Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

Table of Contents | Cover Page  |  Editors  |  Contributors  |  Introduction  |  Web Version


A system of collective representations—concepts, ideas, myths, images embedded in symbols—by which people live their imagined relations to the material conditions of their social existence.

An ideology usually does not mirror the social world exactly but exhibits some transformation of that world. Very often the analysis of this transformed image brings about a deeper sociological understanding of how the distribution of material resources and the relations of power are culturally constructed and legitimized.

The study of the ideological role of religious beliefs and values has gained a steady impetus in recent decades with the confluence of Durkheimian and Weberian traditions with the neo-Marxist theory of Louis Althusser and with feminist social theory. Drawing on the diverse threads of this eclectic mixture, social scientists have explored how religious ideology informs nation building and political crisis (Bellah 1957, Geertz 1960, Hunt 1988). But current research draws most heavily on the feminist perspective. An ambivalent treatment of women is prevalent in many religious traditions. In historical Western religions, for example, the dominant images of women are built on a dualistic symbolization of female sexuality: A dangerous, evil image of woman as a temptress, schemer, and polluter contrasts with a morally approved image of woman as virgin and mother. These ambivalent images have defined women's traditional status in Western societies. In an Islamic context, Janice Boddy (1989) has written a masterful analysis of spirit possession cults in northern Sudan. Boddy shows how women make ideological use of cultic beliefs and practices to interpret their personal crises and to construe their experiences of gender inequality.

Edward B. Reeves


R. N. Bellah, Tokugawa Religion (New York: Free Press, 1957)

J. Boddy, Wombs and Alien Spirits (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989)

C. Geertz, The Religion of Java (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960)

L. Hunt, "The Sacred and the French Revolution," in Durkheimian Sociology , ed. J. C. Alexander (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988): 25-43

K. Thompson, Beliefs and Ideology (London: Tavistock, 1986).

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