Religion and Sociology Emile Durkheim approach

In the past, religion was only founded by supreme beings. The individual who people know satisfies their requirements had to be connected to a religion. As time went on, people understood that there was no need for these omnipotent beings and that man had evolved naturally, not as a result of supernatural abilities. However, they came to see that religious organizations like the ethical cultural society still have influence. When there were many ideological disagreements over the views of these various groups on religion, sociology in religion emerged. There were some presumptions in each of the three methods used to investigate sociology of religion. The ethical culture society is one religious movement that is unique in its own way and hence is a suitable candidate for studying most of these assumptions.

Keywords: Ethical culture movement, sociology, religion, Max, Weber, Durkheim, morality, Christianity

The functioning, structure and development of the human society is based on a collection of principles and that are found in the people in the society (Berger, 1967). One of the key determinants of the nature of a given people is religion. Many people believe in the existence of a supreme being which possesses powers over them and controls the way they operate. These beliefs are the origins of the religion of that society. When we study the organizational forms, beliefs and practices of people, we say we are examining the sociology of religion (Repstad, 2013). The relationship between common religion and the society was well examined by three sociologists Max Weber, Emil Dukheim and Karl Max in the late 19th century. The three sociologists studied religions of many societies for many years and after many considerations, they came up with conclusions of how religions affect the sociology of people (Bender, 2012).

Dukheim came up with the functionalism approach of religion where he found out that people find religion as a source of social stability and a source of health and societal continuation. On the contrary, Weber believed that religion is a perpetrator of social change. After his comprehensive study, he found out that religion is mostly used as an agent of changing the society from sin and all other vices (Berger, 1967). He found out that religion aims at fighting all the common vices of the mundane physical world such as capitalism and stressing on attaining of higher levels of spirituality. Karl Max, who was not religious, came to analyze the works of authors such as Ludwig Feuerbach and he later became a major contributor on the topic. He said that religion mainly serves as a tool to teach people to embrace their current condition in life positively. He said that it is because of religion that many people face diverse harshness in life today but they do nothing (Repstad, 2013).

The Ethical Culture Movement

The ethical culture movement is a religious movement that was started by Felix Adler back in the late 18th century (Iannaccone, 1994). It was formed basically as an outgrowth of a number of secular moral traditions of the Europeans and the Americans. The movement was developed as a solution for the intellectuals who do not believe in sacred beings. It is however considered religious because it pushes for human ethical codes(Iannaccone, 1994). It also comprises of various religious practices and rites and also various congregational structures. During his education, Adler was influenced by the neo-Kantian philosophy at the University of Heifelberg. He became drawn towards the Kantian ideas of existence, which speculate that one can improve neither the existence nor non-existence of immorality, and that theology can perpetuate the independent establishment of morality.

Adler was also exposed to many moral problems at this time as a result of labor and women exploitation (Warner, 1993). The intellectual groundwork was for Adler’s ethical movement was laid by these and such experiences. When Adler returned to Germany, he was involved in a sermon at his father’s church, in which he shared the ethical vision with his father’s congregation. Unfortunately for him, the sermon elicited a very negative response and hence it became the last for him as a rabbi in training. He moved on and took a professorship at Cornell University and later on, he managed to found the NY society for Ethical culture. This became the mother of many such societies in Philadelphia, St Louis and Chicago (Warner, 1993).

The societies adopted a number of principles. First, they adopted the belief that morality and theology are two very independent things. By this, it means that morality is never at any one time dependent of theology (Warner, 1993). The other major belief is that most of the new moral problems in the world have come up from the modern industrial society due to failure of not being adequately dealt with by the religions of the world. That is, it is due to the failure of religion that there have been many moral backlogs in the world.

Third is the principle that there is the collective duty of engagement in philanthropy if morality has to advance. Also, the fact that self-reform need to go hand in hand with social reform was another principle that was adopted (Bender, 2012). For the ethical societies, monarchial government was seen to be something pulling behind and hence the need to replace it with republican government was found. Finally, it was agreed that educating the young was the most vital aim. The fact that educating the young would be very life-changing came up because it was discovered that with an uninformed young generation, there would be a very dull future (Bender, 2012). Removing ignorance among them would therefore be very essential in the development of an intellectual society.

As a result, the movement decided to respond to the then religious crisis by taking unadulterated morality in the place of theology (Edles, 2016). The aim of the movement was to disentangle all moral ideas from ethical theories, metaphysical systems and religious doctrines. It purposed to make moral ideas independent forces in people’s individual lives and in their social relations. Adler became critical of the religious emphasis on creed and believed it to be the source of sectarian bigotry. In effect, he attempted to provide a universal fellowship that is devoid of any ritual or ceremony. He made this especially for all people who would otherwise be easily divided by creeds (Warner, 1993). It is for this reason that the movement had to adopt neutral positions on the religious beliefs. It neither advocated for theism nor atheism. Also, it was careful not to favor people who believed in deism or those who believed in agnosticism (Edles, 2016).

The idea of ‘deed not creed’ by Adlerian was liked by many and it became translated to many projects of the public service. Barely a year after its founding, a kindergarten was started by the New York society, a district nursing service and also a tenement-house building company. An ethical culture school was later opened and called ‘Workingman’s school.’ Many similar projects by ethical societies came up including summer homes for children and also Sunday schools. A lot of care was taken to avoid proselytization of the people that were being helped by the ethical societies. No forceful conversion or unnecessary persuasion for conversion was sought for people, unlike most of the other religious movements where people believe that converting people by persuasion or by force would have numerous effects on the life of the converter.

Existing members were responsible for sponsoring new members. Until late 1893, women were not allowed to join the movement because of their nature of formalization of issues and also the embedment of most of them to other religious movements(Warner, 1993). Some traditional practices were found necessary and were slowly adopted into the system. Some of the practices that were adopted are like Sunday meetings and things such as life cycle ceremonies. Such practices, however, were adopted in a very modern and humanistic context. It became clear by 1893 that an ethical movement had come up and that its principles had become popular among many. Most of these societies realized that they had similar goals and hence they unified under the American ethical Union (Geertz &Banton, 1966).

A period of success was recorded towards the end of the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century, but the movement later became stagnant. After the Second World War, the movement came back to life and its activities were heard once again. In 1946, the societies in New Jersey and Washington DC under the movement started being revitalized. The ‘encampment for citizenship’ was campaigned for together with these societies. Success progressed well and by the year 1968, a total of 30 societies that had a membership of more than 5,500 people each was present.

The resuscitated movement, however, has a various differences from its predecessor, including the fact that there was replacement of Sunday schools with adult activities. This idea came as an afterthought of rejuvenating activities of the movement in sub-urban locals (Geertz &Banton, 1966). It had been made as an afterthought when members of the movement realized that they needed to have a program encouraging more and more adults to join them. Since then, the ideas of the movement started spreading all over the world and today, every country in the world is represented by the common movement under specific societies. The ratio of the movement popularity in comparison to other movements, however, is still low(Durkheim, 2013).

There is an upcoming nature of independence seeking of many people in the society and hence people are slowly ceasing from associating themselves with specific religious groups. Christianity and Muslims, for instance have raised many questions in their faith and for the people who are not yet fully decided on whether or not to be part of them, they easily find themselves seeking for an independent movement. Due to such cases, there is an expected trend of increase of the enrollment of people under the ethical culture movement.

Under this course, three different approaches of facing the sociology of religion have been devised. The approaches are based on the fact that three early theorists in sociology, Durkheim, Weber, and Marx have been able to influence their sociology of religion in different ways based on their own arguments. None of these men had a religious nature. However, they became interested in religion due to the discovery that religion holds a lot of power over all people in all societies of the world. To them, religion was a mere illusion(Durkheim, 2013). This is mainly because location and culture are some of the things that influence religion to a great extent.

To them, however, it would be false to say that religion presents a critical or very important truth of human existence. The three sociologists also said that since people are ‘opening their eyes’ with time, they are slowly realizing the truth of the statement that religion is an illusion like any other, and hence they have speculated that most people will stop focusing and depending on religion as a primary influence in one’s life(Edles, 2016). As a result, the impact that religion has on the people of the modern world will lessen.

The sociologists in their theories have made very many assumptions. In fact, a critic once analysed Karl Marx’s theory and said that the theory made very many conclusions that leave the readers with a very wide range of the interpretations to make regarding a single idea. Similarly, before landing to a given statement, the sociologists usually have thought about a certain line of thought based on a single line of thinking and hence leaving many other possibilities due to the conclusion based on other lines of thinking that he did not look at. Basing on three research proposals done on the ethical culture movement, the following are some of the assumptions that would be made (Berlin, 2013).

Emile Durkheim approach

Durkheim came up with the idea of functionalism, where people came up with religion or followed religion so as to gain social stability (Durkheim, 2013). He acknowledged that due to this reason, religion plays a very big role in influencing the behaviour of thinking of most members of the society. He also found that people have a tendency of separating religious objects from objects that are profane, and viewed these religious objects with a special sense of awe (Durkheim, 2013). He concluded that religion is not all about belief, but has many other rituals and ceremonies embedded in it.

Considering our case of the ethical culture society, there is no recognition of religious objects or rituals. It therefore becomes clear that in Durkheim’s conclusion of the influence of religion by these two is not fully correct. There are many religious movements that may be similar to the ethical culture society in believing about deed not creed (Durkheim, 2013). The main assumption in Durkheim’s approach is that it is not given that all religions recognize religious objects and religious rituals. This means that unlike Durkheim initially stated, there is possibility that religion can be based solely on beliefs.

Durkheim also believes that the concept of God is on the verge of extinction (Durkheim, 2013). He proposed that most of the religious movements suggest that the society needs religion so as to promote civic celebrations, patriotism to the church and parades. Also, religion is a major factor, according to Durkheim, that promotes order and social stability. As a result, it is not in order to focus on religion as a devotion to a supreme being. The Ethical culture society does not believe in promotion of atheists at the expense of theists or vice versa. That is, the movement chooses to be neutral to all forces of Supreme Being existence. There is no way you can choose not to believe in something that does not exist, meaning that there is that secret voice in you that says that this supreme being is the mother of all happenings(Iannaccone, 1994). The assumption he makes here is that different religious societies believe in God while others do not. The assumption, however, is false and unnecessary as the existence of this Supreme Being is seen to be of paramount importance in forming the pillars of most of the beliefs of the religious movement that is among the least associated with God, the Ethical Culture Movement.

Max Weber approach

Just like in Durkheim’s approach, Max Weber made many assumptions regarding the development of principles and theories in religion and sociology (Max, 2002). Weber’s theory states that religion is majorly a tool of social change, in which the people who engage in religion become agents of social change. In his examination of the impact of Christianity on Western thinking and culture, he found out that most of the western culture and lines of thinking were majorly influenced by religion (Iannaccone, 1994).

The assumption made in Weber’s approach of sociology in religion is that there has to be the social part of religion in all forms and types of religious movements. This is a false assumption since basing on the Ethical culture movement; it is not given that social interaction happens when people engage in a given religion (Bender, 2012). For the ethical culture movement, there are all attempts to make sure that people move away from the religious creeds such as having social interactions and rituals.

Marx’s approach

Marx developed the idea that religion is the reason why people accept the situations in which they are under all conditions they are facing (Berlin, 2013). That is, Marx said that people are convinced that they are facing various vices in life, not because of forces of earth but because of the forces of religion. According to Marx, it is clear that the future of religion is that people will become more submissive to their problems and will be easily swayed by many practices on the essence that it is nature taking its course. Considering a sample religious movement that bears principles ethical culture movement, is this statement true?

Marx’s approach makes the assumption that it is all religious movements that believe in the influence of the forces of religion that various life occurrences come to be (Berlin, 2013). The ethical culture movement, for instance, does not believe in the influence of supernatural beings on one’s life. It is therefore not true to say that people will be compelled to become satisfied at their current conditions due to different life experiences by affiliating them to the forces of religion. A sociologist coming out of the Marx tradition would focus more on the experiences of religious people and try to compare them to their lives (Berlin, 2013).


Sociology in religion is a very sensitive topic in the study of issues relating to religion. There are many people who have attempted to explain their relationship but most of the time, they end up contradicting themselves. Taking the example of the three sociologists, Durkheim, Weber, and Marx, the power of religion in the development of the society and the people’s way of life have been made. However, many assumptions regarding the same have been made, and hence the truth of these three theories is dependent on other factors such as the environment. Sociologists coming out of these traditions would focus on the neutralization of some of these assumptions in ways that can accommodate the life of the various sociologically sensitive groups.


Bender, C. (Ed.). (2012). Religion on the edge: De-centering and re-centering the sociology of religion. Oxford University Press.

Berger, P. L. (1968)The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion. New York: Anchor.

Berlin, I. (2013). Karl Marx. Princeton University Press.

Durkheim, E. (2013). Émile Durkheim on institutional analysis. University of Chicago Press.

Edles, L. D. (2016). Sociology of Religion and Beliefs. The SAGE Handbook of Cultural Sociology, 357.

Geertz, C., &Banton, M. (1966). Religion as a cultural system.

Iannaccone, L. R. (1994). Why strict churches are strong. American Journal of sociology, 99(5), 1180-1211.

Max, W. (2002), [1905]. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. London: Penguin Books.

Repstad, P. (2013). An introduction to the sociology of religion: classical and contemporary perspectives. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd..

Warner, R. S. (1993). Work in progress toward a new paradigm for the sociological study of religion in the United States. American journal of Sociology, 98(5), 1044-1093.

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