Social Control: Religion

13th December 2010

“If god didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent him”.

(Voltaire, 1770)


Religion establishes and maintains social control in a number of ways. From the earliest civilizations, man has used religion to aid in ruling his subjects, either in the form as a spokesman or as a god. In later years religion is more greatly used as a political tool wielded by the church or by reformers. In each of these ways religion is used as a tool to sway, convert and control the people who are subject to it. This paper seeks to explain how, in close proximity to linear time, religion has been used as a social control device. Through briefly looking at individual aspects of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Rome some of the earliest uses can be seen. More contemporary thoughts such as the reformation and Marxist ideas focus on how these changed towards what is now seen in the present day.


The sociology of knowledge would contend that man is the creator of his society and he is also the product of his society (Lemming, M.R., 1998). Rulers ascended to positions of power, and created laws for their people to follow, but justification and enforcement frequently pose a problem. It is possible to compel compliance through enforcement alone, but this accomplishes little more than convincing people to be more careful when breaking them. Because of the resources required to police lawless people, the ruler would never have the opportunity to conquer his neighbors. Shrewd rulers realized that people needed to believe laws had to be obeyed, and that regardless of secular authority, punishment in some form was inevitable. The simplest motivation for obedience was that the gods said so. Obey the laws, and take blessing for your children and your Land: your grain, your wine, your oil, and the offspring of your animals. Those who disobey will be faced with destruction, your crops withered, your well dry, and your animals diseased.

The logic behind this was straightforward, however, the ruler had to first establish their authority to speak for their gods. The oldest existing legal code is that of Hammurabi of Sumer. Its preface states that Hammurabi was chosen by the gods Anu, Bel, and Marduk and establishes his authority to create laws as coming from them.

Anu and Bel called by name me, Hammurabi, the exalted prince, who feared God, to bring about the rule of righteousness in the land, to destroy the wicked and the evil-doers; so that the strong should not harm the weak; so that I should rule over the black-headed people like Shamash, and enlighten the land, to further the well-being of mankind. (Hooker, R., 1996)

In early civilizations, priests and rulers were often the same. Moses, for example, climbed a mountain where he communicated directly with god before returning with the laws for the Hebrews. In early times, people would not have known that you had to cook pork thoroughly to kill bacteria, but after seeing people eat it and die, it was much easier to say, ‘It’s unclean’. This granted him authority to give simple instructions such as ‘Don’t eat pigs’ to the Hebrew people. (Leviticus 11:7-8),

At the same time in Egypt, the pharaoh was considered the reincarnation of the god Horus. He was believed to have the ability to influence the Nile flooding, which would annually cover the surrounding land with fertile topsoil, allowing the Egyptians to raise two crops each year. Many of the accomplishments of the Pharos can be viewed as a direct result of the influence that their divinity, and connection to the Nile, granted them over the people. (Upshur, 2005, pp. 24-27)

In Rome, when the Roman Republic was replaced by the Roman Empire, Augustus Caesar had to find a way to convince the Empire to obey his word as law, rather than the old structures. Borrowing from the Egyptian culture he took the role of a god (Kreis, S., 2001). This didn’t present a difficulty in the religiously tolerant empire and he simply became one of many gods. Although not as powerful as Jupiter, his immediate presence and his position of rule fortified his authority. The only opposition to this came from the Hebrew people whose religion forbade participation in other religions, or even recognition of other gods. The emperor, reliant upon his divine status for authority, was forced to consider their disapproval of his claim to divinity as a challenge to his legal right to rule.

Years later, Emperor Constantine inherited a weakened Empire, divided by the internal competition for power. After successfully reuniting the empire politically, he then turned his attention to uniting the empire culturally. To achieve this, he elected to implement a state religion. Constantine, despite his personal beliefs, examined each religion based solely on his political goals, eventually choosing Christianity. Christianity at that time was extremely divided, so Constantine assembled the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. When council closed, they had established a Christian orthodoxy, and those refusing to agree to the orthodoxy were killed as the first heretics. Authorized by the emperor, the new Catholic Church [1] actively began its persecution of heresy.

During the 5th Century, the Western half of the empire fell. Barbarians raided the countryside causing common citizens to seek protection. This initiated the era of the feudal lords. Their initial authority was based on a social contract where the peasants worked his fields and served him, and he provided them protection. In time though, the church also became reliant upon the feudal lords for protection. In exchange the church offered a canon granting the lord greater power over his subjects and by making virtues of meekness, obedience, poverty, and hard work, the church molded the peasantry into a desirable work force. The church also profited by emphasizing charity.

This agreement gave the feudal lords a position of authority over the church, a position that the church desired to reverse. The coronation of Charlemagne in 800CE as Emperor of Rome by Pope Leo III, (Upshur, 2005, p. 239) established the precedent that; crowns were dispensed by the church. As a result of this, monarchs who were not crowned by a bishop or cardinal were not legally recognized as King or Queen. The church continued to abuse its unchecked power raising vast amounts of money and treasure, construct churches, wage wars, persecute and engage in every form of perversity known to man. (Luther, M., 1517.)

This growing abuse of power did not go unnoticed and in 1517 Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to a church door, commencing what would later be known as the protestant revolution. From then on Church influence entered into a slow but steady decline. Although church influence in government was weakening, its religious influence was not. Bishop Jacques-Benigne Bossuet proposed that his King, Louis XIV of France, rule by divine right, based on belief that God is omnipotent, omnipresent, and that occurrences conform to his divine will. By this, only a person chosen by God could become king, and as such all kingly decrees would also be according to god’s will. Effectually, the concept of ruling by divine right passed unchecked power from the church to the monarch.(Upshur, 2005, p.580)

Karl Marx discusses religion as the “opiate of the masses” and the significant role it plays in maintaining the status quo. He argues that religion keeps the masses docile, by placing the individual in charge of their own salvation and teaching them there is only one way to achieve it. Religion to this end was a tool of the bourgeoisie to keep the proletariat content, which according to Marx it was able to do by promising rewards in the after-life rather than in this life.

” Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people…. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions.” (Marx, K., 1844).

Marx felt that in order for proletariat to oppose the bourgeoisie and gain control over the means of production, it was necessary for them to discard religion and its pretenses of heavenly rewards, and to realize the rewards of this world. Slave morality and a false consciousness, he felt, kept entire societies under the influence of religion by convincing them they are being tested. This allowed the persecuted group to embrace the persecution by means of translating it into a force sanctifying their bond with God. In this manner religion functions to maintain social inequality by providing a worldview that justifies oppression.

The 20th Century is no different. Governments are frequently in disagreement over political issues, and when these disagreements correspond with religious boundaries, hostile conflicts often occur. As an example, religious animosities such as access to Mount Zion and the Temple on the Mount have intensified the situation in Palestinian. A prejudice in Germany, which divided the people both religiously and racially, concluded with the Holocaust. The burning of the burning of the Quran by a Florida pastor earlier this year (2010) was feared to serve as a recruiting tool for al-Qaida and provoke violence in places like Pakistan and Afghanistan. As violence associated with religious belief continues perhaps the next logical phase of our cultural evolution is the demise of organized religion.

Though most of the world’s governments have now discarded religion as legal grounds for authority, for many individuals it continues to serve as the basis of personal morality and ethics. This can also be viewed as an example of social control exerted by the worlds major religions. In Christianity, the Ten Commandments and the teachings contained within the New Testament can be viewed as attempts to control through fear of divine retribution. In Islam, the Quran provides core ideals and rules almost every aspect of both daily living, and how an individual should behave. Religion through the ages has provided the power for organized groups to influence both individuals as well as society, and though dogma and indoctrination create an undeniable force that can be wielded to control the populous.


[1] The Greek roots of the term “Catholic” mean “according to (kata-) the whole (holos),” or more colloquially, “universal.” (Brom, R.H., 1983)


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