The Functionalist View of Religion
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Bluegrass Community Technical College
There are several key elements that are found in every society. These elements are called cultural universals. One of these cultural universals is religion. From the earliest known societies to our every day modern lives religion has performed many vital functions.
To explore these necessary duties of religion we must first understand the definition of religion. Many describe religion as a feeling or presence of a supernatural being. Others say religion is more of a self awareness or inner peace. Webster’s Dictionary defines religion as 1a: The state of the religious b (1): The service or worship of God or the supernatural (2): Commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance 2: A personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices 3: Scrupulous conformity: Conscientiousness 4: A cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith (Merriam – Webster, 2010). Perhaps the most interesting and possibly the most accurate definition of religion came from Max Webster’s book “The Sociology of Religion” in 1922. He said that the only way to define religion was to understand the functions that religion serves in society. His definition of religion was that which “encompasses these human responses that give meaning to the ultimate and inescapable problems of existence – birth, death, illness, aging, injustice, tragedy, and suffering” (Abercrombie and Turner, 1978). Basically he was saying that no one definition could accurately define religion as a whole. Emile Durkheim stated that all religions contained three necessary features. First, they all contained beliefs about the sacred and profane. Second, they all had rituals. Finally, they all had a group or community of worshipers. Durkheim went on to describe religion as a system of shared rituals and beliefs about the scared that bind together a community of worshipers (Ferrante, 2008).
There are three major schools of thought in sociology. There is structural functionalism, social conflict, and symbolic interaction. Structural functionalism believes that society is a complex system and all the parts are working for stability. Basically, every individual part of society has a purpose and reason it is in place, otherwise it would not exist. Social conflict theorists believe that society is composed of separate competing forces and this competition causes change, which causes more competition. The symbolic interactionist believes that society is not many individual parts but rather a collection of individual daily interactions. When it comes to religion we will now look at the structural functionalist view to determine its purpose in society.
Structural functionalism has several key elements we need to define and consider. This sociological paradigm deals with the consequences and of a particular subject, in this case religion. These uses and reasons of being that are beneficial are called functions. The undesired consequences are referred to as dysfunctions. Structural functionalism looks at the intended functions and dysfunctions as well as those that were not intentional. These are called the manifest functions and dysfunctions and the latent functions and dysfunctions respectively.
First, we will look at the main manifest function of religion. That function is salvation (Wilson, 1982). Every recorded religion shows the depravity of man by their separation from their God or deity. Without religion man does not see this separation because he does not recognize the need to be reunited or to be in good fellowship with any God or deity. The actual means of this salvation can be as different as the number of religions in the world.
Most religions believe that in order to attain salvation, the individual follower must live according to a moral code of conduct in hopes to appease their...
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