Religion today: Themes and issues
Religion today: Themes and issues

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Religion today: Themes and issues

2.5 Theological, reductionist and phenomenological perspectives 2

2.5.1 The reductionist perspective

Although theology had been thought of as ultimate knowledge, in post-Enlightenment thought, religion came to be seen by many in the West as a hindrance to progress and the advancement of human knowledge. Some came to believe that a rational and scientific way of looking at the world, unconstrained by religious belief and ‘superstition’, would lead to religion becoming redundant.

In the nineteenth century, this idea was boosted by Darwinian theories of evolution. Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species was published in 1859, and before the end of the nineteenth century ‘evolution, from being a theory, had become an atmosphere’ (Sharpe, 1986, p.89). Scholars were thinking in terms not just of biological evolution but also of cultural evolution. There was a definite view of progress, which affected not only biology and technology but also ideas, including specifically religious ideas. It was assumed that there would be a universal and predictable progression in culture, regardless of time and space, from irrationality to rationality, from ‘primitive religion’ to ethical monotheism and,many thought, beyond that to scientifically informed atheism.

Reductionism emerged as the focus shifted from the ultimate truth of religion to attempts to understand the origins of religion, and to explain religion in terms of its significance and function in society. For example, the neurologist Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) concluded that religion could be explained in terms of ‘universal obsessional neurosis’ (Freud, 1995 edn, p.43), and was confident that human society could ultimately mature and grow out of religion. Sociologists were interested in religion’s role in society; by understanding religion’s function, they felt they would have the key to religion. The social and economic theorist Karl Marx (1818–83) famously regarded religion as ‘the opium of the people’ (Marx, 1970 edn, p.131), but went on to argue that in the state of human suffering caused by capitalism such an alleviation of pain was vitally necessary. The sociologist Emile Durkheim (1858–1917) saw religion as having a very important social function as a sort of social cement, with shared rituals and beliefs producing ‘effervescence’ (a powerful group religious experience) and binding people together. He therefore considered that religion (regardless of the focus of devotion) was an important force for integration in society; it conferred authority on the institutions of society, a process known as legitimation. (For a sociological introduction to approaches to religion, See Thompson and Woodward, 2000.)

Reductionism was originally very influenced by cultural evolution, and the idea that just as the Age of Magic gave way to the Age of Religion, so the Age of Religion would give way to the Age of Reason or the Age of Science, in which religion would be rendered redundant. The understanding of science shifted from the view of science as knowledge, to the post-Enlightenment view of science as observation plus hypothesis, with the non-empirical regarded as inadmissible evidence. Thus, sociology of religion, emerging from this milieu, has tended to favour empirical observation, and largely quantitative data.

Very much in the Enlightenment spirit, then, the early reductionists’ approach was to explain religion ‘scientifically’ (as they saw it). Because reductionism has tended to explain or describe religion in non-religious terms (such as those of psychology or social function), it is sometimes described as methodological atheism. Some reductionists conflated (and continue to conflate) atheism with objectivity and science; that someone could be both scientific and religious makes no sense from this perspective, a common viewpoint in some of western society’s attitude to religion.

However, we must again remember the distinction between atheism as personal belief and methodological atheism. In his article ‘In defense of reductionism’, Robert Segal argues the practical point that, ‘Whether or not reductionist interpretations themselves refute the reality of God, nonbelievers, as long as they are nonbelievers, can use only them’ (Segal, 1999, p.158). Or as the sociologists Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge comment:

Science is completely helpless in the face of claims made on behalf of a being, world, or force beyond the natural world. ... It is not our intent to suggest anything about the truth of religion. We seek only to discover its visible aspects – the social forms it takes in the world we all can see.

Stark and Bainbridge, 1985, p. 14

Most contemporary sociologists of religion are careful to avoid reductionist questions and tendencies, such as those relating to the origins or causes of religion.


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