Functionalist theories of religion




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  • Psychological functions: Malinowski
    • Malinowski (1954) agrees that religion promotes social solidarity by performing psychological functions for individuals, helping them to cope with emotional stress that would undermine social solidarity. Performed in 2 situations:
      • When the outcome is important but uncontrollable and thus uncertain. Malinowski studied the Trobriand islanders, contrasting fishing in the lagoon and the ocean to explain the purpose of religion.
      • At times of crisis. Events such as birth, puberty, marriage, death, etc, mark major and disruptive changed in social groups - religion helps to minimise this.
  • Values and meanings: Parsons
    • Parsons (1967) see's religion as helping individuals to cope with the unforeseen events and uncontrollable outcomes. Identifying 2 essential functions:
      • It creates and legitimates societies central norms and values, by making them sacred.
      • It is the primary source of meaning. Answering ultimate questions about the human condition. By doing so, religion enables people to adjust to adverse events or circumstances and helps maintain stability.
  • Civil religion: Bellah
    • Bellah (1970) is interested in how religion unifies society, especially multi-faith societies like America. He asserts that such societies are unified by an over-arching civil religion - a belief system that attaches sacred qualities to society itself. He argues that civil religion integrates society in a way that individual religion cannot.
      • American civil religion involves loyalty and a belief in God - equated with being a true American. It is expressed in various rituals, symbols and beliefs, such as the pledge of allegiance to the flag and phrases such as 'one nation under one God'. However, this is not a specifically Catholic, Protestant or Jewish God but rather and American God - sacralising the American way of life and binding American's together from many ethnic and religious backgrounds.
        • Ignores what makes religion distinctive and different - namely, its belief in the supernatural.
  • Neglects negative aspects of religion such as the oppression of women and the poor.
  • Ignores religion as a source of division and conflict.


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