Functionalism and Religion

Functionalist perspectives on religion

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  • Created by: KCharlish
  • Created on: 27-11-15 16:41

Durkheim on Religion - The sacred and the profane

The sacred and the profane

For Durkheim the key feature of religion is a fundamental distinction between the sacred and the profane.

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

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

Durkheim suggests that when believers worship the sacred symbols they are inface worshipping society as society is the only thing powerful enough to command such feelings. Sacred symbols all perform the essential functions of uniting believers into a single moral community.

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Durkheim on Religion - Totemism


Arunta clans consist of bands of kin who come together to perform rituals involving worship of sacred totem. The totem is a clans emblem e.g. animal or plant, that symbolises the clans origins and identity. 

The totemic rituals reinforce the groups solidarity and sense of belonging.

For Durkheim when the clans members worshipp their totemic animal they are in reality worshipping society.

The totem inspires feelings of awe precisely because it represents the power of the group on which the individual is 'utterly dependant'. 

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Durkheim on Religion - Collective Conscience

The collective conscience

Sacred symbols represent society's collective conscience - shared norms, values, beliefs and knowledge that make social life possible and cooperation between individuals possible - without these society would disintergrate. 

Regular shared religious rituals reinforce the collective conscience and maintain social integration. Participating in shared rituals binds individuals together, reminding them they are part of one single moral community.

Religion also performs an important function for the individual - by making us feel part of something greater than ourselves. Religion reinvigorates and strengthens us to face life's trials and motivates us to overcome obstacles that would otherwise defeat us.

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Durkheim on Religion - Cognitive functions of reli

Cognitive functions of religion

Religion is the source of our intellectual or cognitive capacities - our ability to reason and think conceptually.

Religion is the origin of the concepts and categories we need for reasoning, understanding the world and communicating.

Durkheim and Mauss argue that religion provides basic categories such as time, space and causation.

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Durkheim on Religion - Criticisms


  • Worseley - no sharp difference between the sacred and the profane, and that different clans share the same totems.
  • Cannot apply to large scale socities where several religious communities may be in conflict. His theory may explain the social integration within communities but not the conflicts between them.
  • Mestrovic - Durkheims ideas cannot be applied to contempory society, because increasing diversity has fragmented the collective conscience, so there is no longer a single shared value system for religion to reinforce.
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