Functionalists represent religion as an important institution that promotes social integration and solidarity.
Quite a different point of view have conflictologists: some of them regard the church as a tool in the hands of ruling elites, applying it to contain social tensions generated by social inequality and injustice, while others see religion as a source of social conflict and as an example points to the religious wars of the Middle Ages, the current religious strife in the Middle East, India, Pakistan and Ireland. Another view is that religion promotes social change.
The basis for many studies of religion by conflict theory are the works of Marx. Marx saw religion as a social drug: “Religious misery – is both an expression of real misery and protest against real suffering. Religion – the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is – the spirit of soulless conditions. Religion – the opium of the masses.” Marx believed that religion – a system that diverts attention to the other world of action aimed at social change. People are beginning to project their needs and desires in the area of the unreal; religion conceals from them the true source of social misery and class conflict. In short, it creates among the working class, misconceptions, preventing him to find a true class consciousness.
Many sociologists agree with Marx that religion is inherent conservatism. A sense of the sacred ties today’s human experience with the concepts derived from the traditional past of the group. Religious beliefs and religious practices do not provide the truth to be questioned, which become powerful forces, struggling with a new way of thinking and behavior; customs that have fallen from the previous generations, including institutional inequality, are defined as the proper. Religion can also consecrate a change, acting for the benefit of powerful and wealthy groups (for example, Imperialism is often supported by religious or semi-religious motivations or beliefs). Religion, therefore, can be a powerful force in the service of the established order, and religious organizations often have the motivation to legitimize the status quo because they are interested in protecting the power of land ownership and wealth.
Some representatives of Conflict theory have a new approach to the problem of the relationship of religion to social change: they view religion not as a passive reaction to the social relations of production, as well as an active force, forming the contours of public life; thus, it can play an important role in the establishment and consolidation of new social structures and regulations. Recognizing that in some cases religion prevents change, they note that in other situations, it is against the existing social order and contributes to change.In certain circumstances, religion can be a major revolutionary force, showing people how to can or should be the world works. Therefore, religion is not necessarily functional or conservative factor in society, but often one of the main (if not the only) channel for the accomplishment of social revolution. (Furseth 2006)
Sociologist Peter Berger suggests that, in disputes between traditional and modern social structures, religious beliefs and religious organizations can be used in three different ways:
– First, religion can mobilize opposition to the modernization and for the approval of traditional authorities (for example, this is the path chosen by Ayatollah Khomeini and his Shiite supporters in Iran);
– Secondly, religion can adapt to the secular world and the use of religious aspirations in secular purposes (this is the path chosen by Jean Calvin and his Protestant followers);
– Third, religion can maintain its position, adjusting to modern conditions (this is the way chosen by the supporters of the religious revival).
Thus, different sociologists and sociological theories have their own approach to the study of religion as a social institution, but sociologists emphasize the great importance that religion had and still has in the modern world, and is an important part of social structure and social life of people.