The Role of Religion in Society Essay


Religion is one of the most important social institutions. Since the dawn of human society, people have always turned to religion in order to obtain a better understanding of themselves and their environment. Numerous thinkers have therefore come up with various explanations regarding the role of religion in society.

The Role of Religion in Society

Religion is one of the most important social institutions. Since the dawn of human society, people have always turned to religion in order to obtain a better understanding of themselves and their environment. Religion eventually became the factor behind a community’s formation, as well as destruction. It can either enlighten or confuse both individuals and groups.

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Max Weber

German sociologist and political economist Max Weber (1864-1920) argued that modern society originated from religion. The development of modern society entailed the religious values of strenuous moral discipline and joyless devotion to hard work. Observance of these morals would result in long-term investments and advanced corporate management. The outcomes, in turn, would bring about economic development (Skousen, 2001).

            In his comparative study of Judaism, Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, Weber discovered that Protestants would end up more economically successful than their Jewish and Roman Catholic counterparts. This is because of Protestantism’s emphasis on simplicity and hard work. Protestants were expected to work hard for their money and save or invest their earnings. Jews observed tithing, while Catholics spent money on religious icons – practices that generated wealth without exerting any effort at all. Thus, Weber concluded that the restraints of religion deterred greed and laziness that result from earning money using the least effort (, 2008).

Emile Durkheim

            French sociologist Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) considered religion as “a source of solidarity and identification for the individuals within a society” (Dunman, 2003). Simply put, religion was not a divine or supernatural institution but a body that reinforced a society’s morals and norms. When society’s morals and norms are strengthened, social control and cohesion ensue. People will then finally have a reason to keep the society in existence (Dunman, 2003).

            Durkheim further argued that religion separated all aspects of human existence into the sacred and the profane. Examples of sacred behaviors and objects include rituals, objects of reverence and behaviors that are associated with religious belief. All other things that neither have a religious meaning nor function fell under the profane. Durkheim therefore concluded that “sacred things are simply collective ideals that have fixed themselves on material objects” (Dunman, 2003).

Karl Marx

            German philosopher, sociologist and political economist Karl Marx (1818-1883) regarded religion as the “opiate of the masses.” Simply put, religion is the refuge of the oppressed proletariat. In the process, the former is transformed into an illusory substitute for the true happiness that the proletariat could have achieved had they actually eliminated the rule of the bourgeoisie. Religion only makes the proletariat momentarily forget their suffering, but it fails to solve the underlying causes of their plight (Cline, n.d.).

            In addition, the bourgeoisie used religion as an excuse to perpetuate an oppressive status quo. Marx believed that religion alienated from the proletariat their highest aspirations and ideals through the promise of eternal life. Instead of striving for a better life, the proletariat is made to accept poverty and injustice because the poor will supposedly be the first to arrive in Heaven. They are stripped of their dignity and potential and are turned into servile followers of the status quo (Cline, n.d.).

            Lastly, Marx considered religion as hypocritical. It preaches valuable principles on one hand and sides with the oppressors on the other. Although Christ instructed his followers to help the poor, the Christian church joined forces with the despotic Roman Empire. The Church in the Middle Ages, meanwhile, enriched itself through the Crusades and the selling of indulgences (Cline, n.d.).


            The various philosophical views on religion showed that it is impossible to separate religion from the material lives of the people. Despite its sacred nature, religion is inevitably related to several economic and social factors. After all, how can religion become a social institution if it espouses ideas that are totally unrelated to the lives of the people?

References (2008). Max Weber. Retrieved December 16, 2008, from


Cline, A. (n.d.). Why Does Religion Exist? Karl Marx’s Analysis of Religion.

            Retrieved December 16, 2008, from


Dunman, L.J. The Emile Durkheim Archive. (2003). Religion. Retrieved December 16, 2008,


Skousen, Mark. (2001). The Making of Modern Economics: The Lives and Ideas of the Great

            Thinkers. Armonk: M.E. Sharpe.