Religion & Social Stratification Research Paper Starter

Religion & Social Stratification

(Research Starters)

The relationship between religion and social stratification is a complex one. Religious stratification exists when members of some religions or religious groups have more access to the power, privilege, prestige, and other resources of society than do members of other religions or religious groups. The relationship between religion and social stratification has long been observed not only within Christian denominations in the United States, but in other countries and among other religions as well. This is not merely a historical phenomenon, however. Religious stratification continues to occur today any time that religious pluralism, religious prejudice, competition, and differential power coexist. Whether religious preference causes social stratification or vice versa or if both are the results of other factors is the topic of debate.

A relationship between religion and social stratification has long been observed in the United States. A question that has long been of interest to social theorists is why some members of society have better jobs, more money, influence, or prestige than others. Religious stratification exists when members of some religions or religious groups have more access to the power, privilege, prestige, and other resources of society than do members of other religions or religious groups. Because of the observed relationship between religion and social stratification, a number of theorists are examining its religious underpinnings to determine whether there is something about religion that causes social stratification.

Conflict Theory

Most social scientists apply one of two major theories in an attempt to better understand the relationship between religion and social class. The first is conflict theory. In this theory, as argued by Karl Marx, religion offers a worldview that helps maintain social inequality by justifying oppression. According to social conflict theory, religion is an institution that justifies and perpetuates the ills of society, including social class and social stratification. Rather than resolving conflict or curing social injustice, the conflict analysis approach views religion as the basis of intergroup conflict. According to the conflict perspective, the inequalities and social injustices that exist in society are reflected within the religious institutions themselves (e.g., race, class, or gender stratification). Conflict analysis theorists also believe that religion provides legitimization for oppressive social conditions, thereby supporting and maintaining the status quo. Similarly, they believe that religious practices and rituals define group boundaries within society, thereby supporting an "us vs. them" mentality. Since most religions have historically been patriarchal in nature, this us-them mentality also extends to stratification of genders within religions and religious organizations, with males often being allowed positions of power and authority while women are assigned to subservient roles.

According to Marx, religion is a matter of ideology rather than of faith, and it focuses more on social needs and aspirations than on spirituality. In particular, Marx believed that religion is an ideology of the ruling class and, therefore, supports the status quo. In this approach to explaining religion, subordinate groups come to believe in the legitimacy of the social order that oppresses them by internalizing the ideology of the ruling class. Rather than supporting social change and growth, Marx believed that religion actually impedes them by encouraging lower-strata social groups to focus on the otherworldly things (Andersen & Taylor, 2002).

Structural Functionalism

Another approach to understanding the relationship between religion and social stratification comes from the perspective of structural functionalism. According to this approach, there are three explanations for this relationship. First, some tasks within society are either more important or more demanding than other tasks. Because of this, it is important that society find the best individuals to perform these tasks and route them into these positions. Third, because some tasks typically require greater preparation (e.g., education, experience, talent) than other tasks within society, the individuals who perform these tasks deserve greater income, influence, and respect than those who do not. Similarly, just as people with greater talents and abilities tend to gravitate toward the more demanding, responsible, and difficult tasks within society, those with fewer talents, abilities, and preparation tend to gravitate toward less demanding, more limited positions. Just as the more difficult tasks yield more rewards, the less demanding tasks yield lower rewards (Andersen & Taylor, 2002).

Four Conditions for Religious Stratification

Smith and Faris (2005) found that there are four conditions that are necessary for the development of religious stratification. These are:

  • Religious pluralism,
  • Religious prejudice,
  • Competition, and
  • Differential power.

Religious pluralism occurs when there are many different religions actively practiced within a society. Simply stated, if there is no religious pluralism within a society, then there can be no stratification based on differences in religion. The second necessary condition for religious stratification to occur is prejudice. In general, most religions can peacefully coexist with each other and, in fact, can admire what is good in each other. However, when religious differences are accompanied by a worldview that assumes that competing worldviews are inferior, an us-them mentality can occur and prejudice can result. If these religions have mutually exclusive goals and objectives, religious stratification is unlikely to occur. On the other hand, in situations where there is competition for scarce resources (e.g., number of adherents, land, political office), there is a greater likelihood that stratification will occur.

However, even in situations where pluralism, prejudice, and competition all exist, religious stratification will not necessarily arise. There needs to be a difference in power available to the different groups. For example, religious organizations that are larger or better organized are more likely to gain power over other religious organizations that do not have its advantages. When this occurs, the more powerful religious organizations will tend to shape society according to their own worldviews. This can be done in a number of ways. For example, religious affiliation can be written into the law and built into the culture and customs of the society. Even when this is not done formally, more powerful religious groups can establish social norms that are to their advantage but to the disadvantage of other religious groups. Once such norms become ingrained into society, the members of that society take them for granted and religious stratification becomes part of the social order (Smith & Faris, 2005).


Historically, this situation occurred in the United States as...

(The entire section is 3128 words.)