Functionalist approach to religion

Topics: Sociology, Religion, Émile Durkheim Pages: 5 (1623 words) Published: January 30, 2014
Discuss the functionalist perspective on religion. (20 marks)

The functionalist perspective is a consensus theory; it believes that society has a set of shared values and beliefs. Durkheim was the 1st functionalist to develop the idea that religious institutions play a central part in creating and maintaining value consensus, order and solidarity. The anthropologist, Malinowski, built on Durkheim's idea and expanded with his own ideas. The functionalists, Parsons and Bellah later added their own ideas.

For Durkheim, the key feature of religion is a fundamental distinction between the sacred and the profane that are found in all religions. He defined the sacred as things that are set apart and inspire feelings of awe, fear and wonder. By contrast, the profane are things that have no special significance, they are ordinary and mundane. Religion involves definite rituals in relation to the sacred and these rituals are performed by social groups. The importance of the sacred is that they evoke powerful feelings in believers and this indicates to Durkheim that this is because they are symbols representing something of great power. He says that this thing can only be society itself since society is the only thing powerful enough to command such feeling, when people worship the sacred therefore people are worshipping society itself. Although sacred symbols vary between religions, they all perform essential functions of uniting believers into a single community. Durkheim studied in his view, the simplest society, the clan society, in the belief that the essence of all religion could be found here. He studied the Arunta tribe who have a clan system. The clan have a totem that symbolises its origins and identity and the totemic rituals in which people respect the symbol, serve to reinforce the groups solidarity and sense of belonging. Durkheim says when clan members worship their totem; they are in reality worshipping society- even though they themselves are not aware of this. The totem inspires feelings of awe, because it represents the power of the group on which the individual is dependent.

Durkheim used the term 'collective conscience', in his view the sacred symbols represent societies shared norms, values, belief and knowledge that make social life and co-operation between individuals possible. Without these, society would disintegrate. To maintain social integration and the collective conscience, regular shared religious rituals bind individuals together and participating in these remind them that they are a part of a single moral community to which they owe their loyalty. Rituals also have another role in which they remind individuals of the power of society- without which they themselves are nothing and to which they owe everything. In this sense, religion also performs important functions for individuals, by making them feel part of something greater than themselves, religion reinvigorates and strengthens them to face life's trials and motivates them.

Another aspect of Durkheim's theory is of the cognitive functions religion can play. He sees religion not only as the source of solidarity but also of their intellectual or cognitive capacities. By this, he means somebody's ability to reason and think conceptually. For example, in order to think at all we need categories such as time, space, cause and number etc. Along with this, in order to share our thoughts we need to use the same categories as others. In Durkheim's view religion itself, is the origin of the concepts and categories needed to reasoning, understanding the world and communicating. An example of this is, in their book, Durkheim and Mauss, 'Primitive Classification' argue that religion provides basic categories such as time, space and cause alongside ideas about a creator bringing the world into being. Durkheim links this to his study of tribes where the divisions of tribes into clans give humans their first notion of classification. Thus, for...
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