Functionalist theories of religion

  • Created by: zobia 08
  • Created on: 19-09-18 10:41
Functionalists on religion
For functionalists, religious institutions play a central part in creating and maintaining value consensus, order and solidarity. The first functionalist to develop this idea was Emile Durkheim (1858-1917).
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The sacred and the profane
For Durkheim, the key feature of religion was not a belief in gods, spirits or the supernatural, but a fundamental distinction between the sacred and the profane found in all religions.
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The sacred
The sacred are things set apart and forbidden that inspire feelings of awe, fear and wonder, and are surrounded by taboos and prohibitions.
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The profane
Are things that have no special significance- things that are ordinary and mundane.
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Totemism
Durkheim believed that the essence of all religion could be found by studying its simplest form, in the simplest type of society- clan society. For this reason he used studies of the Arunta an Aboriginal Australian tribe with a clan system.
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Arunta clan
Consist of bands of kin who come together periodically to perform rituals involving worship of a sacred totem. The totem is the clans emblem such as an animal or plant that symbolises the clans origins and identity.
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Durkheim
For Durkheim when clan members worship their totemic animal, they are in reality worshiping society- even though they themselves are not aware of this fact. The totem inspires feelings of awe in the clan's members.
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The collective conscience
In Durkheim's view the sacred symbols represent society's collective conscience or consciousness. The collective conscience is the shared norms, values, beliefs and knowledge that make social life and cooperation between individuals possible.
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The collective conscience (2)
For Durkheim, regular shared religious rituals reinforce the collective conscience and maintain social integration. Participating in shared rituals binds individuals together, reminding them that they are part of a single moral community.
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The collective conscience (3)
Such rituals also remind the individual of the power of society- without which they themselves are nothing, and to which they owe everything. In this sense religion also performs an important function for the individual.
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The collective conscience (4)
By making us feel part of something greater than ourselves, religion reinvigorates and strengthens us to face life's trials and motivates us to overcome obstacles that would otherwise defeat us.
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Cognitive functions of religion
Durkheim sees religion not only as the source of social solidarity, but also of our intellectual or cognitive capacities- our ability to reason and think conceptually.
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Cognitive functions of religion (2)
In Durkheim's view religion is the origin of the concepts and categories we need for reasoning, understanding the world and communicating.
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Cognitive functions of religion (3)
Durkheim and Marcel Mauss (1903;2009) argue that religion provides basic categories such as time, space and causation. For example with ideas about a creator bringing the world into being at the beginning of time.
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Criticisms
Worsley (1956) notes that there is no sharp division between the sacred and the profane, and that different clans share the same totems. And even if Durkheim is right about totemism, this does not prove that he has discovered the essence religions,
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Criticisms (2)
Durkheim's theory may apply better to small scale societies with a single religion. it is harder to apply it to large scale societies where two or more religious communities may be in conflict.
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Criticisms (3)
Postmodernists such as Stjepan Mestrovic (2011) argue that Durkheim's ideas cannot be applied to contemporary society as increasing diversity has fragmented the collective conscience.
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Bronislaw Malinowski (1954)
Agrees with Durkheim that religion promotes solidarity. However in his view it does so by performing psychological functions for individuals helping them cope with emotional stress that would undermine social solidarity.
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Malinowski identifies two types of situation in which religion performs this role:
1. Where the outcome is important but is uncontrollable and thus uncertain. In his study of the Trobriand Islanders of the Western Pacific Malinowski contrasts fishing in the lagoon and fishing in the ocean.
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Lagoon fishing
Is safe and uses the predictable and successful method of poisoning. When the Islanders fish in the lagoon, there is no ritual.
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Ocean fishing
Is dangerous and uncertain, and is always accompanied by 'canoe magic'- rituals to ensure a safe and successful expedition. This gives them people a sense of control which eases tension. gives them confidence to undertake hazardous tasks.
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Malinowski identifies two types of situation in which religion performs this role:
2. At times of life crises. Events such as birth, puberty, marriage and especially death mark major and disruptive changes in social groups. Religion helps to minimise disruption.
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Parsons: values and meanings
Talcott Parsons (1967) sees religion helping individuals to cope with unforeseen events and uncontrollable outcomes.
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Parsons identifies two other essential functions that religion performs in modern society.
1. It creates and legitimates society's central values. 2. It is the primary source of meaning.
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Parsons: values and meanings (2)
Religion creates and legitimates society's basic norms and values by sacralising them. Thus in the USA, Protestantism has sacralised the core American values of individualism, meritocracy and self-discipline. serves to promote value consensus.
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Parsons: values and meanings (3)
Religion also provides a source of meaning. In particular it answers 'ultimate' questions about the human condition, such as why the good suffer and why some die young. Such events defy our sense of justice and make life appear meaningless.
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Card 2

Front

The sacred and the profane

Back

For Durkheim, the key feature of religion was not a belief in gods, spirits or the supernatural, but a fundamental distinction between the sacred and the profane found in all religions.

Card 3

Front

The sacred

Back

Preview of the front of card 3

Card 4

Front

The profane

Back

Preview of the front of card 4

Card 5

Front

Totemism

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