Functionalism and Religion

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What does religion give us?

  • meets individual and societal needs
  • intergrating force in society
  • allows us to express collective beliefs concerning social commitment and social solidarity 
  • a way for people to affirm common values, beliefs and ideals 
  • produce a collective consciousness
  • explains the inexplicable 
  • provides a central value system 
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Durkheim (1912)

'religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is, things set apart and forbidden which unite into one single moral community - called a church - all those who adhere to them' 

There is a difference between the sacred and profane


  • simplest and most basic religion
  • a clan is a large extended family who share duties and obligations 
  • the totem is an emblem of the clan and is sacred, a symbol of their god
  • worshipping the totem is like worshipping their own society 

Collective Conscience 

  • gives our thinking conceptuality 
  • ability to share thoughts
  • origin of all thoughts, reason and science 
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Durkheim continued

Cognitive Functions of Religion

  • shared norms and values
  • maks cooperation
  • without it society would disintergrate
  • maintain social integration
  • suggests we are part of something greater


  • differences between the sacred and profane are imagined
  • ignores conflict within religion 
  • doesnt apply within contempary society
  • unsound evidence for totemism 
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Malinowski (1954)

Identifies certain areas of religion and attaches them with emotional stress and threats to social solidarity, these are crises of life 

  • birth, death, puberty, marriage 
  • all crises of life are surrounded by religious ritual


  • most disruptive crises of life
  • funeral cermonies
  • mourners support the berieved
  • socially destructive 
  • group unites

Fishing in the lagoon 

  • fishing in the lagoon is safe and predictable with no ritual
  • fishing in the ocean is dangerous and unpredictable and so requires ritual 
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Parsons (1967)

  • human action is directed and controlled by norms 
  • religion is part of a culutural system that provide guidelines for us 
  • adresses particular problems

Religion and Social Order 

  • individuals are hit by events they can not forsee -  religion is a mechanism for adjustment and as a means of restoring normality 
  • the is a problem of uncertainty - always will be unknown, provides a means of adjusting and coming to terms 

Makes sense of all experiences, suffering achieves rewards in heaven ect

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  • emphasises only the positive contributions of religion
  • ignores dysfunction of religion
  • does not see religion as disruptive and divisive as it can be
  • gives little consideration to hostility 
  • can be a direct threat to social order 
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