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Study Notes

Functionalist Views on the Role of Religion

AS, A-Level
AQA, Edexcel, OCR, Eduqas, WJEC

Last updated 15 Sept 2022

Functionalists argue that religion is a conservative force and that this is a positive function for society and for individuals. Religion helps to create social order and maintains the value consensus.

Durkheim, Parsons and Bellah argue that religion performs important functions for society, while Malinowksi argues that it performs an important function for the individual. All agree that religion promotes stability and helps to preserve the status quo and prevent upheaval and rapid social change.

Durkheim and the study of the Arunta

Durkheim conducted a study of the Arunta, an Australian aboriginal tribe’s religious beliefs in order to establish the function of the beliefs and ceremonies and what it really signified.

Durkheim deliberately chose what he considered to be a very primitive religion in order to focus on the essential elements of belief and its functions. He argued that society divided objects and activities into the sacred and the profane. The profane were everyday experiences with a clear function, while the sacred had a greater, collective significance. In the religion Durkheim studied, various “totems” were considered sacred.

From his detailed study of “primitive religion” he identified four key functions of religion in society:

  1. Discipline - Religious rituals impose self-discipline, which encourages individuals to behave sociably and not simply pursue their own selfish course of action, which would be anti-social and destabilising.
  2. Cohesion - The key function is social cohesion: worship brought the community together. Through worship people reaffirm and reinforce the bonds that keep them together.
  3. Vitalising - Durkheim also argued that religious belief maintained traditions, ensuring that the values that are passed down from generation to generation are kept vital and at the heart of the society.
  4. Euphoric - Finally, if members of society were ever to become frustrated or lose their faith, the religion serves to remind them of their place in something much bigger. Again it prevents individuals from becoming anti-social.

Durkheim concluded that when a society came together to worship collectively, what they were really worshipping was society itself. Durkheim recognised that society was becoming less religious and more secular, but he argued that there was still this secular function for religious belief. This was developed in the 1960s by Bellah with his work on Civil Religion.

Bellah (1967) argued that in some modern secular states, people worshipped society in a clear way, still based around symbols, but without the supernatural, divine element of traditional religions. His example is Americanism, the way American society, which was religiously diverse and increasingly secular, coalesced instead around America itself, with the religious symbols being the flag, the national anthem, famous historical figures, etc. While this might not fit everyone’s definition of religion, it performs the same functions that Durkheim identified and promotes social cohesion, order, stability and prevents radical change, again acting as a conservative force. While the USA is the clearest example of this, some sociologists have pointed to how strong association with a royal family reveals a similar sort of civil religion (e.g. the public mourning on the death of Princess Diana in the UK). People can unite around ideas like “God Bless America!” without necessarily all worshipping the same God, or practising the same religion (or practising a religion at all). People can have very different ideas about what happens after death, but can take comfort from someone “dying for their country”.

Talcott Parsons also made a case for religion performing these fundamental functions to integrate people into the value consensus. He argued that religions quite directly socialised people into shared values, which were often stated quite directly by the religion, such as the 10 Commandments in Judaism and Christianity. He further argues that religion answers the ultimate questions, those that (at least when Parsons was writing) were deemed to beyond the scope of science. Why do good people suffer or die young? Religions can offer answers in terms of tests of faith and rewards in the afterlife. This gives meaning to what might otherwise seem a meaningless existence.

Malinowski (1954) studied the religious practices of the Trobriand islanders. What he noted was that when the islanders were fishing on inshore, safe waters they did not practice religious ceremonies, but they did so when fishing in more dangerous waters. He concluded that religion had a psychological function: it helped individuals to deal with an anxious and stressful situation. These sorts of unpredictable events can cause instability and disruption in society, so by performing this psychological function religion also helped preserve the stability of society. The equivalent of the dangerous fishing expeditions, in contemporary society and religion, is events like births and deaths. Religious ceremonies accompany these events in order to preserve stability. In this way religion performs psychological functions for the individual.

Evaluating functionalist views of religion

  • Some, such as P. Worsley (1956) have criticised Durkheim’s study of the Arunta from an anthropological and theological perspective, suggesting that he misunderstood certain aspects of the religion, particularly the idea of the separation between the sacred and profane and the significance of totems.
  • These theories are outdated and arguably tell us little about religion today. They envisage a society with a single unifying religion that brought people together, whereas in most developed, western societies today there is no consensus about religion. Even in countries where there is a state religion and significant levels of religiosity, religion is often a major factor in conflict, such as in several middle eastern countries.
  • Malinowski’s study was unusual for a functionalist in that it was a participant observation. This was high in validity and was very detailed, conducted over four years. However, from a positivist perspective, it was unreliable and the conclusions could not be generalised to other tribes or societies.
  • Some would argue that describing “Americanism” as a religion stretches the definition of religion too far. It is clear that patriotism or nationalism does functions as a form of belief system or ideology and that it may well carry out some of the functions that Durkheim, Parsons or Malinowski ascribe to religion. However, is that enough for something to be considered religious, or does it not require some sort of supernatural, divine element to it? (See previous discussion of sociological definitions of religion). “Americanism” arguably does have this (“God Bless America!” etc.) but this is arguably the application of traditional religious belief to a political ideology, rather than being a religion in its own right.

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