Functionalist Theories of Religon

This covers fuctionalist theories of religion, including concepts of sociologists: Durkheim, Parsons, Malinowski and Bellah. Happy revising! 

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  • Created by: Kari
  • Created on: 04-06-14 15:48

The sacred and the profane

The sacred are things set apart and forbidden, inspiring feelings of awe.

The profane are ordinary things with no special significance.

The Arunta (an Aboriginal tribe) clans perform rituals to worship their own totem, which represents the clan’s identity and, in Durkheim’s view, the power of the group. Durkheim believes that sacred symbols represent society and so they perform the function of reinforcing social solidarity, uniting believers to worship society.

Criticism: Durkheim did not carry out any research on the Arunta himself; his information came from secondary sources.

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The collective conscience

The collective conscience is the shared norms, values beliefs and knowledge that makes social life between individuals possible - without these, society would disintegrate.

Durkheim claims that religious rituals reinforce the collective conscience and maintain social integration. They also perform the function of strengthening and motivating the individual, by making us feel part of something greater than ourselves.

Criticism: In large-scale societies, with several religious communities, religion may cause conflict; Durkheim explains integration within societies, but not conflict between them.


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Cognitive functions of religion

Durkheim believes that religion is the source of our cognitive capacities (our ability to reason and think conceptually). Religion provides the concepts we need for understanding the world, such as, time and space - e.g. with ideas about a creator bringing the world into being at the beginning of time.

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Psychological functions of religion

Malinowski claims that religion helps individuals cope with emotional stress in 2 types of situation: when the outcome is important but uncontrollable and uncertain, and at times of life crisis, e.g. birth, marriage, death.

Criticism: Functionalism ignores negative aspects of religion, like religion as a source of oppression of the poor or women.

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Value and Meaning

Parsons claims that religion:

  • creates society’s norms and values by sacrilising them, which promotes value consensus and social stability.
  • provides a source of meaning, answering ‘ultimate questions’ and helping people adjust to adverse events.

Criticism: Marxists argue that by answering ultimate questions, such as ‘why do good people suffer?’, religion creates a false consciousness which prevents the poor from acting to change their situation.

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Civil religion

Bellah claims that American civil religion attaches sacred qualities to American society itself, which integrates a whole nation, through loyalty to the nation-state and belief in God. It is expressed through various symbols, beliefs and rituals, like pledging allegiance to the flag. It sacrilises the American way of life and unifies Americans from different ethnic and religious backgrounds.

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