Philosophy of Religion

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The Challenges to Religious Belief from Sociology

Definition of Sociology

The word ‘sociology’ comes from the Latin ‘socios’ meaning friend or ally and the Greek suffix "-ology" which means "study of". It is a social science involving the study of the social lives of people, groups, and societies. It is sometimes defined as the study of social interactions.

Sociology is a relatively new discipine having its orgins in the early 19th century. It usually concerns itself with the social rules and processes that bind and separate people not only as individuals, but as members of associations, groups, and institutions.

Sociology is interested in human behavior as social beings; thus its range of interest includes the analysis of short contacts between anonymous individuals on the street to the study of global social processes.

Emile Durkheim (1858-1917)

Durkheim attempted to demonstrate that religious phenomena stemmed from social rather than divine factors. As a sociologist he was interested in the origins, meaning and function of religion. He came to define religion in terms of its function within society. He saw it as a means of social cohesion. In The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912), Durkheim noted that religion is an important part of the stability and integration in a society.

Societies divide the world up into ‘the sacred’ and ‘the profane’. Religion provides a unified system of belief and practices relative to sacred things. Durkheim understood sacred things as those things which are set apart and forbidden. These beliefs and practices unite people into a single moral community e.g. the church.

Durkheim suggests that by worshipping god, people are in fact worshipping society. It is easier to visualise and direct feelings towards a symbol or totem rather than a complex concept as society itself.

Religion gives a framework for the values and ideas held by society. It does not exist independently of the people who practice it. It is not a set of beliefs and practices, but a community activity. The group activities that religion involves act as a means whereby society is strengthen. Religion is therefore not so much about God, but more about the consolidation of society. Religion provides a particular society with its sense of identity. Religion expresses something of the purpose of a society, and can often provide a society with a distinctive identity. It is very much a group activity.

Karl Marx (1818-1883)

Marx saw society as structuring itself to meet the material and social needs of its members. This has given rise to a capitalist society, where the workers produce goods and services, and rich industrialists and landowners profit from their labours.

This in turn forces the individual to view their labour, and therefore themselves, as an object, producing goods within the capitalist system, and results in their alienation. This alienation prevents the individual from being truly human, and creates a tension in society.

Marx was influenced by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831). Hegel taught that history has been a long series of reflections. A thought is usually proposed as a development of previous thoughts. Others then reflect and respond to this thought, and a possibly contradictory thought is proposed, creating a tension between the new and the original thought. This tension is then resolved by a third proposal, which takes the best of the two.

Hegelian thought:

Marx saw that this dialectic was leading to a state of revolution, where the tension of society itself would become resolved, before becoming a part of a further tension. The tension was caused by the alienation of the individual by the oppression of capitalism, which prevented the individual from being truly human.

Although Marx was himself religious, he came to see religion as a part of the oppressing structures that were alienating humanity.

Marx saw organised religion as:

  • dehumanising
  • disempowering
  • authoritarian
  • stifling free social self-expression
Marx saw true human nature as being both self-conscious and self-deterministic. This true character is frustrated by both capitalism and religion. Religion replaces this determinism with empty meaningless imagery, devoid of dignity.

Marx’s writings

Marx’s writings include the view that economic forces were increasingly oppressing human beings. He believed that political action was a necessary part of philosophy. His various essays also show the influence of Hegel on his philosophy of history.

The Communist Manifesto was written jointly with Friedrich Engels (1820-1895) on the eve of the German revolution of 1848. Its full title is The Manifesto of the Communist Party. In it Marx and Engels presented their political and historical theories. The Communist Manifesto interpreted history as a series of conflicts between classes. It predicted that the ruling middle class would one day be overthrown by the working class. The result of this revolution, according to Marx and Engels, would be classless society in which the chief means of production are publicly owned.

In Das Kapital Marx described the free market system. He considered it to be the most efficient and dynamic economic system. However, he also regarded it as being flawed. Eventually it would destroy itself through increasingly severe periods of inflation and depression.

According to Marx the free market system accumulates more and more wealth but becomes less and less capable of using this wealth wisely. Marx saw the accumulation of riches being accompanied by the rapid spread of human misery.

Marx’s theories

Marx’s theory is sometimes referred to as dialectical materialism. The basis of Marxism is the conviction that socialism is inevitable. Marx believed that capitalism, was doomed and that socialism was the only alternative.

Marx believed that the individual, not God, is the highest being. People have made themselves what they are by their own labour. They use their intelligence and creative talent to dominate the world by a process called production. Through production, people make the goods they need to live. The means of production include natural resources, factories, machinery, and labour.

The process of production, according to Marx, is a collective effort, not an individual one. Organized societies are the principal creative agents in human history, and historical progress requires increasingly developed societies for production. Such developed societies are achieved by a continual refinement of production methods and of the division of labour. By the division of labour, Marx meant that each person specialises in one job, resulting in the development of two classes of people – the rulers and the workers. The ruling class own the means of production. The working class consist of the non-owners, who are exploited (treated unfairly) by the owners. According to Marx, all history is a struggle between the ruling and working classes. All societies have been torn by this conflict. Past societies tried to keep the exploited class under control by using elaborated political organisations, laws, customs, traditions, ideologies, religions and rituals. Marx argued that personality, beliefs and activities are shaped by these institutions. By recognising these forces, he reasoned, people will be able to overcome them through revolutionary action.

Marx believed that private ownership of the chief means of production was the heart of the class system. For people to be truly free, he declared, the means of production must be publicly owned – by the community as a whole. With the resulting general economic and social equality, all people would have an opportunity to follow their own desires and to use their leisure time creatively. Unfair institutions and customs would disappear. All these events, said Marx, would take place when the proletariat (working class) revolted against the bourgeoisie (owners of the means of production).

Marxism in the Twentieth Century

Marxist ideals became the driving force behind the Russian revolution in 1917. Communist parties sprung up throughout Europe. In Britain Marxism influenced the Labour party. Fear of Communism was largely responsible for the election of the Nazi party in 1933 in Germany. After WWII Europe became divided with the Communist Block in the east and NATO in the west. China became Communist in 1949. Cuba became Communist in 1959. The clash of political ideals after WWII resulted in the ‘Cold War’ in which the mistrust between the USA and USSR resulted in a nuclear arms race.

Marxism has been discredited by events in the early 1990s, when the Communist countries of the Eastern Bloc crumbled and fell, and the new governments embraced free market capitalism.

However, many religious people recognise that Marx was identifying an important social phenomenon, and Christianity and Marxism have a great deal in common. Christian Socialism is taught by many Church leaders, and Christian action to alleviate the hardships of the poor is based on Marx’s socialist principles. Some draw comparisons between Liberation Theology and Communism. However, the Christian ideal is of voluntary participation in the socialist activity, rather than compulsion.

Max Weber (1864-1920)

The German sociologist Max Weber believed that the power of religion is wrapped up with the power of the charismatic leaders who begin religious movements, and with the people who continue their work. He made some distinctions between mainstream religion and the ‘sect’. He tried to find a positive role for religion in the development of society.

Durkheim had argued that religion was a social glue that bound society together. Weber thought that religion had a more active role – religious movements could often be important agents of social change. He looked at the relationship between religion and economic activity. He observed the way in which Protestantism had given rise to the development of capitalism. Capitalism is not simply a money making system. Rather, it is a ‘way of life’, with its own ideology and ethical system of duties and obligations.

He noted that Protestantism emphasised the individual, and the individual’s need to work for God’s glory. In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism Weber quoted John Wesley:

The Protestant Work ethic

The Protestant Work ethic is a code of morals based on the principles of thrift, discipline, hard work, and individualism. It came to be known as the ‘Protestant’ work ethic after its promotion by leading Protestant theologians such as John Calvin. The work ethic provides a strict moral and spiritual framework in which a person can strive to live a ‘good’ life.

The Reformers were anxious not to give the impression that these ‘good works’ gave a person access to Everlasting Life. This could only come about through the Grace of God. However, Luther believed that God calls individuals to work in some capacity or other, and we fulfil our vocation when we perform the tasks God gives us.

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