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3 main ways to define religion; substantive, functional and social constructionist.
Substantive definitions
Focus on the content or substance of religious belief, such as belief in God or the supernatural.
Max Weber defines religion as belief in a superior or supernatural power that is above nature and
cannot be explained scientifically.
Substantive definitions are exclusive ­ they draw a clear line between religious and non-religious
beliefs. They conform to a widespread view of religion as belief in God. However, defining religion in
the way leaves no room for beliefs & practices that perform similar functions to religion but do not
involve belief in God.
Substantive definitions are accused of being Western bias because they exclude religions such as
Buddhism, which do not have the Western idea of God.
Functional definitions
Functional definitions define religions in terms of the social/psychological functions it performs for
individuals or society.
Emile Durkheim (FUNCTIONALIST) defines religion in terms of the contribution it makes to social
integration, rather than any specific belief in God or the supernatural.
Milton Yinger (FUNCTIONALIST) identifies functions that religion performs for individuals, such as
answering "ultimate questions" about the meaning of life and what happens when we die.
Functional definitions are inclusive ­ allowing us to include a wide range of beliefs and
practices that perform functions such as integration.
No bias against non-Western religions such as Buddhism.
Just because an institution helps integrate individuals into groups, does not make it a
Social Constructionist definitions
Social constructionists take an interpretivist approach that focuses on how members of society
themselves define religion. They argue that it's not possible to produce a single universal definition
of religion to cover all cases, since in reality individuals and groups mean very different things by
S.C's are interested in how definitions of religion are constructed, challenged and fought over.
Alan Aldridge shows how, for its followers, Scientology is a religion, whereas several Govts have
denied it legal status as a religion and sought to ban it. This shows that definitions can be contested
and are influenced by who has power to define the situation.

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S.Cs do not assume that religion always involves a belief in God or the supernatural, or that it
performs similar functions for everyone in all societies. Their approach allows them to get close to
the meanings people themselves give to religion. However, this makes it impossible to generalise
about the nature of religion, sin people may have widely differing views about what counts as a
religion.…read more

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Durkheim: when clan members worship totems, they are really worshipping society ­ even
though themselves are not aware of this. The totem inspires feeling of awe because it
represents the power of the group on which the individual is "utterly dependant".
The collective conscience
The sacred symbols represent society's collective conscience. This is the shared norms,
values, beliefs and knowledge that make social life and cooperation between individuals
possible ­ without these society would disintegrate.…read more

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Malinowski agrees with Durkheim that religion promotes solidarity. However, in his view, it
does so by performing psychological functions for individuals, helping them cope with
emotional stress that would undermine social solidarity. Malinowski identifies 2 types of
situation in which religion performs this role:
1. Where the outcome is important but is uncontrollable and thus uncertain.
Study of Trobriand Islanders of the Western Pacific, Malinowski contrasts fishing in
the lagoon and fishing in the ocean.…read more

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USSR had secular
political beliefs.
However, it ignores what makes religion distinctive and different ­ its belief in the
Evaluation of functionalism
Emphasises the social nature of religion & the positive functions it performs, BUT it
neglects negative aspects, such as oppression of the poor and women.
Ignores religion as source of division and conflict, especially in modern societies
where there is more than one religion ­ eg. N.…read more

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Because religion is a distorted view of the world, it can offer no solution to earthly misery.
Instead, its promises of the afterlife create an illusory happiness that distracts attention
from the true source of the suffering, namely capitalism.
Marx sees religion as the product of alienation. It arises out of suffering and acts as a
consolation for it, but it fails to deal with exploitation.…read more

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Woodhead criticises feminist explanation that simply equate religion with patriarchy and
the oppression of women.
- Woodhead argues that there are "religious forms of feminism" ­ ways in which women use
religion to gain greater freedom and respect.
- Some Muslim women choose to wear the hijab to escape the confines of the home and
enter education and employment. However, Western Feminists see it as a symbol of
oppression.…read more


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