In this essay I will be comparing as well as contrasting the theories of religion by Emilie Durkheim and Karl Marx for the purpose of trying to understand the role of religion in society. I will do this by first, giving background on their views and the concepts that make up their definitions. Secondly I will be discussing their variations on the way religion is expressed, and how it affects society, with the purpose of using this information to make sense of or understand religion in contemporary South Africa.
The view that Karl Marx has on religion seems to be more economic or political, while the view of Durkheim is more focused on social cohesion and the collective consciousness. Even though both the writers have a functional view on the concept of religion, their definitions and what the purpose of religion is in society are as different as chalk and cheese. This difference stands out the most in the way these authors define religion. On one hand Durkheim’s definition centres around unity and practices, he says 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” (Pals, 2009) while Marx’s definition centres around freedom and self-consciousness and religion being “an opiate for the masses” which I will discuss later on. Durkheim’s definition of religion has two fundamental elements, namely the Sacred and the Profane as well as Rites and beliefs. The Sacred in my understanding are ideals shared by a collective, they are ideals in terms of how it is something people look up to and it creates a sense of aspiration for example, a ceremony like a wedding or more so the white wedding and Baptism. The profane would then be everything else, they are mundane and private views only significant to the individual, like our bills or things in our daily lives. These elements are linked to the Rites and beliefs. Beliefs are “perspectives and opinions that are represented as part of the sacred” for example, seeing the deity as superior, only a belief because it is connected to the sacred and Rites, which are the modes of acting, so for example rituals and practices that are in connection to beliefs.
Marx doesn’t see religion as something that aids in social cohesion but as something that does the opposite, it promotes social stratification. This social stratification can be seen by how people who are wealthy and are successful are seen as being in God’s graces, as well as the inequality between religious authorities and the people that attend the church. Religion in Marx’s eyes is something that people use to make sense of their economic conditions, for example, people with less power in economies are more likely to use religion to attribute it to the “divine plan”. Throughout my entire life, even though I am not a religious person I was taught to trust God’s plan, even in times of great suffering I was taught not only to trust in my own ability but the ability of God to help me get through any trials in life. And because of this, it makes sense how Marx would then say religion is the opiate of the masses, that we as people have given our power away to God and if we were able to see religion as what it is we would be able to do most things ourselves, it is an opiate in the way that it doesn’t heal the pain or suffering but it dulls the pain. The difference between the writers continues here, the writers view the “expression” of religion quite differently. While Durkheim sees the expression of religion interlinked with one’s recognition of the Sacred and being able to tell it apart through beliefs and practices, Marx highlights the expression of religion as religious suffering. I agree with Marx on this point as through most faiths, especially the Christian faith, one is almost expected to go through a point of suffering and then move past it using prayer.
Marx points out that ‘when one views society and life through the lens of religion, they are blinded to the realities of their life.” (Johnson, 2013) And that religion was “a way for the poor to accept their poverty and for the wealthy to control the poor.” (Johnson, 2013). Durkheim’s view on the role of religion on society is quite different as he sees religion through structural functionalism, identifying 3 functions of religion. The first being how it helps establish social cohesion (through shared symbols, norms and values), it can be a form of social control: religions have certain rules and norm which sometimes correlate with certain laws, for example the Christian faith and many others are against murder and adultery which are things that are also frowned upon in society. In context to religion in South Africa, I can see how society is held together by our religious beliefs and how we apply them in our daily lives, the moral compass of most people is guided by their religious beliefs and practices to do well in God’s eyes. And lastly religion provides people with a sense of purpose, for example as life is unpredictable, people have a sense of hope that God has something bigger planned for them when things don’t go according to their plans.
In sum, to me Marx and Durkheim have helped me understand the role of religion in a simpler way, in terms of how religion affects how most people act in the hopes of being in God’s good graces and how religion unifies us all, as said by Durkheim. And even though Marx’s views on religion seem somewhat negative, some points he makes show how people will accept unfair conditions with the hope that their deity will punish the bad people and eventually save the one’s that believe in some ways giving them false hope. The idea of religion won’t be perfect because it is a human creation so I don’t believe that we should reject religion as Marx says, but we can rather make sure that religion doesn’t rule our lives by using it as more of a guide rather than rules that blind us from the harsh realities in life.