Religion: Durkheim vs. Weber

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Compare and contrast Durkheim and Weber’s understanding of religion. Which one do you find more helpful in order to understand to role of religion in the contemporary world? If God did not exist it would be necessary to invent him. – Voltaire Religion is a set of beliefs, symbols, and practices, which is based on the idea of the sacred, and which unites believers into a socio-religious community – this is how is defined ‘religion’ in the Oxford Dictionary of Sociology. In order to understand its purpose in society, we need to study the origin of religion and its function.

Well, we could say that religion exists since forever, at least since mankind tried to explain the extraordinary things that are happening in their lives. Durkheim argued that in the centre of religion are “things that surpass the limits of our knowledge”. He also asserts that human being define their life according to two terms: sacred and profane. The core of all religious beliefs is differentiating these two from one another. Therefore it can be said that religion is a “social institution involving beliefs and practices based upon a conception of the sacred. (Macionis and Plummer, 2002: 462)

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Generally, there are two different theories in the sociology of religion, in contrast with each other : those of Durkheim and Weber. Both of them developed important statements in terms of sociology and put the foundations in understanding modern life. To enlighten the role of religion nowadays it is necessary to analyse Durkheim and Weber’s understandings. Émile Durkheim (1858-1917), was a French sociologist, a powerful intellectual force whose work was concentrated around what holds society together.

Even if he published works on various disciplines, Durkheim tried to make a difference between sociology and the other subjects related to it, seeing sociology as a science in its own right. Using this new science his leading purpose was to “help France overcome its version of the general European crisis that he boldly defined as history’s greatest moral crisis”. (Stones, 2008: 77) In Durkheim’s vision, society as a whole can be seen as an entity with “an existence and power of its own beyond the life of any individual” (Macionis and Plummer; 2002: 463).

Because society strongly influences its members and their actions, shaping their life, Durkheim envisions God as society hypostasized. “Society is worshiped therefore is God” – this assertion comes from Durkheim’s opinion that people, in religious life, worship the overwhelming power of their society, therefore what is celebrated must be God. Furthermore, this idea explains the transformation of particular objects into “sacred symbols of collective life” (Macionis and Plummer; 2002: 463). This object defined as sacred is named by Durkheim totem.

The totem spiritually represents the power of society to bring people into a strong community. Durkheim highlighted three important functions of religion in society: social cohesion, social control and providing meaning and purpose. Social cohesion refers to religion bringing people together via shared social facts (norms, values, structures, symbols). Moreover, religion celebrates the fundamental experience of love. All the connections between people in a society, moral or emotional, are emphasized by their religious life.

Social control is established through religious justification (for example the habits related to marriage and reproduction). Using religion is easier for the political system to control the masses. When Europe was in monarchy, kings used to pretend that they rule by divine right. Nowadays, political leaders are not so direct but they still invoke God’s blessing, to ensure the audience that their work is “right and just”. (Macionis and Plummer; 2002: 463). The third function, providing meaning and purpose, shows how religion sensibiliser our spiritual life.

People are less likely to flatten if they believe they serve a greater purpose. Also, in times of calamities or hazards, religion is a “place” of refuge, it gives hope. Analyzing Durkheim’s theory, Bryan S. Turner (2011: 37) seize that religion “survives because it satisfies a basic social function, not a psychological one” and “is the self representation of society, its collective representation”. He also asserts that inside the common practices of the group, the individual can find his own emotions.

Moving on, Max Weber (1864-1920) was a German sociologist and philosopher who had a tremendous contribution to the science of sociology. He studied and wrote about all the great religions, ancient societies and economic history. His main concern was to find out why the capitalism emerged in the West. One of his most important works is “The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism” (1904). In his study, he proposed a thesis that “connected the dynamic ‘capitalist’ system of production and exchange with religiously inspired ethos of work and self control”.

Ethos was, in Weber’s vision, a form of asceticism directed towards “acting in the here and now”, which he observed it was particularly specific in the Protestant sects. (Stones, 2008: 65). He also argued that asceticism (ethic of world mastery) “is the most radical attempt to impose a rational regulation on the world” (Oxford Dictionary of Sociology). Further, he developed a theory that explains the relationship between religion and economics: Weber claimed that at some point the West economies created “the wealth as a calling”.

This ‘calling’ or ‘vocation’ was something that people were committed to, because it was a duty, a way of life. The reason why people worked so hard in those days was that they believed it is what God wants from them, in order to reach salvation. In conclusion, the world is “willed by God and therefore somehow ethically meaningful” and its comprehension requires “certain revelations that must simply be accepted on faith as factors of salvation” (Schluchter, 1989: 255). Thus, people were led by this idea of a big, powerful and sacred entity because it was easier to accept a non-rational power to control them.

In his writing, Max Weber included a detailed review of “world religions”. He listed five: Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam, also including Judaism “because it contains historical preconditions decisive for understanding Christianity and Islam, and because of its historic and autonomous significance for the development of the modern economic ethic of the Occident”. (Sharot, 2001: 5). Comparing these religions is easy to see that they are very similar in terms of values, even if they have different traditions and they are differently structured.

All of them focus on “protection against evil forces” and on “the achievement of greater health, more success, an even longer life”. All of these goals imply optimism, self esteem, hope. What is also important in Weber’s work is what he noted about Calvinism: “Calvinists took worldly success as a sign of Divine Election, which in turn justified exploiting those with less material success, since they were not Elected. ” (Glock and Stark, 1965: 186) The distinction between Durkheim and Weber theories does not stay in their substance but in their different ways of approaching religion.

While Durkheim was concerned with the social functions of religion in relation to social integration, Max Weber was mainly interested in the problem of theodicy (philosophical-religious doctrine which attempts to prove that the existence of evil or injustice in the world does not invalidate the existence of God and his omnipotence) and the comparative study of the salvation drive. Moreover, Weber studied in his empirical dissertation thesis, the contribution of the great religious to the evolutions of the Occidental in opposition with the Oriental World.

He claimed that Islam, Judaism, Catholicism and Protestantism used the rationalisation of social more than Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism did. In the conceptual sphere, Weber contributed with the distinction between churchly and sectarian forms of religious organisation. Unlike Weber, Durkheim did not cover so detailed this two areas: the empirical and the conceptual. Sure enough he portrayed empirical findings in his writings on religion but did not link them with the socio-cultural system.

But what is primarily in Durkheim’s work is his definition of religious practice: “a celebration of the reality of the social sphere, biding the participants together” (Robertson; 1970: 15). Regarding the impact of Durkheim and Weber upon their readers, it can be said that Durkheim offered explicit perspectives whereas Weber has been conceptual and empirical-propositional. (Robertson; 1970) Nowadays, although the laicisation is more and more powerful and it was believed that the twentieth century would be the time when “the Death of God” will come, religion is still alive.

However, there are some changes like: secularisation, globalisation, new religions movements and new institutions. But theories like Durkheim and Weber’s still apply. For example Durkheim’s social cohesion through religion is current. If religious norms and values can hold a society together then it can be said, using Weber theory, that the link between religions is what holds humanity united: the battle against “evil” (war, poverty, starvation, disease, crime); hope; faith; the struggle to reach eternal happiness.

Considering above, I find Durkheim’s theory more practical in understanding how religion influences the contemporary world. A significant example, in my opinion, is marriage. Firstly, marriage can be considered just a contract between two people, a civil partnership that can be ended whenever they want. But if the couple is religious, their bond is stronger and this holy matrimony holds them together. Secondly, through marriage a couple becomes a family in a society. That means that they enter the system and they have to obey rules and norms.

Therefore marriage submits to social control. Finally, marriage is often marked by a sacred celebration. This implies a stronger spiritual link between the partners, and their religious belief makes them feel that nothing can undo what God united. It gives them hope and an enlightened vision of the future. In conclusion, religion’s purpose never changed. Religion exists on one hand to offer humanity something to believe in, to help people to stay united in good or bad, and on another hand to give control to the powerful ones over the masses.

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