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Lecture 10: Religion & Class

April 19, 1999


Both Bellah’s idea of civil religion & theory of religious evolution contrast dramatically w/ Marx’s view of religion.


Two key emphases in Durkheim & Bellah:

  1. religion belongs to & is shared by society as a whole
  2. civil religion represents a transcendent moral authority

This authority—this ultimate moral authority—is ultimately universal, not just American &, at its best, serves to judge, criticize, transform, & change—to make better—society, not to simply uphold existing order or justify status quo.


Civil religion’s construal & interpretation—what is it?—are objects in ongoing arguments among different public theologies, which aren’t same as civil religion. E.g., Jesse Jackson but also Jerry Falwell.


Civil religion is a living tradition—it’s dialectical. At crucial points in time civil religion is a disputable, highly contested tradition about who we are as Americans & what America really means. But does "civil religion" really represent or stand for everyone?


 Two major points about Marx’s view of religion:

1) Focuses on religion’s relationship to social & economic classes & conflicts among them; &

2) Not one but two distinctive but related theories of religion.

    1. Functional: religion functions differently way different social classes.
    2. Symbolic-Interpretive: Religion symbolically expresses & represents social conditions. Human beings make religion, not other way around.


Durkheim’s collective representation theory says religion symbolizes nature of social life. In contrast, Marx says, no, religion is more a reflection of social conditions.


Marx’s projection theory of religion stresses way religious ideas, myths & rituals operate as tools, as "ideology," as weapons of class related, economically based social interests.


But Marx is not simply an economic determinist. To change structure of society, Marx holds, we must change ideas humans hold about society.


Marx denies, however, the independence or autonomy of religion & culture relative to economy. Economic & social life is not determined by consciousness, he says, economic & social life determines consciousness.