Religion a Functionalist Assessment

Functionalism is a structural-consensus perspective that views society as a system. As its name implies this theory seeks to define the separate institutions of society in terms of how they function to maintain the social system. It should be noted that sociological research into religion does not attempt to reveal the mysteries of the supernatural, however whilst seeking to understand the role of religion within society some theorists have been drawn to rather unfaithful conclusions.

Emile Durkheim, the founding father of functionalism, claimed that all societies divide the world into the sacred and the profane. He observed that even seemingly ordinary objects, for instance a wooden cross, could provoke deep emotions, though they held no intrinsic power. For Durkheim the significance of such objects was symbolic, and for Durkheim the wooden cross did not represent sacrifice and eternal salvation, as with all religious iconography it represented the ‘collective conscience’, the shared set of beliefs that bind society together.

Durkheim drew these conclusions primarily after his study of the aboriginal people of Australia. He observed that Aboriginal society was divided into clans, each with their own symbol that they carved on the bullroarer [the most sacred of all objects]. For Durkheim this ‘totem’ symbolized both the aborigine’s god and the clan, and argued, therefore, that god and society are one, stating, “Primitive man comes to view society as something sacred because he is utterly dependent on it”.

Even though it appears that Durkheim has removed god from religion, it is important to remember that he viewed religion as an essentially positive force. For the individual he believed that religion provides the strength to face life through social support and a sense of belonging. For society, religion unifies the population around the same beliefs and values. That being said Durkheim did hold some interesting views on how he thought religion would progress.

Durkheim maintained that as society developed the division of labor would increase and that society would become more individualistic. This would weaken the bonds between people and the collective conscience would be less able to guide behavior. People would cease to see society as supreme; hence people’s attitudes to society would become less religious. Rather than view society as sacred, religion would become centered on the ‘divine’ within, what Durkheim termed the ‘cult of man’.

Another functionalist interpretation of religion has been developed by Bronislaw Malinowski, an anthropologist who studied small-scale pre-industrial society in the Trobind Islands of the Pacific. Malinowski agreed with Durkheim in that religion performs the function of promoting social solidarity, however not because religion was the disguised worship of society, but because religion is a response to the psychological needs of society in moments of emotional anxiety.

In the first instance Malinowski asserted that religion helps people through potentially disruptive ‘life crises’, such as birth, puberty and death, by providing a corresponding ceremony. In particular, Malinowski argued that religion minimizes the disruption of death. Religion creates a positive attitude toward death, the assertion of immortality comforts the bereaved, and rituals such as funerals bind the survivors together. In short religion stems a sense of futility which might undermine social life.

Another way in which Malinowski identified that religion could relieve social anxiety was that it could provide a sense of security when people are faced with uncontrollable situations. Malinowski observed that when the islanders fished in the calm lagoon, no religious practice was attached, however when faced with the perils of fishing in the open ocean, religious rituals were always performed. In this way, Malinowski believed humans could exert a perceived control over a world in which they held no significant, individual, power.

Drawing from the work of Durkheim and Malinowski, Talcott Parsons argued that religion performs two positive functions. Not only does religion promote social stability by answering life’s ‘eternal questions’, but it also legitimizes or ‘sacrilizes’ the values of society. Parsons asserted that in the USA Protestantism sacrilised the values of individualism, democracy and upward mobility. Thus religion promotes social consensus which Parsons argues is a fundamental prerequisite of a stable society.

Perhaps the most extreme functionalist assessment of religion has been put forward by the American sociologist Robert Bellah. Bellah has fused Parsons argument that America derives its values from Protestantism and added that to Durkheim’s belief that the worship of god is the disguised worship of society creating the concept of a ‘civil religion’. Bellah believes that what unifies Americans, whichever religion they may be is an overarching civil religion; a faith in Americanism.

Whilst conceding that a civil religion need not contain supernatural belief, Bellah maintains that in America it does. For instance “God Bless America” is a common phrase, American Presidents swear an oath before god and American currency pronounces to the world “In God We Trust”. However this god is not the god of any particular creed but a god of America. In this respect faith in America unites all the American peoples.

What the functionalist assessment of religion displays is the positive aspects that religion can have on society without affirming a belief in the divine. In fact as functionalists strive to highlight the positive functions of society’s institutions they completely ignore the possible negatives. For instance Parsons’ may assert that Protestantism sacrilized social mobility, a Marxist may see this as sacrilizing social inequality. Nevertheless the functionalist tradition has raised some intriguing ideas.

Not least Durkheim’s prediction of the ‘cult of man’. Certainly modern religious phenomena such as having a ‘personal relationship with Jesus’ , religious trends such as Wicca or even the rise of the tele-evangelist are evidence that religion is becoming less social and more personal. Whether this is mere coincidence or proof of Durkheim’s prediction is at the very least debatable, but surely it is the human ability to question and wonder that initially gave rise to religion.

Sociology in Focus: Paul Taylor et al. (Causeway Press) 1997
Sociology: Ivor Morgan (Letts Educational) 1998
A Level Sociology: Steven Moore (Letts Educational) 1998