Conflict Theory & Religion

by Shaun McGonigal

Conflict theory for religion is a natural outgrowth of the conflicts that naturally exist in cultures. Religious identity acts as an indicator of social status while incorporating the social status of the group into its religious worldview as an extension of its social status.

Conflict Theory

Conflict theory is a part of the social sciences and seeks to analyze the political, economic and social inequalities within cultures. Conflict theory is associated with Marxism, but has been used within social science theories such as functionalism and positivism.


One aspect of culture is expressed in the varying institutions of religion, which are a natural outgrowth of human behaviors and social groups. Religion is largely an attempt to add structure and understanding to the universe, and as such will seek to explain the noticeable inequalities that exist in human culture.

Religion perpetuates conflict

Because of religion's role of providing explanations for the state of the world, religion tends to offer explanations for social inequalities and often will perpetuate them by giving them divine sanction. Religion acts as a justifications of the inequalities and thus lays a foundation for social conflict that is only accidentally based upon religious identification.

Religious conflict mimics social conflicts

The natural cultural conflicts that emerge in culture are played out within different religious communities. Because social groups tend to be of the same religious tradition, group identifications will tend to overlap with religious identification. Thus the conflicts between religious groups are often based upon conflicts between the groups themselves for other social, political and economic reasons. This is true especially where one religion is dominant over others. A group's religious identification will thus act as an indicator of social status. A minority religious group, whether part of the same larger religious tradition as the majority or not, will experience the social stigma in the same way as any other minority group, while incorporating the minority social status into its theology and religious worldview. Comparatively, the dominant group enjoys its social position while often absorbing the role of affluence into its theology and religious worldview.

Religion magnifies social inequalities

The theological differences between religious groups will magnify the preexisting social, political and economic differences by incorporating those inequalities into the group's religious identification and theology over time. The more a group identifies with its social status, the more the group will incorporate this status into its worldview and thus its views about the supernatural and its religious beliefs. By associating their social status with their theology and religious worldview, the inequalities become magnified and even absorbed into the group identity. Thus a groups' social status will become reflected by the groups' religious ideologies.

About the Author

Having a unique academic and social upbringing in Philadelphia where he lived for more than 30 years, Shaun now resides in Atlanta, Ga. Shaun received his master's degree in philosophy, has written a science fiction novel and has been writing online since the 1990s for such websites such as,, and his own blog.

Photo Credits

  • Image by, courtesy of Christopher Woo