From anthropological studies
From anthropological studies it is possible to make the claim that early societies and cultures had very little stratification or inequality. In those which did, stratifications were based on ability to obtain food and hunting skills, so social differences were largely defined by biologically based constructions of inequality and difference, such as strength, or gender. Alternatively, those with knowledge and wisdom would be recognised for their intellect (Democratic Underground 2009:2) but with shorter life spans, these stratifications were very temporary by nature.With the domestication of plants and animals and settlements came a surplus of food, larger groups with more family units, trading with other communities, and so more wealth, and ownership of land. Stratification caused by inequalities in property wealth is generally accepted as the original societal construct to emerge with, and as a consequence of, the transition to a settled society (ibid).
Within these settled societies, leaderships became institutionalised particularly in the arena of religion, and social stratifications and hierarchies evolved. Whereas early forms of religion were concerned with the ‘energies’ of the natural world, congruently religion moved away from the personal to the organised, with distinct ‘priesthoods’ (Harris 2009:2). Religion itself therefore generated social differences and further forms of stratification developed within religious organisation itself, particular with regards to the aforementioned concept of property as the church was very wealthy in this respect (Rogers, Deshpande and Feldman, 2011: 4).This evolution of early religion to modern day religious practice is based, in our Christian society, upon the Bible. This contains laws and codes of behaviour supposedly handed down by God; critically it could be argued that the ‘laws’ within were interpreted and therefore socially constructed by man, presented as ‘the word of God’ but for man’s benefit. Christians throughout the world try to live by its teachings.
But the Bible itself contains stratifications in many forms, for example, gender – “Women should be silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak, but should be submissive as the law says” (1 Corinthians 14:34) and race – “However, you may purchase male and female slaves from among foreigners who live among you….You may treat them as your property..”(Leviticus 25:44-46). Slavery is seen now as abhorrent, but it still takes place today just in different forms, forced labour, sex slaves, and again supporting passages can be found in religious teachings our modern society claim to live by, i.e.
“Slaves, obey your human masters in everything…work wholeheartedly, fearing the Lord” (Colossians 3:22).Religion has caused many inequalities in society and much conflict with other religions. But can the ancient readings and religious beliefs from the Bible be held responsible for social inequalities today? Other passages could be seen to promote equality, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). Most Christians ‘pick and choose’ which laws they follow but it can be argued that by building and maintaining social stability, by protecting a society’s traditional values and norms (Dunn, 2010:4) and rooting stratifications in societal discourse, religion is to blame.Religions throughout the world seek to offer explanations and justifications for social inequalities, endowing them with ‘divine sanctions’ (McGonigal 2010:1). For example, Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that survivors of the battle of Armageddon between God and Satan will form a new paradise on earth where they will live forever ruled by a heavenly government.
This promise for the future, found in many of the world’s religions, such as Islam, can encourage people to accept their status in life and not to attempt to change stratifications in society. The Hindu religion provides a religious justification for the inequalities of the Indian caste system and an individual’s position in the social hierarchy (Selfe and Starbuck 1998:44), legitimising stratification at birth by deeming the Dhalits ‘untouchables’.The Functionalist perspective sees religion as the predominant ‘conservative force’ which promotes social harmony by reinforcing values amongst members of society and protecting the existing state of affairs (Kirby, 2000:442). Durkheim studied the practice of ‘totemism’ amongst aborigines and argued that this practice of worshipping a sacred object or totem was religion in its most basic form. The totem was created by society as a symbol of itself, and as such the act of worship was really for the ‘society’. This act of ritual and ceremony, he claimed, bound society together and promoted social cohesion, legitimising hegemony and stratification.
This in itself would prevent any rapid social changes (Barter, 2007:42), keeping the social status quo of inequality. In support Parsons emphasised the role of religious beliefs as the core of society’s values and norms which regulated people’s behaviour. Like Durkheim, Malinowski viewed religious beliefs as promoting social equilibrium, but he also saw that it fulfilled the need for emotional security, during events of stress or uncertainty, such as funerals or wars (Garrod and Jones, 2009:25). Unlike Durkheim, he did not observe religion as worshipping society itself.Supporting Functionalist views, it must be observed that many modern ‘values’ are based on religious beliefs, even for atheists, such as ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’ (Exodus 20:1-17). It has also been shown that religious affiliations increase during times of crisis or societal upheaval.
In criticism, Functionalist views are often described as naively utopian; they ignore the social inequalities found in everyday society and in particular the church’s role in maintaining them. Also, contemporary societies contain a multi-cultural range of beliefs, so how can this role of a common religion bringing people together be fulfilled? Often religion has the opposite effect, posing threats to stability by tearing apart communities.Karl Marx supported the Functionalist view of religion as a conservative force, and saw religious beliefs as part of the dominant ideology, performing a ‘justifying’ function for the ruling classes. If society were in turmoil due to an unfair economic system between the Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat, then influence of the church, a social control mechanism of society, could enforce the conservative ideals of the ruling classes, therefore legitimising social inequalities. Wealth and power could be seen as ‘God-given’ and divine, therefore inevitable, beyond the power of mortals and ‘mystifying human authorship of exploitation’ (Dunn, 2010:3). Such edicts are impossible to be challenge without challenging God himself.
Marx referred to religion as the ‘opium of the people’, suggesting that beliefs, the ‘opiate’, eased ‘the pain of oppression and exploitation’ by promising an escape from poverty, suffering and oppression in this life with the promise of a better life after death. The purpose of this was suppression of changes which might challenge the inequalities of the capitalist system. For example, from the Bible: “It is easier to get a camel through the eye of a needle than it is to get a rich man into heaven”, (Matthew 19:24) – could this be considered a pro-poor message? (Dunn, 2010:3).