Belief systems, religions and societies have been around since the beginning of recorded time. Based on their longevity alone, it is easy to postulate that their origins and functions must be mutual, or at the very least, have a history of interaction. Therefore, unsurprisingly we find belief systems present in all known societies, and consequently, beliefs systems and religion have a social impact. To assess this social impact one must first be able to define and distinguish them in order to qualify their impact.
A belief system is a set of organised convictions, predicating a way of thinking that pertains to acceptance or accreditation of something. Religion is centred in religious beliefs and the stylised enactment of them. However, in attempting to define religious beliefs we must encompass all varieties of religious belief without incorporating phenomena that are not normally thought of as religions. To overcome this problem two approaches have been adopted relying on functional and substantive definitions.
Functional definitions see religion and its beliefs in terms of what functions it performs for society or individuals. For example, Yinger defined religion as “a system of beliefs and practices by means of which a group of people struggles with the ultimate problems of human life” (quoted in Hamilton, 1995). However, as with many functional definitions, it is too inclusive regarding belief systems and often puts forward functional means that can be addressed by other aspects of human life. For example, by this definition communism could be regarded as a religion even though it explicitly rejects religious beliefs.
In addition, medicine and leisure can address the means to deal with the ‘ultimate problems of human life’, which itself is nebulous and open to interpretation. On the other hand, substantive definitions are concerned with the content of religion rather than its function or purpose. Here we find the discerning content between religion and other belief systems is that religion can be defined in terms of supernatural beliefs. For example, Spiro (1965) defined religion as “an institution consisting of culturally patterned interaction with culturally postulated superhuman beings”.
However, such definitions exclude certain beliefs considered to be religions, such as Buddhism, as it does not accept superhuman beings. While functional definitions tend to be too inclusive, and substantive definitions too exclusive, there is common agreement. Debate usually only exists concerning phenomena on the fringes of religion. In summary, belief systems can be religious or not, and there is no strict definition by which to discriminate. However, there is general agreement that such belief systems as Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Christianity and Judaism are religions.
Typically, but not always, religions differ to other belief systems because of their faith in a supernatural power and a tendency to be more institutionalised and ritually practised. However, regardless of our naming of a belief system to be religious or not, its impact on society will not change. Ostensibly, belief systems and society seem inseparable. To fully appreciate the social impact of them we must first understand why religious and belief systems exist and how they interact. Belief systems seem to be formed when science or present understanding, ceases to provide answers or feelings people feel must be provided.
This can be any type of question from the meaning of life to functions of innate social organisation. The formation of religion exists within a society, whereas the formation of a belief system can exist either individually or collectively within a society. For this reason, there are no individual religions. Ultimately, formation is dictated by the nature of how it will impact upon society and thus formation and impact cannot be discussed separately if direct conclusions are to be drawn.
There are many different perspectives of how religion and society interact, blah blah blah blah as always there is a functionalist view. The most influential interpretation of this perspective was by Emile Durkheim. He argued that all societies divide the world into two categories: the sacred and the profane (the non-sacred). Durkheim claimed that religion is founded in and subsequently formed upon this division, ‘a unified system of beliefs and practices related to sacred things, that it to say things set apart and forbidden’. Sacred things are symbols that represent something.
Using the totemic religions as an example, he argued all religions were a celebration of social order. He postulated that the relationship between humanity and sacred things is exactly the relationship between humanity and society, ‘Primitive man comes to view society as something sacred because he is utterly dependent on it’. He saw society built around a collective conscience. Without the shared values and moral beliefs of the collective conscience social life would be impossible as there would be no social order, control, solidarity or co-operation.
He believed religion’s formation and social impact was to reinforce the collective conscience. In effect, religion strengthened society by becoming its backbone and foundation. Upon critique of this influential functionalist’s view we see, once again, its exclusiveness when applied to reality. For instance, Durkheim’s views can be seen as somewhat circular and contradictory. Religion cannot give rise to society as in order to have a religion one must first have a society. Moreover, Durkheim overstates the degree to which the collective conscience shapes the behaviour of individuals.
Indeed, Malcolm Hamilton (1995, p105) points out that often religious beliefs can be at odds with and override societal values. Hamilton claims ‘religious beliefs can have a much greater influence upon and hold over the individual than society does since it is often out of religious convictions that individuals will fly in the face of society or attempt to withdraw from it’. However, as a scientist I must criticise this criticism. We must not apply Durkheim’s theories to more than the environment from which they were theorised.
In the aboriginal societies studied, this was not an issue as religion was a celebration of society and therefore would be congruent with the collective conscience. Clearly therefore, one could not ‘fly in the face of society’ based on religious conviction as there is no religious pluralism. Only when societies and consequently religions are merged could this happen. Hamilton’s fault has been to label a sample of people consisting of a collection of many different cultures and societies as one society, and then to criticise a theory by applying it to something it does not even theorise about!
This however brings a stoic point to light that society evolves and that until sociologists can truly define society so that the meaning of the word does not change with time, sociology will be plagued by such useless interference. Other functional views such as Bronislaw Malinowski see religion as reinforcing social norms and values without reflecting society as a whole or viewing religious ritual as the worship of society itself.
Malinowski argues that belief systems and religions are formed to cope with situations of stress and uncertainty, thus their social impact is to smooth over life’s crises; such as birth, puberty, marriage and death, by expressing social solidarity and reintegrating society. On the other hand, Malinowski may have taken a particular function or effect that religion sometimes could be attributed to have (dealing with uncertainty) and mistaken it for a feature of religion in general.
Obviously, by its own nature, the functionalist perspective of belief systems and religion does not account for the dysfunctional aspects the disruptive force of religion can manifest. These divisive aspects of religion also have a social impact and must be considered. The Marxist perspective focuses on the force behind religion, addressing both the functional and dysfunctional effects it can have on society applying a more holistic view. When comparing present society to his perfect ideal society, Marx saw religion as the ‘opium of the people’ (Marx in Bottomore and Rubel, 1963).
He suggested religion acts as an opiate to dull the pain produced by oppression in a number of ways: Promising a paradise of eternal bliss in life after death; Making a virtue of the suffering produced by oppression; Offering hope of supernatural intervention to solve dire problems; and to justify the social order and a person position within it. Therefore, from a Marxist viewpoint, religion does not simply cushion the effects of oppression, it also acts and an instrument of that oppression. In terms of religion’s social impact, the Marxist perspective sees religion as a potent mechanism of social control.
He saw religion impacting on society to produce a false class consciousness, diverting peoples attention from the real source of their oppression with false justification and encouragement, and so helping to maintain ruling-class power. In short, religion maintains the existing system of exploitation and reinforces class relationship, thereby keeping people in their place. Throughout history there is considerably evidence to support Marx’s ideology. However, conflicting evidence suggests that religion does not always legitimate power.
Contrary to Marxist views that religion suppresses people attempts to change their situation, religion can sometimes provide an impetus for change. While Marxist theories explain how sometimes religion can act as an ideological force it does not explain the existence or formation of religion. Other views of religion’s impact on society follow on from Marxist theories of religion being an instrument of oppression. Feminist theories see religion, more than belief systems, as a product of patriarchy rather than a product of capitalism.
Religion can be used by the oppressors (men) to control the oppressed group (women) and it also serves as a way of compensating women for their second-class status. In most typical religions of the last millennium women are subservient and secondary to men. It is easy to see how religion could be used to cement patriarchal power. Interestingly, the subjugation of women in religion was not there at its genesis. This suggests that feministic views do no more than explain how religion can be used as an instrument for female oppression rather than explaining how or why religion exists.
Religion cannot exist solely as a belief system for male dominance, as retrospectively we observe many different ways in which males have historically been able to exert dominance. Indeed, women have not always been subordinate within most religions and belief systems. Before monotheism goddesses were considered central to the spiritual quest. There are very few early effigies of gods as men, but many of the Great Mother Goddess. She is present in nearly all early religions and not suprisingly these associated societies had female priests.
Only since the belief in a single god (often a martial and commanding god pertaining to maleness) has inequality existed in religion. El Saadawi (1980) concludes that female oppression is not essentially due to religion but due to the patriarchal system that has long been dominant, although religion has been used to play a part. In contrast to Marxist view, Weber rejected the view that religion is always shaped by economic factors but was of the opinion that with the right conditions religious beliefs can be a major influence on economic behaviour. Weber saw religion as an agent of social change.
Using the Protestant Reformation as an example, he showed how religion might support a cultural revolution – in this case the rise of capitalism. He argued that capitalism in fact developed historically as a result of a religious movement, Protestantism, specifically Calvinism. Calvinism, with its doctrine of predestination i. e. the doctrine that God eternally decreed the salvation of some and the damnation of others, not in view of the good or evil deeds they would do, but simply ‘because he willed it’, made Calvinists anxious about their salvation.
This led them to seek reassurance in attempting to succeed in their economic (and other) undertakings, in the belief that God signifies his favour by giving prosperity to the undertakings of the elect. This ethic of ascetic Protestantism gave rise to the spirit of capitalism. The theoretical perspectives discussed provide varying and contrasting reasons for the formation and social impact of religion and belief systems. However, all acknowledge that society and religion interact and can have effects on each other.
Depending of the state and development of the society these theories have differing levels of success in their application. There is a growing trend toward secularisation in modern society and sociologists disagree as to whether religion is in decline or transforming. However, this issue centres around addressing how independent changes in society alter religion’s impact on society. Nevertheless, this demonstrates religion does not have full control of contemporary society. Talcott Parsons believed as society developed religion lost some of its functions.
Marx anticipated that when a classless society was established, religion would disappear. Turner (1983) claimed religion lost its function of facilitating the smooth transfer of property from generation to generation when feudalism gave way to capitalism. Finally, supporters of secularisation maintain that industrialisation has led to profound changes that have progressively reduced the importance, and therefore impact, of religion in society. In conclusion, belief systems form for many different reasons and can have a varied impact on society.
Difficulties in defining religion and society produce problems in the application of theories and assessment of social impact. Religious experiences differ vastly from a quiet sense of peace that comes from the belief that one’s life is in the hands of divine power, to intense mystical experiences that inspire terror and awe. Belief systems differ in as much as they can be private, however, there are no private religions. That is not to say that belief system cannot be as powerful e. g. Marxism.
Both belief systems and religion can unite or divide society and individuals. They have played a key role throughout society’s progress through history. Whether religion effects society or if society effects religion is arguable, both dynamics have been demonstrated in the past. Perhaps because they share common fundamentals such as forming a community by drawing individuals together (essential for society), they have become so integrated with one another. Consequently, this is why religion can reinforce or threaten modern social integration.
From the discussion, it can be concluded that religion works mutually with primitive society. However, as society becomes increasingly more complex and diverse, the greater the potential for the respective religions and belief systems to interfere with each other and society. This gives support to secularisation and also the formation of sects and denominations. In my opinion, we are all inescapable social Darwinists and religion and belief systems are inherent forces being both product and producer of society. Importantly many theories (e. . Marxim & Feminism) imply religion and belief systems to be an instrument of manipulation, this actually tells us nothing of their true underlying formation and social impact. For instance, just because art or drama can be utilised for ideological purposes this does not explain the existence or function of art or drama. As we move forward into a global society, the future formation and continuation of religion and belief systems is becoming more personal, born out of many different cross pollinations of cultures and societies. Postscript
Theories cannot be based on undefined foundations, such as the word society and religion. Both can be interpreted in many different ways and consequently one theory’s perspective will work for their interpretation of the words religion and society. Thankfully, the definition of belief system is irrefutable and so has little controversy when applied and built on. There is more than one approach to perspectives of religion and society and unfortunately many authors and critics I have read have allowed themselves to become fixated with useless simplified criticism.
For example, all textbooks critique functionalist approaches by stating the perspective emphasises the positive contributions of religion to society while ignoring the dysfunctional aspects. They would be well advised to notice the word functional, not dysfunctional in ‘functionalist approach’ and stop writing about the blinding obvious. Only a fool would criticise the dictionary definition of a cat by saying it needed to encompass the definition of a dog.