Functionalists see religion as performing functions for the well-being of the individual and society. They see religion as a conservative force as it promotes stability and consensus (agreement) on norms and values.
DURKHEIM focused mainly on how religion benefits society. He distinguished between sacred and profane objects. Sacred objects are special to followers and invoke feelings of awe and respect, as opposed to ordinary, profane objects.
He studied religion in Aboriginal society, which was divided into clans. Each clan worshipped its own totem, which was considered to be sacred. According to Durkheim, the totem represented their God and their society because sacred objects such as the totem to Aboriginals represent the collective consciousness – the basic norms and values of their society. Thus, when worshipping the sacred object followers are also worshipping the society the sacred object represents.
This collective consciousness is reinforced through the religious practices of shared ritual and worship, which also creates social solidarity: uniting society together through shared the experience of ritual and worship. This helps to create social stability because society shares the same norms and values meaning society can operate efficiently.
Evaluation of Durkheim
Durkheim’s study is based on a small-scale, pre-industrial society with one religion, meaning it may be difficult to apply his theory to contemporary, industrialised societies such as Europe and North America.
Moreover, postmodernists argue that Durkheims’ view is not applicable to today’s society because of the increasing patterns of religious diversity. It is difficult to see how religion can unite society to the same norms and values if there are many religions to choose from.
Furthermore, Durkheim’s view that religion can create social solidarity can be questioned because it ignores ways in which religion may contribute to conflict and social divides, such as in Northern Ireland (Catholic and Protestant) or Israel and Palestine (Judaism and Islam).
MALINOWSKI looked at how religion helps the individual. He suggested that religion helps people to deal with situations that create stress and anxiety, which can be harmful for the individual and, consequently, create problems for society.
Religion helps people to cope with life-crises such as birth, marriage and death. These can be disruptive, but religion helps deal with this through ceremonies such as baptisms or funerals. Once again, this creates social solidarity and stability by drawing family members together to support one another during these difficult times.
Malinowski also argues that religion helps to relieve anxiety in situations where the outcome is unknown or uncontrollable. For example, the fishermen of the Trobriand Islands would perform a religious ritual before going out on the dangerous, uncertain open sea, but did not do this in the safer waters of the lagoon. This ritual relieved their feelings of uncertainty and anxiety and enabled them to carry out their essential but dangerous task.
PARSONS suggests that religion preserves the sense that life has meaning. If people believe that bad people prosper whereas good people suffer they may lose the belief that life has meaning. Religion prevents th is: suffering is a test of faith which will be rewarded. Those who live a bad life will eventually be punished in the afterlife.
Parsons also suggests that religion creates and legitimates the core values of society. It does this by sacralising these values i.e. making them sacred. Parsons showed how Protestantism in the USA sacralised the core values of American society, such as meritocracy, individualism and self-discipline. This reinforces the value consensus and maintains social stability because everyone knows the vales of society.
However, once again, Parsons assumes that one religion dominates society and can bind it together, so ignoring religious pluralism.
Furthermore, each of Durkheim, Malinowski and Parsons can be criticised by Marxists and Feminists for ignoring how religion only benefits the most powerful groups in societ y (e.g. the ruling class and men) who use it as a method of oppression over the less powerful (e.g. for the subject class or women).
Some functionalists argue that the functions of social solidarity and reinforcing the collective consciousness are not necessarily carried out by conventional religious organisations. However, although not religious, they may hold characteristics with religious organisations.
BELLAH refers to these as civil religions and gives the example of ‘Americanism’. The USA is made up of many different ethnicities and religions, so one religion cannot unify the whole country.
However, the American civil religion does perform this function and involves sacred objects - such as the flag or the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC which represent the collective consciousness – and rituals, such as Independence Day celebrations on the Fourth of July. American coins have the phrase ‘In God We Trust’; important speeches are concluded with ‘God Bless America'; the President swears an oath of allegiance before God.
However, this God is not specific to Catholicism or Judaism or any other religion: it is the God of America which serves to draw together the diverse population, thereby creating social solidarity.
Evaluation of civil religion
A civil religion avoids the difficulty of creating social solidarity and stability in a nation with many religions. However, it is hard to see how a civil religion actually is a religion, given that it lacks a clear belief in the supernatural and any clear sense of worship.
Evaluation of functionalist views of religion
Functionalists emphasise the positive aspects of religion and draw our attention to the ways religion can benefit both the society and individuals.
However, their positive view overlooks how religion can create conflict or oppress some social groups. Furthermore, the reliance on studies based on pre-industrial, small-scale societies may mean some functionalist theories are not easily applicable today.