Functionalist theories of religion

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  • Functionalism
    • Functionalist see society as like an organism, with basic needs that it must meet in order to survive.
      • Each institution performs certain functions to maintain the social system by meeting a need.
      • Societies most basic need is for social order and solidarity.
        • For functionalists what makes order possible is value consensus.
          • Durkheim argues that religious institutions play a central part in creating and maintaining value consensus, order and solidarity.
    • For Durkheim, the key feature of all religions is the fundamental distinction between the sacred and the profane.
      • The sacred are things set apart and forbidden, inspiring feelings of awe, fear and wonder. Eg) Christina cross.
      • The profane are ordinary things that have no special significance.
    • Religion is more than a set of beliefs; it has sacred rituals or practises and these are perfromed by social groups.
      • Durkheim argues that sacred things create powerful feelings in believers because they are symbols representing something of great power - society.
      • When people worship sacred symbols they are worshiping society itself.
        • For Durkheim sacred symbols perform the essential function of uniting believers into a single moral community.
    • Durkheim sees religion as being the source of our cognitive capacities - our ability to reason and think conceptually.
      • In order to think at all we need categories such as time and space.
        • Religion provides the concepts and categories we need for understanding the world and communicating with others.
          • For Durkheim religion is the  origin of human thought, reason and science.
      • Malinowski argues that religion promotes solidarity by performing psychological functions for individuals.
        • It helps them cope with emotional stress that would undermine social solidarity.
        • There are 2 situations where it performs this role
          • Where the outcome is uncertain but uncontrollable and uncertain. Or at times of life crisis such as births or marriage.
    • Parson identifies two essential functions of religion in modern society.
      • It creates and legitmates societys basic norms and values by sacralising them
      • It provides a source of meaning, answering ultimate questions about life.


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