Beliefs in society

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  • Created by: Morgan
  • Created on: 26-11-12 12:46

Defining Religion.

Substantive (Exclusivist)- excludes beliefs/activities that do not make reference to a super nature being

Problem: doesnt take into account religion which have no belief in the supernature e.g. Buddhism.

Functional (Inclusivist)- includes beliefs/activities that may or may not refer to supernatural beings but have similar functions for society.

Problem:  too broad, includes any activity that involve shared beliefs and collective setiments.

Durkheim's definition of religion: religion is 'a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things.' His definition could include the substantive (sacred things) he was mainly interested in the functions that religion provided for society.

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Functonalism applied to religion.


  • Interested in the order and stability and religion in intergration and regulation of individuals
  • Religious activity has the function of celebrating the group. It reinforces shared values and beliefs (collective conscience). Religion unites people, increases community and encourages value consensus
  • He studied Aboriginal society and the role of Totemism. A totem distinguishes each clan and is a visble form of god (a sacred object). Therefore religious worship of the Totem is in fact the worship of society
  • He makes a distinction between the sacred (dedicate to god/s required by tradition, connected with religion and the profane (non religious, secular, not sacred). Sacred objects are seen as collective phenomena that encourages value consensus.

Strengths: covers a functional definition of religion, identifies functions of religion in encouraging social order Problems: difficult to generalise based on small number of tribes, Durkheim doesnt know for certain that individuals are subconsciously worshipping society, difficult to apply his finding to modern societies characterised by diversity.

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Functonalism applied to religion continued.

Malinowski (1954):

  • Anthropological research based on Trobriand Islands (West Pacific)
  • Religion has a role in dealing with situations of emotion stress that threaten social solidarity/order
  • Two stresses, disruption and anxiety a) life crises: birth, death, and marriage, b) unpredictable
  • Religious rituals therefore serve to manage the tensions of these stresses
  • Religion promotes order and stability

Strengths: there is a lot of current day application e.g. united religious reactions to terrorist attacks 2001 and Hurricane Sandy 2012

Problems: Religion may not be the only way to deal with stresses generated in a modern society

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Functonalism applied to religion continued.

Civil or Civic Religion:

Civil religion is a set of secular symbols and rituals that provide some sense of belonging, social solidarity and awe usuallly associated with religion and the sacred.

  • Robert Bellah 1969: argues that America is divided into a number of religions, and what unites Americans is a civil religion - a faith in Americanism
  • Americanism is a belief in the nation state and the supernatural. The god worshipped is the god of America rather than a god of a specific religion
  • EXAMPLES: american coins tell the world 'In God We Trust', the phrase 'God bless America' ends speeches, Barrack Obama 'I am a Christian. I have been sworn in with a bible. I pledge allegiance [to the American flag].
  • Shils and Young: rituals surrounding the British Monarchy are examples of civil religion. (death of Diana created unity).

Strengths: a lot of current day applications

Problems: emphasis on value consensus ignores dissent and resisitance towards collective events e.g. Diana jokes.

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Functonalism applied to religion continued.


  • Religion is a mechanism to manage the tensions generated in society
  • Religion provides guidelines for human action. Encouraging value consensus and the intergration of individuals into society. Religion passes on 'core values'
  • Religion generates meaning, Allows individuals to make sense of the often inexplicable

Problems: too much stress on stability, solidarity, and order, does not consider the role of religion in creating condflict and social change. Ignores dysfunctional aspects of religion e.g. the oppresion of women.

General evaluation of Functionalist theory of religion:

Strengths: explains and identifies the functions of religion, can be applied to many contemporary examples, demonstrates the role of religion in creating unity, cohesion, order and stability

Weaknesses: ignores dysfunctional aspects of religion, the focus on harmony neglects religion as a disruptive and divisive force. Fails to identify the oppressive nature of religion. Fails to explain how religion may play a role in social change.

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