Functionalist Theories of Religion

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  • Functionalist Theory
    • Durkheim (1915)
      • Sacred and Profane
        • The sacred are awe inspiring and so are surrounded by taboos. In Durkheim's view the only thing of this amount of power is society itself.
      • Totemism
        • Clans have totems which are a key part of their religion. The worship of these totems can only be explained in terms of something great, which Durkheim believes can only be society itself. When people worship sacred totems, they actually worship society.
      • Collective Conscience
        • Sacred symbols represent the collective conscience. Shared regular rituals can help reinforce the collective conscience. It reminds individuals they are part of one moral community to which they owe their loyalty. It reminds individuals about the power of society to which they owe everything and without, they themselves are nothing.
      • Criticisms
        • The evidence for totemism is unsound. Worsley notes there is no sharp division between the sacred and the profane and also different clans do not share the same totems.
        • Durkheim's theory may apply better to small-scale societies as in large-scale socities there are many religions which can create increase conflict, not consensus
        • Mestrovic (1997) argues Durkheim's theory cannot be applied to modern society as increased diversity has fragmented the collective conscience.
    • Malinowski (1954)
      • At times of life crises.
        • Events such as birth, death and marriage mark major disriptive changes to an individuals life. For example, funeral rituals reinforce solidarity amongst the survivors, whilst the notion of immortality gives comfort to the bereaved. In Fact, Malinowski believes the main reason for religion is death.
      • When the outcome is important, yet uncertain.
        • In the Trobriand Islanders there are two methods of fishing. Lagoon fishing is safe and uses the safe method of poisoning. In contrast, sea fishing is dangerous and so is accompanied by canoe magic, these are the rituals that ensure a safe and successful journey. This gives the islanders the confidence they need to undertake the hazardous task.
    • Parsons
      • Religion legitimates social norms
        • Religion creates and legitimates society's basic norms and values by sacralising them. In the USA, Protestantism has sacralised the core American values, such as individualism. This helps to conserve the value consensus.
      • Religion gives a source of meaning
        • Religion provides a source of meaning. It answers the 'ultimate questions' about human conditions. This enables people to better adjust to adverse life events and maintain stability
    • Bellah (1970)
      • Bellah argues what unifies multi-faith societies such as America is civil religion, a belief in the American way of life. Bellah argues civil religion integrates society in a way that churches and denominations can not. American civil religion involved pledging allegiance to the flag, singing the national anthem and phrases such as 'one nation under God'.
    • General Criticisms
      • Functionalism focuses too strongly on the positive functions of religion and not the negative aspects, such as the oppression of women
      • Functionalism only looks at society on a macro scale and it may be we need to look at society on a micro scale to explain religion.
      • Functionalism ignores religion as a source of conflict, especially in a modern complex societies where there is more than one religion


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