Capitalism and religion

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Sociological Theory

Religion has been cornerstone of formation and conflict of societies, where both perspectives make a major contribution to our understanding of society. This essay will compare and contrast a structuralist and interpretivist stance on the impact of religion on society, the theorists that will be employed are Karl Marx and Max Weber. Max Weber’s main analysis of religion helped in creating the spirit if capitalism depicted by Protestantism where the ideal is to live a productive life (Roberts, 2003). Marx who originates from the positivist perspective, whom believes that capitalism has suppressed the individual from life meaning, resulting in alienation where religion provides a means to escape. The relationship between a capitalist driven economy and religion will be examined; I hope to understand how people are viewed within society and how they derive meaning in modern times.

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Karl Marx was born 1818-1883, in Trier Germany, his work was best described as “combined economic theory with political agitation,” due to his free thinking writing, he was ostracised from both Germany and France. Marx collaborated with Engels a fellow student and where his writings mainly consist of a positivist, structuralist approach. Marx classifies society in two main groups- the bourgeois and the working class (Marx & Engels, 1996). Marx composed his literature at a time during a dramatic change in society which was marked by the Industrial Revolution. I feel his theory at times, limits personal agency where he regards people as rigid within society and remaining compliant to rules and regulations, in fear of job loss. His supporting research informs us of the true reality of life in England in cotton factories and coal mines. People together with children were expected to work long hard days lasting up to twelve hours, in hot sweaty mills where mortality rates were high due to illnesses such as pneumonia (Marx 1996). Coal mines caused many deaths, where personal safety was irrelevant. People were treated poorly and the fear of being replaced if incompliant with factory rules, this in consequence results in alienation (Marx, 1996).

This is still evident in the twentieth century particularly in developing countries. For instance twenty five children were employed to produce Apple products such as the i-phone, i-pods, computers etc. It is obvious that Apple is ignorant to the wellbeing of their staff as “62 workers at a factory that manufactures products for Apple and Nokia had been poisoned by n-hexane, a toxic chemical that can cause muscular degeneration and blur eyesight.” (Telegraph, 2010). I believe that this is a pivotal example of Marx perspective, factories that are located in relatively impoverished countries (Singapore, Thailand,) have little or no regulations for these transnational companies. I feel that the government are at a loss as they rely on this business to improve economic standards and are therefore manipulated by the bourgeoisie (Telegraph, 2010).

Marx also describes “the capitalist mode of production” where we understand the system which is put in place order to develop an economy. For example, a worker offers services and the employer offers pay for work in return (Marx, 1996). Marx takes the stance that “labour appears to be a commodity to the owner,” which develops the opinion that we are controlled for part of our lives by Capitalist groups (Marx, p.30 1996). Also the labourer must interact with the bourgeoisie for self continuation by buying produce (Marx, 1996). Marx referred to these as “the bourgeoisie” whom have the dominance and are the “owners of social production and employers of wage labour” (Marx & Engels, p.37-38, 1996). He dehumanised this category regarding their activity as changing “personal worth into exchange value” by having one’s personal existence dependent upon how much you earned (Marx and Engels, p.35 1986). Nowadays, this relates to transnational companies where they can position themselves in any country and manipulates the government’s tax incentives. Marx provides a concise impact of how a dramatic change can have on mental health which has been evident in recent times particularly in Ireland. Individuals felt instability within the economy resulting in more stress and the realisation of being replaceable within the workforce. As an illustration, Dell a computer company moved to Poland as a result of cheaper labour, even though Ireland is recognised for having a qualified and educated workforce.

All these processes create ambiguity and alienation for the individual, and religion provides a means to make one feel meaningful and a method of escape. Marx is denoted for “epicurean philosophy” where he persisted that people do not choose to question their beliefs but to conform to them in order to attain tranquillity for their well being (Marx & Engels, p. 1975). Marx stressed that heavenly bodies provide an ideal for people and thus become internalised with the conviction. Marx is critical of Epicurus perspective of spirituality, there would not be “anxiety and confusion of man,” and if everything was eternal we would be open to superstition and myths (Marx & Engels, p.72 1975). Marx argues that religion avoids reality and nature, where he believes that there is no after life; rather it is used by society as a means of coping. There would be utter despair if nature was to confirm death only, with no afterlife, leading to individuals to feel of “beings worth nothing to speak of” (Marx and Engels, p.75, 1975). It has practical implications, the loved ones of the dead are comforted and more likely to move on with greater ease and therefore assists a capitalist society. I feel that Marx is supreme at explaining how an individual can use religion in times of despair. Marx illustrated where a community whom perished to death, the soil where the disaster occurred was blessed with rain and became fertile providing the best of food for the subsequent generation (Marx & Engels, 1975).

In relation to modern day, Marx provides an explanation of why the Catholic Church was so powerful in the the 1960 to the 80’s. In reflection, we were in the depths of depression with high levels of immigration and unemployment. Due to the low standard of living and poverty stricken families, religion provided a method of escape for the lay people where the goal of attaining a place in heaven through devotion and prayer was supreme. One could ask whether there was an increase in the church’s dominance in times of the recent recession however, spirituality may have been likely to increase, however church scandals has prevented this.

There is an emphasis by Marx that one’s personal God must be internalised. He provides an insightful approach how people perceive alternative religions. The religious followers of a diverse religion are considered to “suffer from fantasises and abstractions” where a “particular country is for particular alien Gods” (Marx and Engels, p.104, 1975). Marx’s work is still applicable today where this perspective can explain sectarianism in Northern Ireland. However Marx does not go in to detail in relation to the interaction of the state and religion, unlike Weber who stressed that there was an element of social control and cultural beliefs which are manifested in the phenomenon.

Max Weber who was born in Germany in 1864, an evaluation of Weber work recommends that his “mind…continuously developing through his intellectually productive life” (Parsons, 1964). Weber has been widely regarded as rational and pessimistic, as all compositions scrutinise society. Weber orientated from the school of interpretivism, written in response to structuralism. I generally prefer this interpretivist stance as the individual is understood within the contextual setting and meaning is derived. Weber is critical of the positivist approach as it is thought to isolate people by asking them about social life rather than engaging in the contextual setting. Consequently we are left with the problems and inequalities which cannot be determined (Eldridge, 1972). Furthermore we make decisions according to the choices available to us and appear to be meaningful (Eldridge, 1972). He stated that those whom act in social situation have both intended and unintended reactions as a result (Eldridge, 1972).Weber’s claims of theory are always backed up by his “vision of history” resulting in society’s representation of an iron cage. I am keen of this reference to society as Weber paints a world where we often replicate the blunders of the past.

Weber’s analysis of capitalism was outlined by his book The Protestant Ethic and Spirit of Capitalism. Weber believed that religious institutions provide a foundation for a capitalist society. The basis of Weber’s work centred on Protestantism in Germany, he made reference to the “spiritual revolution” in the sixteenth century, looking specifically at the Puritan ideology (Baehr & Wells, 2002). There is an emphasis on “psychological forces” particularly in religion, where we look for reassurance in life, by comparing ourselves to an ideal so not to exist in an unsystematic manner (Baehr & Wells, p.xxxviii 2002).

Weber literature refers to the rationalization of society, we turn away from customary practices and new regulations are adapted where it is deemed as being more logical and efficient. He relates this to bureaucracy and the development of capitalism. Many of us are unaware of this capitalism that Weber talks about, we are socialised within the phenomenon and must become aware of the “iron cage” which is embedded in our civilization (Lippman & Aldrich, p.134, 2003). Weber’s writing has long been misinterpreted, possibly due to his highly academic writing. Ritzer takes Weber’s perspective but composes in a way that is accessible to understand and he use the fast food company Mc Donald’s as a template for his argument, coining the term “Mc Donaldization” (Lippman & Aldrich, 2003).

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Weber reverted back to Protestant core beliefs which were centred on having a good work ethic (Lehmann and Roth, 1993). This led to a stereotype of being “industrious” and seen as the “nature of the people” (Lehmann & Roth, p. 66, 1993). Weber gave a rational analysis of each religion, relevant to Germany at the time. Protestantism centres around proving oneself, Calvinism caused anxiety within followers as they had to prove their faith by being devote. In comparison Catholicism incorporated pressure points as one could release any sins during the course of the year (Baehr & Wells, 2002). At the time of his writings, Catholics in Germany felt disempowered as Protestants seemed more likely to achieve, which created political agitation. This was also seen in Kashmir where Hindus held the majority and Muslim’s felt they would lose governance, which led to many innocent civilians dying and having to relocate in their designated area.

One of Weber’s main concepts is social action; this is regarded as the interaction with another and “meaningfully oriented” (Weber & Parsons, p.113 1964). Weber elaborated on the types of social action, the first is known as means-end related to one being motivated to complete a goal for the end result. Social action can be a result of habit or being emotionally consistent (Parsons, 1978). The final explanation is acting because of a strong belief with associated meaning and the consequence is irrelevant. For example, the Evangelist church demonstrates extreme beliefs on their devotees particularly children and affect their perception of the world. A documentary outlined the unorthodox reasoning used on followers. For example a mother in the documentary was recorded telling her child that there is no such thing as global warming, only being present in the world until God wants us (Jesus Camp, 2007).

The religious structure is hierarchical and provides an explanation of how social class is likely to oppress, providing an ideal for fellow lay men. Weber takes a more rational approach than Marx, he outlines the inequalities which are evident in world religions. Weber explained the bureaucracy instilled in religion where a religious devotee must have “charisma” acquiring a distinct quality to participate (Turner, 1996). As an illustration the caste system operates in Hinduism, you are born into a particular class in both religion and society. Weber’s main concept of capitalism can be applied as the functions of the society are fulfilled. Weber argued that there is a “stratification of charismatic ability,” people are categorised according to their commitment to a religion (Turner, p. 114, 1996). For example Catholic rituals show preference for those who have ownership of “athletic, mathematical or musical talents” (Turner, p.114, 1996). Weber is competent in the belief that religion is hierarchical and linked to social status as it seems more innate to have a high standing member of society in a highly ranked position within the church. This is also referred to as “spiritual inequality” where individuals are differentiated upon their beliefs where some play a higher role in religion than others (Turner, p. 112 1996). Weber also backs his findings up by looking at Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism. This religion originated in the belief that Muhammad was a Prince before he gave up this to devote his life to salvation. Weber also makes reference to that Muhammad’s teaching of salvation “world domination and social prestige” are associated with the army’s values (Turner, p. 110 1996). This stratification is also present in Judaism as the Torah declares that every man should commit himself to prayer yet only a select few can actually do this because of their financial situation (Turner, 1996).

The major distinction between both perspectives is Marx believes that disempowered individuals escape alienation and connect with a greater power, heaven will give a person salvation and functions as a means of coping. In comparison Weber is critical of the structure of religion as he indicated the inequality which is existent in the system. Weber stresses the interaction between the religious institutions and society, as it provides a foundation for capitalism. I feel Weber’s research is more indepth particularly in his analysis of world religions as he validates his concepts in a larger basis. The main reason why he went in to such detail on these religions was a result of World War II Weber may be thought of being pessimistic, yet criticism can bring about change. Weber takes the approach of understanding the effect it has on the individual, but also on the collective group. Since religion is based on one’s beliefs, gaining understanding of this meaningful action is necessary. Marx more emphasis the processes and functions of religion.

I generally would be more orientated toward Weber, as I prefer the interpretivist stance by understanding behaviour and the complexity of our society. For example Marx is general in how structures and groups interact and conflict with one another. In comparison Weber recognises that people are motivated causing both anticipated and unanticipated consequences. Many have referred to his writing as pessimistic where he never outlined a progression of society or ‘happy ending’ unlike Marx. Marx believed communism was a means to develop a harmonious society and be an alternative to global capitalism. It would evolve from the “proletariat society” who maintain their own subsistence ( 2010).

Overall both demonstrate a clear understanding of the world, I feel it is necessary to blend both approaches to gain full understanding of capitalism and religion. For instance I remain compliant to one theory it may cause ignorance of another part of social reality. There is clear evidence that capitalism and religion both interact with one another, and these theories are still relevant to modern day.


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