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Marx, Durkheim, Weber

by Phil Bartle, PhD

Training Handout

The sociology of religion has been around as long as sociology

Marx wrote that social organisation was a function of modes of production, that the change in technology from agrarian to industrial caused a class transformation from aristocrats and peasants to factory owners and workers. For him, religion was the "opiate of the masses" that took their minds off being oppressed

Max Weber, who was contradicting the materialist approach of Karl Marx.  Weber, in contrast, suggested that the new values preached by the protestants, from Martin Luther to John Calvin, included a rejection of the decadence and corruption of the Christian Church (now called Catholic) and the promotion of asceticism, frugality and independent thinking, which contributed to a culture of saving and investment, necessary for the creation and development of capitalism. He wrote this in, The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism.

Another classic work is by Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life.  While examining the religious characteristics of the simplest societies, Durkheim reached the conclusion that religion in some ways is the essence of society, codifying norms and values, and holding communities together.

Karl Marx saw religion as a kind of social sedative.  It calmed the frustrations of the proletariat, obfuscating their awareness of the causes of their oppression with a false consciousness, and thus hindered revolution and rebellion.  Religion served the purposes of the power elite.

If, following the ideas of Max Weber in getting inside peoples’ thoughts, we want to understand more about various religions, we could look at some of the variations of belief systems of different religions.  This module does so.  The intention here is not to preach the beliefs, but recall them in understanding their relations to social organisation.

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