This disenfranchisement doesn’t aid in the productivity of society. A conflict theory view of religion suggests that religion acts to oppress its members and reinforces current structure and power. Karl Marx viewed religion as an “opiate” that really only tricked the oppressed people into focusing on things other than their current state by suggesting that the suffering served a purpose and would be rewarded (Schaefer 2009, p. 329). He believed that religion perpetuated inequality and kept the people who had power, in power.
The individual is compelled to act in accordance to their beliefs, even if those beliefs cause personal pain and suffering. People are focused on the rewards or purpose of their suffering so they are less likely to try and change their current political or economic situation, which would ultimately question the system and those in power. Because religion teaches people to see their situations in the more broad scope, the individual’s here and now needs are lost on the “greater good” or “bigger picture”.
The conflict perspective suggests that religion hinders social change because people are given “false consciousness” or an attitude that does not accurately depict ones’ current state (Karl Marx, as quoted in Schaefer 2009, pg 189). For example, people don’t see their lives in political terms so they don’t try for political change and therefore continue to be oppressed. This perspective suggest that people are taught not to upset the way of things for the greater good of all, that things don’t have to be fair now or be easy because there will be a reward in the afterlife for their hard work.
These two before mentioned theories are at the polar ends of sociological theories and a good demonstration of that is liberation theory. Liberation theology is the use of the church in the political arena, to effect change to eliminate poverty, discrimination, and other forms of social injustice (Schaefer 2009, p. 329). This is an example of how religion can help effect social change rather than hinder it as the conflict theory suggests. The Roman Catholic church, for example, supports liberation theology in Latin America, and some are Marist sympathizers.
In contrast, liberation theology serves as a dysfunction from a functionalist point of view because when the focus of religion turns to political change, it loses its collectivism. Some of the members of the Roman Catholic Church felt like their spiritual needs weren’t being met, that perhaps the church had lost focus of what was important and therefore, lost its cohesive properties. One thing that the functionalist and conflict theories share in common is their approach. Both perspectives use the macro-scale to understand society.
They look at the group to explain society as a whole. They look at the group as a whole, rather than the individual practicing in the religion to understand its impact on society as a whole, even the secular parts. Interactionist perspective “uses everyday forms of social interaction in order to explain society as a whole” (Schaefer 2009, p. 16). An interactionalist views religion in terms of objects or symbols. These two things are very important in religion in that it serves as another way to bring people together and show unity.
A certain dress code or religious ritual gives a visual representation of their shared belief, which reinforces their sense of interconnectedness, but it is also a non-verbal way to easily identify people who are like them. The individual in the religion uses the nonverbal symbols, rituals and past experience to practice their faith and by doing so they influence all interactions these people encounter. Religion makes some interactions manageable, such as death or divorce.
When these types of things happen, it is easier to the individual to rely on their belief in the afterlife or greater purpose than to think that it happened for no explainable reason at all. The impact of these interactions on society varies widely from a place of reverence to fear and misunderstanding. After September 11, 2001 happened in America, the nonverbal symbols that give Muslims their sense of identity and outward sign of their faith became a big target on their backs. Many misconceptions fear and prejudice made many of their social interactions difficult and difficult for the secular people who interacted with them.
To contrast that, a Catholic Nun in full attire, could invoke an entirely different response with their outward symbol of devotion. Perhaps one of respect for the charity they are known for or a lack of understanding for their principles and beliefs. Religion serves all kinds of purposes in every society, some good and some bad. Sociologists, using the three above mentioned perspectives, will continue to study it and determine just what role it does play, what roles it should play, and just how big those roles should and can be.
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