Chapter one - Theories of religion - Functionalism

  • Created by: hwelch17
  • Created on: 24-09-18 23:26

intro (revision)

For functinalists, society is a system of interrelated parts or social institutions, such as religion, the family and the economy. 

Society is like an organism, with basic pre-requistes that it must meet in order to survive. These needs are met by the different institutions. Each institution performs certain functions - that is, each contributes to maintaining the social system by meeting a need.

Society's most basic need is the need for social order and solidarity so that it's members can cooperate. For functionalists, what makes order possible is the existence of value consensus - a set of shared norms and values by which society's members live. Without this, individuals would pursue their own selfish desires and society would disintegrate

1 of 11

Durkheim on religion - sacred and profane

For functionalists, religious instiutions play a central part in creating and maintaining value consensus , order and solidarity. The first functionalist to develop this idea was Durkheim (1858-1917)

The scared and the profane

For Durkheim the key feature of religion was not a belief in the Gods, spirits or the supernatural, but a fundemental part dinstinction between the sacred and the profane found in all religions.

Sacred = things set apart and forbidden, inspire feelings of awe, wonder and fear, surrounded by taboos and prohibitions .

Profane = things that have no special significance-things that are ordinary and mundane.

furthermore, religion is never simply a set of beliefs. It also involves definite rituals or practices in relation to the sacred, and these rituals are collective - performed by social groups.

The fact that sacred things evoke such powerful feelings in believers indicates to Durkheim that this is because they are symbols representing something of great power. In his view, this thing can only be for society itself, since society is the only thing powerful enough to command such feelings. When they worship the sacred symbols, they worship society itself.

For Durkheim, although sacred symbols vary from one religion to another, they all perform the essential function of uniting believers into a single moral community. 

2 of 11

Durkheim on religion - Totemism

  • Studied Totemism among Australian Aboriginal clans in which the sacred totem represented different clans.
  • Religious symbols are simultaneously symbols of God and Society, and thus when people worship religion they are also ‘worshipping society’, religious symbols serve as a simplified representation of a more complex whole, reminded individuals that they are merely small and part of a much ‘bigger picture’.
  • Religion acts as a constraining (conservative) force: through religious worship (ceremonies) the ‘collective conscience’ is imprinted on the individual: they literally ‘feel’ the weight of the community on them.
  • Religion reinforces a sense of belonging and shared identity to society.
3 of 11

Durkheim on religion - collective conscience

In Durkheims view, the sacred symbols represent society's collective conscience.

CC = Shared norms, values, beliefs and knowledge 

CC makes social life and cooperation between individuals possible - without these, society would disintegrate. 

Regular shared religious rituals reinforce the CC and maintain social integration. Participating in shared rituals binds individuals together, reminding them they are part of a single moral community to which they owe their loyalty.  Such rituals also remind the individual  of the power of society = without which they see themselves as nothing, and to which they owe everything.

In this sense, religion also performs functions for the individual. By making us feel part of something greater than themselves, religion reinvigorates and strengthens us to face lifes trials and motivates us to overcome obstacles that would otherwise defeat us. 

4 of 11

Durkheim on religion - Cognitive functions of reli

Durkheim sees religion not only as the source of social solidarity, but also of our intellectual or cognitive capacities - our abilities to reason and think conceptually.

For example, in order to think at all, we need categories such as time, space, cause, substance, number ect. Secondly, in order to share our thoughts, we need to use the same categories as others. 

In Durkheim's view, religion is the origin of the concepts and categories we need for reasoning, understanding the world and communicating.  

The division of tribes into clans gives individuals their first notion of classification. Thus for Durkheim, religion is the origin of human thought, reason and science. 

5 of 11


The evidence on toteism is unsound. Worsely (1956) notes that there is no sharp division between the sacred and the profane, and that different clans share the same totems. And even if Durkheim is right about totemism, this does not prove that he has dicovered the essence of all other religions. 

Durkheim's theory may apply better to small-scale societies with a single religion. It is harder to apply it to a large-scale societies, where two or more religious communities may be in conflict. His theory may explain social integration within communities, but not the conflicts between them. 

Similarly, postmodernists such as Mestrovic argue that Durkheim's ideas cannot be applied to contemporary society, because increasing diversity has fragmented the collective conscience, so there is no longer a single shared value system for religion to reinforce. 

6 of 11

Psychological functions

Malinowski (1954) argrees with Durkheim that religion promotes solidarity. However inthis view, he believes it does this 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 uncontrollable and thus, uncertain - in his study of the Islanders of the Western Pacific, Malinowski contrasts fishing in the lagoon and fishing in the ocean.

  • lagoon fishing - is safe, predictable = no ritual
  • ocean fishing - dangerous and uncertain = 'canoe magic'  (rituals to ensure a certain and safe expedition, gives them a sense of control, easing tension, giving confidence for them to undertake hazardous tasks and reinforces social solidarity. He sees ritual serving as a 'god of the gaps' - it fills in the gaps in human being's control over the world, such as being unable to control the outcome of a fishing trip

2) At times of life crisis - birth, puberty, marriage and death are disruptive changes in social groups. Religion helps to minimise disruption. For example, the funeral rituals reinforce a feeling of solidarity among the survivors, while the notion of immortality gives comfort to the deceased by denying the fact of death. Malinowski argues that death is the main reason for the existence of religious belief 

7 of 11

Parsons; values and meaning

Like Malinowski, Parsons sees religion helping individuals to cope with unforseen events and uncontrollable outcomes. In addition, Parsons identifies 2 other essential functions that religion performs in modern society. 

  • It creates and legitimates society's central values
  • it is the primary source of meaning.

Religion creates and legitimates society's basic norms and values by sacrilising them (making them sacred). An example of this, in the USA, Protestantism has sacrilised the core American values of individualism, meritocracy and self-discipline. This serves to promote value consensus and thus social stability.

Religion also provides a source of meaning. In particular, it answers 'ultimate' questions about the human condition,such as why the good suffer and why some die young. Such events defy our sense of justice and make life appear meaningless, and this may undermine our commitment to society's values. Religion provides answers to such questions, for example by explaining suffering as a test of faith that will be rewarded in heaven. By doing so, religion enables people to adjust to adverse events or circumstances and helps maintain stability

8 of 11

Civil Religion

Like Parsons, Bellah is interested in how religion unifies society, especially a multi faith society like America. What unifies America is an overarching civil religion - a belief system that attaches sacred qualities to society itself.In the Americancase, civil religon is a faih in Americanism or the 'American way of life'.

Bellah argues that civil religion integrates society in a way that no other religion can. While none of these can claim the loyalty of all Americans, civil religion can. American civil religion involves loyalty to the nation-state and a belief in God, both of which are equated with being a true American. It is expressed in various rituals, symbols and belief; such as the pledge of allegiance to the flag,singing the national athem,the Licoln Memorial. However,this is not a specifically Catholic, Jewish or Protestant God, but rather an 'American' God. It sacrilises the American way of life and binds together Americans from many different ethnic and religious backgrounds

9 of 11

Functional alternatives

Functional alternatives or functional equivalents to religion are non-religious beliefs and practices that perform functions similar to those of organised religion, such as reinforcing shared values or maintaining social cohesion.

For example, although in America civil religion involves a belief in God, Bellah argues that this doesn't have to be the case. Some other belief system could perform the same functions. For example, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union had secular (non-religious) political beliefs and rituals around which they sought to unite society.

However, the same problem with the idea of functional alternatives is the same as with functional definitions of religion that we saw earlier. That is, it ignores what makes religion distinctive and different - namely, its belief in the supernatural 

10 of 11

evaluation of functionalism

Functionalism emphasises the social nature of religion and the positive functions it performs, but it neglects negative aspects, such as religion as a source of oppression of the poor or women.

It ignores religion as source of division and conflict, especially in complex modern societies where there is more than one religion – e.g. Northern Ireland.  Where there is religious pluralism (many religions), it is hard to see how it can unite people and promote integration.

The idea of civil religion overcomes this problem to some extent, by arguing that societies may still have an overarching belief system share by all, but is this really religion – especially if it is not based on belief in the supernatural?

11 of 11


No comments have yet been made

Similar Sociology resources:

See all Sociology resources »See all Religion and beliefs resources »