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FUNCTIONALIST and MARXIST VIEWS OF RELIGION. Emile Durkheim 1858 - 1917. Durkheim’s standard definition of religion based on a study of totemism amongst Australian aborigines

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emile durkheim 1858 1917
Emile Durkheim 1858 - 1917
  • Durkheim’s standard definition of religion based on a study of totemism amongst Australian aborigines

“[Religion is a] unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden – beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.”

Religion brings the tribe/group/society together






totemic principle god society
Totemic Principle = God = Society
  • Durkheim suggests that the totem is sacred because it is symbolically representative of the group itself. It stands for the values of the group and by worshiping it people are essentially worshipping the group (society)
  • Totemism is seen by Durkheim as the most elementary form of religion involving rituals and ceremonies around a totem which bring a group together
  • Religion is not a matter of individual belief – it is about collective rituals, ceremonies and worship which have the functions of bringing together and defining the group

marxism and religion

KARL MARX 1818 — 1883


Marxism and Religion


For Durkheim religion was a positive action brought about by society seeking order;

Marxist analysis of religion is rooted in the understanding of religion and social control

Marxist perspective mirrors in some ways the functionalists take on religion


For Marxists, religion is also a conservative force in society

  • However that conservative force is not a positive one for Marxists.
  • Religion legitimises, reinforces and perpetuates the rule of the ruling class and their interests
  • Religion is also the “opium of the people” as it dulls the working class’ pain of exploitation

religion and the working class
Religion and the Working Class
  • Religion is a sedative, a narcotic, that dulls the people’s experience of, sensitivity to and understanding of, the plight of their life situation.
  • This applies to the class of people who are alienated by their life of production under capitalist exploitation – the workers

religion and the bourgeois class
Religion and the Bourgeois Class

For the owners of production and property, religion plays a different, but complementary, role:

  • It serves as a tool to control the proletariat (the working class), by placating them (promising future rewards / suffering as a virtue / messianic hopes / a kind of religious fatalism)
  • serves also to help owners of production rationalise and justify their position of power and privilege

Religion under these circumstances appears to take on the character of an ideology
  • Such an ideology justifies and legitimates an unjust social order in such a way as to make it seem inevitable, pre-ordained and unchangeable.
  • Promises some form of salvation or reward in some other life conditional upon complete acceptance of conditions in this life, one’s place in it and the appointed places of others.

marx s famous quote
Marx’s Famous Quote
  • Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, as it is the spirit of unspiritual conditions…. the removal of religion as the illusionary happiness of people is the requirement for their real happiness’
  • (Karl Marx and Freidrich Engels, Toward the Criticism of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, 1843)
  • Now click here for interactive exercise