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What is Religion

There are three main ways in which sociologsts define religion...

The focus on the content of religious belief, such as the belief in god or the supernatural. this suggests that to be a religion there is a need for a set of belefs which must include a belief in God or the supernatural.

however... defining relifion in this way leaves no room for beliefs and practices that perform similar functions to religion but dont involve the belief in god. also substantive definition is also accused of westernisation because it excludes religions such as buddhism which do not have the western idea of a god.

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What Is Religion Contd...

Rather than definig religion in terms of beleif, functional definitions define it in terms of been about the social or phycological functions it performs for individuals or society. Durkhiem defines it in terms of the contribution it makes towards social intergration, rather than the beleif in god or the supernatural. Yinger says that it performs functions for the individuasl such as ansewing the ulitmate questions of life and the afterlife.

this view avoids western bias as there is no specific belief in a god or the supernatural. However.... just because an institution helps to intergrate people into groups it does not necssissarily make it a religion. E.G football contains collective chanting which gives an individual a sense of intergration but this doesnt mean its a religion,

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What is religion contd...

These take an interpretist approach that focuses on how members of society themselves define religion. they argue it is not possible to produce a single universal definition of religion to cover all cases, sinse in reiality different individuals and groups have different meanings to the word 'religion'
Social constructionists are interested in how definitions of religion are contructed, challenged ans fought over. Alderidge shows how for its followers sciencetollogy was a religion. wheras several goverments tried to ban its status as a religion.

Social Constructionists do not assume that religion allways involves a belief in god or the supernatural or that it performs similar functions for everyone in society. their approach allows them to get close to individuals and the meanings they give to religion.

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Functionalist Theories

Societies most basic need is the need for social order and solidarity so that its members can co operate. for functionalists what makes this possible is the existance of value consensus ( set of shared norms and values by which societies members live) without this individuals would pursue their own selfish desires and society would disintergrate.

Durkheim For him the key feature or religion was not a beleif in god or the supernatural but a distinction between the sacred and the profound found in all religions.

  • The Sacred are things that set apart and are forbidden that inspire feelings of awe, fear and wonder, and are surrounded by taboos and phrobations.
  • The Profane are things that have no special significance- things that are ordinary and mundane.

a religion is never simply a set of beliefs. it also involves definate rituals or practices in relation to the sacred, these are performed by social groups.

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Durkheim on Religion contd..

The fact that sacred things provoke such powefull feelings in believers indicates to Durkhiem that they are symbols representing something of great power. in his veiw, this thing can only be society itself, since society is the only thing powerful enough to command such feelings. when they worship the sacred symbols the people arte worshipping society itself. for Durkhiem although sacred symbols vary from religion to religion they all unite beleivers into a single moral community.

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Functionalist contd...

Totesim- Durkheim belived that the essence of all religion could be found by studying it in its simpilist form and in its simpilist society, Clan society. for this reason he used studies from th Auranta ( an austrailian aboridional tribe with a cla system) this clan consists of bands of kin who come together to perform ritualls involving the worship of a sacred totem (the clans emblem) this can be a plant or an animal that sybolises the clans origional origins and identity. the totemic rituals venerating it serve to reinforce the groups solidarity and sense of belonging.

when clan members are worshipping their animal they are in reality worshipping society although they dont see it. the totem inspires feelings of awe in clan members precicly because it represents the power of the group on which the individual is utterly dependent.

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Functalist theories contd!!!!


The evidence on totemism is unsound. Worsley notes that there is no sharp division between the sacred and the profane and the different ckans share the same totems. and even if durkheim is correct about totesim it doesnt mean that he has found the esssence of all other religions.

his theory may apply better to small scale societies with a single religion. it is harder to apply to large scale societiys with two or more religious comunities which may be in conflict. his theorys may expalin social intergration in comunities but not the conflict between them.

Postmodernist Mestrovic argues that durkhiems work cannot be applied to contempary society because increased diversity has fragmented the collective conscience so there is no longer a shared single value system for religion to reinforce.

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Functionlist contd


Malinowski agrees with durkhiem that religion promotes solidarity. however he suggests that it does this by promoting psychological functions for individuals. religion helps individuals cope with emotional stresses that would undermine social solidarity. he identifies two types of situations in which religion performs this role.

1) where the oucome is important but is uncontrolable and therefore uncertain. God fills the gaps in the human beings control over an outcome. when they cant controll something such as ocean fishing the trobriand islanders do rituals to ensure a safe trip.

2) at times of life crisis. events such as birth marrage and death all mark major changes in social groups. religion helps to minamise the disruption. e.g funerals help to reinfore solidarity among survivours. Malinowski argues that death is the main reason for the existence of religious belief.

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Functionalist contd...


Like Malinowski, Parsons sees religion as helping individuals to cope with unforseen events and uncontrolable outcomes. Parsons identifies two other essential functions that religion performs in modern society.

It does this by sacrelising societies basic norms and values(making them sacred) in the USA protestainism has sacralised the core american values of individualism metreocracy and self dicipline. this serves to promote the value consensus and social stability.

Religion in particular provides a source of meaning. it ansews ultimate questions about the human condition such as why people die so young and people suffer. these events could make us undermine society and our commitment to societys values. but religion provides ansews to the questions. thus maintaining social stability.

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Functionalist Contd...


Like Parsons Bellah is interested in how religion unifies society. especially such a multi faith society like america. she suggests that what does this is an overarching civil religin- a belief system that attaches sacred qualities to society itself. in americas case civil religion is a faith in americanism of the american dream.

Bellah argues that civil religion intergrates society in a way that individual religions cannot. none of the individual churches can claim the loyalty of all americans but the civil religion can.

americans, civil religion involves a loyalty to the nation state and a belief in god, both of which are equated with been a true american. it is expressed in many of american symbols such as the american flag, and the american national anthem.

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