A2 Sociology - Religion & Functionalists

1. Substantive Definitions - focus on the content of religion as a belief in god/the supernatural. this type of definition is exclusive ie. it only includes belief in god/supernatural and excludes other forms of belief. 

Criticism - has been accused of western bias as it excludes religions which do not have the western idea of a god e.g Buddhism.

2. Functional Definitions - this takes a wider definition - looks at the functions religion performs for individuals or society, particularly in how it integrates them (functionalism uses this version). This is a more inclusive definition ie. it includes a wider range of beliefs/practices and is not limited to a belief in the supernatural.

Criticism - just because something integrates individuals does not mean it is a religion e.g football matches.

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  • Created by: Paddy
  • Created on: 13-11-12 13:00

Functionalist Perspective on Religion

Key thinkers - Durkheim, Parsons, Malinowski, Bellah & Bocock

  • Functionalists examine the social dimension rather than the indicidual for an explanation of religion
  • All functionalists would believe that religion is the main source of cultural values & it plays a crucial role in how society works
  • Similar to all institutions in society religion plays a positive function for us as individuals but also for society as a whole

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Positive functions of religion

  • It socially controls members of society
  • It integrates members of society (Durkheim described it as 'social glue') 
  • It is a unifying force
  • It brings social solidarity 
  • It strengthens the collective consciousness EG the 9/11 10year anniversary memorial allowed people to unite in their condemnation against terrorism. For Durkheim this re-inforces the moral boundaries of society
  • It also functions for the individual ie. helping them deal with a death or loss etc.

All this results in social order


Religion can also cause fighting ie. 9/11 attack due to religion, sectarianism in Northern Ireland etc.

Also, religion controlling members of society and keeping people at bay may not been seen as a good thing by others such as Marxists who would argue that the bourgeoisie use religion to suppress the proletariat.

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Durkheims major work

"Elementary forms of Religious Life" 1912

  • He believed social life can be split into the sacred & profane.
  • Sacred - that which is above worldly things help in respect or aw EG God, Black hills to native americans in south Dakota.
  • Profane - Everything that is worldly EG Everyday life. 

*Scared can apply to things or people that aren't linked to the supernatural EG Elvis, Marilyn Monroe etc.

  • Durkheim believed when we engage in worship (wether its of god or a person) we are worshipping society itself.
  • Durkheim looked at totemism in aboriginal society - a basic form of religion that involves a totem pole as the key item of worship.
  • He argues that in worshipping the totem they were expressing their complete dependence on society

All this represents the functional definition of religion.


  • outdated and unrepresentative sample
  • his theory is more relevant to small scale non-literate societies 
  • does not take into account religious pluralism (wide rang of new religions in society)
  • Durkheim did not consider that religion can be a source of conflict

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Malinowski and Neo-functionalists

  • Malinowski is an anthropologist (someone who uses participant observation to study cultures and tribes)
  • He argues the functions of religion apply to certain situations. It bonds the community together at times of stress or danger EG fishing in Trobriand Islands
  • Situations of emotional stress EG marriage, birth, death - these 'life crisis' are surrounded with religious rituals
  • Malinowski says religion plays a function towards events which cannot be fully controlled or predicted EG going for an interview

NEO-FUNCTIONALISTS - Bellah, Bocock, Davis, O'Dea

  • Robert Bocock (1985) refers to the 'civic rituals' arguing that it isn't just religion that provides us with ways to reinforce cultural values EG sporting events can also produce a 'sense of belonging' to society such as the Olympics. ---> this years Olympics shows peoples pride in their country and makes people feel together.
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