Sociological Theories of Religion: Conflict Analysis Research Paper Starter

Sociological Theories of Religion: Conflict Analysis

(Research Starters)

The conflict perspective is an approach to analyzing social behavior which is based on the assumption that social behavior is best explained and understood in terms of conflict or tension between competing groups. When applied to religion, conflict analysis posits that religion is a source of conflict that divides or stratifies society. Marx argued that religion is a tool which helps maintain the status quo in society by making the lower classes content with promises of great rewards in the life after death. The conflict perspective can explain many conflicts seen around the world not only throughout history, but also today. However, this approach does not adequately explain all the data of the religious experience. In reality, religion is often found to be a liberating force within society; promoting equality rather than inequality.

Keywords Conflict Perspective; Ethnocentrism; Fundamentalism; Ideology; Operational Definition; Religion; Social Change; Spirituality

Sociology of Religion: Sociological Theories of Religion: Conflict Analysis


It is probably safe to assume that most adherents of religion believe that religion makes a difference in their lives. Most religions have stories of people who have changed their lives as the result of a mystical encounter. However, even more commonplace are the benefits religion offers people: a sense of meaning and peace; a feeling of belonging to a group; and a belief that a higher power is watching over them. Theologically, one may talk about the power of conversion or the intervention of God in people's lives. Sociologists, however, typically try to analyze the power of religion by taking God or other higher powers out of the equation and explaining the phenomenon of religion in purely secular terms. This approach, of course, makes certain assumptions about the validity (or invalidity) of various religious beliefs. Whether or not these assumptions are true is open to debate.

Conflict Perspective

One of the frameworks that can be applied in a sociological study of religion is conflict perspective. This approach is based on the assumption that social behavior is best explained and understood in terms of conflict or tension between competing groups. Karl Marx in particular looked at religion as a source of conflict—a divisive rather than a cohesive power within society. Marx argued that religion is a tool that helps maintain the status quo in society by making the lower classes content with promises of great rewards in the life after death. Marx is often quoted as saying that "religion is the opium of the people." He advocated that people should reject other-worldly values in order to focus on the here and now and work for rewards in this life. Marx maintained that the happiness and rewards promised by religion are merely illusions. In this view, religion helps maintain social inequality by justifying oppression and is an institution that justifies and perpetuates the ills of society. Specifically, rather than resolving conflict or curing social injustice, the conflict analysis approach views religion as the basis of intergroup conflict. Further, 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 posit that religion provides legitimization for oppressive social conditions, thereby supporting and maintaining the status quo. Similarly, religious practices and rituals define group boundaries within society, thereby supporting an us-them mentality.

According to Marx, religion is a matter of ideology not of faith, focusing more on social needs and aspirations than on spirituality. In particular, Marx believed that religion is an ideology of the ruling class and, therefore, supported the status quo. In this approach to explaining religion, subordinate groups come to believe in the legitimacy of the social order that oppress us 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 stratum social groups to focus on the otherworldly things.

Real World Examples

Examples supportive of this theory are the stuff of today's headlines. The conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, clashes between the Jews and the Muslims in the Middle East, ethnic cleansing against Bosnian Muslims, and the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the underground at Tavistock Square in London are all examples of religious conflict. In fact, world history is full of such examples including wars, terrorism, and genocide all performed in the name of religion. All too frequently, and particularly in the more fundamentalist sects, the picture of religion is one in conflict itself: piety and contemplation on the one hand and wars and battles on the other. Part of the reason for this conflict is ethnocentrism, or the belief that one's own group is superior to other groups. Even religions that teach tolerance and share many of the same moral and ethical principles such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, can be in conflict with one another despite their commonalities. This is well illustrated by the medieval Crusades and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Since most religions have historically been patriarchal in nature, this us-them mentality also extends to stratification of genders, with males often being allowed positions of power and authority while women are assigned to subservient roles. This approach can also be used to explain the conflict over gay rights and ordination of gays and lesbians within many churches today.

The Hindu Caste System

Perhaps one of the best examples of religion encouraging the stratification of society is found in the Hindu caste system. This hierarchical religious system influences the social system, defining not only the manifestations of the religion, but also the jobs to which one can aspire and the resulting socioeconomic status and religious privilege of members of that caste. Within Hinduism, the highest caste is the Brahmins. Individuals in this caste are honored by all, and become priests and philosophers. Under the Brahmins, is the Kshatriya caste, the Hindu upper-middle class. Individuals in this caste are considered lower in status than the Brahmins. The Kshatriays take jobs as professionals and government officials. The next lower caste comprises the Vaisyas, who are merchants and farmers. Below them are the Sudras. The duty of members of this caste is to serve as laborers and servants to members of higher castes. Sudras are not only limited both in society in the types of jobs that they can take but also within the religion as they are barred from participating in many rituals. Dalits are traditionally viewed as polluting or “untouchable” outcastes and relegated to tasks considered too degrading or menial for caste members to perform, such as human waste removal, leatherworking, and cobbling (Rathore, 2013; Ghatak & Udogo,2012).



Social stratification occurs and affects the secular culture in many places around the world. An example in the United States is the treatment of women within the Christian Church, particularly as illustrated by the issue of whether or not women are allowed to be ordained to become priests or ministers. The biblical evidence can be interpreted to either support or prohibit the ordination of women. The New Testament states that "there is neither male nor female" (Galatians 3:28), a statement that would seem to support women's ordination. Elsewhere, however, other biblical passages make such statements as "I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent" (1 Timothy 2:12), a statement that would seem to prohibit it. However, there is also evidence in the Christian New Testament that women were the leaders of house churches and were ordained as deacons in the Church. Similarly, archeological evidence supports the fact that women were not only leaders in the early Church, but also were ordained both as priests and as deacons. So, even in the first century when women were typically subservient to men in most areas, the Church ordained women to the priesthood. It can be argued, in fact, that the acceptance of women as clergy was changed to reflect the secular social structure rather than being implemented from the start as a support system to maintain women in subservient positions.

Gradually, the attitude toward women in the church changed and women's ordination was no longer permitted by many denominations. For example, the Roman Catholic Church today still does not permit the ordination of women as either priests or deacons and appears unlikely to do so in the foreseeable future. However; within recent decades, some Protestant religions...

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