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Psychoanalytic Theory

The Psychoanalytic Theory is the personality theory, which is based on the notion that an individual gets motivated more by unseen forces that are controlled by the conscious and the rational thought. Sigmund Freud is closely related to the psychoanalytic theory. According to him, the human behavior is formed through an interaction between three components of the mind, i.e. Id, Ego and Super Ego.

Id: Id is the primitive part of the mind that seeks immediate gratification of biological or instinctual needs. The biological needs are the basic physical needs and while the instinctual needs are the natural or unlearned needs, such as hunger, thirst, sex, etc. Id is the unconscious part of the mind; that act instantaneously without giving much thought to what is right and what is wrong. For example, If your Id passed through a boy playing with a ball, the immediate urge to get that ball will drive you to snatch it by any means, this is irrational and may lead to the conflict between the boys. Thus, Id is the source of psychic energy, a force that is behind all the mental forces.

Super-Ego: The Super-Ego is related to the social or the moral values that an individual inculcates as he matures. It acts as an ethical constraint on behavior and helps an individual to develop his conscience. As the individual grows in the society, he learns the cultural values and the norms of the society which help him to differentiate between right and wrong. For example, If the super-ego passed that boy playing with a ball, it would not snatch it, as it would know that snatching is bad and may lead to a quarrel. Thus, super ego act as a constraint on your behavior and guides you to follow the right path. But if the Id is stronger than super-ego, you will definitely snatch the ball by any means.

Ego: Ego is the logical and the conscious part of the mind which is associated with the reality principle. This means it balances the demands of Id and super-ego in the context of real life situations. Ego is conscious and hence keep a check on Id through a proper reasoning of an external environment. For example, If you pass through the same boy playing with the ball, your ego will mediate the conflict between the Id and super-ego and will decide to buy a new ball for yourself. This may hurt you Id, but the ego would take this decision to reach to a compromise situation between the Id and super-ego by satisfying the desire of getting a ball without committing any unpleasant social behavior.

Hence, these are the fundamental structures of the mind, and there is always a conflict between these three. The efforts to attain the balance between these defines the way we behave in the external environment.

Phenomenological theory

Phenomenological study of religion deals with a personal participation of a scholar in the religion he seeks to study in order to understand the essence (meaning) and manifestations of the religious phenomena of the particular religion. This he does through the grouping of the phenomena, the suspension of value judgment, which was previously held about that religion, and the taking of a neutral stance in order to understand what he is studying.

The phenomenology of religion concerns the experiential aspect of religion, describing religious phenomena in terms consistent with the orientation of worshippers. It views religion as made up of different components, and studies these components across religious traditions in order to gain some understanding of them. The phenomenological approach to the study of religion owes its conceptualization and early development to Pierre Daniël Chantepie de la Saussaye (1848-1920), William Brede Kristensen (1867-1953) and Gerardus van der Leeuw (1890-1950).


The first explicit use of the phrase “phenomenology of religion” occurs in the

‘Handbook of the History of Religions’, written by Pierre Daniël Chantepie de la Saussaye in 1887, wherein he articulates the task of the science of religion and gives an “Outline of the phenomenology of religion”. Employing the terminology of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Chantepie divides his science of religion into two areas of investigation, essence and manifestations, which are approached through investigations in philosophy and history, respectively. However, Chantepie’s phenomenology “belongs neither to the history nor the philosophy of religion as Hegel envisioned them”. For Chantepie, it is the task of phenomenology to prepare historical data for philosophical analysis through “a collection, a grouping, an arrangement, and a classifying of the principal groups of religious conceptions”. This sense of phenomenology as a grouping of manifestations is similar to the conception of phenomenology articulated by Robison and the British; however, insofar as Chantepie conceives of phenomenology as a preparation for the philosophical elucidation of essences, his phenomenology is not completely opposed to that of Hegel

Conflict theory

The Conflict perspective is an approach to analyzing social behavior which is based on the assumption that social behavior is best explained and understood in terms of conflict or tension between competing groups. When applied to religion, conflict analysis posits that religion is a source of conflict that divides or stratifies society. Marx argued that religion is a tool which helps maintain the status quo in society by making the lower classes content with promises of great rewards in the life after death. The conflict perspective can explain many conflicts seen around the world not only throughout history, but also today. However, this approach does not adequately explain all the data of the religious experience. In reality, religion is often found to be a liberating force within society; promoting equality rather than inequality.

It is probably safe to assume that most adherents of religion believe that religion makes a difference in their lives. Most religions have stories of people who have changed their lives as the result of a mystical encounter. However, even more common place are the benefits religion offers people: a sense of meaning and peace; a feeling of belonging to a group; and a belief that a higher power is watching over them. Theologically, one may talk about the power of conversion or the intervention of God in people’s lives. Sociologists, however, typically try to analyze the power of religion by taking God or other higher powers out of the equation and explaining the phenomenon of religion in purely secular terms. This approach, of course, makes certain assumptions about the validity (or invalidity) of various religious beliefs.

Whether or not these assumptions are true is open to debate.

One of the frameworks that can be applied in a sociological study of religion is conflict perspective. This approach is based on the assumption that social behavior is best explained and understood in terms of conflict or tension between competing groups. Karl Marx in particular looked at religion as a source of conflict—a divisive rather than a cohesive power within society. Marx argued that religion is a tool that helps maintain the status quo in society by making the lower classes content with promises of great rewards in the life after death. Marx is often quoted as saying that “religion is the opium of the people.” He advocated that people should reject other-worldly values in order to focus on the here and now and work for rewards in this life. Marx maintained that the happiness and rewards promised by religion are merely illusions. In this view, religion helps maintain social inequality by justifying oppression and is an institution that justifies and perpetuates the ills of society. Specifically, rather than resolving conflict or curing social injustice, the conflict analysis approach views religion as the basis of inter-group conflict. Further, the inequalities and social injustices that exist in society are reflected within the religious institutions themselves (e.g., race, class, or gender stratification). Conflict analysis theorists also posit that religion provides legitimization for oppressive social conditions, thereby supporting and maintaining the status quo. Similarly, religious practices and rituals define group boundaries within society, thereby supporting an us-them mentality.


According to Marx, religion is a matter of ideology not of faith, focusing more on social needs and aspirations than on spirituality. In particular, Marx believed that religion is an ideology of the ruling class and, therefore, supported the status quo. In this approach to explaining religion, subordinate groups come to believe in the legitimacy of the social order that oppress us them by internalizing the ideology of the ruling class. Rather than supporting social change and growth, Marx believed that religion actually impedes them by encouraging lower stratum social groups to focus on the otherworldly things.

Functional theory

Émile Durkheim (1858–1917) saw the concept of the sacred as the defining characteristic of religion, not faith in the supernatural. He saw religion as a reflection of the concern for society. He based his view on recent research regarding totemism among the Australian aboriginals. With totemism he meant that each of the many clans had a different object, plant, or animal that they held sacred and that symbolizes the clan. Durkheim saw totemism as the original and simplest form of religion. According to Durkheim, the analysis of this simple form of religion could provide the building blocks for more complex religions. He asserted that moralism cannot be separated from religion. The sacred i.e. religion reinforces group interest that clash very often with individual interests. Durkheim held the view that the function of religion is group cohesion often performed by collectively attended rituals. He asserted that these group meeting provided a special kind of energy, which he called effervescence, that made group members lose their individuality and to feel united with the gods and thus with the group. Differing from Tylor and Frazer, he saw magic not as religious, but as an individual instrument to achieve something.

Durkheim’s proposed method for progress and refinement is first to carefully study religion in its simplest form in one contemporary society and then the same in another society and compare the religions then and only between societies that are the same. The empirical basis for Durkheim’s view has been severely criticized when more detailed studies of the Australian aboriginals surfaced. More specifically, the definition of religion as dealing with the sacred only, regardless of the supernatural, is not supported by studies of these aboriginals. The view that religion has a social aspect, at the very least, introduced in a generalized very strong form by Durkheim has become influential and uncontested.

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Durkheim’s approach gave rise to functionalist school in sociology and anthropology. Functionalism is a sociological paradigm that originally attempted to explain social institutions as collective means to fill individual biological needs, focusing on the ways in which social institutions fill social needs, especially social stability. Thus because Durkheim viewed society as an “organismic analogy of the body, wherein all the parts work together to maintain the equilibrium of the whole, religion was understood to be the glue that held society together.”.

Social change theory

Max Weber (1864–1920) thought that the truth claims of religious movement were irrelevant for the scientific study of the movements. He portrayed each religion as rational and consistent in their respective societies. Weber acknowledged that religion had a strong social component, but diverged from Durkheim by arguing, for example in his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism that religion can be a force of change in society. In the book Weber wrote that modern capitalism spread quickly partially due to the Protestant worldly ascetic morale. Weber’s main focus was not on developing a theory of religion but on the interaction between society and religion, while introducing concepts that are still widely used in the sociology of religion. These concept include Church sect typology, Weber distinguished between sects and churches by stating that membership of a sect is a personal choice and church membership is determined by birth. The typology later developed more extensively by his friend Ernst Troeltsch and others. According to the typology, churches, ecclesia, denomination, and sects form a continuum with decreasing influence on society. Sects are protest break away groups and tend to be in tension with society.

Charismatic authority Weber saw charisma as a volatile form or authority that depends on the acceptance of unique quality of a person by this person’s followers. Charisma can be a revolutionary force and the authority can either be routinized (change into other forms of authority) or disappear upon the death of the charismatic person.

Somewhat differing from Marx, Weber dealt with status groups, not with class. In status groups the primary motivation is prestige and social cohesion. Status groups have differing levels of access to power and prestige and indirectly to economic resources. In his 1920 treatment of the religion in China he saw Confucianism as helping a certain status group, i.e. the educated elite to maintain access to prestige and power. He asserted that Confucianism opposition against both extravagance and thrift made it unlikely that capitalism could have originated in China.

He used the concept of Verstehen (German for “understanding”) to describe his method of interpretation of the intention and context of human action.

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