Functionalist interpretations of religion

views of religion

HideShow resource information
  • Created by: Natasha
  • Created on: 03-10-09 18:48

Functionalist views on religion

Functionalists see society as a system - a set of parts which work together to form a whole. These parts are the institutions of society - for example, the family, the religious system and the political system.

Functionalists assume that society has certain basic needs which must be met if it is to survive. First and foremost is the need for social order. It is assumed that social order requires a certian degree of cooperation and social solidarity. This is made possible by shared norms and values - a consensus or agreement about society's norms and values. Without this consensus, people would be pulling in different directions and conflict and disorder would result. Because of this emphasis on consensus, functionalism is also known as consesus theory.

When analysing any part of society, functionalists often ask 'what is it function?'. By function, they mean what is its contribution to the maintenance and wellbeing of the social system.

1 of 5

Emile Durkheim - religion and the worship of socie

Durkheim recognised that things held 'sacred', which often appear 'ordinary' to non-believers, evoke in believers powerful emotions of awe, deference and respect. Therefore, he inferred, it seems their significance is as symbols - they must represent something. And what they represent, he concluded, is the collective consciousness - the basic set of shared beliefs, values, traditions and norms which makes social life possible. And in worshipping a society's sacred cymbols, its members are unwittingly worshipping the society of which they are a part.

Reinforcing the collective consciousness - Without a collevtive consciousness, a society cannot survive. And for Durkheim, regular acts of collective worship and shared ritual play a crucial role in ensuring societys survival. In effect, the societys members are repeatedly re-affirming their support for their shared values and beliefs.

2 of 5

Emile Durkheim cont.

Strenghting social solidarity -Durkheim also claimed that the shared experience of the community's oft-repeated rituals further functions to unify and bind together a society's meners. Whether celebrating the group's myths or history in commemorative rites, or coming together in marriage or mourning rituals, society's members are renewing their sense of membership and the practice of ritual raises people awareness of their common situation and strengthens the bonds between them.

Although participants in societal rituals are unlikely to be consciously aware of it, Durkheim claimed that they are also expressing their sense that the society, the collective is of supreme importance. The shared, ritualised experiences encourage an awareness that they, as individuals, are relatively insignificant and dependent. But together they are strong. In this respect, one of the main functions of religious is to strengthrn social solidarity.

3 of 5

Emile Durkheim ..

Supporting individuals' adaption - Thought he saw the social functions of religion as of primary importance, Durkheim was not blind to its importance for individuals. Hence, he recognised that religious belief and practice can prodive individuals with a sense of renewed strength, confidence, serenity and enthusiasm, and help them 'either to endure the trials of existence, or to conquer them' (Durkheim, 1968)

Conclusion - In Durkheim's view, therefore, all religions fulfill certain functions for the individual and for society. For the individual, religion provides continuing motivation to face up to life, and social support based upon a sense of belonging. For society, religion unifies members around the shared values, norms, meanings and traditions of the collective consciousness and thereby encourages social integration and social solidarity. The symbols which members of the group worship may or may not be regarded as supernatural. But, to commited believers, they inspire the devotion and awe appropiate to sacred things.

4 of 5

Bronislaw Malinowski - religion and situations of

Malinowski was one of the first anthropologists to live for a long period in a small-scale society. His interpretation of religion placed more emphasis on its psychological functions for the individual. He accepted that religion played a central role in promoting social solidarity, but argued that

5 of 5


No comments have yet been made

Similar Sociology resources:

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