As the roles and functions of religions and their leaders changed according to the changing needs of the communities they served, they provided both stability in times of change as well as the leadership to effect changes as necessary.
Of the three theorists, Marx appears to include the most negative elements in his considerations of religion. It must also be noted however that Marx places more focus on elements other than religion, whereas the other two theorists study religion in itself as it connects with society and its needs. Marx instead viewed religion as one of the elements that could be detrimental in effecting social change when necessary. Durkheim in turn places greater emphasis on the spiritual and esoteric quality of religion than the others, but nevertheless also places it within the context of a society that creates their gods as reflections of themselves. Weber is the most practical of the three in applying practical social needs to the provisions of religion and its leaders.
Quality of Life: Alienation, Rationalization and Anomie
While contemplating religion and its interaction with and effect upon society, the three authors also considered the quality of life for individuals within society. Specifically in this regard, Marx place emphasis upon alienation, Weber on rationalization, and Durkheim on Anomie.
Marx blames capitalism for the phenomenon of alienation, and he does so in four specific respects: the product of labor, the labor process, other human beings, and human nature. According to Marx, the above-mentioned system of labor division has brought about levels of alienation unsurpassed in human history up to that point. In addition to being socially separated from others, human beings are also separated from themselves and from the work they produce.
In terms of labor, according to Marx, workers are alienated from the product of their labor: products are purchased and owned by others, while the worker cannot use this for his or her own further well-being. The product provides money for the employer, who pays only part of the income to the employee, hence further widening the gap between the worker and the product. This directly leads to a lack of control over the production process, which is the second element in the alienation phenomenon as seen by Marx. Employers control the conditions and requirements of the labor process: the physical and mental effects of work are therefore beyond the control of the employee.
In terms of other human beings, Marx takes a much more negative view of this level of alienation than does Durkheim, as seen above. For Marx, social alienation is the result of the social class structure, where the employee is alienated from the employer that exploits the labor and products the former produces. The employee, in being separated from all pleasure connected to the products, is also alienated from those who are in a position to enjoy the direct result of the product in terms of both income and use. Finally, the coerced, forced labor dictated by the capitalist system also alienates the worker from his or her ability to shape the world in a way that provides direct pleasure. This is a fundamental human ability, which is removed by the system under scrutiny. The pleasure produced belongs to those purchasing the product and those making a profit from it.
Marx therefore concludes that the alienation brought about by capitalism is beneficial only for the exploiter - for those in power who seek to continue oppressing workers for their own benefit.
Weber's reality entails a more esoteric viewpoint brought about by his focus on the study of religion and its effects upon society. For this theorist, the main issue faced by modern society is rationalization as a result of technology. Specifically, the mysticism of religion has gradually given way to the rational explanations of science and technology. What previously brought about a sense of wonder and often fear has been rationalized in the human consciousness. While this often makes for a much more efficient way of constructing society, it also diminishes the fundamentally human quality of wonder and enjoyment, even in areas where these are still assumed to exist. Weber holds that even the experience of things such as music has been rationalized with mathematical precision in the Western obsession with explaining everything in scientific terms.
Weber holds that this rationalization process holds grave dangers for the human consciousness and the capacity for enjoying the pleasures that life can offer. Indeed, Weber refers to an "iron cage" when he considers the future of a Western society that continues upon this path of rationalization.
Like Weber, Durkheim also focuses his theory of human well-being upon his theories of the social order as a whole. For Durkheim, the division of labor, while necessary for the survival of society as a whole, also brings about the condition he calls anomie. The theorist holds that the increasing division of labor and the social changes inherent in this division also brings about rapid changes in norms and values. Whereas past societies were fairly simple and uniform in their labor and thought processes, more complex societies have become deregulated by the division of labor. Subcultures with their own norms and values arise, thus dividing society in terms of both labor and social values. Not having a standard of social norms, anomie occurs: human beings have no clear norms to guide their behavior within society. Durkheim uses this concept to explain deviant behavior such as crime or suicide.
In summary, the main problems within modern society, as identified by the three theorists, is that the enjoyment of life in general is diminished by the separation of human beings from their labor, from each other, from their sense of wonder, and from basic norms of behavior. According to the authors, the development of social and technological change has brought about the various ills experienced by the modern human being.
Perhaps policies could be developed to curb the effects of these ills. Particularly, Marx's theories of alienation seem to summarize the general trends in the different theories. The contemporary concept of job satisfaction could for example be used as a springboard for injecting enjoyment into modern living. Work takes a significant amount of time from a lifetime, and to ensure that the conditions of work are mostly enjoyable can also provide greater enjoyment to the other areas of life. Furthermore, social alienation and anomie can be remedied by gatherings offered for all sectors of society, and by cultivating more than one interest and joining various sectors of society.
Cox, Judy. An Introduction to Marx's Theory of Alienation. International Socialism, Issue 79, July 1998. http://pubs.socialistreviewindex.org.uk/isj79/cox.htm
Deflem, Mathieu. Max Weber (1864-1920): The Rationalization of Society. Sept 2004. http://www.cas.sc.edu/socy/faculty/deflem/zClassics.htm
Dunman, L. Joe. Emile Durkheim: The Division of Labor. 2003. http://durkheim.itgo.com/divisionoflabor.html
Townsley, Jeramy. Marx, Weber and Durkheim on Religion. Aug. 2004. http://www.jeramyt.org/papers/sociology-of-religion.html