Aqa a2 Sociology Unit 3 Beliefs in Society

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AQA A2 Sociology Unit 3

Beliefs in Society

This Answers book provides suggestions for some of the possible answers that might be given for the questions asked in the workbook. They are not exhaustive and other answers may be acceptable, but they are intended as a guide to give teachers and students feedback. The student responses for the longer essay-style questions are intended to give some idea about how the exam questions might be answered and are based on actual student responses in previous exams. The examiner comments (underlined text) have been added to give you some sense of what is rewarded in the exam and which areas can be developed. Again, these are not the only ways to answer such questions but they can be treated as one way of approaching questions of these types.

Topic 1 Religion, science and ideology

What is religion?

1 Religions that believe in one God.

2 Religions that believe in several Gods.

3 Emile Durkheim.

4 Animism applies to early and simplistic tribal or folk religions that believe spirits can exist in animals, rocks and plants.

5 A polythetic definition is a list of typical characteristics that most religions share, such as belief in a deity, concern for the sacred, rituals and practices etc.

6 A substantive definition of religion is concerned with stating what it is, such as an emphasis on the existence of supernatural forces or the idea of the Holy. (It was developed by the anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor to distinguish it from tribal society’s primitive belief systems of animism.)

7 Functional definitions of religion can be too broad, meaning that ironically even secular movements such as nationalism or a revolutionary cause could be included in this definition through uniting people together. Durkheim conceded that the French Revolution (1789–99) had many religious characteristics, e.g. sacred symbols and moral obligations.

8 Some religions could be excluded if too many characteristics are included, while if too few characteristics are used then the term ‘religion’ could embrace almost any philosophy or belief system.

9 The first of the three characteristics might be an organised collection of individuals. However, this in itself does not exclude secular communities such as clubs and societies. Therefore a second characteristic could include having a shared system of beliefs. However, this is still problematic, as division characterises many religions with members not necessarily sharing the same beliefs, for example Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox Christians; Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims; or orthodox and liberal Jews. The final characteristic could be a set of approved activities and practices, but as with beliefs these can be highly variable even within the same religion.

Exam-style question

Here is a suggested plan of this question to give you guidance on how to answer such questions.


  • Religion is hard to define precisely because it means different things to different people, including sociologists, who use a range of functional, substantive or polythetic definitions.

  • It is also difficult, with superstitions in both primitive societies and postmodern societies, to know where religions necessarily begin and end.

  • Using too narrow a definition, such as belief in God or performing certain rituals, can exclude recognised religions, while too broad a definition can result in certain non-religious belief systems becoming included.

Main body

  • Anthropologists have found some sort of belief system in almost every culture. Simple religions include totemism, the worship through ritual activities of sacred symbols, and animism which believes a soul or spirit can exist in any object.

  • Peter Worsley defined religion as: ‘a set of beliefs which in some way refer to, and look for validation in, a dimension beyond the empirical technical realm’.

  • AO2 point: Although not perfect and open to criticism, this does provide at least a starting point and covers totemism, animism as well as more established religions.

  • Another useful starting point might be Giddens, who argued it is easier to say what religion is not.

  • He did contribute some common characteristics such as rituals and symbols, feelings of awe, an organised collection of individuals, and shared beliefs and practices.

  • AO2 point: However, this is problematic since members of a given religion do not share the same beliefs and practices (such as division within Christianity between Protestants and Catholics).

  • The substantive definition of religion emphasises what religions are about and places a significant emphasis on the existence of supernatural forces.

  • AO2 point: While many commentators applaud the substantive definition’s focus on what religions do and the role of the supernatural, critics argue it is not clear where religions begin and end.

  • The functional definition was developed initially within the work of Durkheim and is concerned with what religion actually does for its members and society.

  • AO2 point: The problem with Durkheim’s functional definition is that it would include anything that serves a ‘sacred’ function or is too broad that it includes any group with a shared purpose.

  • The polythetic definition of religion involves compiling a list of typical characteristics that most religions share.

  • AO2 point: As with the functional definition of religion, polythetic definitions could include almost any belief system under the banner of ‘religion’.

  • In the face of considerable controversy and uncertainty over what is meant by the term ‘religious’, Glock and Stark have developed five ‘core dimensions’ of religiousness.

  • AO2 point: However, their core dimensions are difficult to operationalise, in the sense of measuring, and hence problematic in defining religious belief and activity.

  • Adopting an interactionist stance, Berger and Luckmann argue defining religion should be centred on how people make sense of the world around them.

  • AO2 point: However, such an all-inclusive definition of religion could include secular ideas like Marxism, which is an atheistic theory founded on historical materialism.


  • Religion is something that is hard to define precisely. Exactly what constitutes a religion is contested and depends fundamentally on the criteria used to define it. Because the boundaries of where religions begin and end can be so blurred it makes defining it extremely difficult.

Science and religion

1 Science is a rigorous and systematic approach to understanding that is based on empirical evidence.

2 Creationism is the belief that God, or some other supreme being, created the universe and the various kinds of animals and plants on Earth.

3 Theory associated with Charles Darwin that argues plants and animals have gradually evolved due to mutations which are modifications in successive generations over millions of years.

4 The two key principles behind the Enlightenment were: first, that human reason and rational thinking replaced faith in explaining the unknown and providing an understanding of the world, and second, human beings can use this understanding to improve the world to make it a better place to live in.

5 Science can be associated with the Enlightenment and the modernisation of society that occurred through a shift to evidence-based rationality rather than a search for meanings through reason. Auguste Comte expressed this in his three stages of human understanding: the theological stage, the metaphysical stage and finally the positive or scientific stage.

6 Rationalists argue that reason alone can explain all questions including our existence. Human history can now be explained rationally and is no longer synonymous with the working of God. A relativist is someone who sees all ideas of knowledge as having equal status. Therefore it is conceivable that an eminent scientist can still possess a religious faith.

7 Weber used the term disenchantment to describe when magical or mystical elements that formerly were associated with a religious understanding have been replaced by rational or scientific explanations.

8 Science could be interpreted as a form of belief because there are so few scientific ‘laws’ and ‘facts’. There are still very few irrefutable laws in science, such as Newton’s law of gravity. Most scientific theory has not been proven yet and therefore requires the scientist’s ‘faith’ that their findings are correct.

9 The first characteristic of science is its objectivity. This is derived from the fact that scientific research should be free from any bias and through the control of all variables. The goal of all science is cause and effect relationships, rather than mere correlations.

The second characteristic of science is that it is logical and rational. Scientific knowledge is rooted in the rationalist approach that such knowledge must be based on reason. However, this approach, in itself, does not guarantee scientific knowledge is correct or of good quality.

The third characteristic of science is that it is based on evidence derived from rigorous research methodology, notably that experiments should be repeatable under similar circumstances. The significance of this is that it renders knowledge verifiable (testable). For example, Karl Popper advocated the falsification of all hypotheses, meaning that they should be continually tested to find them wrong. If, over time, a consistent finding occurs then this would imply the soundness of the knowledge and the hypothesis correct.

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