Comparing Perspectives of Marx, Durkheim and Weber on Religion. Major Similarities and Differences

Scientific Essay 2018 11 Pages

Sociology - Religion


Table of Content

1. Introduction

2. The major similarities of of Marx, Durkheim and Weber in relation to religion and its discourse

3. Differences of Views Regarding Religion by Marx, Weber and Durkheim

4. Conclusion


1. Introduction

Religion is the most persistent, social institution to pass and adjust itself in the position of the ages and its power is still controlling the activities of the world by one or the other way round. It is not all the fabric that led the continuity of religion as an institution, but also the conducive environment of interpreting what the dogmas of different religions and their effects is still a controversial issue.

The prominent social theorists were utterly attainted their discourse in religion side by side with other social issues. The concern of different interpretations was relied on the fact that the role and impact of religious thoughts had been shaping the world outlook and historical epochs. Thus, in the complicated sense what was asserted in relation to religion is still an important observation and the need for its narration is as important as it was before.

In sociology, the concern of thinking in the religious matters is undoubtedly one of the central foci along with other social institutions. The works of the founding fathers of sociological thoughts attributed to the study and examination of religion in accordance with its relevance and cohesive social factor for the solidarity of societal interactions and even the destructive role it has been played in fragmenting the consciousness of the people vis a vis class structure and exploitation of the mass.

As a sample, the famous theoreticians, like Karl Marks, Emile Durkheim, and Max Weber philosophize the all-round effect of religion in micro, meso and macro levels of interaction and with the political and economic ideologies that consciously or unconsciously related to the practice of religion and its processes.

Therefore, this essay is trying to shortly put a major similarities and differences of the theories of the above mentioned figures in the formation and application of religion as an instrument to human life and the contributions it facilitates to the existence and survival of societies in general. Besides the historical significance of such religious movements and the need to critically observe its impact and etc. are expected to be included in the context of this essay. Above all the attempts to scientifically theorizing religious institutions within a sociological paradigm is the major contribution of the then social thinkers and it will be highlighted shortly in the next few pages of the essay.

2. The major similarities of of Marx, Durkheim and Weber in relation to religion and its discourse

The traditional interpretation of Marxist conceptualization of religion to start with is seems to be economistic as well as simplistic in its form. His famous quote on the role of religion in hypnotizing the mass is more often spoken by many academicians and few scholars are not only forget these famous lines about ‘religion is the opiate of the mass’.( Lough, 2006 )

The interpretation of Marx on religion, however the ground critic of the capitalist world and indispensable to understand and observes the substitution of material commodities and values relations of the economic activity into the place of spiritual or mystical character.

AS Lough (2006) put Marx assertions in this regard the intention of the substitution is transgressed from no significance to the sage of worshipping economic goods not for their use and importance but for the perceived sensitivity image of the goods:

Through this substitution, the products of labor become commodities, sensuous things which are at the same time supra-sensible [übersinnliche] or social. . . . [T]he commodity-form, and the value-relation of the products of labor within which it appears, have absolutely no connection with the physical nature of the commodity and the material relations arising out of this. It is nothing but the definite social relation between men themselves, which assumes here, for them, the fantastic [phantasmagorische] form of a relation between things.(p.3)

The above analogy is the most important concept of Marx’s perception on how capitalism turns things into the level of the consciousness of the mass with its power to change and rediscovered what was there as a new and mind seized phenomenon. As Marx asserted:

‘In religion the products of the human brain appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and with the human race’.(cited in Lough, 2006:3)

In its process the thoughts of Marx on religion are not solely provided rather they manifested the whole and complete assumptions of him on the social world and specifically in relation to economic life. At this point the following commentary is helpful:

‘More plausibly, Marx is engaged on the ambitious business of `expounding the real process of production' in order to explain ‘the basis of all history', `its action as State' (forms of consciousness, religion, philosophy, morality etc. etc.), so that the whole thing . . . can be depicted in its totality’. (McLennan , 2001:44)

In this regard the thoughts of Max Weber were also getting along with conforming and accepting the explanation of Marx on religion in its pertinent contribution to economic activates and human history of the then western societies. To look briefly at the patterns of such claims:

Weber defined his field by asking a new question -what is the influence of religion on everyday economic life? This was his value relation to history and to judge by the work's success, it was a cultural question that found a large audience. Weber acknowledged that his viewpoint was by no means the only one and that materialist conceptions of history (for example, Marx's theory of class conflict) were equally pertinent (Sayer,1991: 92-133, cited in Whimster ,2001 :57)

However, in such circumstances the stand of Weber was not necessarily accept the deterministic role of religion in class ideology rather he did indicated the influenced attribution of religion by material life. As Whimster (2001) paraphrasing it:

‘Weber recognized the reverse causal sequence: how religions are influenced by material factors. By this he did not mean that religion is the ideology of social class, as argued by Marxists.’(p.58)

Moreover, Weber was critically justified the relationship between religion and economic life as complementary and mutually dependent. For this side, he did say the following:

‘Economic behavior is influenced by religious ethics; likewise religions influenced by the factors of social stratification and of political rulership. The chain of interactions has the potential to extend endlessly’.(cited in Whiemster, 2001)

According to Weberian interpretation, religion the individual salivation that comes from the practice of religious life is not a matter of deterrence to the bearable social reformation, however the public side of religion is challenging, cause and host a reform in social institutions. This concept is inversely related to the analysis of Marxist view of religion in accordance with the hindrance of revolutionary change in society. For this matter, although the views of the two thinkers are seemingly contradictory in the way that change must come, the methods are not the same to these scholars. In any ways, the assertion of Weber in relation to the impact of religion in public and private life is provided below by Encyclopedia of Sociology Vol..2 (2000):

In fact, while the private side of religion focuses upon individual salvation, there is also the supreme public side of ‘‘prophetic’’ religion, to use Weber’s ([1922] 1963) term for the kind of religion that challenges and calls for reform in society. As a forum for participation, the church, synagogue, mosque, or temple provides a venue in which individuals and families work out their positions vis-à-vis the politics and economics of their communities .(p. 943)

Emile Durkheim another influential sociologist also argued that religions have the functional place in society. In his view the difference is that he proposed and studies world religions with the assumption that they provide detrimental roles in putting solidarity and decreasing the possibility of anomic situations in societal operation and activities as a whole.

In this regard what Durkheim thought that the role of religion in creating a cohesive societal integration is an important concept, but in this case the views of Karl Marx that deeply concerned on the pseudo or the structural impact in which religion leads to an exploitative conditions by falsifying the bondage of the people in their respective class perpetuation is un / intentionally accepted by Durkheim. For instance, it is one of the best arguments of Durkheim are the following:

First Durkheim proposed a distinction between religious behavior and everyday behavior, the sacred and the profane. He saw the two as segregated by time and place as well as by behavior. …. Durkheim generalized this point, arguing that ritual conduct, with its element of emotional arousal, leads to a sense of solidarity among those who engage in the ritual. Thus, religious ritual, far from representing the dead hand of the past, as Marx would have it, enabled group members to cleave to each other and make group continuity possible. This is true, said Durkheim, even when the shared emotion is sadness. (Encyclopedia of Sociology V,2, 2000:775)

This assertion is reflected the different functionalities of the religious practices, the impact in the followers and the views are also somehow depending upon the role of empirically studied the religions of the world. Max Weber has also demonstrated the role of religion to the emergence and expansion of capitalism in the west as Durkheim tries in different dimension.

3. Differences of Views Regarding Religion by Marx, Weber and Durkheim

Marx conception of religion is fundamentally related to the development of class and its effect in proletariats’ as a divisive tool to the historical transitions of human history. As he strictly shows:

In the conditions of the proletariat, those of old society at large are already virtually swamped. The proletarian is without property; his relation to his wife and children has no longer anything in common with the bourgeois family-relations; modern industrial labor, modern subjection to capital, the same in England as in France, in America as in Germany, has stripped him of every trace of national character. Law, morality, religion, are to him so many bourgeois prejudices, behind which lurk in ambush just as many bourgeois interests.(Marx and Engels ,1884:5)

The role of religion in his sense is destructive and the capitalists are not obviously committed to see labor without exploitations and the class difference is staying so long as religion and other old ideological positions that create false consciousness and restricted him from class struggle. The persistence of religion and other philosophical thoughts are not easily eliminated as Marx observes, and this is the difficult part of human life. In their communist manifesto Marx and Engels fully address this fact and its place in history:

“Undoubtedly," it will be said, "religious, moral, philosophical and juridical ideas have been modified in the course of historical development. But religion, morality philosophy, political science, and law, constantly survived this change."(p. 8)

There for the Final alternative for Marxist perspectives in accordance with religion and related factors is to dismantle the core elements of such immaterial components of human life and establishing an egalitarian communist society. So what will be then?



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Addis Ababa University – Department of Sociology
Comparing perspectives of Marx Durkheim and Weber on Religion Religion Theory



Title: Comparing Perspectives of Marx, Durkheim and Weber on Religion. Major Similarities and Differences