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For Durkheim, the key function of religion is the fundamental distinction between the sacred and profane
which is found in all religions. The sacred things are removed from the society and are forbidden. They also
create a feeling of awe, fear and wonder and are surrounded by taboos and prohibitions. The profane have
no special significance as they are ordinary and feature in one's daily life. A religion is also made up of rituals
and ceremonies which surround and focus on the sacred. Durkheim believes that because these sacred
items provoke such strong feelings that they must symbolise something more powerful. He believes that this
has to be society itself since society is the only thing powerful enough to provoke such emotion. Basically
they are worshipping themselves. All religious, sacred symbols have the same power according to Durkheim.
The sacred perform the function of uniting believers into a single moral community. He studied an Australian
Aboriginal tribe who all came together to worship a totem. The totem is not just something that is
worshipped but also it's the tribe's emblem which gives them an identity. This could be a plant, a symbol or
an animal. The totemic rituals made the group unite and reinforce the group's solidarity and sense of
belonging. By worshipping the totem the tribes are essentially worshipping themselves. Sacred symbols
create a collective conscience whereby the group have the same beliefs, morals and values which makes it
easier for all to get on etc. Participation in these rituals etc. regularly reinforces the feeling of belonging. The
rituals also reinforce the fact that they wouldn't exist without the society- they would be noting without them
and therefore owe themselves to them. Durkheim also believes that religion helps us create categories to
put our thoughts and processes in. Religion gives us a standard on which to follow and compare ourselves
to others on this means that our "categories" will be the same as others= communication!!! In evaluation,
Worsley says that there is no division between the sacred and the profane and those different tribes can share
the same totem but have different beliefs etc. Even if Durkheim is correct about totemism, it doesn't mean that
he has discovered the essence of all other religions. Also Durkheim's theory can only really be applied to small
scale societies with one religion as larger societies tend to have several religions which conflict. His theory may
explain social integration but not the conflicts that occur between them. Similarly Mestrovic (postmodernist)
argues that Durkheim's theory can't be applied to contemporary society because the increasing diversity has
fragmented the collective conscience so there is no longer a one value system.
Malinowski agrees with Durkheim that religion promotes solidarity. However, in his view it also has a
psychological function by helping them cope with emotional stress that could undermine social solidarity.
He has identified 2 types of situation that religion performs this role. 1) Where the outcome is important but
is uncontrollable and thus uncertain e.g. Lagoon fishing is safer and uses predictable methods, when the
locals' fish in the lagoon there is no rituals but in the open sea it is dangerous and uncertain and is
accompanied by canoe magic (rituals to ensure a safe journey. This gives people control over things that
they themselves can't control but God/ supernatural can. 2) In times of life crises such as birth, death,
marriage etc. Religion can help minimalize disruption. In fact, Malinowski believes that death is one of the
main reasons for religion and their beliefs.
Like Malinowski, Parsons sees religion has helping individuals to cope with unforeseen events and
uncontrollable outcomes. Parson also identifies to other outcomes that religion performs in modern
society. 1) it creates and legitimises society's central values. It legitimates basic norms and values by making
them sacred. 2) it is the primary source of meaning. Religion particularly answers `ultimate questions' about
the human condition e.g. why did he die?. Such events defy our sense of justice and make life appear
meaningless and this may undermine our commitment to society's values. Religion answers such questions.
Religion enables people to adjust to adverse events and circumstances and helps maintain stability.
Like Parsons, Bellah is interested in how religion unifies society, especially in multi-cultural America. Bellah
argues that civil religion integrates society in a way that individual religions can't. American civil religion can
claim to be loyal to God and the nation of America... no individual religion can claim that. Belief in civil
religion is expressed in singing the national anthem every day, flags on display everywhere, phrases ("One
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God"), the Lincoln memorial. However, American civil religion is not specifically catholic or
protestant it sacralises the American way and binds all people from different cultures and religions.
Functional alternatives unify belief systems which perform similar functions to traditional religions. Civil
religion is an example of this as it promotes social solidarity and in the words of Durkheim, they end up
worshipping themselves. Another functional alternative is the worshipping of pop idols such as Elvis Presley
or Justin Beiber.…read more