1. Topic 1: Theories of Religion;
Functionalist Theories of
Unit 3: Beliefs in Society
• Understand different sociological definitions of religion;
• Understand how different sociological theories explain
the role and functions of religion, and how religion
contributes to social stability; and
• Be able to evaluate different sociological definitions and
theories of religion.
For functionalists, society is a system of interrelated parts or social institutions,
such as religion, the family and the economy. Society is like an organism, with
basic needs that it must meet in order to survive. These needs are met by the
different institutions. Each institution performs certain functions which
contribute to maintaining the social system by meeting a need.
Society’s most basic need is the need for social order and solidarity so that its
member can cooperate. For functionalists, what makes order possible is the
existence of value consensus- a set of shared norms and values by which
society’s members live. Without this, individuals would pursue their own selfish
desires and society would disintegrate.
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 Durkheim (1858-1917).
4. The Sacred and the Profane
For Durkheim (1915), 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 n
The sacred are things set apart and forbidden, that inspire feelings of awe, fear and
wonder, and are surrounded by taboos and prohibitions.
By contrast, the profane are the things that have no special significance- things that are
ordinary and mundane.
Furthermore, a religion is never simply a set of beliefs. It also involves definite rituals or
practices in relation to the sacred, and these rituals are collective- performed by social
The fact that sacred things evoke such powerful feelings in believers indicates to
Durkheim that this is because they are symbols representing something of great power.
In his view, this thing can only be society itself, since society is the only thing powerful
enough to command such feelings. When they worship the sacred symbols, therefore,
people are worshipping society itself. For Durkheim, although sacred symbols vary from
religion to religion, they all perform the essential function of uniting believers into a single
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 Australian Aboriginal tribe with a clan system.
Arunta clans consist of bands of kin who come together periodically to perform
rituals involving worship of a sacred totem. The totem is the clan’s emblem,
such as an animal or plant that symbolises the clan’s origins and identity. The
totemic rituals venerating it serve to reinforce the group’s solidarity and sense
For Durkheim, when clan members worship their totemic animal, they are in
reality worshipping society- even though they themselves are not aware of this
fact. The totem inspires feelings of awe in the clan’s members precisely
because it represents the power of the group on which the individual is ‘utterly
6. The Collective Conscience
In Durkheim's view, the sacred symbols represent society’s collective
conscience or consciousness. This is the shared norms, values, beliefs and
knowledge that make social life and cooperation between individuals possible,
without these society would disintegrate.
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 to which they owe their loyalty. Such rituals would also remind the
individual of the power in society- without which they themselves are nothing,
and to which they owe everything.
In this sense, religion also performs an important functions for the individual. 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.
7. Cognitive Functions of Religion
Durkheim sees religion as not only as the source of social solidarity, but also of
our intellectual or cognitive capacities- our ability to reason and think
conceptually. For example, in order to think at all, we need categories such as
time, space, cause, substance number etc. And secondly, in order to share our
thoughts, we need to use the same categories as others.
In Durkheim’s view, religion is the origin of the concepts and categories we
need for reasoning, understanding the world and communicating. In their book
Primitive Classification, Durkheim and Marcel Mauss (1903) argue that religion
provides basic categories such as time, pace, causation- for example, with the
ideas about a creator bringing the world into being at the beginning of tome.
Similarly the division of tribes into clans gives humans their first notion of
classification. Thus for Durkheim, religion is the origin of human thought,
reason and science.
The evidence on totemism is unsound. Worsely (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 rights
about totemism, this does not prove that he has discovered the
essence of all other religions.
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. His theory may
explain social integration within communities, but not the conflicts
Similarly, postmodernists such as Stephen Mestrovic (1997) argue that
Durkheim’s ideas cannot be applied to contemporary society, because
increasing diversity has fragmented the collective conscience, so there
is no longer a single shared value system for religion to reinforce.
9. Psychological Functions of Religion
The anthropologist 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 to cope with emotional stress that would undermine social solidarity. Malinowski
identifies two types of situation in which religion performs this role:
1 Where the outcome is important but uncontrollable and thus uncertain. In his study of
the Trobriand Islanders of the Western Pacific, Malinowski contrasts fishing in the lagoon
with fishing in the ocean.
• Lagoon fishing is safe and uses the predictable and successful method of poisoning. When
the islanders fish in the lagoon, there is no ritual.
• Ocean fishing is dangerous and uncertain, and is always accompanied by ‘canoe magic’-
rituals to ensure a safe and successful expedition. This gives people a sense of control,
which eases tension, gives them confidence to undertake hazardous tasks and enforces
group solidarity. He sees ritual serving as ‘god of the gaps’- it fills the gaps in human
beings’ control over the world, such as being unable to control the outcomes of a fishing
2 At times of life crisis. Events such as birth, puberty, marriage and especially death mark
major and disruptive changes in social groups. Religion helps to minimise disruption. For
example, the funeral rituals reinforce a feeling of solidarity among the survivors, while the
notion of immortality gives comfort to the bereaved by denying the fact of death. In fact,
Malinowski argues that death is the main reason for the existence of religious belief.
10. Parsons: Values and Meaning
Like Malinowski, Talcott Parsons (1967) sees religion helping individuals o cope with
unforeseen events and uncontrollable outcomes. In addition, Parsons identifies two other
essential functions that religion performs in modern society.
It creates and legitimates society’s central values.
It is the primary source of meaning.
Religion creates and legitimates society’s basic norms and values by sacralising them.
Thus is the USA, Protestantism has sacralised the core American values and
individualism, meritocracy and self-discipline. This serves to promote value consensus
and thus social stability.
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, and this may
undermine our commitment to society’s values. Religion provides answers to such
questions, for example by explaining suffering as a test of faith that will be rewarded in
heaven. By doing so, religion enables people to adjust to adverse events or
circumstances and helps maintain stability.
11. Civil Religion
Like Parsons, Robert Bellah (1970) is interested in how religion unifies society,
especially a multi-faith society like America. What unifies American society is
an overarching civil religion- a belief system that attaches sacred qualities to
society itself. In the American case, civil religion is a faith in Americanism or ‘the
American way of life’.
Bellah argues that civil religion integrates society in a way that individual
religions cannot. While non of the many individual churches and denominations
can claim the loyalty of all Americans, civil religion can. American civil religion
involves loyalty to the nation-state and belief in God, both of which are equated
with being a true American. It is expressed in various rituals, symbols and
beliefs; such as the pledge of allegiance to the flag, singing the national
anthem, the Lincoln Memorial, and phrases such as ‘One nation under God’.
However, this is not a specifically Catholic, Protestant of Jewish God, but rather
and ‘American God. It sacralises the American way of life d binds together
Americans from many different ethnic and religious backgrounds.
12. Functional Alternatives
Functional alternatives or functional equivalents to religion are non-religious
beliefs and practices that perform functions similar to those of organised
religion, such as reinforcing shared values or maintaining social cohesion.
For example, although civil religion in America involves a belief in God, Bellah
argues that this doesn’t have to be the case. Some other belief system could
perform the same functions. For example, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union
has secular political beliefs and rituals around which they sought to unite
However, the problem with the idea of functional definitions of religion is, it
ignored what makes religion distinctive and different- namely, it is a belief in the
13. Evaluation of Functionalism
Functionalism emphasises the social nature of religion and the positive
functions it performs, but it neglects negative aspects such as, religion as a
source of oppression of the poor or women.
It ignores religion as a source of division or conflict, especially in complex
modern societies where there is more than one religion- e.g. Northern
Ireland. Where there is religious pluralism, it is hard to see how it can unite
people and promote integration.
The idea of civil religion overcomes this problem to some extent, by arguing
that societies may still have an overarching belief system shared by all, but
is this really religion- especially if it is not based on belief in the
14. Evaluate the contribution of functionalist theories to our understanding of the role
and functions of religion in the world today. (33 marks)
Check out June 2013 AQA Mark Scheme- Beliefs in Society
15. Evaluate the contribution of functionalist theories to our understanding of the role
and functions of religion in the world today. (33 marks)
Introduction: in what ways do functionalists view religion? A) a way to oppress
women B) to enforce male dominance? C) to enforce social solidarity? What else?
Main body: Who agree with the functionalist theory of religion? A) New Right B)
Feminists C) Marxists D) Neo-Marxists E) Social Action F) Interactionists G)
Postmodernists? Why? What evidence is there to support this?
Who disagree with functionalists? A) New Right B) Feminists C) Marxists D) Neo-
Marxists E) Social Action F) Interactionists G) Postmodernists? Why? What evidence
is there to support this?
Conclusion: What do you think about the functionalist contribution? Who, if any,
theorist(s) give(s) a better contribution, why?
Remember: AO1 knowledge and understanding AND AO2 analysis and evaluation=
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