Marx, Weber and Durkheim on Religion


Jeramy Townsley

I wrote this essay in response to an exam question during my doctoral work in social theory in 2004. Since then, it has apparently become very popular with students who copy/paste information from the internet, and sites that steal essays to sell them for profit for students who purchase such illegal works. If you are a lazy student who uses the internet for your sources, at least inform yourself about copyright law and proper citation procedures for your field, for example American Psychological Association style.
Marx, Weber and Durkheim on Religion

Marx, Weber and Durkheim together comprise the historical core of the sociological tradition. While they each come from very different perspectives and offer profound contributions to the field, they each have tried to address problems associated with the advent of modernity. One issue that has developed within the context of modernity is how religion factors into a society that increasingly is built on the foundations of rationalism. Many intellectuals started asking questions about the origin of religion, since, as Laplace stated to Napoleon, they no longer had need for the God hypothesis. If, as they believed at the time, culture was moving to a place of mass non-belief, what did that mean for contemporary society which had many structures based around religion?

Marx, the earliest of the three thinkers, actually wrote very little about religion. So while a �sociology of religion� would be difficult to pull from his writings, we aren�t left with a complete absence of Marx�s opinions on the subject. Much of Marx�s direct statements on religion come in the first several paragraphs of his �Contribution to the Critique of Hegel�s Philosophy of Right: Introduction.� Here we find Marx�s classic statement on religion, that �it is the opium of the people.� However, taking this as Marx�s whole, or even representative perspective on religion would be to rip this statement from its context.

Marx begins the �Contribution to the Critique� with the bold opening line, �the criticism of religion has been largely completed; and the criticism of religion is the premise of all criticism.� One can interpret this to imply that Marx viewed the critique of religion to be the most foundational criticism in which philosophers can engage, if such criticism is the �premise of all criticism.� He restates the strength of this position shortly after with this statement: �The criticism of religion disillusions man so that he will think, act and fashion his reality as a man [sic] who has lost his illusions and regained his reason; so that he will revolve about himself as his own true sun.�

He clarifies his intent with the following: �This state, this society, produce religion which is an inverted world consciousness, because they are an inverted world.� What I see Marx as saying in these series of statements, is that the critique of religion is foundational because religion produces the inverted illusion that the world of religion (the heavens, the gods) is the �real� and that the physical world we inhabit as humans is a shadow of the real, much as was described in Kant and Hegel. So in his criticism of �religion�, he attacks any belief system that inverts the material world from being the primary reality. The importance of the critique of religion is that it reframes the intellectual discussion, so that we can talk about the problems of the material world in which we find ourselves embedded and not a spiritual/noumenal world that, in Marx�s mind, seems to be irrelevant to social structures and problems.

Marx clarifies his position, stating that �Man, who has found in the fantastic reality of heaven, where he sought a supernatural being, only his own reflection, will no longer be tempted to find only the semblance of himself�a non-human being�where he seeks and must seek his true reality. � Religion is indeed man�s self-consciousness and self-awareness.� Here he reveals his ontological hand, which looks very similar to what we will later see in Durkheim and Weber, that religion is a reflection of humanity and not of a god. Marx makes the claim that the god(s) we sought in our religions were actually ourselves, as we have apparently discovered through the course of recent historical events, presumably modernism. Not only is religion a representation of humanity, but further, it is a representation of our own self-consciousness. He goes a little deeper when he says, �Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopedic compendium, its logic in popular form�, implying that to study the construction of beliefs about religion is to discover deeper streams in how humanity sees itself as a whole. The study of religion would not simply be a study of the gods, but of society and of humanity itself.

As a reprieve from his apparent harassment of religion, Marx softens his critiques by telling us one of the primary purposes for religious beliefs: �Religious suffering is at the same time an expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the sentiment of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.� Thus, the escapism that religion allows the masses, points to the necessity to escape from something. That something is the �soulless conditions� of a society that does not care for its people, for a system that dehumanizes workers, and structures that enslave the people in cycles of oppression. The fact that religion persists is a sign that conditions persist that require a sublimated expression of inhumanity. The alienation that religion describes between humans and god represents the alienation that individuals feel from their material existence.

Further, the god that they worship, the perfect, loving, creative, free being that is idealized in religion is actually the idealized selves that humans could be if we were not constrained by the external forces of society. In longing for reunion with god, salvation, we are actually longing for a reunion with ourselves. Marx explains: �The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of men, is a demand for their real happiness. The call to abandon their illusions about their condition is a call to abandon a condition which requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, the embryonic criticism of this vale of tears of which religion is the halo.�

As with Marx, Durkheim also sees religion as a prime factor in the life of individuals and groups. However, while Marx spends most of his writings on how economic factors drove the engines of history and spends very little time on the topic of religion, Durkheim invests a great deal of time exploring religion and how it has influenced the direction of society. Like Marx, Durkheim wanted a scientific understanding of society, an objective study. Also like Marx, he sees religion as a reflection of society and not a depiction of an external supernatural reality. However, Durkheim uses sociological method to prove that hypothesis. To do so, he explores the tribal religions of the Australian outback, as described by early anthropologists.

Durkheim defines religion as �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� (Elementary Forms for Religious Life, p. 44). Nearer to the end of the book Durkheim revises and secularizes his definition as, �first and foremost, a system of ideas by which men [sic] imagine the society of which they are members and the obscure yet intimate relations they have with it� (p. 227).

Similarly to this turn of definitions, Durkheim starts his examination somewhat benignly, as an exploration of the beliefs and rituals of the tribal religions in Australia. We get a sense, however, that he is going to take us to further places when, in his Introduction, he describes how �religious representations are collective representations that express collective realities; rites are ways of acting that are born only in the midst of assembled groups and whose purpose is to evoke, maintain or recreate certain mental states of those groups� (p. 9). He also talks about how all of the first systems of representation were religious in origin (p. 8), pointing us to a new way to discuss epistemology.

In elucidating a sociology of knowledge, Durkheim uses the history of religions to show how religions mirrored the way society was structured. For example, classificatory schemas for social groups were based on tribal differences. Tribes were divided into two phratries, which were further subdivided into various clans (p. 105-107). These divisions were based around the various totems that were represented by the phratries and clans. Durkheim proposes that these divisions formed the basis of how humans learned to classify their environment into different categories (p. 238). He notices that there is nothing objective in the observable world that forces us to group things with each other. Everything in our experience is �disparate and discontinuous. Nowhere in reality do we observe beings that merge their natures and change into one another.� It is only the religious practice of grouping various totem clans together that allowed us to start grouping other things in our environment. Thus, as Durkheim explains, �the realities to which religious speculation was applied then are the same ones that would later serve as objects of scientists� reflection. Those realities are nature, man and society. � Both attempt to connect things to one another, establish internal relations between those things, classify them, and systematize them� (p. 431).

In this way, Durkheim attempts to show that religion forms the epistemological basis for human experience. But Durkheim goes further. He is not content to make religion the epistemological basis for contemporary society. He seeks to radically invert this conception of the relation of religion and society, making not religion the origin of society, as he has just proposed, but in fact making society the origin of religion! In this way he follows Marx in making religion a reflection of society. However, while Marx sees god as an idealization of human nature, Durkheim sees god as society itself, in several respects. He constructs functional characteristics of god and bridges these to society. For example, he says that �god is first of all a being that man conceives of as superior to himself in some respects and one on whom he believes he depends. � Society also fosters in us the sense of perpetual dependence. � Society requires us to make ourselves its servants, forgetful of our own interests� (p. 208-209).

In making this connection, Durkheim hopes to show how religion functions to stabilize society and bring together a sense of unity and identity between the members of the community. He had a similar in mind in The Division of Labor in Society, when he created the categories of mechanical and organic solidarity to elucidate the forces that helped stabilize the radically changing society in the modern world. In Elementary Forms, Durkheim reaches into another source, religion, to show how societies are stabilized and cohered. This occurs in the reenacting of rituals, which creates intense emotions and bonding between the participants. Assisting this process is what Durkheim calls effervescence: �if collective life awakens religious through when it rises to a certain intensity, that is so because it brings about a state of effervescence that alters the conditions of the psychic activity. The vital energies become hyper-excited, the passions more intense, the sensations more powerful; there are indeed some that are produced at this moment. Man does not recognize himself; he feels somehow transformed and in consequence transforms his surroundings� (p. 424).

What occurs during effervescence-producing rituals, and how they affect the individual participants to bring them into a collective consciousness and solidarity, represent a temporally constrained unit, both as a singular event as well as having limited long-term influence on the participants. Durkheim notes that the temporality of these events can be extended by the use of symbols. As the rituals are imbued with symbolic meaning that the participants can take with them, the effects of the rituals can pass into the daily lives of the members of the society. The symbols can be passed on to members who have not participated directly in the rituals, but who can therefore participate in the rituals vicariously through the stories of those who have participated, and can then carry the symbols with them as well. In this way moral systems can be efficiently passed through societies.

Weber, the last of the three writers, like Durkheim, invested significant time in the study of religion. Also similar to Durkheim, Weber sees a great deal of contemporary society rooted in the processes of religion. However, like Marx, Weber sees the driving force of history as material interests and not ideas, as found in religious beliefs. So in tying religion to the spread of capitalism, as he does in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, he attempts to show that the ideas (Weber�s classic �switchman� metaphor) behind the religious beliefs of Calvinists steer the direction of the forces that were already in motion. The combination of technologies that facilitated capitalism and the ascetic habits of the Calvinists allowed capitalism to flourish in Europe and spread to the Americas.

In the Sociology of Religion, Weber lays out his thesis that people pursue their interests, and that religious leaders and structures help people achieve those goals. In this way religion provides the tools for both stability and social change. Various trends are seen in how this process develops. First, he describes the importance of magical beliefs for early society, being the explanations of how acts became efficacious. Magicians are endowed with charisma, that is, the power to accomplish necessary tasks, like healing, facilitating crop growth and protecting the village. Once a magician proves that he can do the things he claims, the village endows him and his acts with symbolic representation. As Swidler describes, �Continuing encounters between magicians and their clients lead to a �process of abstraction� in which magicians give symbolic form to their claims to extraordinary powers, finally creating a new realm of experience� (p. xi)

As these acts became symbols in the community, systems of gods were created which the magicians manipulated to help the community (or hinder, in the case of curses). Magicians, however, were utilized for single events, and were on an �on-call� basis. Their jobs were secure as long as they remained effective and as long as the village continued to develop needs requiring his services. Further, the symbol systems and gods became embedded into the community structure, and as political systems developed, the gods came to represent those political communities (p. 17). As time went on and specific gods were found to be more effective at producing military victory and economic prosperity, those gods grew in prominence and monotheism became more dominant.

However, the creation and maintenance of these symbols, as well as the gods, developed into the need to systematize and regulate them. This need produced a priesthood whose function in society was to maintain these symbol systems and create rational systems of thought to cohere the symbols and gods. Weber gives several different functions of the priests, contrasting them with magicians, for example, the priest�s �professional equipment of special knowledge, fixed doctrine, and vocational qualifications, which brings him into contrast with sorcerers, prophets and other types of religious functionaries who exert their influence by virtue of their personal gifts (charisma) made manifest in miracle and revelation� (p. 29).

Stemming from the systematization of symbols and gods by the priests is a culture-wide acceptance of concepts such as rules, sin and taboo. Some of the symbols that the priests systematized were rules that the community must follow in order for the gods to obey the magicians, or to act favorably towards the people. These systemizations became the foundation for laws and ethical standards.

The next players to develop in this system are the prophets. Similar to magicians, they are empowered by the community because of their gift of charisma. However, the difference is that the purpose of the prophet is to disseminate a new doctrine or ethical standard not to perform magic. So when cultural changes produced various injustices, a prophet would arise to reveal a new doctrine to supplant the old system, thus correcting these injustices.

It is at this point that the structure is laid for the larger pattern of society. First, members of a community have material interests, be they food, shelter or protection from enemies. Magicians at one time helped them with these needs, but as society stabilized into better developed political systems and as population density grew, the random practices of magicians were systematized by priests through a process of rationalization, which developed into structures to support standardized community practice for efficient control, placation and supplication of the gods. These systems developed into bureaucracies, a concept that is foundational to Weber�s view of social stabilization, the maintenance of cultural symbols and the distribution of goods and services to the modern state. He carries over the concept of the prophet, pointing to individuals who, because of charismatic ideas, produce changes in the direction of society. For example, Luther and Calvin evolved religious ideas that developed into an asceticism that allowed capitalism to establish itself and become the dominant social and economic structure in the West. The ideas of a prophet, once they become established and rationalized, then become bureaucratized and wait for the next prophet to come along and start the cycle again.

Marx, Durkheim and Weber represent the foundational sociological traditions examining the "institution" of religion. They are standing on the outside, looking in. As any scientist looks at any subject, objectivity necessitates a dispassionate examination of the evidence. Such studies are very different from the journey of faith "from within". While the "institutions" of "religion" may be able to be explained within the framework of history, sociology, psychology, etc., these explanations neither negate, nor diminish the journey of the believer. They simply represent the attempt to explain the larger structures and patterns that are observable in every culture through out history. Marx, Durkheim and Weber represent the objectivist, or modernist tradition within sociology. A different perspective might be taken from a postmodern sociologist, or an anthropologist who might look at religion through the lens of the believer--to explore "what it is to believe". Theologians, taking the same scientific approach found in the sociologists, yet study religion from the perspective of the believer, "from the inside", with the goal of applying the complexities of faith to the complexities of the world, making sense of ritual, explaning belief, and putting belief into the larger context of the lived experience of the church and the individual believers. None of these various perspectives is inherently superior than another, and none seeks to dethrone the other from scientific credibility. So to study the institutions of religion, as did Marx, Durkheim and Weber, while at first glance might seem at first glance heretical to the believer, actually helps produce building blocks of knowledge that the theologian, believer, evangelist, and any other person may use to understand the workings of the religions in the larger institution of society.

Return to Jeramy's Homepage

Feel free to e-mail me at

"Open your eyes. Don't let your mind tell the story here." Tonic, 1996

"Our lies have made us angry with the truth." Five O'Clock People, 1997