• For Functionalists, society is a system of iterated parts of social
institutions, such as religion, the family and the economy. Society is
like an orgasm, with basic needs that it must meet in order to
survive. These are met by different institutions, each performs
certain functions. For Functionalists what makes order possible is
social consensus- shared norms and values by which one follows.
Religious institutions take a part in creating social solidarity and
THE SCARED 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 ( things set apart, and forbidden, that inspire
feelings of awe, fear and wonder and are surrounded by taboos and
prohibitions) and the profane (things that have no social
significance) found in all religions. A religion is nor a set of beliefs, it
involves definite rituals or practices in relation to the scared these
rituals are collective- performed by social groups.
• Powerful feelings in believers indicates to Durkheim that this is
because they are symbols representing something of great power.
Durkheim suggests this can only be society itself, since society is the
only thing powerful enough to command such feelings.
• When one worships the scared symbols, people are worshiping
society itself, uniting believes into a single moral community.
• Durkheim believed that the essence of all religion could be found by
studying its simplest form, in the simplest type of society- clan
society. He used studies of the Arunta, an Australian Aboriginal as
• Arunta clans contain of bands of kind who come together
periodically to perform rituals involving worship of a sacred totem-
the clan’s emblem e.g. an animal or plant that symbolises the clan’s
origins and sense of belonging.
• For Durkheim, when clan members worship their totemic, they are
worshiping society, it inspires feelings of awe due to the power the
totemic represents the dependence of worshipers.
THE COLLECTIVE CONSCIENCE
• In Durkheim's view, regular shared religions reinforce the collective
conscience and maintain social interrelation. Taking part in shared
rituals blinds individuals together, reminding them that they are part
of a single moral community to which they owe their loyalty.
• In this sense, religion also performs an important function for the
individual, by making them feel part of something greater than
themselves, religion strengthens us to face life’s trials and motivates
us to overcome obstacles that would otherwise attempt to defeat
CONGNITIVE FUNCTIONS OF RELIGION
• Durkheim views religion not only as the source of social solidarity, but also
of our intellectual or cognitive capacities- our ability to reason and think
conceptually e.g. in order to think, we need categories such as
time, space, cause and number. In order to share our thoughts, we need to
use the same categories as others.
• Durkheim suggests that 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 Mauss argue that religion
provides basic categories such as time, space and causation e.g. with ideas
about a creator bringing the world into being at the beginning of time.
Similarly, the division of tribes into clans gives humans their first notion of
classification. Thus for Durkheim, religion is the origin of humans, thought
reason and science.
• The evidence on totemism is unsound. Worlsey notes that there is no sharp
division between the sacred and the profane and that different clans share
the same totems.
• Durkheim's claims may apply better to small-scale societies with a single
religion. It is harder to apply it to a large-scale one, where two or more
religious communities may be in conflict. His theory may explain social
integration within communities, not between them.
• Similarly , postmodernists such as Mestrovic 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.
• Malinowski argues that religion promotes solidarity by performing
psychological functions for individuals, helping them to cope with stress that
would undermine social solidarity. He identifies two types of situations in
which religion performs this role.
1) Where the outcome is important but is uncontrollable and thus
uncertain. In his study of the Trobriland Islanders of the Western Pacific,
he contrasts fishing in the lagoon and fishing in the ocean. Lagoon fishing
is safe and uses predictable and successful methods of poisoning. When
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. He sees ritual serving as a ‘god of the gaps’.
2) At times of the crisis. Events such as birth, puberty, marriage and death
mark major changes in social groups. Religion helps to minimise
disruption, e.g. 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. Malinowski argues that death is
the main reason for the existence of religious belief.
Parsons: Values and Meaning
• Parsons sees religion helping individuals to cope with unforeseen
events and uncontrollable outcomes. He identifies two other
essential functions that religion performs in modern society.
• It creates and legitimates society’s central values. This is done my
sacralising them. In the USA, Protestantism has sacralised the core
American values of individualism, meritocracy and self-discipline.
This serves to promote consensus and social stability.
• It is the primary source of meaning. It answers ultimate questions
about the human condition e.g., 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, e.g. 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.
• Bellah 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 a 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 specifically Catholic, Protestant or Jewish God, but
rather an ‘American God’. It sacralises the American way of life and
binds together Americans from many different ethnic and religious
• Alternatives to functional religions are non-religious beliefs and
practices that perform functions similar to those of organised
religion e.g. 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, Nazi Germany and
the Soviet Union had secular political beliefs and rituals around
which they sought to unite society.
• However, the problem with the idea of functional alternatives is the
same as with functional definitions of religion. It ignores what makes
religion distinctive and different e.g. the supernatural.
Evaluation of Functionalism
• Functionalism emphasises the social nature of religion and the
positive functions it performs, it also neglects negative aspects such
as religion as a source of oppression of the poor or women.
• It also ignores religion as a source of division and conflict, especially
in modern societies where there is more than one religion. Where
there is many religions, it is hard to see how it can unite people.
• The idea of civil religion overcomes this issue to some extent, by
arguing that societies may still have an overarching belief system
shared my all.
• But is this really religion?