Theories of religion - beliefs in society

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  • Created on: 05-03-16 15:14

Functionalist theories of religion 

-Functionalists see society as like an organism, with basic needs that it must meet to survive. 

-Society's most basic need is for social order and solidarity. For functionalists, what makes order possible is value consensus - a set of shared norms and values for people to follow.

- Durkheim (1915) argues that religious institutions play a central part in creating and maintaining value consensus, order and solidarity.

The sacred and the profane 

For Durkheim, the key feature of all religions is a fundamental distinction between the sacred and the profane. 

The sacred are things set apart and forbidden, inspiring feelings of awe, fear and wonder, with taboos and prohibitions.

The profane are ordinary things that have no special significance.

- Rituals - a religion is more than a set of beliefs: it has sacred rituals or practises and these rituals are collective - performed by social groups.

- Durkheim argues that sacred things create powerful feelings in believers because they are symbols representing something of great power, and this thing can only be society.

- For Durkheim, sacred symbols perform the essential function of uniting believers into a single moral community. 

- For Durkheim, when clan members worship their totem, they are in reality worshipping society

- the totem inspiresawe in the clans members precisely because it represents the power of the group.

Evaluation - Durkheim did not carry out any research on the Arunta himself; all his information came from secondary sources. Furthermore, religion in the simplest society may not be the same as religion in other socieites.

The collective conscience 

For Durkheim, the sacred symbols represent society's collective conscience or consciousness - the shared norms, values and beliefs that make cooperation between individuals possible. Without these society would disintegrate.

- Regular sgared religious rituals reinforce the collective conscience and maintain social integration.

- Rituals also remind individuals of the power of society - without which they themselves are nothing, and to which they owe everything. 

- By making us feel part of something greater than ourselves, it strengthens us to face life's problems. 

Evaluation - In large-scale societies, where two or more religious communities exist, religion may cause conflict rather than consensus . Durkheim's theory may explain integration within communties, but not the conflicts between them.

Cognitive functions of religion 

Durkheim sees religion as also being the source of our cognitive capacities - our ability to reason and think conceptually.

- In order to think at all, we need categories such as time, space etc.

- Durkheim and Mauss (1903) argue that religion provides basic categories such as time, space and causation. For Durkheim, religion is the origin of human behaviour thought, reason and science. 

Psycholoigical functions 

Malinowski (1954) argues that religion promotes solidarity by performing psycholigical functions for individuals, helping them cope with emotional stress that would undermine social solidarity. There are two situations where it performs this role:

Where the outcome is important but uncontrollable and uncertain, for example


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