Functionalist Interpretation of Religion

The Functionalist approach on the role of Religion

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The Functionalist View to Religion

  • Religion is an integral part of society, which when operational can help bring about COLLECTIVE CONSCIOUS.
  • A conservative force promotes social harmony, social integration and social solidarity through the reinforcement of the value consensus.
  • Provides a sense of social identity and security, integrating individuals into social groups and the culture of their society.
  • Maintains solidarity.
  • Religion is seen as a social institution to keep stability within society.
  • Reduces anxiety and tension.
  • Provides a source of meaning and purpose to life.
  • Provides culture basis for social norms and values.
  • Builds a moral community and protects individuals from loss of meaning.
  • Makes sense of/gives meaning to suffering and disaster.
  • Is a source of socialisation and social control - promoting learning of and conformity to social values.
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His research points to things being sacred - these things appear ordinary to the people in that society. For example "life" as this is because religion has given society a collective consciousness. He believed that social order and stability could only exist if people were integrated into society by a value consensus. He saw religion as an important element in achieving this, by providing a set of beliefs and practices, which united people together. He argued that all societies divided the world into the "sacred" and the "profane".

Religion also supports individual adaptations: if an individual changes course in life or if an individual has a change forced upon them by following a religion they should be able to adapt to their new situation e.g. being sent to prison.


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Durkheim - Collective Consciousness and Solidarity

His findings are based on his research of aboriginal society where they worship certain objects e.g. The Totem.

Without this, a society cannot survive. Regular actions of collective worship and shared ritual play a crucial role in ensuring societies survival. The societies members are repeatedly re-affirming their support for their shared values and beliefs.

In his study of aboriginal society he identified the strength of the Totem, which served to bring the tribe together. He identified two aspects of religious beliefs:

  • Sacred - holy and spiritual 
  • Profane - nonspiritual and non religious

He argued that people set aside things that they see as sacred whether it is people, objects or symbols. These icons bring society together with all individuals identifying similar sacred symbols. 

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Malinowski and Parsons


Like Durkheim, Malinowski saw religion as reinforcing social norms and values and promoting social solidarity. However, Malinowski also saw religion as providing explanations for events that were hard to explain and security in the face of uncertainty. Religion fulfills a need for emotional security and relieves situations of emotional stress, which threaten social stability and solidarity. Religion can provide a source of comfort, explanation and meaning to individuals when faced by crisis. 


He emphasizes the role of religion in providing and underpinning the core values of any culture and the social norms, which regulate people's behaviour. 

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Functions of religion in society

  • Socialisation: Religion socialises its members into value consensus through the institutions of both family and school in the early years.
  • By encouraging collective worship and beliefs: Religion brings about social solidarity.
  • Preventing anomie: It prevents a state of normalessness when society breaks down and there are no set norms and values, society becomes confused and it may lead to conflict e.g. war in Iraq.
  • Helps us to come to terms with life: Changing events e.g. rites of passage
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Religion as a conservative force

  • Builds a collective consciousness.
  • Powerful leaders can enforce conformity to traditional religious rules and practices.
  • Reflecting ruling class ideology and protecting position of the privileged.
  • Explaining and justifying inequality.
  • Presenting suffering as God's will, or a challenging test of faith, which means people are less likely to question or change their circumstances.
  • Defence of traditional values and forms of behaviour. 
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