019, October 4). Almost 1,700 priests and clergy accused of sex abuse are unsupervised. NBCNews.com. Retrieved from https://www.nbcnews.com/news/religion/nearly-1-700-priests-clergy-accused-sex-abuse-are-unsupervised-n1062396

Marx, K. (1964). Karl Marx: Selected writings in sociology and social philosophy (T. B. Bottomore, Trans.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill. 

McCluny, C. (2018, September 24). For the Bible tells me so: Justifying gender discrimination based on biblical text. Medium. Retrieved from https://medium.com/national-center-for-institutional-diversity/for-the-bible-tells-me-so-justifying-gender-discrimination-based-on-biblical-text-83c61dd4e639

Moberg, D. O. (2008). Spirituality and aging: Research and implications. Journal of Religion, Spirituality & Aging, 20, 95–134. 

Morris, A. (1984). The origins of the civil rights movement: Black communities organizing for change. New York, NY: Free Press. 

Murphy, C. (2020, September 10). Q&A: Why are women generally more religious than men?  Pew Research Center. Retrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/03/23/qa-why-are-women-generally-more-religious-than-men/

Reychler, L. (1997, January). Religion and conflict. Religion and Conflict. Retrieved from https://www3.gmu.edu/programs/icar/ijps/vol2_1/Reyschler.htm.

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